Although women now outnumber men when it comes to law school enrollment, according to the latest data from the American Bar Association, the legal profession remains a male-dominated industry by a measure of 61.5% to 38.3%. Many practice areas are still lacking in diversity but women continue to try to level the playing field. How can this be done when the odds seem to be against them?
Who better to answer this question than the founder of an enterprising firm who’s leading the way for women lawyers in music and entertainment?
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Lisa Alter, founding partner of Alter Kendrick & Baron, a renowned music and entertainment firm. Lisa is perennially recognized as one of the top lawyers in the music industry, having earned numerous accolades from Billboard and Variety. Here is a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our lively conversation on the unique challenges — and opportunities — she and her firm have faced in the historically male-dominated music industry.
Staci Zaretsky (SZ): Your practice is focused on the acquisition and sale of significant music assets. How did you decide you wanted to enter into such a niche area?
Lisa Alter (LA): My father was an entertainment lawyer in the film/theatre/theatrical space. I worked in my father’s office during high school and college, and through that work developed a strong background in copyright law – as well as the opportunity to witness a brilliant, thoughtful attorney at work.
At the outset, I wanted to concentrate my practice in the area of film and television. Indeed, I expressly did not want to focus on music law, largely because of the reputation of the music industry as an “old boy”/male-dominated area. However, early in my career I joined The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (now part of Concord), first as Associate General Counsel and then as General Counsel. Through my work at R&H, I not only greatly expanded my working knowledge of copyright law, but I also fell in love with the area of music and the law. This inspired me to return to private practice, with a focus on music law.
SZ: Given that the music industry has been historically male dominated, have you faced any challenges in your practice?
LA: As I discussed above, as a young lawyer I intentionally did not seek out opportunities in the music space because of its reputation of being historically male-dominated. Once I began to work in the area, I initially gravitated to the music publishing (as opposed to recording) side of the business because there were a greater number of women working in higher level executive positions in this area. At that time, however, there were very few senior women practicing law in the music space, and I missed the lack of female mentors.
That said, I believe that my ability to build a reputation and, ultimately, a career in the music industry was bolstered by a few factors. First, being named General Counsel of R&H at such a young age gave me a gravitas that I would not have been accorded as a junior attorney — either at my first “Biglaw” job or in an in-house position. Second, when I returned to private practice, I was fortunate to count among my first clients a large roster of some of America’s greatest musical estates, including the estates of Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Billy Strayhorn. Speaking on behalf of these clients opened doors for me in the industry that might otherwise have taken many years to open. Finally, the fact that my practice was founded in copyright law gave me an expertise that was missing among many of my older, male counterparts and, in effect, gave me a voice at the table.
SZ: On the flip side of the coin, what opportunities have been presented to you considering the fact that the lawyers at your firm are predominantly women?
LA: I am not sure that the fact that the lawyers at our firm are predominantly women has given us opportunities. Rather, our success as a firm is attributable to the fact that we hold ourselves to a very high standard of practice. While our clients are predominantly in the music space, including some of the most powerful music publishers, private equity companies, and financial partners with interests in music content, as well as legacy songwriters and recording artists, we approach every transaction through a corporate and copyright lens. Indeed, I consider our practice to be an “MM&A” practice — that is, Music Mergers & Acquisitions — rather than simply a music practice.
I do take great pride in the fact that as a predominantly female firm, we are helping to dispel the notion that the music industry is a male-dominated area. Moreover, we take our role as mentors and role models for future generations of women who want to work in this area very seriously. Given the opportunity, we actively support the inclusion of qualified women attorneys and music industry executives in industry-wide conferences and in leadership roles in music industry initiatives.
SZ: Do you have any advice for women who may be interested in following in your footsteps?
LA: First, develop strong lawyering skills: understanding the legal principals informing the matters that you work on is fundamental to your role as an attorney. Second, listen well — to your clients, opposing counsel, and colleagues alike. Third, learn to be a strong advocate without being “argumentative.” You do not need to be the loudest voice in the room to be the most powerful voice in the room. Fourth, become a great writer. Whether you are drafting a contract or an email, words matter and the more precise your drafting is, the less likely that there will be confusion interpreting the document in the future. Fifth, always think outside the box — whether it is in the context of identifying legal risks in transactions and devising mechanisms for mitigating those risks, or simply in the context of drafting a document that reflects the intention of the parties, never simply “follow a form.” And, finally, always act with integrity. The music bar is relatively small, and acting with fairness while still advocating for your client is essential to building a reputation that you will be proud of.
On behalf of everyone here at Above the Law, we’d like to thank Lisa Alter of Alter Kendrick & Baron for taking the time to help answer some pressing career questions on achieving success in a male-dominated practice area.
Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter and Threads or connect with her on LinkedIn.