Lisa Callif: Entertainment Lawyer


This week we spoke to Lisa Callif, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, CA. Not only has she known her passion since she was a teenager, she’s been persistent in pursuing a career in law, and she’s now a partner at her firm, Donaldson + Callif. If you’re eager to learn about a career as a lawyer, read on. You can expect a helpful landscape of the field of entertainment law, an honest assessment of what it takes to be a happy lawyer, and how to use mistakes to evolve into a more successful lawyer.

What is your official job title?
Partner. Yeah, I’d say Managing Partner.

Can you tell me the story of your career so far.
Where do I begin? When I was thirteen or fourteen, I made the decision to be an entertainment lawyer, partly because I grew up in Los Angeles around the arts and I loved movies, television, music, and all those things. But it was clear early on that I was very artistically challenged and I wasn’t cut out for a career as an artist. My father was a lawyer and I put the two together: “Oh, I could be a business person but still be involved in the arts – entertainment lawyer.” I went to undergrad at NYU, worked in the music industry for a couple of years and then went to law school out here (Los Angeles) at Southwestern. In law school, I knew I really wanted to pursue not just a general legal degree, but I wanted to really specialize in entertainment.

Entertainment was really the focus of my job search, where I went to network and how I tried to position myself in the marketplace. At that point, I didn’t really know exactly what that meant— what is entertainment law? “I’ll be Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s lawyer, and it’s going to be amazing!” That was my impression of what it meant to be an entertainment lawyer – that’s all I knew. Law school is three years, and during the summer after my second year I worked at a small firm doing entertainment litigation—litigation is when things go wrong and you’re in court fighting over something.  I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t want to do that long term - I wanted to be the person putting deals together, not doing damage control when they fell apart.  Then I got a job at a national firm called Proskauer Rose and did some entertainment litigation there. I also did a lot of securities and white collar regulatory work—we defended executives of public and private companies, when they or their company was under investigation for some type of fraud or financial wrongdoing.

After working at Proskauer for four years, while I loved my experience there, I knew that was not the career trajectory I wanted to be on.  Most lawyers in that area go to work for the government, typically for the SEC or the US attorney’s office, and that just wasn’t my passion.  That’s when I started to look for a job in entertainment, and that’s when it became a little bit more clear that there are different types of entertainment lawyers.  To break it down, there are really 4 types of entertainment lawyers:  (i) lawyers who work in-house at a studio, such as NBC, Netflix or Sony. They do very specific things within that company that need to be done on the legal side, such as licensing material that the company owns or acquiring properties;  (ii) talent lawyers who represent actors, directors, writers and other artists; (iii) litigators who handle disputes and duke it out in court; and finally, (iv) lawyers like me who work on the production side.  We represent producers and production companies.

During my job search I met Michael Donaldson, who’s now my partner, he represented independent filmmakers and theatre.  When I first met him, I didn’t really know what that meant, but basically what I do is to help people who are making movies or television programs put together their project and make sure they’re legally sound. We draft and negotiate all the agreements with the actors, the director, the producers, the composer, the editor—all of the people who work on the film. And we also handle financing and distribution agreements.  So, if a company like Netflix or Sony comes on board, and they want to distribute the project, we help negotiate that agreement. We represent a lot of documentary filmmakers and filmmakers who are producing scripted projects based on true stories.  In connection with those clients, we do clearance work, which is a big part of our practice, and that’s really reviewing the film and any applicable agreements to make sure that anybody who watches the film won’t have a valid legal claim.

For example, if the client is using third party materials in their project, like clips from another film, we make sure that all of that stuff is properly cleared – either licensed from th owner or used pursuant to fair use (which is a person’s right to use a limited amount of someone else’s material for the purpose of comment or criticism). We also want to make sure that everyone who appears or is discussed in a film, assuming it’s a true story, is accurately depicted and won’t have any valid legal reason to complain.  We can’t prevent people from getting upset, but we can make sure that their upset doesn’t turn into a valid legal claim.  .

Do you think that, in general, law is a career that you have to be set on pretty early? Or can you decide to pursue law later on in life?
I think it goes both ways. A lot of people decide they want to be a lawyer later on in life. There are a lot of lawyers who have a background in music or who were actors once, or singers, or whatever. That wasn’t a fulfilling career for them, or a realistic path, and they wanted to stay within the industry and decided later in life, “Let’s take a business route here, I can go back to school.” So, I think it’s something that people can decide at any point.

You spoke about different areas within entertainment law. How far into a law career can you get before you have to specialize? And how easy is it to move across law disciplines?
It’s actually quite difficult to move into entertainment. While I do think it’s good to have other experiences early on, once you’ve been practicing for three or four years and you’re doing something that’s different than entertainment, it’s going to be challenging to cross over.  Just as it would be in any area of the law.  If you’re doing litigation and you want to do corporate law, or you want to do labor law, it’s difficult as you become a more seasoned attorney.

As you get older, you’re getting paid at a higher rate, you’re billing clients at a higher rate, and if you don’t know that area of the law, you kind of have to start over again. You wouldn’t go to an ear/nose/throat doctor if you have a broken leg. And if you are an ear/nose/throat doctor and you want to practice orthopedics, it would be very difficult to transfer over cause you kind of have to get that education again. Although it’s not that cut and dry with law, it’s similar.

What’s something you wish people were more aware of before pursuing a law career?
I think that they need to understand that many lawyers, unfortunately, are not happy in their jobs, which is very disappointing. I wouldn’t go to law school for the money. You think, “Oh, I’m going to make a ton of money.” As a junior lawyer, unless you get a job at a big firm, the money’s not fantastic, especially early on.

I don’t always encourage people to go to law school. You have to really want to be a lawyer and have a very specific purpose for doing this, not just “I don’t know what else to do, so I’m going to go to law school,” because it’s a challenging career and law school is extraordinarily expensive. You may come out of law school with $200,000 in debt and get a job that’s not paying you that much money—that’s quite challenging in and of itself. I always advise that if you’re going to sign up for three years of school, and possibly a lot of debt, you should really have a passion for the law.

That’s something I wanted to ask you—when you’ve had a really long day and you’re exhausted, what motivates you to keep going?
I happen to be very fortunate because I actually do love what I do. I have wonderful clients that are appreciative of us and we really get to help people make their dreams come true in a lot of ways. I work with independent filmmakers, a lot of documentary filmmakers, and we help get them to a place where their film is a viable project – often times when they didn’t think it was. That’s quite rewarding. We work on a lot of socially conscious films that are changing the world. We worked on Icarus, which made a really big impact, globally.  We worked on Blackfish, which was really impactful.  I’m working on a film now about child slavery in India, which is incredible, another about the California foster care system.  It’s quite rewarding seeing these films go out in the market and effect change. We also, fortunately, have an amazing team of people in my office – people who I’m happy to see and work with every day.

What traits do you see a lot in lawyers that are happy and successful in this field?
To be happy, you have to love what you do and want to fight for your clients because you believe in them.  That’s really the long and short of it.  If you love your job, everything else will fall into place.

In terms of success, one thing I view as important is having the ability to understand the other person’s point of view. You have to know how to read the minds of your clients, a little bit. Sometimes they ask for things, but they might not really mean what they say. Or they might think they want something, but you can explain to them why that’s not a good idea, or why you don’t think it’s the big picture to get that. You also have to understand where the other side is coming from and what they need and want to get a deal done. If I’m representing a producer and there’s an investor on the other side, I want to be able to understand the investor’s point of view so that I can help my client negotiate a deal that’s going to work for both of them.

And having patience. It probably applies to most jobs. Having the ability to let things play out, to negotiate round after round after round.  To listen. And people skills. One of my first bosses told me that to be successful, you need to possess the three A’s: Affability, Availability, and Ability – in that order.  I’ve learned this is very true.   

What are your main duties in this position? They can be day-to-day tasks or more big picture ones.
Basically, I have two hats in my office. One is managing the office, ensuring that we’re well staffed, that people are happy, bills are paid, the managerial/administrative aspect of running any business. And then the other part, the legal part, is very much representing independent filmmakers and theaters. I spend a lot of time negotiating deal points, talking to clients and counsel for the other party to close deals and get things done so clients can focus of creative and move forward with their projects. The rest of my time is spent doing clearance work. With clearance work I’m watching the film or television series and going through it with a fine-toothed comb, checking all the materials they have in there and making sure they are being used properly. Then I’ll have conversations with clients about what needs to be done for the film to be in a state where it can be delivered to a studio and exhibited. One of the key things we work on is getting our clients insurance for their film. Once we get insurance, it makes distributors and financers more comfortable.

Could you tell us the best mistake you made as a young lawyer?
When I was at my old firm, I was doing litigation and with litigation there are so many requirements set by the court. Federal court, especially.  There are rules for everything - font size, margin size, the number of pages… It’s very, very specific and it can feel like you’re set up to fail cause there’s so many rules.  Well, I did fail, on more than one occasion and the lesson was that I needed to take responsibility for the failure and figure out how to fix it.  Regardless of what the mistake is, rather than, “I screwed up, and the world’s over, and I’m going to get fired from this job,”  I learned how to deal with a mistake and fix it. Having that attitude of “how do we fix this?” is such a valuable learning experience.  Everything is fixable and you have to be willing to figure out how. 

You said that one of the important things about being a lawyer is being a people person. Do you have a particularly helpful networking tip?
Most importantly, it’s to not be afraid to initiate a conversation.  Say “hello,” first.  Make small talk on a conference call before you get down to business.  Keep in mind that people like to work with people they like, and it’s often easier to get things done when you have a good rapport with your client and with other lawyers. 

Also not being afraid to ask a question goes a long way.  It kind of goes back to being in school, when you had a question in class, and you think you’re the only one, so you don’t ask it, and then you talk to your friends and nobody understood what was going on. When you’re on the phone or on a conference call and someone throws out a term of art that you’re not familiar with, I think it’s really important to say, “I should probably know this, but what does that mean?” Usually even that little thing is helpful from a relationship standpoint because it creates a commonality amongst everybody. And often people will say, “I’m so glad you asked that. I didn’t know what that was either.” It’s just that ability to not be afraid to ask questions. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s key.

What is your least and most favorite part of your job?
I would say the least favorite part of my job is long conference calls. Sometimes an issue can be handled by email, and you end up being on the phone for an hour, which sucks. My favorite thing about my job is finishing an actual project and seeing it with an audience. For example, going to the Sundance Film Festival and seeing a client’s film that I’ve worked on for two or three years; having the opportunity to celebrate with them. That’s the most rewarding part of the job.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self. 


Thank you so much, Lisa! We learned so much from speaking with you, and it was so interesting to learn about a different side of the entertainment business. Readers, come back next week for another dose of Lisa's wisdom.