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.

Learn the Business – Not Just the Law

I know there are a lot of lawyers, solo and big law attorneys alike, who would like to add entertainment law to their existing practice areas.  I know this because they call and email me.  The first thing I now tell them is “Entertainment attorneys should learn about the business of entertainment.”

A few years ago a member of an entertainment law listserv to which I subscribed asked me to mentor him.  At the time he was a new solo, having spent a number of years in-house at technology firms.  He had aspirations of becoming an entertainment attorney.  While willing to help when I could I did not feel that I had the time to formally train someone in entertainment law.  Refusing to accept “no” for an answer the new solo finally offered to pay me my attorney hourly rate for some mentoring sessions.  I decided to give it a try.  Doing some consulting/coaching might fit in nicely with my goal of publishing “how-to” entertainment law books and articles

I enjoyed my sessions with this attorney and we have become friends.  And I hope the consulting was of some benefit to him.  However, it quickly became apparent that the attorney lacked more than entertainment law knowledge.  He lacked a basic understanding of how the entertainment industry works.  I found that I spent at least as much teaching the basics of the business, such as what a music publisher does, how the money flows in record deals, the difference in a personal manager and a business manager, etc., as I did teaching entertainment law.

If you want to be an entertainment attorney then I recommend that you learn something about how the entertainment industry works.  There are a lot of good books on the subject and even entire degree programs at universities around the country.  When I was a law student and young lawyer the book to read for over-all industry knowledge of the music business was This Business of Music.  At the time the book was authored by Krasilovsky and Shemel.  The latest edition is Krasilovsky, Shemel, Gross and Feinstein, all of whom are (or at one time were) entertainment and intellectual property attorneys.

A more recent and very popular overview of the music industry book is All You Need To Know About The Music Business by Donald S. Passman, also an entertainment attorney.  Based on my personal experience, the Passman book is probably an easier read for someone hoping to get a broad overview of the music industry.  I am sure there are likely equally good resources for types of entertainment other than music (film, TV, etc.).  You just need to search them out.

However you learn about the workings of the entertainment industry, it will greatly benefit your ability to understand entertainment agreements and deals if you first learn something about the business you are serving.