On April 20, University of Iowa alumnus Adia Z. May returned to the College of Law to share experiences and insight from her work as a lawyer in the entertainment industry. She spoke about her journey from the Midwest to Los Angeles and the daily challenges of making deals between clients and studios.
“I’m not sure people really know what an entertainment lawyer does,” began Ms. May. “When I was at Iowa, I didn’t contemplate entertainment law at all until my third year of my four-year joint program.”
Though Ms. May began her career as a transactional attorney at Wildman Harrold in Chicago after earning her joint JD-MBA degree in 2002, she eventually realized she wanted to do something different.
“Starting out at a firm was great at helping me learn how to be a lawyer, but that’s not what I wanted to do for my career,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work with creative people in a creative space.”
But getting a start in LA required determination and its own creative approach.
“When you go through a non-traditional path, there are a lot of ups and downs,” said Ms. May. “But if you’re serious about doing entertainment law full time, at a high level, you have to go to LA and New York City. So I moved to LA and kept pounding the pavement, telling everyone I met that I was trying to be an entertainment lawyer.”
“If you want to get on the radar, you should volunteer to work at conferences and be creative about how you approach people. You also have to do your research and find out who are the masters of the trade in the legal entertainment industry and learn from what they’re doing.”
Before long, Ms. May accepted a position as a Business Representative and Advisor in Entertainment Contracts at the Screen Actors Guild (“SAG”) where she was responsible for clearing film and television productions, reviewing chain of title, and advising business representatives in the theatrical and television departments on various production matters.
She later became the Director of Business and Legal Affairs at Codeblack Entertainment, before setting out to start The Law Office of Adia Z. May, P.C. where she performs entertainment and sports law transactional work.
As an entertainment lawyer, Ms. May’s chief objective is to build working relationships with her clients and further their interests.
“You’ve got to cultivate relationships,” she said. “The goal is to win for your clients and advance their careers—which, in turn, advances your practice.”
“As an attorney for talent, you have to break each deal down into manageable pieces to make sense of it for a non-lawyer and make sure they can make an informed decision,” said Ms. May. “We advise our clients. We share information, explain the situation, and give them a recommendation, but the client always makes the final decision.”
“It is my responsibility to make sure [these deals] are fair for my client,” she explained. “I like to educate my clients, to overcommunicate with them, because that also makes them more astute business people down the road and helps their careers.”
But working with a client is only half the battle, as studios also have zealous advocates with considerable leverage—especially when they are looking to sign new talent.
“The initial deal is very important, because that’s when the studio has the most leverage,” said Ms. May. “If you’re the studio, you don’t want to have to come back later and renegotiate” the deal in the event that product is successful, because the talent will have much more leverage at that point.
“Studios will want to bundle all rights to a product—streaming, film, book, etc.—in perpetuity from the start,” she said, describing the aggressive stance a studio may take at first. “But you can work through that to get a fair deal for your clients.”
For future lawyers who may find themselves in a similar position, Ms. May offered some advice to help guide their negotiation strategy.
“Know your client’s goals and deal breakers going in, and know where you can concede,” she said. “When you’re in negotiations, really listen to opposing counsel—especially their rationale for each of their arguments—so you know what’s really important to their clients and why.”
She added: “Above all, remain calm in the midst of pressure and heated deals.”