I Wish I'd Known

Vol. 40 No. 7

By

Peter J. Dekom practices law in Los Angeles and is also “of counsel” with the Beverly Hills law firm of Weissmann Wolff Bergman Coleman Grodin & Evall llp. He formerly was a partner in the firm of Bloom, Dekom, Hergott and Cook. Dekom’s clients include or have included such Hollywood notables as George Lucas, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and John Travolta. Dekom has been listed in Forbes among the top 100 lawyers in the United States and in Premiere Magazine as one of the 50 most powerful people in Hollywood. He was also a principal architect of the New Mexico film incentive program, which has become a standard adopted by many other states.

Take the time to learn your craft and do good work.

Take the time to learn your craft and do good work.

Even with what’s going on now, with massive unemployment, one problem I still see with so many recent law school graduates is that they want to be high-profile deal makers—not lawyers.

When it comes to entertainment law in particular, so many law students and young lawyers imagine that this is the “fun” area of law. They envision sitting by the pool, sipping a cocktail, driving a sports car. If anything, though, entertainment lawyers are asked to do more, not less, than most other lawyers.

For one thing, entertainment law isn’t one, single discipline. It involves copyright, trademark, contract, securities, litigation (even if you don’t litigate!), and labor law, among many others. There are very complicated financial structures; it’s like corporate law, except that the “corporation” you represent is an individual person (who may have a dedicated personal holding company to provide his or her services). Clients expect business savvy as well as dollars-and-cents analytical abilities, even as some of the worst business people I know are lawyers.

Don’t think you can ignore the legal issues, your instincts, or your own common sense. It’s easy to get complacent, to sign or draft a document—or have a paralegal draft it for you—without really thinking about it, and enjoy your 5–10 percent retainer. But your client is counting on you to know the law and to be thorough. If something seems wrong with a contract or other document, you’ve got to follow up on that. And using old document forms in rapidly changing times is beyond dangerous.

Not asking “financial viability” questions of the other side (or at least warning clients of the risks) can be fatal—especially when the contracting entity on the other side could easily be a shell or a company facing economic jeopardy in impaired times. Not understanding the limits and extraordinary remedies to different kinds of creditors under bankruptcy law can lead to exceptionally unhappy (if not seriously angry) clients. Participating in documenting funding arrangements that have not been vetted under applicable securities laws can create civil or even criminal jeopardy for the client … and sometimes even the lawyer.           

You’ve got to serve your client and protect his or her best interests. If you don’t understand that, my question is, “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” And if you don’t want to learn the financial details, such as how to read a balance sheet, then entertainment law is not for you.

Whatever area of law you choose, resist becoming lazy. Don’t think that you’ll never have to learn again once you’re out of school. Don’t be one of those lawyers who sit in the back of the room, on a BlackBerry, during a CLE session.

Never forget that you’re a lawyer first; deal-making is a right earned based on knowing all the underlying issues. Take the time to learn your craft and do good work. Yes, that will mean longer hours. Your client is saying, “I trust you.” Can you break that trust? Can you ignore it? I know I can’t.

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