The legal specialty of sports and entertainment law sounds pretty glamorous. If you’re thinking about a career in this field, you may be drawn by the prospect of representing celebrities, athletes, authors, entertainers and their employers. But what exactly is this practice area? What do sports and entertainment lawyers actually do? How can law students pursue a career in this specialty? We explore this topic and speak with lawyers who serve as outside and in-house counsel in some of the leading sports and entertainment organizations and firms and also with the director a program at a top law school with a special curriculum devoted to this exciting area. Listen in to learn more.
- Shelley Reid, Fox Television Studios, Senior Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs
- Rupen Fofaria, Loeb & Loeb, Associate
- John Schulman, University of Southern California Law School, Executive Director of Entertainment Program; Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, Partner
- David Cohen, New York Mets, General Counsel
- Rajiv Dalal, Motion Picture Association of America, Managing Director, India
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi.
Sports and entertainment law is one of those sexy-sounding practice areas. As in, it sounds pretty cool to say, “I’m a sports lawyer,” or, “I’m an entertainment lawyer.” And the idea of representing celebrities, athletes, authors, entertainers and their employers is pretty enticing, but it’s not all glamour and certainly not all about celebrities. So, what exactly does the practice area of sports and entertainment law cover? What do these types of lawyers do and how can law students break into this specialty? Listen in to our special program devoted to this field.
We discussed the topic with insiders who serve both as outside and in-house counsel in the sports and entertainment law practice area and with a professor who directs the entertainment curriculum at a top law school. Joining us is Fox Television StudioSenior Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs, Shelley Reid, New York Mets General Counsel, David Cohen, Managing Director of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Indian Office, Rajiv Dalal, Loeb & Loeb Associate, Rupen Fofaria, and Executive Director of the Entertainment Program at University of Southern California Law School, John Schulman. They share insight into the practice area and advice on the types of things to explore for those who want to get in the game.
Let’s first take a look at what sports and entertainment law is. Executive Director of the Entertainment Program at USC’s Law School, John Schulman, who’s also a partner at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, defines entertainment law. “Entertainment law is the representation of people involved in the entertainment industry, whether that is theatre, television, song, dance, live performances. It also embraces modern technology that determines how audiovisual works are produced and distributed. It also deals with merchandise and games. It also involves, if you’re one of those individuals, representation of the entities in the business, those dealing with the individuals, those doing the production, those doing the distribution. It’s a lot of different kinds of practices for a lot of people dealing with one kind of general subject matter.”
While the practice area for entertainment and sports is indeed broad, focusing on specific subspecialties can be a way in the door. Loeb & Loeb Associate, Rupen Fofaria, for example, was a sports journalist initially and worked his way into sports law. “My main practice is as a branding attorney; I do trademarks, marketing and advertising. And then, I guess, the subset of that is the sports and entertainment work where I do that trademark that marketing and that advertising law for sports and entertainment clients. And so, I got into the sports and entertainment component of it, I guess, by way of boomerang really. I mean, I started out my career when I graduated college in the sports industry. I was a sports writer for three years before I went to law school. And in fact, through law school, I continued to write as a freelancer for ESPN.com. And so, really for a six-year career there, I had a good background in sports and spent a lot of time studying and writing about the industry. And then, when I graduated, it’s really hard to break into a sports practice group at a law firm right away and so, really I was leveraging my skills as an oral advocate and a writer to become a litigator. And so, I took a job and practiced for two years in general litigation, knowing good and well that where I wanted to go was back into the sports industry. And so, while I was practicing as a litigator, I spent a lot of my nights and a lot of my weekends studying trademark law. For whatever reason, I had always been drawn to the brands and I had spent some time as a writer covering NASCAR and I knew first-hand that branding was very important in the sports industry. So I thought that might be my way, my gateway back into sports. And so, having gotten that foundation in trademark law, I did some research on the law firms in the area, in Chicago, that had trademark groups, that service sports and entertainment clients and that’s very small number of practice groups, and none better than Loeb & Loebhere.”
If your goal is to work in-house in the entertainment industry, Fox Television Studio Senior Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs, Shelley Reid, recommends getting strong, relevant law firm experience first. “I happen to prefer to see young lawyers who have gotten really good solid training of a good quality law firm, and the reason that I prefer that is because I don’t care what they’ve done the first two years out of law school; I want to know that they’ve been trained to think, to be careful, to have responsibility, to know how to write. When you come into an environment where I work, in production in particular, you get sort of thrown right into the water and you either sink or swim, and it’s so busy because of how busy production can be that it’s not the learning environment one gets in the luxury of a law firm. Having said that, there are many ways to skin the cat, so you can certainly start out on the production side or the in‑house side and learn, but I think that you have limited experience that way and you limit your opportunities five years out. What if you want to go into a law firm? Well, if you haven’t been in a law firm, you’re five years or eight years out and you’ve only worked in‑house, then you have nothing of value to bring in a law firm. You don’t have the credibility that you’ve been ‘trained properly’ and you’re not coming with a book of business which eight years out, for example, law firms are only interested in you basically if you’re bringing a book of business, unless you have some very unique expertise. But if you have a unique expertise, more likely than not, you’re going to have gotten that by being in a law firm environment. So, I’m a great proponent of getting the experience in a law firm first. And if you look at any of the big studios, whether it’s Warner Brothers or Fox, Newscorp, Sony, all of the people who are at the high end of the General Counsel’s Office, and I’m just saying not production, but the General Counsel’s Office, they all have come from having worked in large law firms.”
New York Mets General Counsel, David Cohen agrees what you learn at a law firm first is invaluable when working as a lawyer inside the sports organization as well. “In particular, if you’re ultimately going to be working in-house in a fairly small legal department, which I know certainly most sports teams and sports organizations tend to have small, fairly small legal departments, then certainly, it’s very valuable to receive training at a law firm first. I think it may be different for people who are going to be working for a company that has a very large and diverse in-house staff, then you may be able to be trained in that environment. But for the job here, it was critical to have some sort of training for a few years at a law firm first.”
So, what’s the first step? Managing Director of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Indian Office, Rajiv Dalal says, it’s important to know what aspect of the practice area you want to pursue. “If they want to be an entertainment lawyer, that’s one thing. But what I found is the majority of folks coming out of law school that want to be in entertainment, they don’t want to be entertainment lawyers. They actually want to be on the business side, they want to be on the corporate side, and that’s completely different than being an entertainment lawyer. And they’re on a completely different path. And, I’ve found that law students get confused and when they’re out of law school trying to get into the industry or even when they’re in the industry, they’re not happy. So, that’s the first thing that law students have to figure out. Now, if they want to do the business, if they want to be on the corporate end, if they want to be doing consent deals or the acquisitions or even the talent representation, just spanning the entire scope of the business end, then when they’re in law school, they need to be pretty much checking their ego at the door. They’re not going to be getting those $30,000 summer associate positions. They’re going to have their internship at NBC Universal or at William Morris Endeavor and it’s likely going to be for next to nothing. But, that’s how you build up your contact and that’s how you start to work in the corporate part of the industry. Even as a lawyer, you don’t need to have an MBA. You don’t need to have a business background but you need to start working at the corporate level.”
If, on the other hand, you want to be an entertainment lawyer, MPAA’s Dalal gives this advice, “If they want to be entertainment lawyers, then what they need to do is focus their fall clerkship or summer associateship at an entertainment boutique firm or an entertainment law firm if they can get into it. And some folks are lucky, they get chosen by those law firms and some don’t. And if you don’t, then you’re kind of at a disadvantage.”
There’s also a difference between a legal affairs and business affairs lawyer. Although, they can sometimes overlap as Fox’sReid explains, “Legal affairs is the attorney that’s responsible for drafting the document and the business affairs attorney is the, in some case, they’re just business affairs executives. They negotiate the structure of a transaction. And, depending on where you are in some studios, that’s a blended dual role. In some studios, even it’s different within our different divisions here, some are combined and some are separate.”
That said, there are several facets of law to practice in the entertainment realm, and USC’s Schulman details some areas of concentration for those in law school who may be interested in a career in entertainment law. “At the most basic level, it’s intellectual property issues, the creative basis for works such as copyright and trademarks and patent and unfair competition. Many law schools have a basic class in that, some have much more like USC, like UCLA, like Southwestern Law School also out here in Los Angeles. They deal with the business of entertainment, the transactions, the kinds of issues that come up when you represent guilds, when you represent labor unions, when you represent even bank issues. One of the recent cases this year dealt with the refinance or bankruptcy of MGM, the big studio. So, the entertainment industry deals with an awful lot. You can go so far as I’ve indicated and also to distribution throughout the world, how you make a deal for exhibition in Chinese theatre, how do you make a deal for viewing on a French cable channel, how do you make a deal for a sale of DVD, hopefully not being pirated too much in Brazil, etc. All of those falls somewhere in the entertainment law world. Also, of course you have to deal with the people in the world. They have issues like everyone else. They get divorced but an entertainment divorce may deal with the valuation of assets and the splitting of them. They may have tax issues with the government, also again involved with value and prospects for entertainment works such as audiovisual properties. All of those are, in one way or another, under the rubric of entertainment law.”
On the sports side, New York Mets’ Cohen has this advice for law students who want to focus their study. “Well, there is certainly no clear cut path and a lot of it does come down to luck and being in the right place at the right time. I think the most important thing is to build a great resume, to do well in law school, and do well in your practice, so that you just build the credentials in general. But as far as specific areas of focus, probably labor, antitrust, intellectual property, corporate and not securities necessarily, but secured transactions, debtor/creditor etc.”
In addition to what you learn in class, it’s important to network and develop contacts especially when it comes to the sports and entertainment law arena. All of our guests agree the field is highly competitive as New York Mets’ Cohen explains, “Absolutely, very difficult to get jobs in sports and very high demand because there are always people out there who were looking to get in and so, you’re always competing against them. You have to earn your job everyday and so, it is high demand. I think that probably, a lot of people who are looking for jobs in the industry may have an overly glamorized notion of what these jobs are like. But having said that, it is nice to have this added element of being passionate about what you do when you’re working in sports if, like me, you’re passionate about sports.”
Loeb & Loeb’s Fofaria says it’s smart to be involved in the field you’re pursuing in order to build the contacts. “I guess prospective law students, for folks who haven’t started yet, I would get into the sports industry any way I could, whether it means volunteering at a stadium or calling up your local sports league and sports agents and volunteering your time by, as a coffee runner or someone who’s stuffing envelopes. Anything that gets that line on the resume and that gets you in a position where you can observe and just kind of get a feel first hand of what this industry is like because it’s one thing to say you watch a lot of sports but the sports industry covers a lot of areas. And so, you really need to see what’s going on to understand how everything fits together. So, I would recommend just getting some sort of industry knowledge. But then, beyond that, really this is the ultimate who-you-know industry and so, you just have to get out and meet a lot of people and make a lot of contacts. And so, you know, for folks who are already in law school and are thinking about, ‘I want to turn this JD into a sports practice,’ I would join as many of this sports-focused bar associations I could. I would certainly give the Sports Lawyers Association a look. I’m active in that association. I think that it’s a fantastic way to network with sports attorneys and really just become visible. I think that if you decide to join, let’s say, the Chicago Bar Association’s Sports Committee, well, don’t just join and get on an email list; join, attend the events, and make sure you’re meeting people. Volunteer to help plan events or, if there’s writing opportunities, submit your name and try to get some exposure. You have to be really — you have to be visible and you have to be active.”
Not only do young lawyers interested in this practice area face stiff competition for jobs, but they’ll also find far more career opportunities in certain areas of the country versus others, as USC’s Schulman explains, “I think there’s more entertainment practice (legal practice) in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville music than there is in many other cities in the country. And, if I were looking to work in the industry, I might go to law school in one of those places or at least try to summer clerk in a couple of those places or at least get contacts in those places. Yes, I think geography makes some difference.”
Despite it being an in demand practice area that’s hard to break into for young lawyers, USC’s Schulman says the field is transitioning. “[This] sector is transitioning like many industries are. Still, unlike many industries in the United States, the entertainment industry is a very positive trade source for United States’ dealings with many other countries, so we have lots of work and lots of need for people. It’s cost-conscious though, we can’t just willy nilly spend money and like everyone else, we’re going through some belt-tightening. We’re also going through more competition. There are many other foreign countries that are beginning to do production of audiovisual works largely for themselves or internal consumption but also for worldwide. It is coordinating with those, producing with them, co-producing, co-financing and co-distributing that may be a significant portion of tomorrow’s work.”
And certain sectors may see growth. Fox’s Reid says new technology may open new opportunities. “I think that there’s more opportunity in cable but I think that if you’re in school as a freshman or a first year law student, three years from now, the business is going to look very different. Five years from now, it’s going to look very different. I don’t know how it’s going to look, but it’s changing so rapidly. So, the most important thing any young law student can do is really keep his/her eye on the ball of what’s going on in technology. Cable is here to stay, I think, for the not too distant future. I think broadcast television is going to morph into a very different way but certainly, not the mechanics but the economics of television programming across the board are going to change dramatically, podcasting, simulcasting. So, the metrics of the economy, the economics of it are going to change.”
MPAA’s Dalal concurs and stresses the importance of international markets and new media needs. “Anyone getting into this field on the transactional side or just even in the representative capacity that I’m in, obviously, intellectual property courses are very important in understanding copyright. But, I would say international copyright classes are really important, which I think people either aren’t afforded that opportunity within their curriculum or they overlook it because it’s so specialized. And, I think that that’s a very important one, the international intellectual property which goes over the international treaty like the Berne Convention or WIPO treaties, the WCT, the WPPT, those are really important treaties to just get your head around because everything is moving internationally in the entertainment industry. For the movie industry, for instance, out of 21 percent box office growth, 13 percent is within Asia Pacific. So, everything is moving towards the emerging market, so you need to understand that. That’s one. Two, I would probably take in more internet new media technology law classes and they weren’t really offered when I was in law school besides maybe one or two. But that’s obviously a very big one because the trend is moving away from traditional media and it’s moving towards YouTube, it’s moving towards issues faced by releasing content on digital platforms, such as encryption standards or service provider liability issues. There’s a whole host of technology-type issues which technology and internet, in kind of grouping them together, I shouldn’t, but that would be the second area that I’d focus on.”
It’s also a very rewarding practice area with a wide array of disciplines to enjoy as Fox’s Reid details, “Practice of entertainment law is a paradigm example of the interdisciplinary study of law. And so, for those people who like to have the variety and the cross-platforming, so to speak, of the different practice areas that one has to be aware of and knowledgeable about, then that’s you’re going to be attracted to the practice of entertainment.”
For Loeb & Loeb’s Fofaria, liking the subject matter is key. “I do the branding work and I just love the fact that I protect somebody’s image. Their brand is who they are and so, I help them protect it, I help them enforce it, I help them monetize it and it’s fun because it’s really protecting somebody’s front porch really. But, I think that, with anything you do in the law, you really — you ought to like the subject matter as well. And for me, that’s why it was important to find a way back to sports and entertainment because I may be doing agreements like somebody in the banking industry or in healthcare law, or I could be the very same agreement, but mine is related to a sponsorship of the US Open or a co-branding of a sports team and a credit card. And, I enjoy that underlying subject matter and so, I think that’s what’s been very fulfilling.”
USC’s Schulman says the enjoyment is two-fold. “One, the people who are involved in this industry are generally creative, bright, and clever and that’s appealing to me. And two, the issues are puzzle-like. You’re trying to solve something to make something work and I like that challenge.”
New York Mets’ Cohen appreciates a unique view. “At the moment, I happen to be looking out my window and there’s a baseball game going on, so that’s certainly a very exciting part of what I do that’s not typical of most in-house jobs. But of course, with respect to the work itself, what I really enjoy is the diversity of it. When you’re in-house and you’re in a relatively small legal department, you have to do a little bit of everything and everyday is different and presents new challenges and I enjoy not being in an isolated area of law. And even though sometimes, it means that you’re working on things that you don’t feel like you have a depth of expertise, that’s still exciting to have new challenges every day.”
And, as New York Mets’ Cohen reminds us, it takes time and skill building before landing the dream job. “It’s important not to expect necessarily that your first job out of law school is going to be your ultimate and final job or your dream job. It’s important to think of everything you do as a building block, a stepping stone towards the career that you ultimately want to have. And, I think priority number one coming out of a law school is to get trained as a lawyer really well and to learn how to practice law because it’s so much more than what you learned in the concepts you learned in law school and to build towards what you want and not expect that it’s necessarily a one-step process.”
Without question, serious fundamental lawyer skills, determination, who you know, and some luck all play vital roles in building a career in sports and entertainment law. Fox’s Reid worked in motion pictures and broadcast television before entering cable television. USC’s Schulman happened on the industry when he worked on a divorce case involving musical rights and a distribution case for a studio. New York Mets’ Cohen’s opportunity came after practicing at a law firm. MPAA’sDalal was a capital markets lawyer and also worked in music before a friend recommended him for the trade association. And, Loeb & Loeb’s Fofaria was a sports writer, litigator, and studied trademark law beforehand. There are many different paths but our experts all agree that gaining the necessary experience, even if it’s simply related to the industry, is putting your best foot forward. Become a versatile well‑trained lawyer to expand your opportunities. Focus on your goals, network, and with a little luck, you could build successful career in the sports and entertainment practice area.
For more information, a transcript of this show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit https://lawschoolpodcaster.com/. Look for us on Facebookand Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster, I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.