QI read all your advice columns, and I’ve noticed that entertainment law and leaving law entirely to pursue a Hollywood career are topics that come up quite frequently. You’ve had words of caution concerning both these ideas before, which made me curious.
Let’s say some lucky person had a choice between being an in-house lawyer for a major studio (Warner Bros, Universal, etc.) or top agency (CAA, WME, etc.) or had an opportunity to become a talent or literary agent. Which would you choose?
I figure if someone, like myself, were to shoot for these incredibly hard-to-reach goals, it would at least be nice to know whether or not they’re actually worth reaching for—both in terms of what you have to go through to get there and how much you like it once you actually make it. I know this question doesn’t have the same answer for everyone, but I’m curious where you’d come down on this.
AYou’re right. I’ve answered plenty of questions from wannabe screenwriters, entertainment lawyers and Hollywood agents. But it doesn’t matter where I “come down on” this. It matters where you come down on this. There are pros and cons to both paths.
Chasing an in-house counsel position at CAA or Warner Bros is obviously a safer, more conservative path than pursuing a pure agent job. They’re also two TOTALLY different jobs. Entertainment law—especially in-house entertainment law—is a purely legal job. (See Bitter Lawyer’s interviews with Warner Bros studio executive Brett Paul and top entertainment attorneys Tara Kole and Carlos Goodman, for example.) You draft and negotiate contracts, analyze trademark issues, etc. The job of an agent, on the other hand, is to procure work for his or her clients and then negotiate the terms of the deal. (Check out the interview with WME agent Marc Korman for a better idea.)
Agents are pro-active. In-house lawyers are reactive, and they process the deals the agents create. The corporate law analogy would be: Investment banker is to corporate lawyer as agent is to in-house counsel.
Another thing to consider: The path to becoming an agent is also TOTALLY different than the path required to becoming an in-house counsel. Wannabe agents start out in the mailroom or as assistants. They’re bitches. No task is too menial or humiliating. It’s cliché, but it’s true. Regardless of your pedigree, you will be treated like shit. Count on it. This training period lasts approximately three years. There’s also no guarantee you ever get promoted from assistant to agent. And if that doesn’t happen, you’re sort of screwed. You won’t necessarily be able to fall back on your JD either, since your work experience (answering phones and scheduling lunches) will be totally irrelevant to law firms and other real-world employers.
As for an in-house gig, it’s somewhat similar to the path of a traditional law firm associate. You start at the bottom and work your way up. But unlike an aspiring agent, you’re still practicing law and functioning as a lawyer—even when you’re at the very bottom.
Finally, you need to think about the payoff. Top agents tend to make a lot more money than top in-house counsels. $2 million vs. $500K, more or less. So it’s up you, my brother, to figure out which job better speaks to your skill set, risk profile and personality.
PS: Before you make your decision, ask yourself this question: How much do I love kissing ass? If the answer isn’t “a lot,” then forget about being an agent. Good luck!