How to Avoid Common Problems With Your Entertainment Attorney

Sadly, there are a number of common situations that result in disputes between entertainers and their lawyers.

Attorneys and clients do not always get along. Attorney client relationships break down for many reasons. Perhaps your attorney fails to respond to phone calls and emails; seems rude or unprofessional; or makes critical decisions in the case without your input.

When you are an entertainer, there are even more specific disputes you might face with your attorney. The best way to protect yourself from an ugly dispute with an attorney is to approach all relationships with lawyers carefully and anticipate problems before they catch you.

Situation #1: A contract negotiation goes on forever.

Entertainment lawyers spend a good amount of their time negotiating contracts. Lawyers’ fees can quickly get out of control if negotiations for contracts drag on too long. During this time, an entertainer may be missing other, better opportunities or simply paying too much for legal fees.

It’s normal for contracts to go through many drafts to correct errors and ensure the language is exactly how everyone wants it. While it would be foolish to rush into signing a contract without examining it carefully and making appropriate changes, you also don’t want the revision process to go on indefinitely. As long as you and your attorney are conscientious, the fewer drafts, the better. It is common for major film or music deals to take four to six months to negotiate. Independent, smaller deals should take less time—usually under two months.

Make sure you and the attorney are in agreement as to the goals of the contract negotiation. For example, if getting a guaranteed two-film deal is most important, tell your lawyer that is your number one priority. If getting a deal signed quickly, and money quickly in your hands, is the priority, then make that clear to your lawyer from the start. Once you have achieved most or all of your goals, be flexible on remaining issues so that you can save time.

Situation #2: A lawsuit goes on forever.

If you are involved in a dispute that has made it to litigation, it may take months or years to resolve. Some lawsuits, such as the Jefferson Airplane’s dispute with its former manager, go on for decades. During the dispute, the Airplane’s record company, RCA, refused to pay over $1.3 million in royalties and $700,000 in interest to the entertainer, claiming it could not make the payment unless the management problems were resolved. After 20 years, a San Francisco judge finally ended the lawsuits, and the record company was required to make the payment.

As you can imagine, entertainers can easily get buried in legal fees during even a medium-length lawsuit. Plus, during the period of the dispute the entertainer may be under legal restrictions that cut into its profit-making ability—such as a ban on using a name or releasing a new recording.

Beware of allowing such lengthy litigation. One lawsuit can easily cost $10,000 to $100,000, and often the only ones who profit are the lawyers. If you’re in a dispute, before screaming “I’ll see you in court!” ask your attorney for a realistic assessment of your odds, the potential costs, and the likely number of months or years to the finish line. The assessment and underlying reasoning should be in plain English. A lawyer who can’t explain your situation clearly to you won’t be able to explain it clearly to a judge or jury.

Also ask your attorney about alternative dispute resolution methods such as arbitration and mediation. Often these procedures can save money and are generally much faster than litigation. Mediation is a procedure in which a neutral person, experienced in resolving disputes, helps the parties find a solution. The mediator doesn’t make a decision or ruling; the mediator only helps the parties negotiate their controversy.

Arbitration is similar to mediation except that the arbitrator makes a decision that is binding on the parties after hearing evidence. In some states there are organizations that specialize in these alternative dispute resolution procedures, such as California Lawyers for the Arts and the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in New York.

Situation #3: Your lawyer represents both sides.

Lawyers are bound by ethical rules to disclose if there is a potential conflict of interest. A conflict of interest occurs whenever the lawyer represents adverse interests; for example, if your attorney also represents your manager. When there is a conflict of interest, there is the potential that your attorney may not battle as forcefully for your position. For example, if the attorney represents you and a movie company, it is possible that the attorney will be apprehensive of endangering a lucrative relationship with the movie company. Another danger is that the attorney you use may enter into an unethical relationship with an entertainer’s manager or record company.

Attorneys should disclose a conflict without being asked, but they don’t always do so. Always ask your attorney if there is a potential conflict. Always investigate any possible conflicts that turn up.

If there is a conflict, discuss the matter with the attorney. It’s possible that an attorney can vigorously represent both your interests despite a potential conflict of interest. This is a judgment call, which should be made based on your feeling for the attorney and any other information you have obtained, such as references from other clients.

Some entertainers proceed in the face of a potential conflict because they have faith in their attorney’s ability to protect their interests and perhaps because they believe that such so-called conflicts can be helpful. Keep in mind that many people look for a lawyer who, technically speaking, has conflicts (also known in the business as “relationships”). These relationships can be great and provide otherwise unavailable access, until they become a double-edged sword.

If you want to proceed, your attorney may furnish you with a waiver to sign, in which you give up any right to complain about the situation later. The waiver is used to protect the attorney from a malpractice claim. You don’t have to sign it, but the attorney will probably not go ahead if you don’t. If you do not want to sign, find a different attorney.

You're the One Calling the Shots

Remember, you are the client. If your attorney does not seem to be acting in your best interests, or is not satisfying you, you can always find a new one. Check out How and When to Fire Your Attorney.

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