Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Pick the Right Entertainment Lawyer

Whether you're a dancer, a singer, a director, or a screenwriter, finding the right entertainment attorney at the right time can be pivotal to your career in the entertainment industry. It can be more challenging to find an entertainment lawyer than another type of lawyer because not all creative pursuits and projects are equal. Narrowing in on an attorney's ability to help you requires some upfront work on your part, and know that it's going to cost you a lot more than time.

That's why it's also essential to understand if and when you need an entertainment attorney. For simplicity's sake, let's say that if a decision is to be made that could change the course of your career – like a contract signing, a deal negotiation, or a handover of any rights to your work – it's time to get an attorney involved. Before you hire and pay for a lawyer, make sure you have a very specific need, and you're clear on your goals.

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Entertainment attorneys will help a client draft a contract, negotiate deals, protect intellectual property rights, and litigate disputes in your best interest. You should not attempt to do any of this on your own or try to get a great deal on the price. When it comes to attorneys, you get what you pay for. 

So how do you pick the right entertainment lawyer for you? We brought in attorney Sean Pope of Ramo Law to help answer your entertainment representation questions. He specializes in working with producers and production companies, specifically (not all entertainers, and we'll come to understand why below), from development to distribution with a particular focus on clients with documentary films and docu-series projects. He serves as production counsel for companies such as Boardwalk Pictures ("Chef's Table," "Cheer"), and Scout Productions ("Queer Eye"), and was named one of "Hollywood's New Leaders of 2021" by Variety.

How do I find an entertainment attorney?

Finding legal representation can be as simple as a quick Google search, but you may want to consider other options for something as serious as this. You also want to keep the geographic location of the law firms in mind. You'll probably want to narrow in on a specific entertainment law firm with a good track record in the entertainment space.

  1. Lean on Your Network

    Consider who your colleagues use for representation and find out how their attorneys have helped or hindered them. If you think their attorney could be a good fit for your needs, ask for a referral.

  2. Consult Attorney Lists & Directories

    Find a trusted online directory, such as Nolo.com, FindLaw.com, or LegalZoom.com, where you can search for lawyers by practice area, location, and whether they'll offer a free introductory consultation.

  3. Call Your Local Bar Association

    Find the bar association in your area or the area where you want to hire an attorney and ask them to match you with a few attorney options based on your needs.

  4. Social Media

    Avoid allowing social media to be your only search for an entertainment lawyer; however, it is a good place to see what kind of advice an attorney is giving out, the types of issues they've represented, and to an extent, whether your personalities will work together or clash.

Once you have a shortlist, it's time to …

Find out if the attorney is good

As mentioned above, referrals are the best way to know if an entertainment attorney is doing a good job for other people in your artistic space. But short of a referral, you can ask the attorney for references. Call those references and ask their opinion of and experience with the attorney, including the tasks they've completed for that client, their style in dealing with conflict, the kind of agreement they have in place, and their pricing.

In addition, check the attorney's discipline record on sites such as findlaw.com. Has the attorney ever been punished by the state where they practice for doing something that threatens their license to practice law? This is also an excellent time to determine whether the attorney is eligible to practice law in your state. It seems obvious, but you'd be surprised! 

Ask questions about their experience

Treat your first meeting with an attorney as a job interview. You are the employer, after all. Ask specific questions to find out if this is a person you want to work with in the future, and more importantly, if they can perform as you need them to. You'll want to start with the basics.

"So, from a writer's point of view, I would like to ensure that [the attorney] has done this before, right?" Sean began.

Other questions to ask a potential attorney:

  • What kind of experience do you have representing artists or creative people like me?

  • Have you represented any clients who needed something similar done for them? What was the outcome?

  • Have you experienced an issue with a situation like mine, and how did you resolve it?

  • How do you bill clients, and what do you expect this particular need to cost me?

  • How often can I call on you for help? What is your availability?

  • Do you offer any other services that could help me progress my career?

Know their specialty

The entertainment industry is changing rapidly, and so must the entertainment attorney's know-how. Make sure your attorney understands your space and the protection you need. A more established attorney with an impressive client roster may not necessarily be a better choice than a green attorney fresh out of law school who is trying to make a name for themselves in a particular, specific space. Pick someone who understands not just your immediate needs but what other services you could need in the future.  

"There are some attorneys that solely represent talent, like, i.e., screenwriters, that will negotiate those deals but might not be as active a part in acquiring underlying rights like to a book," Sean explained.

"Being able to do that chain-of-title work with you, in sussing out like, these are the underlying rights that we need to acquire before we go out and sell this screenplay. Because a lot of times in your deal when you're selling your screenplay, you're going to have to make certain representations that this screenplay is entirely original to you, or, to the extent that it's not, you've acquired the rights in order for there not to be a claim made on the screenplay at a later date."

Just like some doctors specialize in pediatrics, psychology, or neurology, some attorneys specialize in representing particular needs in entertainment, from YouTube creators to music record deals to film roles and everything in between; just look at Sean's niche as a perfect example. Not only does he specialize in representing producers and production companies, but even narrower, he represents those producers and production companies working in the documentary or docuseries space. Depending on your situation (from assembling distribution deals to hiring talent agents), you may need a couple of attorneys specializing in different law areas.

Know their payment structure

Most entertainment attorneys will provide one brief, free consultation for potential clients. It's more to get to know them (see interview questions above), so don't' ask for free legal advice.

After that initial consultation, time is money, and legal services can be costly. Many entertainment attorneys bill on an hourly rate (often between $300 and $700 an hour, according to Nolo.com) and send that bill at the end of every month. They'll usually charge per tenth of an hour or may charge per quarter of an hour, meaning a five-minute phone call still gets billed for 15 minutes of time. But some entertainment attorneys bill a percentage (usually around five percent) of the deal negotiated. Some attorneys charge a minimum flat rate amount each month, also called a retainer, for ongoing services. In addition, watch out for fees for printing, mileage, or other administrative services in your contractual agreement.

"It really depends on who you're going with," Sean said. "There are some attorneys that work strictly on a percentage basis which means they take a percentage of whatever deals they negotiate on your behalf. There are others that work on an hourly basis, you know, however many hours it takes to work on your deal or to work on other attended parts of your deal like let's say a book option or acquiring the underlying rights."

Try to balance the need for the best attorney in the entertainment business with the amount it's going to cost you, but know that in the end, a cheap attorney can cost you a lot more money on the backend if legal issues go south or if you don't get what you're worth.

Depending on your project and your needs, there are some volunteer legal associations with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLAs) that may also be able to help you. Typically, they'll take your annual income into account, as well as the deal size, to determine if you're eligible for help.

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In summary, finding and hiring an attorney requires upfront work on your end, so you should treat the task as if you're hiring someone to work for you – Google them, interview their references, ask them the tough questions, and find out how much they want to get paid. And remember, the hard work and time you put in upfront will pay off in your future paychecks if you do this job right. Legal matters should not be treated as DIY projects! 

Do your due diligence,

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