Law Schools Balance Past With Future to Prep Young Entertainment Lawyers

Changing distribution models and emerging technologies mean students don't know what challenges they'll be faced with upon graduation.

Three years may not seem like a long time but, in the digital age, the face of entire industries can change during the 36 months a student spends in law school.

The breakneck speed at which technology is shaping business is especially apparent in the entertainment world, where new ways to create and share content are born seemingly overnight.

Now law schools are tasked with preparing students for the changing landscape while not forgoing the legal basics that underpin every specialty.

Ken Ziffren donated $5 million last year to UCLA to found the Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law, in part to expand programs and address the changes in what he calls the METS industry.

“It’s not just entertainment,” Ziffren says. “It’s media, technology and sports.”

Ziffren has been teaching at his alma matter since 1998. On the first day of each term, he likes to tell his class to look at the final exams he has given in the past to get an idea of what is involved in his course.

“We may end up having the same question on the final, but the answer will be different,” he says. “I update my course book either once a year, or sometimes twice a year, because rapid development in various areas calls out for updating the students as much as possible in real time.”

He’s now throwing out about a third of his course book each year and says he can’t think of a time before the past two years when that has been necessary. For example, Ziffren says the amount of time he spends on home video has more than doubled while pay-TV has become less of a focus.

Ziffren’s UCLA colleague Doug Lichtman says his courses naturally update through guest speakers and keeping tabs on current events.

“The world will keep changing,” he says. “How to think like a lawyer, how to read like a lawyer and how to sound like a lawyer — if we do that right then you’re ready for anything the world can throw at you.”

Jonathan Barnett, director of the Media, Entertainment and Technology Law program at University of Southern California, agrees it’s important to emphasize building-block problem-solving skills.

“You’ve got to understand the business, the revenue flows and economics in the industry,” he says. “Technology can change, but the laws of economics don’t change.”

Skills are at the center of Southwestern Law School’s program, too. Steven G. Krone, director of the Donald E. Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute, and professor Robert Lind say their program is akin to a trade school and the curriculum focuses more on what’s done in the trenches by attorneys than the theory behind it.

“We’re teaching skills, like negotiating and drafting, that can be adapted to changing business paradigms,” Krone says. “We try to make sure the classes are taught by people who aren’t teaching the way it used to be, but the way it is today, and have a vested interest in figuring out where it’s going.”

In addition to hands-on opportunities outside the classroom through externships and pro bono clinics, professors at each of the schools are working to incorporate what’s going on in the real world into their lessons.

Barnett says USC has increased the number of courses on deal making in response to student demand and teaches copyright law through client scenarios.

“ ‘You have a client who wants to set up a content sharing website. Analyze the legal risks in doing so in light of the law in fair use and the DMCA safe harbor,’ would be an example,” he says.

Lind has taught more than 70 copyright classes at Southwestern since 1981 and says how much courses change in response to industry trends directly relates to how disruptive the new technology is.

For example, Lind says, 3D technology came with a lot of fanfare but it never really changed distribution patterns.

“That had some practical impacts but they weren’t very great,” he says. “It’s not even on the radar screen anymore. Those sorts of things come and go.”

The more technical he gets, the harder it is to keep students interested, Lind says, adding that his copyright students’ eyes go glassy when he starts talking about technology. He imagines them thinking, “This is why I didn’t become an engineer.”

Loyola Law School professor Justin Hughes shares the sentiment. He says most law students were English, economics or political science majors at their undergrad universities.

“They generally know squat about how the technology operates,” he says. “You do need to spend time teaching them about how the Internet works.”

So Loyola undergraduate science and engineering students are going to teach two courses at the law school to help the future lawyers understand how the Internet works from a technical standpoint.

Jay Dougherty, director of Loyola’s Entertainment & Media Law Institute and Concentration, says one of the biggest challenges is time.

“The law doesn’t get any simpler and the semester doesn’t get any longer,” he says. “So you have to figure out ways to do justice to the groundwork and work in the new stuff.”

Dougherty says students and professors also can’t forget about the final hurdle to actually becoming a lawyer: passing the bar examination.

“They have to figure out how to balance the traditional stuff that’s tested on the bar exam against interesting classes that might play out in their practice,” he says.

Then, of course, there’s the challenge of actually finding a job.

“I don’t want to say it’s a closed shop, but it’s certainly a buyer’s market, not a seller’s market,” Ziffren says. “Even as the business is broader than it was because of technology, it’s still really hard to break in.”

Krone says employers now want practice-ready lawyers who know how to file complaints, redline documents and deal with opposing counsel, and the days of on-the-job training are long past.

To put even more pressure on graduates, Barnett says, as technology has increased access to information it has empowered non-lawyers and raised the bar for practicing attorneys.

“Clients today have access to far more information than they ever did about law,” he says. “That puts a premium on lawyers who can add value in terms of problem solving by applying the law.”

Hughes says he thinks students are eager to tackle the challenges, in part, because entertainment lawyers are a self-selecting group.

“The people who are interested in these issues are the people who are most ready to handle change,” he says. “If you’re not interested in fast change, do trust and estates or maritime law.”

Regardless of specialty, and even in less rapidly evolving industries, Ziffren says a law school’s success boils down to how well it prepares students to think on their feet.

“What law school teaches you in general, or should, is how to be a critical thinker and how to express that,” he says. “Whether you’re in the transactional area or the litigation area, you’re called upon to make decisions or help the client make decisions. It may be more demanding because you have to take more things into account, but that’s always been the focus of law school: how to think critically and ask, ‘What if, what if, what if?' "