VLAs for musicians: free legal advice

How to get free legal advice as a musician.

As someone who’s seen a lot of legal disputes between people in the music industry, it’s always a bummer when musicians give up and walk away from something they know is unfair because they believe they have no access to good legal consultation. Lawyers are expensive, the required paperwork can be complicated, and how do you even find a capable lawyer who’s willing to advise an independent musician?

Well, there is good news and I’m ecstatic to tell you about these organizations called Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (or VLAs). This post walks you through what a VLA is, the basics of finding one, how the process usually works to engage with the VLA, and what you can typically expect.

What is a VLA?

VLAs are organizations of lawyers volunteering their time to give real legal advice for free to the artists that need it.

VLAs serve all arts and also the business and industry needs behind those arts—so your business law questions are just as covered here as art law questions. Most states or even cities that have a large arts presence have VLAs in some form or other. Some are affiliated with law schools, some are affiliated with local Arts and Business Councils, and some even tie in more volunteers than just lawyers, like Austin’s Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts. I’ve seen accounting problems be as destructive for musicians as legal problems, so check your local VLA to see what it provides!

“Our volunteer attorneys find advising talented individuals with a passion for their art an important way for them to help ensure a vibrant creative community.” – Lydia Loren, President of OVLA

How to Find a VLA

There is no national organization for VLAs at this time but you can find a national directory of VLAs that St. Louis’ Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts put together at https://vlaa.org/get-help/other-vlas/.

How the Process of Engagement Works

Each VLA can operate a bit differently but there is almost always an initial intake or application process through their website. Nashville’s Volunteer Lawyers and Professionals for the Arts intake process just takes an email while others have an online form to fill out or a PDF to complete and send.

You will be asked to supply information such as:

  • what is your legal problem?
  • are any lawyers already a part of the issue?
  • what is your financial situation?

There will be a small intake fee ($15, $20, or something relatively small compared to the service you will get) to enroll in the service, but the actual advice and your time with the lawyer will be free.

There are often financial caps to consider, and each VLA is a bit different here so these are rough numbers, but if your annual income is more than $45,000, if your music business is generating more than $100,000, or if the value of the deal at issue is more than $100,000, then there might be some cap that makes you ineligible for the VLA.

Once accepted you will be asked to sign some paperwork that formalizes your relationship with the VLA, just like you would if you hired a lawyer, because that is what you will get here… real legal advice for your music!

“Nashville is on an exciting trajectory of economic and creative growth. The Volunteer Lawyers and Professionals for the Arts (VLPA), a program of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, ensures that artists have access to the legal support and professional services necessary to protect and progress them along their career path. From assistance with nonprofit incorporation, trademark filing, intellectual property protection, and the drafting of various legal agreements and documents, VLPA provides Nashville artists and emerging arts organizations access to services they need but might not otherwise be able to afford. The support of VLPA gives artists the peace of mind to focus on their creative work knowing that their legal interests are covered by trusted and knowledgeable professionals.” – Jill McMillan, Executive Director of ABCNashville

What to Expect (and not to expect) when working with a VLA

There are two things that the VLAs provide:

  1. First is the clinic, which is the legal advice from the lawyers. Depending on how your VLA structures the clinic, you will probably receive something like an hour of in-person time with a lawyer. You can ask a bunch of questions, get a contract made, get schooled on a particular topic, map out how to move forward after the clinic… whatever you want as its your time. This is your lawyer, you will be in good hands, and you will be treated just like any other client. This part about mapping out how to move forward after the clinic is potentially the most important part because at some point your time with the lawyer will end. Your clinic lawyer is not signing on to be your lawyer after the clinic unless you hire the lawyer outside of the clinic, which happens sometimes. So, maximize your clinic time by coming prepared with your goals and questions you have as best as you can.
  2. The second thing VLAs provide is the ongoing service to your community. VLAs often host events outside of clinics, such as presentations or workshops on how art, law, and business work together. Even if you have no need for a clinic at this time you should check with your local VLA and sign-up for any newsletters because these events will be super helpful! For instance, Oregon’s VLA hosts empowering events that are just around the corner from CD Baby’s headquarters.

Do VLAs provide quality legal advice?

I want to stress that these lawyers are some of the most well respected lawyers in the arts. They truly love the arts and are putting their lucrative careers to the side for a moment just to help you out. For instance, my first experience in a VLA clinic was with one of Portland’s top entertainment lawyers giving about an hour of legal advice to a person that just made her first film. That would have been very expensive and I believe that filmmaker would not have sought legal advice if not for the VLA, and she received advice that absolutely impacted her future career. It was amazing to watch!

Also, if you volunteer for a VLA then please reach out to me in the comments below. I would love to connect and make sure that CD Baby artists in your area know how to get in touch with you.