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How Volunteer Lawyers Work

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

The starving artist is a sad -- and sadly accurate -- stereotype. With the exception of major industries such as Broadway spectaculars, Hollywood movies and record labels, most U.S. arts organizations follow a nonprofit business model, relying on grants and charitable donations for income. Artists who work within such organizations receive less pay, on average, than their for-profit counterparts. In this business model, one legal issue can turn into a financial catastrophe.

Volunteer lawyers for the arts (VLA) help both organizations and individuals. As with poverty law centers, VLA groups may charge a nominal administrative fee. Other services work on a membership basis. For a fee, a nonprofit or individual becomes a member of the local VLA network. Membership carries the benefit of free or steeply discounted assistance, as well as discounted educational services [source: VLA of New York].

One of the most valuable services VLA groups provide is education. The Web sites of many VLA groups are like mini-law libraries, offering long lists of free resources, recommended reading and other information [source: VLA of New York]. Education can help artists prevent legal problems altogether -- which is always more cost-effective than letting a small issue grow into a big one that needs fixing.

Volunteer lawyers are not managers, agents or accountants. They do not shoulder the full responsibility for an artist's career or an organization's bookkeeping. They rightly expect artists and arts organizations to act as professionals. But in the specialized and often bewildering world of entertainment law, VLA groups can help.

On the next page, we'll look at how volunteering helps the lawyer.