The Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute has launched a project to research the origins and evolution of entertainment law and its most influential practitioners:  The Hollywood Legal Legacy Project will document this key part of Los Angeles legal life with oral histories, research publications, an interactive guide to regional entertainment archival material, and other initiatives, all of which Southwestern Law School will make publicly available.

Although other scholars have chronicled the 20th Century rise of the entertainment industry and its role in boosting  Southern California and its economy, relatively little attention has gone to the lawyers and law firms who helped build the industry by counseling and representing studios, talent guilds, other entertainment institutions and stars.

Southwestern’s collaboration of historians, legal scholars and legal practitioners are focusing first on two projects: tracing the origins of the local firms and attorneys whose work defined the practice specialty and influenced the organization of the Los Angeles Bar, the industry’s economics and legal precedent in the field. The scholars also are building a library of oral histories with major practitioners in  Los Angeles area and beyond.

Here’s more on this project from  Molly Selvin, (left) a project participant and Southwestern’s assistant dean for interdisciplinary programs and an adjunct professor of law. She was a member of the Editorial Board and a reporter  for the Los Angeles Times. She’s a professor and director of the U.S. Politics and Culture Workshop at Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School. A 1999 and 2005 Fulbright Fellow, she holds a Ph.D. in American Legal History. 

Q: Who started this project? Was it a collaborative idea? Or was it a result of your individual research that eventually led to the backing of the Biederman Institute?

A: The origins of this project stemmed from Dean Garth’s discussions with members of the faculty who had all done prior research on entertainment law, but have only touched upon the origins of the subpractice. The other faculty members involved with the Hollywood Legal Legacy Project include Robert Lind, Steven Krone, Michael Blaha, and Brigitte de Gyarfas. My own background as a legal historian with an interest in the West made it a natural collaboration.

 Q: How did the project begin? How did it formally become “The Hollywood Legacy Project”?

A: Dean Garth encouraged it. Once Steve Krone came to Southwestern and became the director of the Biederman Entertainment Law Institute, the two of us, with Robert Lind and Michael Blaha, began meeting to plan the project.

Q: How did you begin your research on the origins of the local firms and individual attorneys whose work first defined this specialty? How did you target your sources? Was there a strategy? What resources and sources did you find and why? How does the historian’s approach differ from that of a legal practitioner?

A: I focused my research on Edwin Loeb (see photo), who, with his brother Joseph, founded the Loeb & Loeb firm in Los Angeles in 1908. Edwin represented the major studios and the producers who founded those enterprises so he was instrumental in the development of many of major legal instruments and precedents that launched the movie industry.

The Loeb firm continues to have an extensive entertainment law practice. In my historical research, I used archival material at the Huntington Library, interviews with former Loeb partners and internal firm documents.  Another major initiative of the Legacy project is the compilation of a video archive of interviews with major contemporary entertainment practitioners.  Profs. Krone, Blaha, Lind and I compiled a list of people who have acquired a certain stature in the field and last month (November) we conducted our first two interviews with two more planned for the coming year.

Q: Please elaborate on the meaning of “oral history.” Does this mean the project will  be anecdotal information gathered in interviews? Or will other sources be tapped?

A: A major part of the project will be creation of an online archive of video materials including our interviews with key practitioners in the field, along with biographical material, photographs, legal and other relevant documents.

Q: Who are the major players who helped this practice area develop and how did you identify them? Why are you focusing on these key subjects? What distinguishes them?

A: Some of the early practitioners were, as mentioned, Edwin Loeb, Shepard Mitchell and Mendel Silberberg, and Leon Kaplan. For the video archives, we compiled our list of entertainment lawyers still in practice who have made a significant contribution to the field. We will continue to refine that list. In our interviews, we ask about their background, how they came to the entertainment practice, the cases they have worked on, changes they have noticed in the practice and industry, including the impact of technology, current challenges for the industry and how they think entertainment practitioners have shaped the entertainment industry. We generally targeted lawyers who were in practice for multiple decades, have left a mark and who are regarded by colleagues as significant in the industry.

 Q: What are the main ethnic, class and labor struggles that underlie the rise of the entertainment law practice?

A: Many of the movie studios were founded by Jewish immigrants and the practice, which originally centered on those studios, early on was dominated by Jewish lawyers.  Entertainment law draws a more diverse group of practitioners now. Because many of the early movie producers got their start in vaudeville and nickelodeons, the motion picture business also was considered disreputable in its early days.  That had changed, of course, by the 1920s and ’30s when movies became an important industry in American society and culture, especially pop culture.  That evolution, in the early 20th century, allowed movie producers and their lawyers, despite their ethnic background, to gain entree to highest levels of American society.

As these transitions occurred, the lawyers who represented the studios and producers, as well as the actors, writers and other talent, also became mainstream. While as Jews, they still were excluded from clients, neighborhoods, clubs and other associations because of anti-Semitism, practitioners like Edwin Loeb nevertheless developed a niche that allowed them to wield enormous influence within the movie business and the broader economy; they grew personally quite wealthy.

These social tensions are all present in the history of the entertainment field.  Labor and class conflicts occurred as well; beginning in the early 20th Century, craft employees as well as writers, directors and actors pushed for collective bargaining agreements with the studios. The fight to achieve union representation had repercussions for entertainment practice with some law firms, like Loeb & Loeb, generally focusing their practice on representing management while others emerged to represent labor and talent.

 Q: Why is the project important? Why is it relevant to track the role of the attorneys in the rise of the entertainment industry?

A: The industry is massive with a worldwide reach, particularly as new technologies continue to emerge and expand.  Whether through iTunes, Twitter or Netflix downloads, we are constantly communicating and amusing ourselves. It’s important to understand how we got to this moment and particularly the role that attorneys have played in that evolution.

 Q: What impact will this project have on entertainment practitioners and the industry?

A: We are not aware of any comprehensive documentation of  the origins of this key subfield or its growth in recent decades. We think our project will allow law students as well as current practitioners to understand the background and highlights of the field as well as its impact on the profession as a whole and the broader economy.  In this field, as in others, lawyers have helped shape the direction of the entertainment industry and the practice which, in turn, has continued to influence the law. Through the Hollywood Legal Legacy project, we hope that law students and practitioners will better understand how attorneys operate in this and so many other fields of the law—how they help write the “rules” of the industry, and then navigate those rules on behalf of their clients. By understanding their key role in the broader economy, law students can learn how to operate in the field themselves.

 Q: How long will it take to complete the project? How much will this project cost? What impact will this have on Southwestern and the Biederman Entertainment Law Institute?

A: This is an ongoing project, with no set deadline and we expect to work on it over the next couple of years.  In the short term, we plan to create a mock website for the Legacy project with the interviews we have conducted and other relevant material. We hope this will help us raise funds to support additional video interviews and archival research. The project fits nicely within the Biederman Institute, which already has established itself as one of the leading entertainment law programs in the country.

 Q: If people read this post and have information to offer or want to participate in this project, who should they contact and how?

A: Please email us at the following addresses:

  • Molly Selvin- mselvin@swlaw.edu
  • Steven Krone- skrone@swlaw.edu