Entertainment Law Practice – Don’t Ignore the Small Clients

Lawyer and ManOnce upon a time in Tennessee I got my first client that was paying me six figures in legal fees every year.  My firm consisted of me, an associate and an assistant.  I didn’t have a strong desire to get much larger – I like the solo and small firm life.  I proceeded to aggressively represent my number one client and along the way learned a few lessons.  One such lesson is undoubtedly common sense to many of you but apparently not to me.  Or perhaps I just forgot to slow down and think.

The first lesson I learned was to approach my practice with this in mind:  Everything Changes.  Isn’t that a law of nature itself?  But there are things that I can do to increase the chances of change being in a positive direction rather than negative.

I had some wonderful years with that big client and a respectful number of others.  However, what I did not foresee was that the client, a music business legend, would begin downsizing.  And as he divested himself of companies and stress causing activities, I too began to downsize — but not on purpose!  Eventually the annual fees paid to me by that client leveled off at about twenty percent of what they had been at the highest.

I remember setting in my office one day and thinking that I didn’t have much to do.  And there was a lot less money left at the end of the month.  My associate was handling the bulk of the work and my main job had become reviewing and revising his work.  I was discussing the situation with an advisor.  I have never forgotten what told me.  He said that I had been focusing totally on the needs of the large client and had ignored the smaller clients.  Then when the large client fees dwindled I did not have a good stable of other clients keeping the business healthy.  He spoke as though I was not the first to stumble into this trap.  This all immediately made sense to me.  I did not need convincing.

I took action. I no longer needed an associate.  I let him go.  I also no longer needed a full-time assistant, a luxury for most solos.  I let her go and hired a part-time assistant.  I began to pay attention to all clients big or small.

Today my business is healthier than it has ever been.  If I don’t believe I can give a prospect the needed attention and service then I do not accept them as a client. I have large and small clients.  My assistant is still part-time.  I engage independent contractor attorneys to assist with the work load on an as-needed basis.

Again – the lesson:  I remember when things are going well that everything changes.  However, the change can be for the better if I pay attention to all aspects of my business.  And take care of all my clients – large or small.

ABA Journal Article – The Unhappiest Job In America

ABAIf happiness makes any difference to you, then according to this survey, if you are an associate attorney or soon to be a law graduate, you might want to consider a solo practice – or even alternative career.  I took the solo route after two years as an associate and I have never regretted the decision.  Check out this article:  “Associate Attorney is the Unhappiest Job in America, Survey Says“.  I would love to hear some opinions on this one – based on your experience as an associate.

Unauthorized Practice of Law – Entertainment Lawyers?

LicenseMost entertainment attorneys represent clients from states where the attorney is not licensed.  Isn’t that the unauthorized practice of law?

Recently I received an email from an attorney interested in entertainment law.  The question essentially had to do with whether he, an attorney licensed in and practicing in State A, can represent an individual who lives in State B in negotiations with a record company in State C.  This is an excellent question and I dare say there might be some difference of opinion as to the answer.

If one really wants to be thorough the I would suggest that research of the laws and cases in all three states is called for.  The unauthorized practice of law statutes are generally focused on the protection of that state’s citizens and talk about whether an unlicensed person is practicing law in their state for valuable consideration or soliciting their citizens for such legal representation.

Reality:  I do not know any entertainment attorneys who only represent clients who live in the state in which the attorney is licensed and has his or her primary law office.   Most have a national clientele.  As one very successful entertainment lawyer replied when asked the question: “I am practicing law in Tennessee regardless of where my client is”.  In truth he was.  He was even sitting at his desk in Tennessee when he answered the question.  He was not going into the jurisdiction where his client lives to practice law.  The client either comes to Tennessee to see him and/or conducts most if not all of his or her business with the attorney by telephone, email, video chat, text message or some other form of electronic communication.

Caveat.  I am not talking about making a court appearance in a foreign jurisdiction.  Clearly one not licensed in that jurisdiction may not do that (with some exceptions like small claims court, etc.).  However, most states make arrangements for an attorney from another jurisdiction to appear in their courts if properly introduced to the court by an attorney licensed in that state.

The question of traveling to another state to solicit clients is probably risky as is physically going into another jurisdiction to negotiate the terms of an agreement.  To the best of my knowledge most of the entertainment attorneys I know do not do either of the foregoing – but some do.  In my case (and the case of most of the entertainment lawyers I know) my out of state clients have initiated the contact with me in my home state, either in person or by some electronic medium, and all negotiations and transactions are conducted while sitting at my desk in my office which is in Tennessee.

I do not claim to be an expert on this subject.   If you are concerned I would suggest that you conduct your own research on this question and confer with a knowledgeable professor if you are still a student or know any law professors.  And I definitely will appreciate it if any practicing entertainment attorneys who read this would also comment and confirm what I have said or correct me please!

Entertainment Law – Go Where The Work Is!

Travel the Globe

I was practicing entertainment law in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee when an older (and undoubtedly wiser) man came up to me after a regular meeting I attended and said:  “I don’t understand why you are here.  Why don’t you go where the work is?”  Memphis had had a great run of artist signings in the early to mid 80s — there was a lot of rock and R&B talent being signed to major and independent record deals.  But by the ‘90s the buzz on Memphis rock/pop bands had waned and a lot of the R&B talent had or was moving to Atlanta which was fast becoming a recording mecca for that genre of music.  I actually had a young R&B trio (my clients) call me from Atlanta one day and tell me they were there for a visit and were not coming back!  I assume they came back to get their personal belongings but it was clear that they were going to continue their career in Atlanta – not Memphis.

I was 45 years old when the man came up to me after that meeting. When I was asked why I didn’t go where the work is it was as if a light bulb lit up!  The big “DUH!” Suddenly for the first time I related entertainment law to any type of work.  For example, if I wanted to build automobiles then it would probably be best if I moved where automobiles are built.  So, the way I saw it I had three choices: (1) Expand my practice to areas other than Entertainment Law and stay in Memphis; (2) spend more time (a lot more time) in one or more of the entertainment business centers (then LA, NYC, Nashville and to a lesser degree Atlanta) and stay in Memphis; or (3) relocate to where the work is.

My first boss in entertainment law was Joel Katz, in Atlanta.  Joel is my model for the number (2) choice above.  In the two years I worked for him it seemed to me he was living in hotels in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville every week.  He must have been gone as often as he was in the office if not more.  He was (and still is) a great deal maker, rainmaker and relationship person.  Because I didn’t feel like I had the personality or skill set to be like Joel, I ruled out number 2.  I also ruled out choice 1 because I had never done anything but entertainment law and I wanted to keep doing it.  I was already making regular trips to Nashville and over the next couple of years I began to make more trips there and opened a small branch office in a building owned by a client.  In 1995 I moved myself, my associate and my assistant to Nashville and opened an office on Music Row.  I loved it from day one.  Over the next few years I became a part of the industry in Nashville.  And for me it definitely turned out to be where the work was and still is.

I am not so foolish as to believe that every lawyer must take my path to be an entertainment lawyer.  I didn’t move to Nashville until I had a good client base there.  I grew where I was planted and expanded my client base with travel and networking.  If you have had a different experience then please let me (and my readers) know about it.  I would never insist that my way is the only way!

Law Schools Support New Solos

This ABA article reports that law schools are beginning to recognize the need to support students and new graduates in their efforts to become solo practitioners.  These schools are providing office space to recent grads who want to become solos.  The program includes faculty and practitioner guidance and mentoring.  This is a truly positive development as there are fewer and fewer jobs for recent grads.  Plus, many of us have the desire and motivation to become solos as soon as possible, regardless of the job market.