Becoming a Paralegal in Sports and Entertainment Law

In 1950, Jimmy Stewart’s star was once again on the rise in Hollywood. A successful film career had been interrupted by World War II, which Stewart spent in the cockpit of a bomber raining high explosives on Germany rather than honing his acting talents. After the war, his return to film had been lackluster… his first post-war film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” went on to become a much-beloved classic, but was a flop initially. A string of similar missteps followed.

But a couple of modest hits finally came his way and when Universal Studios came calling to enlist Stewart to star in “Winchester ’73” and “Harvey” his price tag was higher than they were prepared to pay up front.

Stewart’s agent, Len Wasserman, hit on a novel solution: the star would play for no money up front if the studio would agree to sign over a percentage of the box office take. Wasserman realized that Stewart could take the income as a capital gain and be taxed at a lower rate than a conventional paycheck, as well as spreading the income out over multiple years. Figuring they had nothing to lose, Universal went ahead with the deal.

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Instead of the $200,000 he had asked for, Stewart ended up with $600,000 for “Winchester ’73” alone.

Stewart’s deal marked the beginning of the end for the old contract-player studio system and ushered in an era of intensive negotiations over various aspects of film contracts… negotiations in which paralegals play an integral role together with agents and lawyers to create airtight deals.

Working with actors, agents, athletes, producers, and studios, paralegals handle the big business of sports and entertainment by making sure that everyone gets paid and all the intellectual property rights of the respective parties are upheld. Although you will shuffle as much or more paperwork as any other paralegal, you will probably enjoy it more: after all, you’ll be in show biz!

Sports and Entertainment Paralegals Cover a Range of Specialties

Paralegals in sports and entertainment cover a lot of legal ground. The industry requires knowledge in many areas of the law, including:

  • Labor Law – Collective bargaining agreements and contract negotiations all touch on labor rules.
  • Contract Law – Strong contracts govern both hiring and firing of talent as well as performance and licensing agreements.
  • Intellectual Property Law – Creative works often require both copyright and trademark protection in order to ensure they can be distributed and merchandised profitably.
  • Business Law – The industry is business-oriented and has all the requirements for litigation protection, incorporation and reporting requirements, and general oversight for commercial transactions as any other business.

Paralegals can work directly for film and music studios, agencies, sports leagues, or law firms that specialize in sports and entertainment representation.

Contract Negotiation and Administration Dominates the Field

Sports and entertainment law is heavy on contract work and negotiation. Both popular entertainers and sports professionals typically work only under contract. Those contracts can determine almost every aspect of the job, including:

  • Pay and performance-based compensation – Athletes often have performance-based incentives in their contracts which specify more money based on certain benchmarks. For actors, directors, and other entertainment professionals, contracts can include clauses that award them percentages of revenue based on performance of the work.
  • Limitations on personal grooming standards and styles – Actors and other entertainment personalities have a part to play, and contracts they sign often hold them to certain standards of personal appearance to ensure they can faithfully play their role. This can include certain hair styles, weight and fitness requirements, or even the clothing that can be worn during promotional events.
  • Standards of conduct – Morals clauses are common in athlete contracts and remain in use in some entertainment industry roles. The film or sports team has a brand image to maintain and personal behavior that contradicts that image is damaging and can lead to punishment or termination. Additionally, the physical performance of the star is generally key to such performances, whether athletic or artistic. Clauses restricting the ability to participate in dangerous activities even on personal time are often included.

These aspects of contract negotiation touch on tax and employment law as well, so paralegals working on them have to be versed in a variety of legal specialties. They also have to be comfortable working with both the talent and other legal and business specialists to find the answers to questions they may not know themselves. It’s often up to paralegals to establish the legal limitations of contract demands.

While paralegals in other fields often become experts in keeping up with current case law that affects their cases, in sports and entertainment the focus is different. Although disputes sometimes go to court, arbitration clauses are common. The specifics of decisions made in arbitration are frequently confidential (as are most contracts themselves), with neither party allowed to discuss them, so paralegals in sports and entertainment law have to read the tealeaves and make assumptions about the details based on the outcomes.

It’s also important to track trends in contract clauses and requirements. The trend that Jimmy Stewart started has taken thousands of twists and turns since 1950. Now, merchandising, overseas sales, and a host of other factors go into compensation agreements.

The detail-oriented aspect of paralegal training can be vital in crafting these agreements. Author Winston Groom, who wrote the book behind the hit movie “Forrest Gump” was due to receive three percent of the profits from the movie in return for licensing it to Paramount. But due to the fact that his contract was based on net profits and certain creative accounting practices on the part of the studio, he received only $350,000 from the $677 million movie.

Paralegals can spot discrepancies like this and highlight them for clients, or they can insert such language into contracts for production companies. They will also research and draft language for international distribution agreements.

Intellectual Property Work For Creative Licensing

Paralegals also work on both sides of intellectual property licensing for movies, books, and music. They may draft licensing agreements for distribution or publishing and handle the management and monitoring of the licensed uses.

On the other side of the table, they may be charged with working with publishers to obtain rights to certain pieces of IP, like when a commercial director wants to use a particular song. A paralegal working on behalf of the production company would contact the rights-holder and negotiate the agreement to allow the music to be used. They might also be responsible for handling royalty distributions associated with the license.

How to Become a Sports and Entertainment Law Paralegal

Work in the entertainment industry is almost always difficult to break into, and paralegal positions are no exception. Many people want to rub shoulders with the rich and famous or work together in an industry full of creativity and excitement.

Because sports and entertainment is a big business, getting an advanced certification related to corporate law can bolster your credentials when applying for positions:

Some collegiate paralegal programs offer concentrations in sports and entertainment law. Although you still cover all the usual paralegal study topics, additional coursework is offered specific to the sports and entertainment industry, including:

  • Entertainment and media contracts.
  • Laws on news gathering and reporting, including defamation.
  • Intellectual property laws relating to media.

These types of specializations are most likely to be found at paralegal schools near creative centers such as Los Angeles and New York.

It doesn’t hurt to be a fan when looking for sports and entertainment paralegal positions. Understanding the underlying industry and being familiar with the major players is definitely an asset.

Loving the industry you are in makes it easy to get up and go to work every morning!