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Entertainment Law: Some Practice Considerations for Beginners

In traditional legal areas, knowledge of relevant cases, statutes, regulations, and collective bargaining agreements typically constitute sufficient competence for legal practitioners. However, this is not true for entertainment lawyers. An entertainment lawyer must also understand how the client does business within the industry.

The fact that entertainment is a document-intensive business further underscores the necessity for lawyers who represent entertainment clients to comprehend the business practices of the industry. This point cannot be overemphasized. In fact, entertainment lawyers have found that in today’s entertainment environment it is not enough for them to understand the business practices of only one particular field within the industry. A lawyer’s depth of knowledge of industry business practices almost always determines his or her degree of effectiveness.

If the lawyer starts from scratch, typically he will have clients who can’t pay the bills but will still give him an opportunity to obtain valuable experience. For example, most actors and actresses struggle to make ends meet with part-time jobs. However, the types of issues they confront (such as talent releases, independent contractor tax issues, union affiliation) are at the core of some basic entertainment legal and business principles.

Advancements in technology will continue to increase the opportunities for entertainment lawyers practicing outside the primary markets. As the economy expands, more avenues for programming open, especially through nontraditional channels.

Lawyers who begin to represent clients in the entertainment industry should not assume that their present professional liability insurance will cover claims made against them for entertainment-related legal work. It is critically important to engage an insurance broker early on to learn what guidelines he or she uses to provide coverage in this area.

Lawyers who are new at representing entertainment clients find themselves drawn in by their clients to perform other services. These nonlegal activities include serving as an agent, a manager, or an investment advisor for clients, and they may prove hazardous for lawyers. The problems associated with nonlegal activities can be avoided. When dealing with entertainment clients, the lawyer must make it clear what can and cannot be done for the client. This is best accomplished through an engagement letter that states the scope of the lawyer’s activities for the client.

At the heart of the attorney– client relationship lie the fiduciary responsibilities the attorney owes to the client. Many contend that there is something special, unique, and extraordinary about the artist–fiduciary relationship in the entertainment industry. In any event, lawyers who begin to practice in the entertainment field must establish proper guidelines of conduct early in their careers.

All lawyers starting in the entertainment field are, at one time or another, faced with the dilemma of how to bill clients who cannot afford to pay their traditional fees. Unlike most traditional practice areas, lawyers in the entertainment industry can create varying fee arrangements with their clients. However, in some instances, certain nontraditional fee arrangements may present an entertainment lawyer with professional and ethical problems.

As the entertainment sector of the economy grows, the field of entertainment law will provide many new and exciting opportunities for lawyers who wish to practice in this area even if they are not practicing in New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. The key to their successes will depend upon how well they respond to the important practical and ethical considerations presented above.

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