Lawyers working within and for media and entertainment clients may seem like the rock stars of the legal world, but they have to be persistent and versatile to succeed. Among the different types of client are performers; their managers and agents; the creators of artistic works; the owners of theatres and festival grounds; broadcasters and publishers, distributors and advertising agencies; and the big brands that employ celebrities to endorse their products. Contract and IP law are at the heart of practice, and some lawyers will regularly deal with issues of privacy and defamation. A media lawyer may lean towards either contentious or transactional matters. It is common to focus on a specific area, say music or publishing, and this in turn involves plenty of out-of-hours socialising.
Jeremy Dickerson is one of the pioneers in the recent expansion of the media law sector. When he qualified as a solicitor in 1992, media law wasn't really considered a practice area in its own right and having finished his articles (as the training contract was known in those days) at boutique City firm Rooks Rider
, he specialised in mainstream IP work. In time he found himself acting for more and more media-oriented companies and since then his practice - and the field of media law in general - has developed to encompass a broader range of matters in the intervening years. He is now a partner at the Bristol-based national firm Burges Salmon
and deals with a full range of media law issues.
"I started doing an increasing number of cases in the media space - some IP related, some contractually related - and I found it really interesting," he recalls. "I did some work around the Spice Girls when they were first around; I joined [the media-based private members’ club] Soho House; I spent a lot of time in London mixing with the right sort of crowd. It was a crowd that I thought I got on with and I enjoyed it immensely."
Jeremy readily agrees that many may be attracted to media law by the allure of celebrity encounters, but warns that - while that is an element of the job - there is a lot more to media law than occasional brushes with fame and fortune. "It is one of those areas that sounds very sexy and interesting when you’re outside of it," he explains, "and some of it is. Much of the time we are working for well-known individuals and organisations, but a lot of it is plain old legal work. There’s a great deal of contract work, and a contract for the sale of music is the same as a contract for the sale of car parts. So, while the subject matter may be more attractive, the work is the same as you might be doing in a number of other areas of law."
On a day-to-day basis, in addition to the aforementioned contractual work (involving transactions relating to assets such as brands, recording rights or film rights), that work can include handling defamation claims and reputation management, copyright and other IP matters, endorsement and sponsorship deals or, slightly less frequently, confidentiality agreements and gagging orders. In addition, there is the more corporate side of things that involves a different array of work again.
"That’s one of the interesting things about media law," Jeremy says. "You are doing a complete variety of work in the legal sense, but you can find yourself in the role of business adviser. You get into the realms of people management rather than just rights management. Then there’s the media sector work, where you are working for the big media companies and it’s like acting for any big corporation, it just happens to be in the media space. That can involve things like branding deals and banking litigation. Most big firms do both, and we certainly do here at Burges Salmon."
One of the other benefits of media law, believes Jeremy, is the fact that newly qualified lawyers and even trainees can get high levels of client contact and responsibility early on. "A lot of young talent out there can’t afford to pay very much," he points out. "So trainees could end up doing a lot of hands-on work and getting a lot of client interaction on cases like these. It’s a good opportunity for young lawyers; you start off with young unknown talent, working for not very much money to get them through the door, and some of them can go on to become big stars."
It’s the chance to get to know interesting people and genuinely help them in the early days of their career, when there may be some in the business looking to take advantage of them, that Jeremy considers one of the most attractive aspects of life as a lawyer in the media sector. Added to that is the fact it is very much rooted in the real world, outside the usual legal circles. "You may well turn on the TV in the evening and see what you have been doing that day," he enthuses. "That’s quite fun as a lawyer - there’s not much we do that gets outside the four walls of the office."
That said, these advantages don’t come without a good dose of hard work. Jeremy warns that you have to put the hours in, cultivating relationships. Much of the media work out there is shared between a small number of boutique West End firms and you have to fight to win potential clients. "It may sound flippant, but you have to socialise a lot and get in the 'scene' to become well known," he warns. "If you mix with media people, you have to get out there and tread the boards, so to speak. There’s a lot of competition for business, so you have to be prepared to work hard."
Those interested in pursuing a career in media law therefore need to know the way the industry works, as clients like to talk about what they do. That knowledge must also go beyond what’s happening in the pop charts or who is on the cover of the latest issue of Heat Magazine. It should include a general understanding of how the business works, how different media areas interrelate and what is responsible for the constantly changing dynamics within the sector.
In that respect, Jeremy points out that the main driver of change is the rapid advance in technology. "One of the most interesting things about working in this area is that it is moving so quickly," he explains. "And that is, pretty much, down to the technology. Photography is a good example: in a relatively short space of time we have gone from the old roll of film, through a number of intermediate technologies, to the point where everything is included in an app on a mobile phone. Media companies have had to completely refocus their business models. A lot of the old market leaders are in trouble because they haven’t caught up with the technology. That’s why if you’re a media lawyer, you’re probably also a technology lawyer, as you have to understand the technology behind the media. And, if you are a media and technology lawyer, you’re probably also an IP lawyer, because both content and technology are backed by intellectual property. In that respect there is no such thing as a separated market. Media is everything."