An Open Letter to Business Attorneys: The Legal Industry Needs a Wake up Call

Today's generation of business attorneys should cull lessons from the past and work proactively to become agents of change. For example, the current state of the independent film...

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What the Independent Film Industry Needs from Attorneys

It will indeed be interesting. But rather than remain reactive, the current generation of attorneys should cull lessons from the above and work proactively to become agents of change. For example, the current state of the independent film industry calls for it.

Business costs have gone down. Crowdfunding sites have revolutionized independent film finance. The proliferation of digital distribution and exhibition options have driven costs down. Hybrid offerings create one-stop-shops. But independent film production remains a document-intensive endeavor.

A myriad of contracts and forms define all parties’ relationships, covering everything from liability to compensation. How many filmmakers’ business and legal needs are going unmet because production teams can’t afford these services? The entertainment attorney should be the creative artist’s best friend. Here are three ways I think we can make that happen:

1. Move away from the billable hour system.

“Anytime you have a business where people are judged on the amount of hours they bill, there will always be a concern that the focus is on labor and not value,” said David Brill, EVP/GC at American Stock Transfer & Trust Co. “It’s an inherent problem in the business model.”

Look at fixed fee pricing for work that clients are likely to perceive as commodity work. When hourly billing is necessary, avoid artificial inflation. If a task only took five minutes, don’t bill for 0.4 (consider not billing at all). It’s tough enough to land clients in the first place; earn their respect by not nickel-and-diming them.

2. Build real relationships with clients.

Build relationships with clients based on trust, transparency, and a mutual vision for the creative endeavor(s) to be the subject(s) of the representation. Remember what’s important: helping the artist realize their creative vision as smoothly and successfully as possible.

Developing a deeper understanding of the business and the artist’s ideal creative trajectory will make you more of a partner than a mere member of a professional team.

3. Communicate your value proposition.

Business and legal affairs issues incident to independent film production are complex. The attorney’s job is to enable the artist to focus on their craft by handling these in the background. While there will invariably be (and rightfully so) a degree of interaction between attorney and artist with respect to these issues, there remains a natural bifurcation.

Don’t treat that as a smoke screen, but instead demonstrate your command of the matters through your ability to break them down into plain language. The artist shouldn’t need a J.D. to understand you. Clearly communicate what you bring to the table and how you’re regularly delivering value.

Connect with Latha on Twitter.

Latha Duncan co-founded and currently runs the 501(c)(3) non-profit Esq. Productions, Inc. Esq. Productions strives to empower creative artists to meaningfully commercially advance their careers while simultaneously protecting their artistic integrity by way of educational programming focusing on the business and legal aspects of the various entertainment industries. Latha has spoken to undergraduate and graduate film students about entertainment law, including at the New York Film Academy and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. During law school, Latha worked at Shine America and IM Global.

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