How Do You Know When You Need an Entertainment Lawyer?

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Wallace Collins is an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer based in New York. He has been in the business for over 30 years. Prior to this he was an Epic Records recording artist.  In this post he explains why the basics of finding an entertainment lawyer.


As an artist or creator in the entertainment industry you do not need to know everything about the business in order to succeed, but you should hire people who do. When I was a teenage recording artist back in the late 70s, I can remember being intimidated by the “suits”. Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I have a broader perspective. I am here to tell you that those “suits” can help you; provided, however, that like any other aspect of your life, you use your instincts in making your selection.

The best place for you to start building your “team” of representatives is with a competent lawyer who specializes in entertainment law, which is a combination of contract, intellectual property (copyright and trademark) and licensing law. Eventually, your team could possibly include a personal manager, an agent, and a business manager/accountant. Your lawyer can assist you in assembling your team. He may then function as the linchpin in coordinating the activities of your team and insuring that these people are acting in your best interests.

A good lawyer will navigate you safely through the minefield that is the entertainment industry. Entertainment contracts can be extremely complicated. Proper negotiating and drafting requires superior legal skills as well as knowledge of entertainment business and intellectual property practice. Your lawyer can explain the concepts of copyright and trademark to you and assist you in securing proper protection for your work. In addition to structuring and documenting a deal to maximize the benefits to you, some lawyers also actively solicit deals for their clients. Moreover, if you are not properly compensated in accordance with your contract, you may look to your lawyer to commence a lawsuit to enforce the terms of your contract.

When looking for a lawyer, you should not be afraid to speak with a few before retaining one. Some lawyers are with large firms but many are solo practitioners. Lawyers have various personalities and legal skills and you should seek out a situation where the “vibe” is right. Although your first contact may be on the telephone or online, most likely you will have an initial consultation for which there may be a modest charge, although some lawyers may not charge for that first meeting depending on the circumstances. Remember, your lawyer’s time is money, so be prepared and be on time for your appointment.

It is not necessary that your lawyer like or even understand your creative endeavors, be it an app, a book, music, your film or TV pilot idea. It is more important that you feel he or she is a trustworthy and competent advisor. The lawyer/client relationship is known as a “fiduciary” relationship which means that a lawyer must always act in your best interest and not his own or that of anyone else. Your lawyer is also under a duty to keep your conversations with him confidential. It is often in your best interest that it stay that way.

Keep in mind that a lawyer with other big name clients is not necessarily the best lawyer for you; if it comes down to taking your calls or those of a superstar, which do you think will get preference?  You are probably wondering, “How much will this cost?” Well, remember that the only thing a lawyer has to sell is his time. A lawyer, much like a doctor, is selling services, so if you go to him for advice you should expect to pay. With the odds of success in this business being what they are, very few lawyers will agree to work for you and wait for payment until you are successful and can pay your bills. A lawyer specializing in the entertainment field usually charges an hourly fee or a percentage of the money value of your deal.

Hourly rates generally run from $300-$500 and up. Percentages on a pending deal are based on the “reasonable value of services rendered” in connection with a particular contract and generally run around 5-10% of the deal.  A few lawyers may charge a set fee, such as $1,000 or $5,000, to review and negotiate certain documents.  Check around to see if the fee arrangement proposed is competitive.  Most lawyers will require a payment of money in advance or “retainer”, which can range anywhere from $500 to $10,000 (and more for litigation matters).  Even those who take a percentage of the deal as a fee may require that you pay some amount as a retainer. In addition to the hourly fee or percentage, you are usually required to reimburse your lawyer for his out-of-pocket costs, including long distance telephone calls, photocopies, postage, fax, etc.

You should realize that in retaining a lawyer you are making a contract even if your agreement is not written. In return for a fee, the lawyer promises to render legal services on your behalf. However, some lawyers may want a fee arrangement in writing (specifically in connection with a percentage deal) and/or a payment direction letter. A cautious lawyer will advise you that you have the right to seek the advice of another lawyer as to the propriety of a percentage fee arrangement.

You should consult a lawyer if you are asked to sign anything. Too many aspiring creative artists want to get a deal so badly they will sign almost anything that promises them a chance to do it. Even successful careers have a relatively short life span, especially when it comes to careers in music, movie and television. Therefore, it is important for you to get maximum returns in the good years and not sign away rights to valuable income.

Do not rely on anyone else (or even their lawyer) to tell you what your contract says. Your lawyer will “translate” the deal for you and explain to you exactly what you are getting into. Do not let anyone rush you or pressure you into signing any agreement. There is really no such thing as a standard “form” contract. Any such contract was drafted by that party’s attorney to protect that party’s interests; your lawyer can help negotiate more favorable terms for you. Everyone needs someone to look out for his or her interests. That is why you need a lawyer. If you believe in yourself and your talents, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, invest in legal representation and do not sign anything without consulting your lawyer and making sure it is the right deal for you.

As a final piece of free legal advice, never sign anything – other than an autograph – without having your own lawyer review it first.


Image by Brooke Novak, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

23 Responses

  1. Anfinn Skulevold

    This article is written by an attorney, It’s the usual sales pitch which I see all the time in forums. Create some fears then offer a solution to the fear. I’ve been a music professional for 11 years, working both as an independent business owner as well as being on staff for several publishers including a one of the biggest in the world. I’ve seen many many examples of people spending lots of money on lawyers who only change a couple of non important words ex adding or taking out “know” universe instead of just “universe” spell checking, downloading contract templates from the internet and giving it their clients and charging them for having “drafted up an agreement” this happened to a publisher which caused a huge accounting nightmare and in the end the attorney didn’t even know what was in the template he had supposedly drafted up. That attorney is a big name entertainment attorney here in Los Angeles. Yes if u are being offer a huge deal with lots money involved then yes see a lawyer. However if u are an upcoming artist who just got offered a deal from a music library then you should just spend the money on a music publishing class or a book so you can check over it your self. BTW I’ve never seen a successful Artist/musician who were fairly savvy about the business they are in. Just read the agreement then highlight and research word and phrases you dont understand, its not rocket science!
    “I just to do Music'” approach rarely work anymore if it ever did. There is a whole industry build around taking advantage of upcoming musicians, Be smarter than that dont waste money on nonsense! and BOO to Digital Music News for publishing this guy sales pitch!

    • Anfinn Skulevold

      Opps, spelling error (I was upset when writing this) : “BTW I’ve never seen a successful Artist/musician who were(n’t) fairly savvy about the business they are in” I guess I should have payed $2k to an attoney to have corrected 🙂

    • Anonymous

      There is a saying about someone who tries to represent themselves in legal matters: they have a fool for a client.

      • Anonymous

        There’s also a saying about three lawyers on the bottom of the ocean, though.

      • Anfinn Skulevold

        Yeah that saying was probably made up by an attorney maybe even the one who wrote this article 🙂 and besides anyone who conduts business based on a “saying” must surely be a fool.

        Here is another example:

        I was once in a financial dispute and hired a lawyer to help me settle it. I paid his retainer fee and then he told me that we needed to offer the other party at least $7-8k to settle. He said he was going to work “real hard” to get it down to that those numbers but that I also needed to be prepared to offer more.

        Finally I broke against his advice and just called the other party directly and settled it myself for $1500! Yes, thats right $1500 and of course the $500 fee I paid that lawyer clown. Well, I guess I was the clown for hiring him before even trying to settle it myself :).

        I did work for a great entertainment attorney/publisher once so I’m not saying all lawyers are useless but this article claims that musicians need to hire an attorney for every little agreements they get offered and that is in my opinion just poor advice. Better to get educated about the business they are in. CHeers!

        • Anonymous

          “Better to get educated about the business they are in”


          • Anonymous

            Seems like a lot of anti-lawyer sentiment on here. It is true, for smaller deals maybe you take the risk. For my money, I have found that hiring a lawyer is a kind of business insurance: a small price to pay for someone to translate the deal for me and advise me about how best to proceed. Its part of the cost of doing business right.

          • Anonymous

            “Seems like a lot of anti-lawyer sentiment on here”

            And for good reason, too.

    • Anonymous

      For my money, I have found that hiring a lawyer is a kind of business insurance: a small price to pay for someone to translate the deal for me and advise me about how best to proceed. Its part of the cost of doing business right.

    • Movie Maven

      I found this article enlightening and informative. There may be a “pitch” in the words, but truth be told, aren’t we all pitching something? In this day and age there are valid reasons to fear what could happen to anyone that proceeds to navigate the world of entertainment (and business) without legal counsel. I have been around the entertainment business for many years but I have found that money spent on an entertainment lawyer is money “invested”.

  2. Stew Crossen

    Money “spent” for an attorney is money “invested”.

      • MusicLawyer333

        It is not wasted if you find a good lawyer and have a real deal to negotiate.

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks for that but the problem is often not the lawyer but the Jurassic business models of the traditional law firms. Focus is on billing, billing, and more billing. With the music business in decline creative ways have to be found to make the numbers each quarter.
    There are legitimate and often preferable alternatives that do not overly burden the lawyer with billing obligations.
    There are firms out there whose business model is flexible enough to accommodate all comers including the cash strapped on-line and mobile music distribution start-ups whose money is better spend on content acquisition and commercial services. New Media Law is one.

    • Legal Eagle

      Agreed. You need to find the right fit. The article even suggests that a person needs to do some research and find a lawyer that is flexible with respect to billing…. I find that most lawyers are eager for new business and new clients on the rise.

  4. LA LAW


    • Anonymous

      Do you see a doctor every time you get a cold ?!

  5. World Law Counsel

    If you are serious about your business, then if you are asked to sign anything – other than an autograph – you should have a lawyer review it first. EXCELLENT ADVICE.

  6. hazeleyes

    I’m looking for an Entertainment Attorney myself for my company Holiwood Films Inc. We have a great script that needs to be read by an attorney so they can assist with investors. We have the Synopsis, Script, Budget and now we need them. If you can suggest one that would be great. Thanks

  7. Alice Carroll

    Thanks for pointing out that intellectual property lawyers can help me in making me understand the intricacies of contracts in the entertainment industry. I’m planning to get a novel of mine published but I want to first make sure that none of the contents of my story is infringing on some obscure copyright claim that I might have missed. I’m also looking into getting a lawyer who might be able to point me in the right direction in case there something wrong with my plans on getting published.

  8. NY Entertainment Lawyer

    You do not need an entertainment attorney for every little thing, however a lot of new artists getting there first offer do not realize they are being locked in to a lopsided deal. Or even how roayalties will work.