Career Paths: Entertainment Law Attorney
Graduating during the economic downturn, Nathan Sheffield was stuck in the legal job market’s murky waters. But he took advantage of opportunities and connections to eventually land him right where he belonged: as an entertainment and sports attorney. Sheffield not only broke into his dream area—he helped found the Sports & Entertainment practice group at his law firm. In the below interview with Vault, Sheffield talks about his career path, working as an entertainment lawyer, and the importance of networking and social media.
Vault Law: Why did you decide to go to law school?
Nathan Sheffield: If you were to ask my parents that question, I'm sure they would say that I always planned to go to law school. I didn't, however, make the final decision until approximately halfway through my junior year as an undergraduate. I, like everyone I knew, was staring down the barrel of uncertainty and beginning to ask the inevitable question, "What next?" I realized that joining the world of academia as a sociologist was not for me (a special thank you to Dr. Chris Ponticelli at the University of South Florida for talking me out of it). So, as a result of a thought process I am still unable to explain, law school it was.
VL: How has your career unfolded since law school?
NS: I was unlucky enough to graduate from law school as the economic downturn began to reveal itself in the all-to-competitive legal job market. The jobs that would have, just a few years prior, gone to bright, eager (albeit naive) first year associates were either (a) nonexistent or (b) going to more experienced practitioners who found themselves without gainful employment. I was out of work and subsisting on whatever income I could bring in as a freelance business consultant for 10 months before I found my first post-JD legal position. The position was advertised as a paralegal position in a boutique entertainment firm. After much thought (and a fair amount of trepidation) I took the position which, thanks to the head of the firm, had been upgraded just for me to the title of associate. After a year in that position, I transitioned into my current position at Davidoff Malito & Hutcher, LLP.
VL: You were the first member of the Sports & Entertainment law practice at your law firm. What goes into launching a successful new practice area?
NS: Having been married to a theatre producer, I was able to gain invaluable access to the inner workings of the entertainment industry. This insight was augmented by my year of practice with The Herzog Law Group. My long-term goal was to end up in a mid-sized firm that included an entertainment and sports law practice. Through a dear friend, who has subsequently become a client, I was introduced to Sid Davidoff. After meeting with Jeff Citron and Larry Hutcher, managing partners of Davidoff Malito & Hutcher, LLP, I was offered a position within the firm utilizing my experience in both bankruptcy and trusts and estates while simultaneously being given the freedom and flexibility to build the firm's entertainment and sports law practice from the ground up. I am very proud to work with such an incredibly intelligent and dedicated group of attorneys including Ed Schauder, who recently joined the firm and chairs the Entertainment & Sports practice group. At the end of the day, hard work and tenacity are the fundamentals and will, ultimately, be rewarded.
VL: What is the best part about practicing entertainment and sports law?
NS: In many ways the best thing about practicing in sports and entertainment is universally applicable to the legal profession as a whole: no two days are ever the same. The opportunity to work with endlessly talented creative minds is, in itself, its own reward. As a lifelong movie lover (and mildly obsessive football fan), my job is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling on both personal and professional levels.
VL: What is the worst part, if any?
NS: The toughest part of my job is no different than that of any other practice area: being the voice or reason or the bearer of bad news is never fun. I am so actively involved in my clients’ projects that when something goes wrong or a project implodes or collapses, there is a part of me that takes it personally. However, such active involvement is also one of the greatest rewards of my career and, simultaneously, is something that my clients both value and have grown to expect in working with me.
VL: You originally planned to pursue bankruptcy law. What sparked your decision to transition from bankruptcy law to entertainment and sports law?
NS: I am the first lawyer in my family. As a kid growing up in suburban Florida, I knew only one lawyer: Jeffrey W. Warren, president and founding member of Bush Ross, P.A. I remember thinking it was the coolest thing in the world when Jeff argued the Celotex bankruptcy case before the U.S. Supreme Court (a feeling that was reinforced some years later when the Celotex opinion appeared in my bankruptcy textbook). Thus, when I started at Seton Hall University School of Law, bankruptcy law was my focus. After working with renowned property professor (and Bar/Bri legend), Paula Franzese, I was introduced to two bankruptcy practitioners under whose tutelage I would go from intern to summer associate to senior law clerk over the course of less than three years. My years at working under Melinda D. Middlebrooks and Stuart M. Nachbar at Middlebrooks Shapiro & Nachbar, P.C. have shaped my career in many ways; during that time, I worked on two large Chapter 11 cases for different performing artists/producers. I so much enjoyed dealing with the complexity of these cases that the rest, as they say, is history. The world of entertainment and sports is where I belong.
VL: Do you have any advice for students interested in sports and entertainment law?
NS: You know, I've been invited to speak many times about practicing in my field and that is the question that is always at the top of the list. I've come to realize that there is a very common misconception about this practice. People tend to automatically think that it's all about movie premieres, opening nights, and courtside seats. If only! Take courses in contracts, copyright, trademark, labor law and the like very seriously; they will hold you in good stead. Also, realize that this is one of the toughest practice areas to break into. Don't expect HBO or NBC Universal to be beating down your door to offer you a position as associate general counsel. There are tremendous internships available in the legal departments within entertainment conglomerates. Your attitude should be one of patience and tenacity.
VL: Networking has played a large role in your career. What are your top networking tips for career success in the legal industry?
NS: First, networking is NOT optional: you have to do it. Second, never miss an opportunity to meet people: you never know who might become vitally important in the development of your career. Third, be genuine—you cannot fake sincerity, so don't bother trying. Fourth, I've said it several times in the course of this interview, but never underestimate the importance of tenacity. Fifth (and super important), never lose your sense of humor.
VL: How important is social media in developing one’s legal career? How has it helped you in your legal career, if at all?
NS: Social media is here to stay. LinkedIn, twitter and even (when used judiciously) Facebook can be extraordinary tools for networking. I can not even begin to tell you how many people I have met either directly or through a real-life version of "5 degrees of Kevin Bacon" (I'm 1 degree away) through contacts made by utilizing social media. Wait, is this the time I can tell you all to follow me @NathanSheffield?
Nathan Sheffield is an associate at Davidoff Malito & Hutcher LLP. He works in the Entertainment and Sports Law Practice Group, focusing on film, television, theatre and music. Mr. Sheffield received his JD from Seton Hall Law School and his BA from the University of South Florida. You can connect with him on twitter at @NathanSheffield.