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Leaving the big nest to fly solo

|Written By Daryl-Lynn Carlson

Stepping out as a sole practitioner in the entertainment law field letslawyers give more up-close and personal attention to clients.

Jeffrey Miller's new law practice mainly serves clients of the starving artist and writer variety, rather than big name entertainers or large corporations.
This according to two established Toronto practitioners who have set up their own practices just this year.
Jeffrey Miller is an accomplished author and legal journalist who, after finishing the bar course in  1997, spent two years working at Porter Posluns & Harris on Bay Street before joining Gowlings Lafleur Henderson LLP for a spell. He resumed his law practice this year after leaving it to use his legal experience to bolster his expertise for a career as - in his words - "a struggling writer."
Now, struggling artistes are exactly Miller's target clientele.
"I'm looking at providing services to people who really, normally couldn't afford a lawyer if you didn't adjust your fees," he says. "I'm coming at it as a person whose heart is in the arts world. I come from really a writer's perspective. It's a visceral desire to help struggling artists and a physical need to feed myself."
Since opening his practice in north Toronto earlier this year, Miller says he has noticed a gamut of emerging problems that can plague artists.
One client sought out his advice after being approached by a prospective overseas buyer interested in purchasing some of her paintings. The purported buyer sent the artist a series of travellers' cheques worth much more than she was aksing for her paintings.
"They asked if she could just refund the balance," says Miller.
Fortunately the client smelled a rat, and when the bank did its due diligence, it found the cheques were bogus.
Miller says he's since learned that musicians selling instruments have been approached in similar scams and he's pleased to advise his clients in such matters.
"Normally if you have a lawyer charging $300 to $400 per hour, they're not going to bother with that stuff," he acknowledges. "People come to me from the arts community not necessarily with arts problems, but those that are just part of their everyday lives."
Another client noticed his copyrighted title for a CD was being used by a band in Germany selling its recordings on the Internet.
Blogs, even e-mail, are stirring up all kinds of libel and copyright issues for writers who are trying to break onto the scene, he says.
Besides offering cut-rate legal services, Miller also keeps clients abreast of developments with a free electronic newsletter. The newsletter covers case law on Web-driven court forum shopping, Web-driven copyright issues and the organizational copyright infringement alleged by two authors now suing Dan Brown, author of the bestselling The Da Vinci Code.
As a writer, Miller has had his own legal battle. His first book examining the language used in the hit U.K. show, Coronation Street, was purchased by the CBC's former Enterprises division, which had the manuscript completely rewritten.
"I just was shattered," he remembers. "They were clearly in breach. . . but to go any further was going to cost me a whole bunch of money, which I didn't have."
Miller has since produced a number of books including the Murder at Osgoode Hall crime drama, an essay collection called Where There's Life, There's Lawsuits: Not Altogether Serious Ruminations on Law and Life, Ardor in the Court: Sex and the Law, along with non-fiction works Naked Promises (on contract and business law) and The Law of Contempt in Canada.
"I think part of what I get out of this is helping other people," he says of his new solo practice. "It'd be nice if M?tley Cr?e or someone with a big name like that walked in the door, but that's not very likely to happen. I think 98 per cent of people in the arts out there who need legal help don't have that pull or money."
Paul Sanderson, a 20-year veteran who was most recently with Sanderson Taylor, agrees a sole practice makes a tremendous difference in his approach.
At Sanderson Taylor, he worked with five lawyers, the firm's counsel, a paralegal and support staff. "I'm on the front line," he says wryly, now just a few months into his own practice, Sanderson Entertainment Law, where he works with a paralegal and an assistant in downtown Toronto. "It's very hands-on."
Sanderson notes that the Internet and communications technologies "have levelled the playing field" to enable sole practitioners to manage a specialty practice offering services comparable to a large firm.
Sanderson, a skilled musician and photographer who specializes in music and visual arts law, has an established client list yet equates a sole practice "as the same type of business as running a recording studio.
"Whether you're cranking out film [soundtracks], TV or jingle work, you take it when you can get it," he says.
The diversity of clients provides an opportunity to personally tend too much of the work that in a larger firm might be done by an associate.
Unlike Miller's, Sanderson's client base includes large corporations and organizations along with individual artists. He counsels his clients on all aspects of the industry, ranging from contract preparation to telecommuncations rights to ensuring they're clear on neighbouring rights introduced in the revised Copyright Act, which entitles owners of audio works to a transitional royalty rate for wireless transmission systems.
"There are still many people in the industry who don't know about neighbouring rights," he says.
Increasingly, clients are requiring "hybrid deals" that are inclusive of all aspects of entertainment such as merchandising, he adds.
Since launching his own practice in February, Sanderson admits he's been working doggedly. He expects his schedule will soon level out, affording him time to complete his firm's new web site, and possibly even update one of the two books he's written - Musicians and the Law in Canada, now in its third edition, and Model Agreements for Multi-Media and Visual Artists, a second edition.
Sanderson actually began his career working from home, writing his first book over the course of a year. "Here I am, once again coming full circle," he muses.
He adds, "I can say that I'm starting to have more fun now than I've had in a long time."

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