How to Choose a Lawyer for an Entertainment Contract

Three Parts:Finding a Prospective AttorneyInterviewing a prospective attorneyBeginning your working relationship

Finding a good attorney to represent you is often a tricky affair, and it can be even trickier in the entertainment field. You want to find an attorney with experience representing other artists like yourself. You need to take some time, do some research, and lay the proper foundation to build a strong working relationship between yourself and the right entertainment lawyer.

Part 1
Finding a Prospective Attorney

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    Get a referral from friends or colleagues. Sometimes, the best measure of an attorney is how he has performed and satisfied other people. If you have friends, particularly those who are also in the entertainment business, ask them for the names of attorneys they have used.[1]
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    Ask other attorneys you may know. If you have previously worked with an attorney, for your taxes, business contract, or anything else, ask that attorney if he or she knows someone who specializes in entertainment law. A referral is no guarantee of success, of course, but it can be a very good start. If you were pleased with the first attorney who worked with you, then the chance is good that he or she would only refer you to someone with similar standards and work ethic.
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    Call the bar association for referrals who specialize in entertainment law. The American Bar Association (ABA) is a nationwide professional organization of lawyers. It publishes a variety of materials on legal topics, and provides various services related to the law. There are also state and local/city bar associations in some areas. If you look up the bar association in your area, you may find a contact for referrals to attorneys in your specialty.
    • The ABA offers a nationwide Lawyer Referral Directory.[2] From that site, you can select your state, and you will be directed to the local contact information for the bar association that can help you find an attorney close to you.
    • The State Bar Association of Texas has an online search feature. You can search for attorneys by name, or by their field of specialty. Entertainment and sports law is one of the search terms. Searching for an entertainment lawyer produced dozens of contact names.[3]
    • The New York State Bar Association lists a Lawyer Referral Service on its home page.[4] By calling the Lawyer Referral Service at 800-342-3661, you can be referred to an attorney in your geographic area, with the skills that you need.
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    Check other clearing houses or associations for referrals. There are numerous organizations to help people in the entertainment business, particularly those just starting out. You may be able to contact one of these organizations and get a referral to lawyers who provide services to entertainers. A specific group, the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, in the name for separate organizations that exist in many large cities to provide free or reduced-cost legal work to entertainers and artists. Look for the VLA in your area.[5]
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    Do a general search online. If all other possible sources have failed, you can just search online for “entertainment lawyers.” You are likely to find many. Use this as a starting point, but realize that almost anyone can post online and claim to do anything. A lawyer who wrote one single contract ten years ago can claim to be an entertainment lawyer. Just be cautious and read what you see online carefully.
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    Decide if location is important to you. There are "entertainment" lawyers everywhere. If you are Jack Nicholson, you may want and need a high-powered Hollywood attorney. But if you're just starting out and need someone to review a contract for a website start-up that wants to use a song you wrote, you can probably find someone closer to you.
    • Entertainment publications put out annual lists of the top entertainment attorneys in Hollywood and New York.[6]

Part 2
Interviewing a prospective attorney

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    Check the attorney’s discipline record. The first thing you want to know, before you even meet with an attorney you are considering, is that he is truly eligible to practice law in your state. Attorneys can be punished by their state for a variety of things. Some are minor, like being delinquent in paying dues, and some are major and result in losing their license to practice law.
    • The legal research site has a handy reference that links to each state to help you check your prospective attorney’s discipline record.[7]
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    Ask a prospective attorney for contacts to satisfied clients. This is similar to any other employer asking for job references. An experienced attorney should be able to let you know the names of some other artists he or she has represented and let you talk with them. Find out from them what the experience was like.[8]
    • Watch out for name droppers. If the attorney you are interviewing begins dropping names of some high-profile entertainers, find out specifically what his or her level of involvement actually was. An attorney may have had a very limited contact with someone and yet still claim to have "worked together." Find out the details.
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    Meet with the attorney for an interview. Remember, you are the employer, so you should treat your first consultation as a job interview. Ask questions that will help you decide if the attorney is someone you will want to work with and who can do what you need.[9]
    • Ask about experience. The label "entertainment lawyer" is very broad. You need a lawyer who specializes in what you are doing. If you are a singer, you need a music attorney, not someone who closes movie deals. If you have an offer to act in a play, you need someone who reviews acting contracts, not someone who makes record deals. Be specific about your needs, and ask for specific experience references.[10]
    • Ask about similar clients and outcomes. Describe what you need the attorney to do for you, and ask him or her to relate experiences with similar clients.[11]
    • Ask about his or her style in dealing with conflicts. Attorneys are basically problem solvers, and you want someone who handles conflicts well.
    • Find out about fees, pricing, and billing procedure. There is nothing worse than getting a bill in the mail that you never expected. Be up front about it, and ask if the attorney will bill you by the hour, or a flat fee for the entire project you need. In some cases, if you want an attorney to do one specific task, like draft a contract for you and your friends as a band, you may reach an agreement for a flat fee.
    • Try to understand the attorney’s level of communication and availability. You want an attorney you can talk to, and someone who will be available when you need help.
    • Ask the prospective attorney to describe what he or she can do for you. If you are just starting out in the entertainment business, you may want someone who can help you make progress. Ask the attorney for his or her vision of the possibilities for the future.
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    Explain your objectives, and make sure the attorney is confident about doing what you need. Whether you are selling your music, getting a singing contract, producing a Broadway musical or reviewing a contract to sell a movie script, you need an attorney who is familiar with the field and has done what you are looking for.[12]

Part 3
Beginning your working relationship

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    Get a contract with the attorney outlining your agreement. After you have selected someone who seems to be a good fit for you, ask him or her to provide you with an employment agreement. Most attorneys will have something like this ready to go. The agreement may be in the form of a letter, or it may look more like a contract. Either way, the important elements are:[13]
    • Objective - The agreement should clearly describe the work that the attorney will do for you. If you just need a partnership agreement to be drafted, it should say so. On the other hand, your agreement may not be quite so concrete. If you need general legal representation from time to time on matters related to your art or music, then the agreement can be more general, but it should at least describe the field of work.
    • Tasks - Decide if you want your new attorney to enter into negotiations for you, to respond to payment demands, to draft contracts. As much as possible, your agreement should define what the attorney will do for you.
    • Level of authorization - How much work will you have the attorney complete and how much will you do yourself? In some cases, if you are on a tight budget, you may wish to make all initial contacts by yourself, and you decide when to involve your attorney. On the other hand, you may prefer to have your attorney do all the work and just report to you periodically. Just make it clear.
    • Fees and payments - Your agreement should state the attorney’s payment rate, whether that is measured by the hour or a flat fee for the project you need, and how often payment is expected from you.
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    Communicate openly with your attorney. An attorney cannot help you completely if you only provide incomplete information. Trying to save money by not communicating with your attorney is a bad idea.
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    Be clear about ending the relationship. When your attorney has completed whatever you need him or her to do for you (this could be in a week, or it could be in several years), you need to close up the working relationship with a letter. Make it clear in the letter that you have made your final payment, and the attorney no longer represents you. This will avoid any troublesome situations of the attorney entering into any deals on your behalf that you may not want. It will also give you some evidence in case the attorney continues to bill you beyond your authorization.

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