An entertainment lawyer can be an essential professional resource for a producer, director or other creative working in film or television.
However, knowing what an entertainment lawyer does, how those skill sets can both protect and boost your career and where to find one who suits your needs can all together feel like an overwhelming proposition.
In this post, we’ll answer 20 of the most common questions about what entertainment lawyers do and whether one may or may not be right for you.
Unlike divorce or corporate lawyers, an entertainment lawyer represents and protects the interests of creatives, companies and others in the many areas of the entertainment industry, such as film, television, new media, theater, publishing and music. They also advise these individuals and entities on legal matters relating to these facets of the entertainment field.
Depending on what part of the entertainment field they are in and for whom they work, an entertainment lawyer may have expertise in several areas of law, including intellectual property, contract law, labor law and litigation as they relate to the entertainment industry.
Moreover, while we’ll primarily be discussing how entertainment lawyers can address the needs of individuals in the entertainment industry, namely writers, directors and producers, this type of lawyer is widely used as well to support larger entities, including management companies, agencies, production companies and studios.
The scope of work that an entertainment lawyer can do is extensive, but some of their most common duties include:
When it comes to securing a contract that protects your interests, an entertainment lawyer is essential. Instead of advocating for yourself, they can broker the terms for a project with others involved, such as an agent, production company or studio, and make sure that you get fair compensation for your contributions.
Intellectual property, or IP, is big business. From a screenwriter’s spec script to a musician’s original song, anything created within this industry necessitates protection from those who may want to buy it, option it, license it—or infringe upon it with unauthorized use. An entertainment lawyer can see to it that a client’s intellectual property is handled properly and protected when copyright or trademark issues arise.
An entertainment lawyer can be a great general resource when a client must deal with a professional matter outside their area of expertise.
For instance, they can provide answers about entertainment payroll, in particular contractor versus employee distinctions and child labor laws. They can also advise on union, guild and other association matters.
As the adage goes, it’s not what you know but who you know. In this regard, an entertainment lawyer can be useful for making introductions for their clients to others in the industry like managers, agents, and accountants.
Emerging creatives often focus their efforts on getting representation through a manager or agent. And while true that these professionals can foster your career and provide some of the same benefits as an entertainment lawyer, namely industry connections and career advice, neither have the legal expertise of an entertainment lawyer.
Especially when it comes to negotiating contracts and handling potential litigation matters, an entertainment lawyer is key to best protecting your interests.
The value of a manager or agent shouldn’t be discounted. The former can provide important career guidance. Both have industry connections. And the latter can secure project deals.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that none of these services, those of an entertainment lawyer included, come free. But as mentioned, of all these professional resources, only an entertainment lawyer has the qualifications to handle legal matters. So when it comes to determining what fees are essential to your career advancement, do not underestimate an entertainment lawyer’s worth.
Doctors aren’t just doctors. They’re oncologists, obstetricians, anesthesiologists and so on. In the same way, the legal practice is highly specialized.
Let’s say you already have a real estate lawyer or a business lawyer. Can’t they just be your lawyer for entertainment industry as well? If protecting your interests is a priority, then the answer is no.
A good real estate or business lawyer may have some knowledge of entertainment matters, but when a situation arises that necessitates an entertainment lawyer, go with someone who specializes in that area of law.
The answer to “Do I need an entertainment lawyer?” depends largely on your place in the entertainment industry and how far along you are in your career.
For instance, let’s say you’re an emerging producer. If you have yet to be brought onto a production company or studio-backed project, or you’re working pro bono on small independent projects simply for the experience, then perhaps not.
But let’s consider some specific scenarios that would necessitate the involvement of an entertainment lawyer… Are you in a position where a contract—yours or someone else’s—is getting negotiated? In such cases, an entertainment lawyer should be brought on to advise on the terms.
Or perhaps you’re a writer whose work has potentially been stolen or plagiarized. An entertainment lawyer can evaluate whether that is the case, and if so, potentially move forward with litigation.
The situation may be more advisory as well, such as needing counsel on the distribution rights for an independent film you produced or with the setup of a production company.
Unfortunately, an entertainment lawyer is likewise important should you find yourself being sued for anything from breaking a contract to copyright infringement.
Depending on the scope of your career and professional needs, the answer may be yes.
As mentioned, an entertainment lawyer can have expertise in several areas. But if you suspect that someone has infringed on one of your copyrighted works, you don’t want to use an entertainment lawyer who primarily focuses on labor law—and they would tell you as such.
Especially if litigation may be in your future, you need to bring on specifically a litigation lawyer for entertainment industry, as those who deal primarily with contractual issues would be ill-equipped to deal competently with your needs in such cases.
But even in the absence of a pending lawsuit, hiring an entertainment lawyer on retainer can prove wise, as your career needs may suddenly change and require the immediate need of their legal services.
If you work in the entertainment industry, odds are you already know someone who has an entertainment lawyer. That’s why how to find an entertainment lawyer usually begins with word-of-mouth referrals.
But referrals are just a starting point. Given that the entertainment lawyer you need may not line up with the reasons why a friend hired theirs, you should also consider an entertainment lawyer’s:
Yes, most entertainment lawyers will provide a brief complimentary consultation.
Keep in mind, though, that this consultation isn’t about getting free information for a legal issue. Rather, the consultation is to determine if that particular lawyer will be a good fit for your needs.
A legal consultation is much like an interview—both for you and the lawyer. It’s important to fully utilize the time you have by coming prepared with questions, such as:
During the consultation, the manner in which the lawyer communicates with you is just as important as the answers they provide. Making sure that you feel comfortable with them and can speak freely about your needs is key.
Also, keep in mind that to assess whether they’re the right fit for you, your prospective lawyer may question you as well, especially in matters of litigation. Bottom-line: Be as clear as possible about your needs ahead of your consultation so that your time—and theirs—isn’t wasted.
Regulations of just about every kind—from employment to incorporation to intellectual property—may vary from state to state, so it’s a smart move to hire someone local.
Los Angeles and New York City are hubs for the entertainment industry, which makes it relatively easy to find an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles or an entertainment lawyer in NYC. If you keep up a bicoastal career, though, you may want to consider bringing on both an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles and an entertainment lawyer in NYC.
Not only can it benefit you in terms of making sure each respective lawyer understands the nuances of their state’s laws, but you may not have much choice in the matter if they are licensed to practice in only that state. However, pending who you hire, you may want to inquire if their firm has offices in both states, as many larger ones do for this very reason.
Many states outside of California and New York offer competitive financial advantages for productions, making it attractive to creatives on a budget to film in these other locations with local crew and other resources at their disposal.
If you already have an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles or entertainment lawyer in NYC, consult with them about how to move forward in such circumstances. Depending on the nature of your role on the project, they can advise about seeking in-state legal advice.
An entertainment lawyer salary is dependent on several factors, the retainer fee being one of them. In some cases, that fee can be used to offset future expenses. Sometimes, though, the fee is simply to secure services and nothing more.
So when it comes to hiring an entertainment lawyer, it’s important to ask about how they bill.
Very commonly, lawyers charge an hourly rate, but it’s possible to hire one who uses flat rates for particular services as well. Should you hire an entertainment lawyer for a court case, you may even be able to negotiate having their fee—or contingency rate—come out of the expected settlement.
That being said, expect an entertainment lawyer to charge no less than $250 per hour—and that is at the low end of the rate spectrum. Also, understand that rates can fluctuate depending on the service performed. The more specialized or extensive the service, the higher the rate.
If you feel like you will need legal representation consistently for several months or more, that entertainment lawyer salary may come out of your own as a percentage of earnings. Typically, it comes to 5% of gross income. Again, before entering into any contractual agreement, have clarity about the billing structure of a prospective entertainment lawyer.
It’s common practice for an entertainment lawyer to request a retainer fee, which is an upfront cost paid for their future services.
The standard retainer rate depends heavily on the type of services that individual will be providing. It may start at $1000 for contractual and/or advisement issues and go up to $100,000 should they be retained for litigation.
Before agreeing to any terms with an entertainment lawyer, inquire about their retainer fee. In some cases, a lawyer may agree instead to take a percentage of your gross income or deal secured in lieu of a retainer.
Unless you are potentially forming a company that would require the ongoing services of an entertainment lawyer, they would not be hired as an employee. Rather, they are a contractor who is part of a law firm or the proprietor of their own business.
Sounds like an odd question, but it’s actually quite important. In particular, when an entertainment lawyer charges by the hour, that doesn’t mean they charge only for the time spent reviewing a document or preparing for a court case.
They may—and likely will—charge for every phone call, email and even text message exchanged. As with the rate itself, be clear about how your lawyer might charge for each communication and whether something more informal like a text may not fall under the same contractual terms as an email or phone call. It could end up saving you a considerable sum.
You may be wondering how much your entertainment lawyer can earn in a year. Well, that depends on several factors. For one, a junior associate at a law firm will not have an hourly rate as high as a senior partner. Two, the nature of the work itself can impact overall salary. Three, the more clients a lawyer has, the higher the salary they are likely to make.
That being said, the average salary for a California entertainment lawyer is just shy of $150,000 a year.
The nature of work for an entertainment lawyer is highly specialized. That in part explains the costly fees for them. However, it also indicates the extensive education they must attain to be skilled at their job.
To become an entertainment lawyer, candidates must complete a bachelor’s degree, which is mandatory before being allowed to apply to law schools.
The American Bar Association can provide guidance on how to become an entertainment lawyer with its listings on approved law schools, as well as those that offer specialization in entertainment law.
Also, important for individuals seeking a career as an entertainment lawyer are internships, which can provide real-world experience in the field. While internships during law school are common, undergraduate students should also strongly consider taking on an internship prior to applying to law school, as it can make for a more favorable application.
Most law schools have three-year programs. However, a graduate must pass the bar exam in the state where they want to practice before getting licensed. Should they not pass on the initial try, they may be allowed only one more attempt in the same calendar year to pass. However, many states, including California, have no limits on the total number of times a person may take the bar exam.
Between a conventional four-year undergraduate program, law school and bar exam success on the first try, a person looking to be licensed as a California entertainment lawyer may do so in approximately seven years.
There is no single best entertainment lawyer, as what may be “best” for a client can vary significantly depending on their circumstances.
However, many entertainment lawyers and law firms have a trustworthy reputation earned from their peers and former clients. Do your research to find the best for you and you’ll likely end up with a valued professional resource for the entirety of your career.
Wrapbook can likewise be a valued resource for your production payroll needs. Contact us to find out how we can make the payroll stress of your next project disappear with our easy-to-use online system.
At Wrapbook, we're all about providing the very best free resources to producers and their crews. However, this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Answers do not create a company-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your decisions or rights.
Sign up for the Wrapbook monthly newsletter where we share industry news along with must-know guides for producers.