I Either Want to be a Studio Lawyer or a Talent Agent


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!

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

9 Comments

  1. quado

    May 18, 2010 at 3:27 am

    You want to be Ari Gold.  Enough said.

  2. Guano Dubango

    May 18, 2010 at 3:54 am

    I recommend going for the job where you can be yourself, because you have a better chance of success if you are yourself.  But I have learned that when I do not put on heirs of grandeur that women are attracted to me not my money and heritage.  If I tell them that I am descended from royalty in Ghana, they are interested in me bearing them expensive gifts.  But if I only state that I am a struggling associate, then they will go for me just for me.  So be yourself.  You will do better by not telling them you have money or royal bloodlines like me.

  3. @Guano

    May 18, 2010 at 11:54 am

    You’re my hero!

  4. Get real

    May 18, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    And I want to be an astronaut.

  5. Anon

    May 18, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    so if you never make agent, what happens? are u just an assistant bitch forever or until you quit?

  6. Anonymous

    May 19, 2010 at 2:29 am

    If your a man, go to the place where you can get women.  If your a woman, go to the place where you can get men.

  7. Agent

    May 23, 2010 at 8:01 am

    It usually becomes clear early on whether you’re going to make agent or not.  Some get put on the “fast track” to make it while others might be assistants for five years or so.  Usually they’ll let you hang out until you quit.  Think about it… they’re paying you eleven bucks an hour to work 60 hours a week, there is no reason to fire you if you can answer the phone and do the job.  They always say there are great assistants and there are agents.  You have to find a way to make yourself the latter.

  8. bub

    July 3, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    What would the method be to transfer from an entertainment lawyer?

    I would have enough contacts to skip the mailroom and assistant process, right?

  9. S

    April 23, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    Know this is an old post but I share Bub’s question about whether getting experience as an entertainment attorney provides other avenues to becoming an agent.

    Also it’s nice to know that you can get a sense early on if you’ll be fast-tracked to agent status, but if you sense that you aren’t, then what? Can you go back to law if you figure if out soon enough?

    If you do a few years gaining experience as an associate (say at a big firm), then spend a few years as an assistant and don’t get to be an agent, is your prior training sufficient to re-enter? Or does becoming an assistant make you basically damaged goods at that point?

    What kinds of exit strategies are there if you fail?

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