Lawyers Who Connect Win the Talent Game
Equipped with law degrees and licenses, some lawyers choose to enter the talent business to pursue nontraditional careers that afford them tremendous joy and success representing the interests of uniquely talented individuals or the companies that commercially exploit them. Lawyers serve as agents, business and brand managers, crisis management consultants, athletic directors, record label executives, and senior-level managers of professional sports teams, leagues, player unions, and large nonprofit organizations established to monetize or protect the rights of talent. The single most important ingredient for success for these lawyers is the ability to connect with a particular target audience, because connectivity is the lifeblood of the business.
When I graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School in 1989, I had a burning desire to blend my legal training with my experience as a jazz guitarist, amateur thespian, marginal athlete, and sales representative in a way that allowed me to work closely with uniquely talented people while helping them monetize their skills and intellectual property. Due to the mountain of school loans waiting for me and the scarcity of sports and entertainment law firms at the time, I initially decided to accept the highest-paying full-service law firm offer I could land, and then figure out a way to maneuver into sports and entertainment industry from there.
While it was high-paying, the job mostly involved legal research related to environmental and regulatory matters. So, I was forced to be creative and acquire my first exposure to entertainment law matters through the firm’s pro bono program. Naturally, I could not bill or collect fees from the recording artists we helped in the program, but the skills I learned from communicating with the clients about their issues and goals taught me how to use my previous experiences to build genuine connections with singers and musicians as their advisor and counsel.
It is well-known that the sports and entertainment industry is extremely competitive and virtually closed to newcomers. Consequently, lawyers interested in occupying some of the non-legal roles that work directly with artists, athletes, celebrities, and the companies that employ and serve those individuals must learn and adapt to the nuances, dialects, fashion trends, and corporate cultures associated with the target audiences to win in the talent game.
Lessons on how to connect can come from rather surprising sources and when you least expect it. About 14 years ago, I had a humbling experience with an NBA client that taught me a thing or two about how to connect with executives in the hip-hop music industry. In an article about my epiphany written by the late Bryan Burwell, a brilliant journalist who closely monitored the effects of pop culture on sports, it was highlighted that my routine advice to wear a nice suit and tie to business meetings was actually the complete opposite of what was deemed appropriate for a meeting with a rap music mogul.
Also, during the 90s, I witnessed several technology advances that played a role in the way clients and their advisors stayed connected. Those who ignored the trends and developments were left completely out of the flow of information. So, despite the “street hustler” stereotype associated with two-way pagers, if I didn’t use a “Skytel” or “Side-kick” paging device, it was almost impossible to keep up with telephone messages or respond fast enough to clients who craved immediate attention, even while I was out of my office in meetings or driving in my car. Then, the large cellular phones caught on, which produced enormously expensive roaming charges each month. Nevertheless, it was cool, progressive, and essential to be accessible to clients and office staff just to be competitive in the marketplace.
Of course, the popularity and functionality of the Internet completely changed the talent game forever. The immediateness of emailing, texting, posting on social media platforms, and the routine of overnight mailing everything have all but eliminated the practicality of “snail” mail—making it virtually impossible to engage in business with professionals and entities in the talent game any other way. The skills and products of clients are now developed, marketed, managed, promoted, and sold over the Internet. It is imperative for lawyers in non-lawyer roles in the industry to master the latest and most popular techniques of communication, or risk being the last to learn he or she has been replaced.
Fortunately, if nothing else, lawyers are good at research and analysis, so figuring out the secret pass code to a particular sector of the talent game should not be too daunting for most. However, the secret for connectivity is not always as intuitive as one would think.
For instance, after a few years of practicing sports law at a small law firm, I considered joining two established sports agencies to become a full-time sports agent. In one of my first interviews, I received compliments on how articulate I was and my ability to don a fashionable suit and tie, but I was jokingly asked by one white senior executive if I still knew how to speak to “the brothers” when necessary. In other words, there was concern about whether a young black man with a degree from a prominent liberal arts institution like Hamilton College would be able to connect with the African-American professional athlete recruits from all sorts of socio-economic backgrounds. I was caught totally off-guard, because to land a job in a mainstream agency, I thought it was more important to demonstrate an ability to connect with the human resource managers and department supervisors. You just never know, but connectivity is certainly the key at every level of the process.
I ultimately accepted an offer to be a real sports agent at one of the large sports agencies, and my exposure to global sports marketing, licensing, event management, public and media relations, and complex contract negotiations expanded exponentially at a rate well beyond my wildest expectation. Then, when an attractive opportunity was presented to me several years later to own my own agency, I resigned and seized the moment.
Understanding that connectivity was the secret formula for success, I often came up with clever ways to distinguish myself from the competition, establish trust with prospective clients, and close deals. For instance, many years ago I encountered the boyfriend of an NFL client’s mother, who did not appreciate my attendance at their hickory smoke-filled backyard barbecue soiree. He repeatedly yelled to the other friends and family in attendance that I was probably a New Yorker who looked down my nose at them because they were folks from the country. I assured him that I spent many childhood summers with my relatives in a small town in North Carolina, so I did not see any difference between his culture and mine. He still challenged me to prove it by drinking a few shots of “moonshine” with him, poured straight from a Mason jar. My client’s mother warned me that her friend had zero influence on her son’s business affairs, and that I had nothing more to prove to anyone. Nevertheless, I eventually accepted the challenge. Shortly after consuming a few shots, I started sweating profusely, my hearing went out like a light, and so did I—for at least couple of hours. Fortunately, when I woke up on a sofa in their living room, I learned the boyfriend had finally concluded that I was not a snob and declared me suitable to represent his girlfriend’s son. I left that night with a new client, but I strongly discourage anyone from taking such risks and using as little common sense as I did to connect with my target audience.
Throughout the many years serving as the co-owner and eventual owner of a boutique sports and entertainment management and consulting agency, the necessity to connect with current and prospective clients has always been intense. In fact, my bandwidth for connectivity has needed to grow every year. There is a need to connect with team owners, record label executives, general managers, talent scouts, coaches, media representatives, charitable foundation contacts, consumer product brand managers, public relations experts, insurance agents, wealth management advisors, car dealers, jewelers, celebrity weekend promoters, concert promoters, booking agents, and insurance consultants. Then, on behalf of the agency, there is a need to connect at the very least with bankers, corporate and litigation attorneys, venture capitalists, accountants, employees, summer interns, landlords, and real estate agents.
At one point a few years ago, I began wondering if I should return to the traditional private practice of law at a firm, since I thought that is what mature lawyers should do. So, I changed direction, and agreed to leverage my industry contacts and spend a few years focusing on the labor and employment law needs of colleges, small businesses, and large employers related to the sports and entertainment industry. This maneuver involved a totally new reinvention of my personal brand, wardrobe, and business model in order to connect and work with lawyers at two phenomenal law firms that were not familiar with the expensive travel, cyclical and alternative billing plans, and the ebbs and flows of receivables associated with representing celebrities, entertainers, athletes, and the businesses that employ those individuals. I learned a great deal with very talented lawyers, made a few lasting friendships, and helped a significant number of my clients with their legal issues and business objectives. However, it was clear that I was a fish out of water and not having as much fun.
Now that I am back operating my own consulting business again, I feel like I am pursuing my passion and living a dream. My days are filled with negotiating talent and player deals, designing marketing campaigns, consulting with businesses in the industry, teaching business and law students, promoting live musical performances, producing digital content, and volunteering for the Washington Jazz Arts Institute.
Some people find it difficult to connect with such a random assortment of talented individuals, service providers, and subject-matter experts encountered in the talent game. It sounds daunting, but there are lots of reasonable ways to meet the challenge. I fortunately learned early in my practice about Napoleon Hill’s “Master Mind Alliance” method from a wise hair-care product manufacturer in North Carolina named Joe Dudley.
To thrive in the talent game, I have developed an alliance of resourceful individuals who understand my career goals and are committed to helping me succeed. Professionals who manage talent, as well as those who employ talent, often establish a group of key relationships in their respective industries who grasp their business objective and are committed to producing successful results. The alliance may consist of more experienced practitioners in the business, professional scouts that help identify employable athletes or entertainers to recruit, or subject-matter experts who exchange important information and resources. It is very difficult to succeed without support.
If working directly with an athlete or entertainer as their advisor is the desired goal, then it is essential to create a personal and corporate brand that resonates with the target audience, and master a communication system the client routinely uses to share content and connect with the world. This recommendation does not mean in order to accomplish connectivity with young professional athletes or entertainers we need to wear the same type of clothes, drive the same cars, or even live the same lifestyles. However, it may involve creating an online presence using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or perhaps simply texting with clients to maintain an open line of communication until they are ready to talk on the telephone or meet in person. Likewise, if working with the employers of athletes and entertainers is more suitable or desirable, then the secret may involve understanding how to dress, speak, network, and deliver a personal brand that resonates with that particular audience or is most appropriate for that work environment.
The business of monetizing the skills and intellectual properties of uniquely talented people is an ideal industry for lawyers willing to utilize their analytical training and communication skills to stay connected. In fact, even the clients feel pressure to maintain a connection with the insatiable appetite their fans have for live and recorded sports and digital content. So, no one is really exempt from this reality.
The talent game will never allow lawyers, or anyone else, to rest on their educational degrees or their historical achievements. There is always competitive pressure to keep up with new market developments, the most marketable talent in the pipeline, and the necessity to make it crystal clear to target audiences you understand their needs and can deliver.
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