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.

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.