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Tips for Selecting an Entertainment Attorney
By Peter Spellman, Music Business Solutions
(more articles from this author)
2000-10-24
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Sooner or later you will need legal counsel as a musician, songwriter, label owner or industry careerist and it's important to know how to select the best counsel for your needs. Here are a few tips to help you with the screening process:

1) Get a Specialist. The value of a music attorney is determined in large part by the quantity and quality of his or her contacts in the music/entertainment field. Artists should be cautioned against the natural inclination to use a friend, relative ("My Cousin Vinny"), or family lawyer to fill their entertainment law needs. This is fine if they're qualified. However, the trend today is toward greater legal specialization than ever before because of the increased complexity of our commercial society. Unless a lawyer regularly deals with management, recording, and music publishing contracts; copyright protection and administration; and licensing of intellectual and artistic property, chances are he or she won't sufficiently understand or appreciate the industry and its peculiar dynamics.

2) Get a Referral. A referral from a satisfied client is a good start but...

3) Get References. Always ask the attorney for at least two client-references you can call. This is a perfectly reasonable request and any lawyer who has a problem with this should be your cue to exit. Be sure the work the lawyer did for the client is similar to what you need and be sure also that the work was performed in the last 6 months to a year (this business changes too fast for sporadic legal excursions).

4) Get the Dirt (if there is any). You can make two important phone calls to find out if there have been any complaints lodged in your city or state against this attorney. They're calls worth making:

     A. Secretary of State's office (look for the phone number in the "Government" section of your phone book).

     B. The Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org/). The Better Business Bureau Directory lists the addresses and phone numbers of Better Business Bureaus in the U.S. and Canada.

5) Have a Meeting. Most attorneys will waive their usual hourly fee for the first consultation. At this consultation meeting you'll want to:

     A. Ask the attorney about his/her basic philosophy of life. Why? Because this will help you understand his/her worldview, a significant relationship component. If your worldview turns out to be diametrically opposed to the attorney's, it probably means you're not a good match for each other.

     B. Inquire about the extent and quality of the attorney's pertinent industry contacts.

     C. Find out how the fee structure would work to avoid any misunderstandings. Sometimes you'll need legal counsel for short-term projects like putting together the appropriate performance and partnership agreements, trademarking your business/band name, incorporating your business, etc. These kinds of projects are usually paid for as a "flat fee" based on the attorney's hourly rate (anywhere from $100 to $400).

Longer-term projects and legal representation to the music industry (to labels, publishers, merchandise companies, etc.) are often paid in "points" (percentage points) of contract advances and/or future royalties.

     D. Feel the vibes--Trust your instincts.

6) Do-(some of)-it-Yourself. A lot of groundwork can be done by yourself when it comes to short-term legal needs. For example, tools like the Internet let you do a national trademark search from your desktop. For tips on this and other do-it-yourself legal resources contact Nolo Press (http://www.nolo.com) or call (510)549-1976 for their free self-help law books and software catalog.

7) Another first-stage option for longer-term legal projects is the VLA (Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts). Founded in 1969, VLA was "the first legal aid organization in the U.S. dedicated to providing free or low-cost arts-related legal assistance to artists and arts organizations in all creative fields who cannot afford provate counsel." You must apply for assistance and there is a small application fee. The main VLA office is in NY (212/977-9271; 1285 Avenue of the Americas, 3rd flr., New York, NY 10019) and they have satellite offices all over the country.

Take these steps and you'll be well on your way to finding the appropriate legal advisor to add to your team.


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