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Hollywood's lawyers play on-call doctors in drama between WGA and agencies

Wendy Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- For the attorneys of Hollywood's writers -- currently locked in the worst labor dispute in a decade -- the summer of 2019 was the summer that wasn't.

Plans of sipping wine by the sea or playing polo in Santa Barbara went out the window. Instead, entertainment lawyers readied themselves to take calls from Hollywood writers, more than 7,000 of whom have fired their agents since April as part of the intense battle between the Writers Guild of America West and the Association of Talent Agents. Many of these writers, newly adrift in Hollywood's crosscurrents, turned to their lawyers for help.

One attorney spent an hour and a half on the phone with six clients who wanted to know what to make of the WGA's court case against agents. Another painstakingly sought to unravel for a client a potentially bad TV deal a talent agent probably would have flagged sooner. Another balked at a writer client's request to read a script and send notes back.

Even declining to read a script takes time, but many of these lawyers aren't racking up billable hours. Entertainment lawyers get paid a 5% commission fee on deals, which means that when they are asked to do things agents used to take care of, they're often doing more work for the same amount of money.

The changes kicked off in April, when the WGA -- objecting to several common but controversial agency practices -- instructed its members to fire talent agents who had not signed a new union-proposed code of conduct, one that replaced a 43-year-old agreement and ended those long-standing industry habits.

The move has placed attorneys for writers in a novel position. These lawyers typically help negotiate and look over deals for their clients -- and not much else. But over the last few months, several attorneys say, they've had numerous conversations with anxious writers about everything from particular deals and career choices to the strategy of their guild.

 

"You're sort of like an on-call doctor," said one attorney who has writer clients and asked not to be identified for fear of hurting relationships. "Nobody has had a summer because people are working harder and working longer and the stakes and concerns seem higher-level. There's an emotional pitch to all this that didn't exist six months ago."

Even though these conversations don't boost the bottom line, many lawyers feel compelled to do the extra work because they don't want to lose their clients. They've delayed or ditched summer vacation plans and taken calls when they are out with their children.

"There's been a tremendous amount of activity," said Leigh Brecheen, a partner at entertainment law firm Goodman Schenkman & Brecheen. "If you take a vacation, you're spending most of it on your cellphone or computer."

Brecheen says she doesn't mind the extra work because she's in the business to help her clients, but other lawyers have privately grumbled.

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