Maybe you started out pursuing tenant law but the entertainment industry just seemed more interesting, so you made a change halfway through law school. Or maybe you went to law school in Los Angeles and that was what all your friends were doing. Or maybe your parents pushed you into it because they had two dreams in life—one: for you to become a lawyer, and two: to meet Ben Affleck.
Okay, so there are several different ways to fall into entertainment law, but to be honest, not all that many people do fall into it. The entertainment industry is sizable in a few segmented spots of the country, but not so much everywhere else, which means that the need for legal counsel in that arena is not as prevalent. Even if it doesn’t seem that way to regular viewers of TMZ.
The core of the biz is about clients maintaining their personal brands, and the lawyers they hire to defend those brands. For example, you don’t have a brand. No one’s going to steal your logo (because you don’t have one) or bad-mouth your business (because you don’t have one) or smear your reputation (because, well, it’s just not very smear-worthy). But big stars aren’t just selling their films or their albums—they’re selling themselves. But in a totally legal way. And it’s up to the entertainment lawyer to see that those artists’ intellectual property is preserved.
Entertainment law is a bit all over the map. It overlaps with legal spheres regarding intellectual property, employment, contract, labor, bankruptcy, securities, torts, and agency, just to name a few. Not enough for you? Fine. It also deals with trademarks, copyright, the first amendment, right of privacy, defamation, clearance of rights, product placement, advertising, criminal statues, tax regulations, and insurance law. Phew, that's one heck of a list. What does it all mean?
It means that entertainment lawyers need to be experts in a large number of legal categories as well as have extensive knowledge of how a certain sector of the entertainment industry works. That could be film, music, publishing, television, radio, theater, and visual arts, among other things. And each of those categories comes with its own set of established rules, customs, case law, and trade unions. It sounds complicated, and it is. That's why the profession was created. As media became more popular and profitable, more people started breaking rules and acting unethically to get ahead. Corporate professionals who wanted to participate in media but didn't have the skills to become Hollywood A-listers saw this as their opportunity to break into the world of glitz and glamour while not having to wait tables as they sit patiently by the phone for a call from their agent.
Nowadays, most entertainment lawyers are solely interested in their legal practice. They appreciate the profession for its rigor and its rewards. People who specialize in entertainment law are generally intelligent, competitive, outgoing, and passionate—on a good day. On a not-so-good day they are cutthroat, egotistical, and manipulative. But sometimes that's just what it takes to get the job done. It's a hard-edged business marked by extreme stress, short deadlines, and numerous frustrations. Sure, you get to share cocktails with the beautiful people, but they're the ones who get the spotlight. You're just the one making sure they stay in it.
Entertainment lawyers may live, work, and breathe in the shadow of fame, but that doesn't mean they don't take pride in what they do. Working with agents to finalize contracts for compensation and profit participation, these attorneys secure the deals that make our favorite movies possible. Can you imagine Pirates without Orlando? The Help without Emma? Gatsby without Leonardo? Didn't think so. You can thank their attorneys (whoever they are).
But it’s not so easy to add big names like these to your client list. Winning big-name talent is brutally hard, especially if you’re not at one of the few major firms that specialize in it.
Attorneys working in this field don't simply push paper all day. They're much too high energy for that. Rather, they often perform tasks in a capacity similar to an agent, manager or publicist. They help build a star's career from the ground up by offering them constant financial and legal advice and securing key contracts. Think of them as babysitters: they keep performers out of trouble and teach them how to evaluate contracts for benefits and pitfalls. Entertainment lawyers are the brains behind the talent you watch and listen to every day. Not that your fave recording artist isn't smart, but they've probably got other things on their mind. Like what to wear to the next Grammy Awards (only four months away!).
Thinking about getting your Entertainment Law degree from Podunk Community? Good luck with that. If you’re not able to get into USC, UCLA, Stanford, Yale, Harvard or maybe one or two other schools, it won’t even be offered. So plan ahead and get those grades up if you’ve been writing “Entertainment Lawyer” on your vision boards since you were ten.
What attracts people to this industry is the glam associated with all things media and entertainment. What keeps them in it is the pride earned by cutting key deals and gaining industry-wide recognition. Oh, and the money of course. Entertainment lawyers can make serious bank, especially if they represent big name clients.
The bad news is that your large bank account comes with a price: your personal life. You may be earning all of the money, but you're also sacrificing all of your time. Being an entertainment lawyer isn't a 9 to 5 type of job. It's a 9 to 5, go to happy hour, attend an event, and then edit contracts before bed type of job. Your "social" life is really disguised as work, since you'll learn to view every event as a prime networking opportunity. The biggest Hollywood deals are made over extra-dry vodka martinis and shrimp cocktails. (We hear that cosmopolitans and mozzarella sticks are the way to go if you're looking for gossip instead. Who wouldn't give up top secret information for fried cheese?)
So who should pursue this career and what skills do you need to succeed? Well, to start, you need to be interested in legal matters. Researching legal cases, writing rock-solid contracts, and representing clients in lawsuits are your main tasks. Everything else is secondary. Yes, you'll need connections to climb the ranks, and you'll get to schmooze with the stars. But you won't be able to keep your job and attract clients if you create contracts with more holes than Swiss cheese.
You'll also need tight lips. Lawyers are bound by strict confidentiality, so the specifics of your job will be kept secret. It's like being in the CIA, except you don't get to play with all the fun gadgets. If you're known as Motor-mouth McGee, this is not the career for you. Finally, entertainment lawyers need to be able to multi-task. If you're a lawyer worth your shiny suit, you could have anywhere from 50 to 60 open deals at any given time. You'll only work on a few each day, but trying to keep all those names, dates, and facts straight in your mind is a true juggling act. But that's okay, since you wanted to be a clown when you grew up anyways. You could never quite grasp the whole balloon-animal-blowing thing though. After disaster number 52, you realized it was time to think about representing performers instead of trying to become one.
If you’re not deterred, we wish you the best of luck, just know that it’s a tough industry to enter. Relative to other legal careers, there’s not much of a future in terms of wealth and freedom. If those two things are your bag, you might want to become a patent lawyer for Silicon Valley tech companies instead. Same amount of effort and way fewer panic attacks; you won’t have to go to the county jail at 3am to bail out Chris Brown, for one thing. And you’ll make 10 to 100 times the money, usually. Convincing, huh? We’ll give your regards to Broadway.