From Law School to Music Lawyer: How to Build a Career in Entertainment Law
The life of a Music Lawyer often seems improbably glamorous. It’s easy to conjure up visions of client lunches with Grammy-winning stars, interviews with the press, expensive cars, and tailored suits. While on some levels this may be the case, behind-the-scenes, a Lawyer’s life also involves a lot of hard work, late hours, and paperwork.
Like many music industry careers, the field of entertainment law is extremely competitive, openings are few, and getting a break can seem nearly impossible. While even the first part of career-building for an Attorney — getting into law school — can be daunting, the struggle to set oneself apart from one’s peers and land a dream job at a high-powered firm can be even more difficult. Of course, that’s not to say aspiring Entertainment Attorneys should give up on their dreams and settle for a less fascinating practice. No — instead they should seek advice from an established Attorney who understands the career journey and can offer valuable insights both from the viewpoint of a former law student and from the viewpoint of an experienced, practicing Entertainment Attorney.
To learn more about what it takes to get a foot-in-the-door with a potential employer and build a fulfilling career in entertainment law, we spoke with Paul Rothenberg, founder of New York and LA-based firm Rothenberg P.C. His clientele includes stars like Trey Songz, Logic, Charlie Puth, D’Angelo, ASAP Ferg and Andra Day, along with many other artists, Writers, Producers, music business executives, and brands. In our discussion, we covered a lot of ground, from what his day-to-day life on the job is like to his advice for how to get hired after graduation. Here’s what he had to say.
What Does an Entertainment Lawyer Do?
We essentially function as general counsel for our clients. We handle everything of a business nature in coordination with their other team members; it’s like a board of directors. Typically, there’s a Manager, Lawyer, Business Manager (dealing primarily with financial issues). There is an Agent once the artist has gotten to the point of playing live shows. As a Lawyer, we’re handling all their transactional entertainment deals, including record deals, publishing deals, sponsorship and endorsement deals, merchandising agreements, touring and other appearance agreements, licensing agreements, management agreements, acting agreements, and any agreements related to their release of music, including Producer, side artist, Writer and sample agreements. Those are the core agreements for a successful recording artist.
Our clients typically consult us for anything else of a legal or business nature. If there’s a lawsuit and we need a litigator, we’ll find the right person for the matter in question. If they get accused of something, we engage a Criminal Attorney if necessary. Sometimes it’s a prenuptial agreement or other family law-related matter, or it could involve a real estate purchase or estate planning. I am the liaison for all these things they might need. Our core expertise is in entertainment but as part of the service we provide, if our clients need anything of a legal nature, it’s our job to find them the best person, and make sure that they’re treated well and prioritized, and that they pay a fair price.
What Inspired You to Become an Entertainment Lawyer?
It was kind of an evolution. After graduating from Dartmouth with a degree in mathematics, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue creative endeavors in the film business. Then I started to get into the business side, and formed a production company with two partners. I was having the time of my life but lacked discipline and structure. Our biggest expense at the time was our entertainment law firm. I also noticed that many Entertainment Lawyers had moved on to successful careers as principals in the industry. One day, following a long talk with a friend, I decided that law school was the right path for me. Less than four months later I was at Columbia Law School in New York City.
My original intent was that I’d return to Los Angeles and get back into the film business. However, I ended up taking a job in New York at a big Wall Street firm (Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison) and I loved the intensity and high stakes and kind of got sucked into the culture. I began in Mergers & Acquisitions, but the firm had a storied entertainment department with clients going all the way back to Arthur Miller and Cole Porter, and I eventually transitioned into that department when a spot opened. It was a great opportunity to learn all aspects of the entertainment industry. I was exposed to theater, film, music, book publishing and intellectual property. I discovered that the role of a Lawyer in the music industry was very entrepreneurial and creative. Often, I was the first professional on board with an artist and helping them put their team together or find a label or Publisher. It gave me an opportunity to use both sides of my brain and to work closely with artists that I respected.
What’s the mix of nose-to-the-grindstone behind-the-scenes work and the glamour of being in the industry?
As you get more seniority you experience more of the so-called glamorous aspect. It’s mostly just a function of your relationship with your clients. As a young associate starting off, you may be in the trenches more. As you build your own clientele, you’re naturally going to be spending more time with them, and evolving from someone that primarily handles their agreements into a trusted advisor and confidant as well. We’re all on a journey together trying to help them reach their goals. That’s one of the most rewarding aspects of practicing entertainment law.
“If you can figure out how to make yourself useful so you can come right in and really lighten someone’s load and it’s not the other way around — where the firm is taking a lot of time and training you — then maybe a firm will take the chance. I’ve seen it happen many times, where people get their foot in the door through some kind of internship and end up with a permanent position.” — Paul Rothenberg
What kind of educational background should an aspiring Entertainment Attorney have?
We always look for strong academic performance, great writing and communication skills, and ideally some transactional experience as a Lawyer. While in law school, “Contracts” is essential (and required at most schools), and copyright and trademark courses are very important. These courses are some of the basic building blocks of an entertainment practice.
Some schools offer music business-focused curricula (NYU, Berklee, Belmont, UCLA, USC, and others), which is always helpful.
The other thing I always recommend to aspiring Entertainment Lawyers is to read the trades. If they read the key trade publications regularly, they can acquire a context for what they are learning in school or in other areas of law practice, and get a feel for what is going on in the industry. That’s an easy thing to do and it really helps.
Do you have any suggestions for extracurriculars, collegiate associations, or student jobs that would be helpful while still in law school?
During law school, I worked at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. I believe a lot of law schools have something similar where you do pro bono work for clients that can’t afford a Lawyer, and you’re supervised by a Lawyer. Many schools also have externship relationships with labels and publishers. Any experience like that is great because if you leave a positive impression on the people you work for, they may hire you in the future or recommend you to outside law firms. We’ve hired several times based on this kind of recommendation.
Is there anything you wish you would’ve known or done differently when you were in law school?
Columbia had a joint JD and MBA program that was only one year longer than the JD program — I would have liked to have done that. I took some classes at the business school, but at the time I felt I had already lost four years and I was in a hurry to get started. I think, in the grand scheme of things, the extra year wouldn’t have mattered, and I would have liked to have had that extra degree.
How can someone who’s still in school set him or herself up for success after graduation?
It’s tough getting in the door as an Entertainment Lawyer, but there’s always a need for good people, too. It’s ironic because there’s a real bottleneck to get in but everyone I know is constantly looking for more help!
First and foremost, get the best grades you can in school because that is something that is objective that can be evaluated and compared and set you apart. The other element is that employers like to see a commitment to entertainment demonstrated by action. When I was trying to get in, some people advised not to even mention my interest. However, I chose to be transparent. As I said, I started at a firm that had an entertainment department. I got to work with that group in the summer but then, when I got my offer of employment, it was for their corporate department. They told me “we can’t promise you an entertainment position, but we can give you a great corporate experience that has a lot of entertainment-related transactions and if a spot in the entertainment group opens up, you’ll be considered.” I ended up taking that deal and it worked out for me.
It’s rare to get an entertainment law position right off the bat. There’s a handful of places that will consider someone straight out of law school. But for our firm, if they’ve got good transactional skills doing corporate deals and if they’ve been trained and are disciplined, conscientious, and thorough, that’s the kind of background I’m looking for. Then I don’t have to train them to be a Lawyer; I just teach them entertainment. I’ve done both. I’ve tried to teach young people to be Lawyers and that’s challenging in a small firm environment. You don’t have the same infrastructure to do it. I think the boot camp mentality (and fear) that’s present in big law is hard to rival when it comes to basic legal training.
“We love people who really love music. That’s a good starting point for us because then they have a passion for what they’re doing and they’re going to do a better job as a result. They may be able to relate to the clients more because of the shared interest.” — Paul Rothenberg
Do you have suggestions on how to get an “in” with an entertainment law firm that might lead to a first job?
It requires persistence, a little finesse, having the right qualifications and being in the right place at the right time. We’ve had a lot of Interns at our firm. We pay them but it’s hard to get value in exchange because it takes so much of our time to get them to a point where they can help us. But if you can figure out how to make yourself useful so you can come right in and really lighten someone’s load and it’s not the other way around — where the firm is taking a lot of time and training you — then maybe a firm will take the chance. I’ve seen it happen many times, where people get their foot in the door through some kind of internship and end up with a permanent position.
There was one person, in particular, who really blew us away and I was ready to hire him straight out of law school even though I had sworn to myself that I wasn’t going to do that again. His professionalism, judgment, integrity, and service orientation impressed me for someone right out of law school. However, we weren’t the only ones that felt that way. He got an offer from a top Wall Street firm where he’ll get really great training and make a big dent in his student loans. Hopefully, he’ll come back and join us in a couple of years. That’s kind of the ideal scenario: when someone goes off and gets great training and they’ve had some actual entertainment experience with us. I may be biased because this was my background.
Is there anything you see young Entertainment Lawyers struggling with early on in their careers or any mistakes you see them making? If so, do you have any advice that could help?
There are two major areas in which I’m very critical. One is not being careful enough (i.e. making mistakes or typos). We strive for our work to be perfect, and I expect the people that work for me to be meticulous.
Then, on the flip side of that, people can get so caught up in the minutia that they lose the big picture. That’s a hard thing for young lawyers, and not just in entertainment. Keep your mind open. You might have done something twenty times but just think about how this situation may be different. What changes may be necessary in the contract? How are this client’s values and priorities different than another’s and what changes does that require? These are the higher-level thoughts and questions. It takes a little longer for someone to think creatively. In my view, that’s what separates a solid Lawyer from an exceptional one.
The third thing is that everyone is really impatient and eager to be out there (and I was just like that, too) with their own clients. However, in order to properly service and secure clients, you need to have the expertise first. Just like anything else, it’s much easier if you’ve got a great product; there are a lot of people who haven’t had the opportunity or the training who are out there, pitching themselves in order to solicit clients. That’s a tough situation. You’ve got to really work on building an expertise and make that as important as obtaining clients.
When I started my firm, I was fortunate enough to have had ten years of training at two great entertainment firms. I had been trained by some outstanding Lawyers, handling high-level matters. I already had a lot of responsibility, so when I went out on my own, I knew what I was doing.
What’s your biggest suggestion for aspiring Entertainment Lawyers?
First, make sure it’s what you want to do. It’s not easy and lots of sacrifices are required on your way up, especially financially versus other areas of the law. As I noted before, because it’s so competitive to become an Entertainment Lawyer, the stronger the academic credentials, the better.
Get as much entertainment experience as you can to show that you’re committed to it. That’s when the internships, jobs, and anything that demonstrates that commitment to entertainment come in. I think people are really turned off if it’s just like, “Oh, I want to work with famous people.” You’ve got to have a good answer for why you want to do it that’s more substantive than that.
We love people who really love music. That’s a good starting point for us because then they have a passion for what they’re doing and they’re going to do a better job as a result. They may be able to relate to the clients more because of the shared interest. That’s a plus for us when we’re looking, even with Assistants and Paralegals, not just for Lawyers.
Paul Rothenberg is the founder bicoastal law firm Rothenberg P.C. He a diverse range of music industry clients, including Trey Songz, Logic, Charlie Puth, D’Angelo, ASAP Ferg and Andra Day.
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