Monday, May 25, 2009

The Writing Week (Vol. 2) Part 73 – Finding Legal Advice

I’ve encountered a weird sort of conundrum in my recent searches for legal representation. On the one hand, I find it’s often overwhelmingly difficult to get anyone to offer help without being directly referred to them. On the other hand, certain attorneys seem more than willing to help, but then disappear off the radar.

My guess is that I’m subscribing to the same belief that a lot of young/new writers do that you have to get people behind you almost from the get-go – not just people who support you, but a team to work for you, i.e. lawyers, managers, agents, etc. To a degree, this is true. I wouldn’t suggest that any writer sign a contract or anything other than a release form (maybe) without having an entertainment lawyer take a look at it. Yet that doesn’t mean that the very same writer should pay a retainer or get a full-time lawyer on his or her side.

I recently had a producer approach me regarding a potential option on one of my scripts. At this point in the game, I still had a lawyer. (In case you’re wondering how I got this lawyer – she was a friend of my boss’s. As a courtesy to my boss, she looked over my initial agreement with a manager I was about to sign with. Then, as a courtesy to her, I agreed to remain with her, using her for future services.) When I got in touch with my lawyer about the option agreement, we had to first get the little issue of her fee out of the way. This wasn’t something I had discussed frankly with her before, which was probably a mistake on both our parts.

Before speaking to managers/lawyers/agents or anyone who takes a chunk of your sale, know what they are entitled to. Managers and agents typically take 10% (some managers go higher to 15 or more). Lawyers, even the top of the line ones, are either hourly or take 5%. Because I knew that lawyers get 5%, I knew to be on high alert when my lawyer said that she would take a little money upfront, and then 10% off the sale. Red flag. I like her, and she did me a big favor helping negotiate with my manager (a lot of managers will bypass signed documents in favor of a handshake agreement, which can be a lot nicer). However, I knew that I was being asked to give more than she was entitled, and the producer I was in connection with had mentioned I might need someone with more experience negotiating big deals, so, as I had done with my manager a month and a half earlier, I moved on.

To date, I haven’t been able to secure a new lawyer. Some firms wanted $600 an hour. Some wanted a $15K retainer just to talk to me. Others agreed to take me on – provided they liked my script- at the standard 5% but then never got back to me. I spoke to someone at the WGAE who was kind enough to read over my option agreement for me and gave me some pointers about it, with the caveat that she’s not legal counsel. Confident in the revisions and with assurances from other paralegals who did take the time to look at the agreement, even though I did not sign with their firm, I sent the revised agreement to the producer who was agreeable to the changes.

In the end, I realized that the world’s not as united against young writers as we might be made out to think. People were eager to help when and where they could, and encouraging when they couldn’t. Just don’t be afraid to make the phone calls. And know what’s standard. You’re your first line of protection.