Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters. If this article is considered an advertisement, it is general in nature and not directed towards any particular person or entity. This article does not constitute or create a lawyer-client relationship between Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. and you or any other user. The law may vary based on the facts or particular circumstances or the law in your state. You should not act, or fail to act, upon this information without seeking the professional counsel of an attorney licensed in your state.
Before choosing an attorney, you first want to determine whether you actually need a lawyer. The basic rule of thumb is that if you're presented with a contract, or alternatively, if you feel your contractual or intellectual property rights have been violated, you need a lawyer. Once you've determined which services you would like that lawyer to provide, you'll want to consider several factors to determine whether a particular lawyer is the right fit for your career, especially if this is your first time working with a lawyer.
Your attorney is your representative, and thus, an extension of you for business purposes. You want to choose someone you enjoy working with, is qualified for the services you need, has a rate you can afford, and who will reflect the right image to achieve your goals. Here are eight of the most important considerations when choosing an attorney.
1. Practice area
Is your lawyer a music lawyer, or is it your brother's friend's cousin who's a real estate/personal injury/construction attorney and is willing to look over the contract for free? While this cousin's generosity is appreciated, you need to say, "Thanks, but no thanks," and hire an attorney experienced with music contracts. The entertainment industry has very specific contract terminology and industry practices that only pertain to the entertainment industry. This field is so nuanced that even music contracts and film contracts differ enough that some artists have different attorneys for their music and film deals. An attorney who does not focus on music and entertainment contracts will not be familiar with these industry-specific terms and will miss crucial points that separate a good deal from a bad one. This could cost you to lose copyright ownership and/or a lot of money in royalties in addition to other undesirable consequences.
2. Your needs as an artist
Different types of lawyers perform different services. Some lawyers are "transactional" lawyers that draft, review, and negotiate contracts, as well as advise you on career decisions. Having a lawyer handle your contracts is important because even though some contracts may seem fairly simple, contract language is actually very complex and can contain consequences unforeseen to the untrained reader (or drafter). Lawyers endure many stressful years of schooling and training to interpret this language and understand how it affects you. In practice, you may need an attorney to review or draft only one contract for you or you may need him or her to be an ongoing member of your team for all career developments and opportunities, as well as to work with your manager or agent if you have one. Many artist lawyers can also help you set up any business entities you decide to form.
Other lawyers are "litigators," which means they handle lawsuits by either suing others on your behalf and arguing your case or by defending you from someone suing you. This is the type of lawyer you would hire when someone has violated your contractual or intellectual property rights. A lawyer who understands these types of lawsuits can assess whether you have a valid claim, if you have the proper proof needed to win your case, and represent you through a settlement and/or trial. Note that the ability to bring lawsuits is often regulated by a "statute of limitations," meaning you'll often only have a certain amount of time to file the suit. This amount of time varies depending on the type of lawsuit and sometimes by state, so it's best to consult with a lawyer promptly.
Still yet, there are other attorneys who "shop" artists, which means that they submit your music to record labels and sometimes other music companies to try to get you a deal. Note that many attorneys do not shop, so it is wise to check the attorney's website or ask the attorney for his or her shopping policy before requesting that the attorney shop you. Be careful here: some "shopping" attorneys will send out anyone's music for a fee. Music companies know who these attorneys are often don't take them or their submissions seriously because the company executives know these submissions are not based on the attorney's genuine endorsement of the music.
Aside from skill, personality is the other most important aspect in choosing the right lawyer for you. You want to make sure:
- You actually like this person
- He or she communicates with you in a way you understand
- He or she understands and keeps your career goals in mind
- You feel that you can trust him or her
- You feel he or she has your best interests at heart
- You feel comfortable letting him or her handle your important business matters
Just like you hopefully maintain a good reputation in the industry, you want your attorney to have one as well. You can do an online search for an attorney you're considering to see if his or her website is appealing and professional. You can also find out if he or she has any articles published or does speaking engagements to get a feel for his or her expertise.
More importantly, you want to know whether your potential attorney is honest. You can't always find this out upfront, but you can ask around to your colleagues to see if anyone has worked with that person and what their experience has been. Also, you can search the attorney's name on the State Bar website for the state in which the attorney is licensed to see if any disciplinary action has been taken against him or her. Further, an online search may also yield some information in the form of articles or news stories if the attorney has been involved in any unsavory activities.
5. Negotiation style
When you envision your attorney, what do you see? There are many different negotiation and business styles and it’s important to consider which style fits your preferred attorney profile and your business image as an artist.
Some styles include:
- Screamers: These attorneys scream at everyone to get the job done and intimidate people to get their way. Some are effective, and some are just plain annoying, actually hindering the progress of deals due to their unpleasantness.
- Bulldogs: Similar to the Screamers, Bulldogs are tough, fierce, and stubborn. They may not scream, but they can be just as difficult.
- Partiers: These are the ones you see partying on the tour bus with the band. Many music attorneys are actually frustrated musicians, so the Partiers fulfill their unmet dreams of fame by living vicariously through their clients. Partiers may still be great attorneys during the day, but it's a personal preference whether you want your attorney partying alongside you after the show.
- Friends: Many attorneys become friends with their clients. This may include hanging together outside of work, but it just may extend to asking, "How's the family?" when on a business call. It can be up to you how much you want to discuss your personal life outside of work, but it can make for a more enjoyable business experience.
- Paper-pushers: These are the ones who stay in the office pining over comma placement. If you're not looking to socialize and just want someone to stick to drafting, this might be your pick.
- Combination: Realistically, most attorneys are a combination of some of the above. Some attorneys might be nice until they have a reason to scream. Some may spend most of the time at the office but accept your invitation to the afterparty at next week's show.
Again, it really is about how well you work with the person and what you want in your relationship with him or her. However, style is an important point because having an attorney with the wrong style may end up breaking deals instead of making them on your behalf.
6. Similar clients
You might consider an attorney who already has clients in a similar style and genre to your music. This isn't essential, but it is a good starting point for an artist who does not currently know any attorneys and wants to do some research on who to further pursue. In addition, an attorney with similar clients may also have already established connections and relationships with other artists or companies you'd like to work with, which can work to your advantage.
Attorneys have different billing rates that are usually based on their experience and number of years in practice. Some attorneys only bill hourly and/or require retainers (upfront payments of estimated fees), while some will also charge a flat fee or take a percentage of your income or a deal. Ask the attorney for his or her rates and fee structure. Take serious consideration of what the attorney quotes you and whether you can afford it. Attorney services can be expensive, but it's important that you pay your attorney for his or her work as he or she has invested time and skill in completing tasks on your behalf, even if that task is answering questions over the telephone. Legal advice is not free; your attorney is providing you a service based on many years of training, knowledge, and experience.
Attorneys are licensed by state, so you want to be cognizant of whether the attorney is licensed in your home state, as licensing restrictions may prevent an out-of-state attorney from completing tasks on your behalf or may require the involvement of another attorney licensed in your state, which can mean added fees for you.
While a lot of correspondence with your attorney can often be done over telephone and email, you may also want to make sure the attorney's office is in a convenient location if you have to travel to his or her office.
Now that you're aware of what to look for in an attorney, you might wonder where to find one. Next time, I will discuss how to find potential attorneys as well as options for musicians who need legal services but are not quite ready to add an attorney to their teams.
Erin M. Jacobson is a practicing music attorney, experienced deal negotiator, and seasoned advisor of intellectual property rights. Her clients range from Grammy and Emmy Award winners to independent artists, record labels, music publishers, and production companies. Ms. Jacobson also owns and oversees all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician's resource for legal and business protection offering template contracts, consultations, and other services designed to meet the unique needs of independent musicians.