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.

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!

How I Became An Entertainment Lawyer

           I knew when I applied to law school that my dream would be to become an entertainment attorney.  I had no real plan on how to get there so I just decided that while I was a student I would be the best student I possibly could be.  I also sought out any lawyers in my home town of Memphis who practiced entertainment law at any level.  I clerked for one of those attorneys – the late Harold Streibich (a character if there ever was one).

Harold had a strong interest in education and shortly before my graduation Harold made arrangements for me to apply for the position of Director of the Commercial Music and Recording Program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.  This program offered a two year associates degree in the business aspects of the recording industry.  I was offered the job and my wife and I moved to Atlanta in time for the Fall Semester.

Over the course of the next three years I continued to apply the philosophy that had served me so well in law school – be the very best you can at what you are doing whether or not it is your ultimate goal.  So I set out to be the very best Director of the Commercial Music and Recording program that I could be.

A major part of my job as Director of the Program was to foster relationships with the Atlanta music community.  In fulfilling that directive I eventually became a two term president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Recording Academy (NARAS), a founder of the Atlanta Songwriters Association (now GMIA), and one of the Governor’s appointees to the Georgia Recording Commission.  I networked and I got noticed.

At that time, Atlanta based entertainment attorney Joel A. Katz was making his mark in the music industry in a big way.  I knew that someday I would like to work for Joel but did nothing other than be the best Director of the Commercial Music and Recording Program that I could be. Sometime during my third year at Georgia State Joel and I both attended a Recording Academy Trustee’s Meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico.  While there Joel offered me a job and I ultimately accepted the offer.

Thus I entered the career that I am still in today.  I worked for Joel for two years and in 1982 began my career as a solo entertainment lawyer.  Writing this I can see what I believe to be spiritual forces at work (although I doubt I saw it that way at the time).  In my case I call that force “God”.  Some might call it the forces of the universe or just plain old “luck”.  Regardless of your take on it, upon reflection it appears to me that a master plan took place so that my dream would be fulfilled – only I never wrote that plan.  I just did the best I could at what was in front of me.

I wrote this post because I have been asked by many young attorneys and law students how to get into entertainment law.  There are a lot of ways, some of the more common of which I mentioned in my last post.  This was my path.