Thirty Years Practicing Entertainment Law: What I Have Learned?

I have been practicing entertainment law in private practice since1983. What I do is a specialty form of commercial practice.  I primarily service clients in the music business and arts law clients.  One certainly needs to know about contract and copyright law and a lot of the other legal basics that you learn in law school are quite relevant, however about 90% of my day is spent on contract drafting and contract negotiations.

 

Not unlike the ratio of those musicians that would like to make their living full-time as musicians, but very few actually do, I find that the same degree of commitment - yes even obsession that your clients have, is what it takes to succeed, survive and thrive, particularly if you're looking to be an entertainment lawyer in private practice.


It is helpful if you have industry contacts and clients, but as a bare minimum as an entertainment lawyer you need these three specific attributes to succeed:
1. a rapport with and the ability to attract clients in your specialty area; 2. the ability to negotiate; 3. knowledge of the industry you service.

I believe it is important to have a commitment to the field over and above the law and earning your living from practicing law. If it is just about the money, you certainly would not be practicing the way I do in private practice. I could have made much more money practicing in another field, in house, or for that matter in the U.S.


You learn there is no perfect agreement. We don’t live in a perfect world. I recall a family law practitioner in my bar admission course saying, “Each side has to hurt a little for the deal to stick, otherwise it is likely that contract will find its way into court”. These are words that you can live by. It is difficult to understand the wisdom in these words until you experience it first hand. What we see is a media version of law – a glamorous winner take all system and indeed it is adversarial, but court is expensive and as a solicitor, you try to help your clients avoid court whenever possible.

 

Any and all types of legal training you have are all valuable to the practice of law generally and entertainment law is no exception. For example, I am grateful for my mentors and my articling principals. I had strong articles in litigation. In fact, when I started articling, my first job for my articling principal was to prepare the Court of Appeal books in August and then by December research and prepare books for the leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.


You can apply that experience to contracts. Why? Because ultimately, the contract will end up in court if it is in dispute. You need to know and anticipate how a judge might interpret a contract in court.

 

Not unlike the record industry, my practice is based on volume and numbers. You need many clients in the arts and entertainment field to try and make a living as a practicing lawyer in the field.

How can you achieve this?  By networking, going to conferences etc., being thoroughly knowledgeable about the music business, often to the point where you can help if your clients require business advice.

I am well aware that as lawyers we are not insured to give business advice, but it is impossible to practice law in the music industry, or in arts and entertainment law without a significant understanding of the business aspects of such specialty areas.

I often equate practicing entertainment law in private practice as being like running a recording studio. That is, a recording studio, like a law firm, needs small clients, developing clients as well as the larger corporate and established artist clients to keep the doors open.

Engaging in work in progress (WIP) is not unlike going for a swim in a river each day.  The currents may be either calm, or raging. Most of my client work is often resolved within a matter of weeks, unless it is a more complicated negotiation, or a protracted litigious or contested trademark matter. All law has dispute resolution at its heart and that ultimately means reducing the resolution of a dispute to the written word.


In many ways, an entertainment law office is also like a central nervous system for the industry. All types of issues, legal and otherwise, arise. In fact, I've often noted that my practice can change in a heartbeat-within the hour, just as my clients may not know where they may be from one day to the next.

 

Ultimately practicing entertainment law means being part of a team, including the artist, label, publisher, publicist, booking agent, accountant, business manager etc. It is rewarding to see your clients succeed.  It feels good to be part of that success. I enjoy seeing my clients showcase and succeed at various music conferences, award shows including CMW, The Junos, SXSW and live performances.

You need a balance between your work and your time spent in non-work time and of course, with respect to your family. This is a constant struggle for any one who operates a business; the practice of law is no exception.


I am often asked:   What is life in the fast lane like?  I say “It’s fast.”  If you're looking for certainty, security, a pension and retirement, then private practice is probably not your best choice, but if you're looking for a fast paced environment and enjoy making a difference to your clients’ careers, then this might be the career for you.

Copyright Paul Sanderson 2013