In prior articles I have alluded to the fact that many people think being an entertainment lawyer is a romantic existence. Yet the brass-tacks principles of employment law and the harshness of employee severance and termination scenarios often overtake that romanticism. Being an entertainment lawyer entails a lot more than hanging-out with talent backstage or on the tour bus. In prior articles I have also alluded to the fact that artists often have “day jobs” providing their paying employment to subsidize their artistic ventures. As a New York entertainment attorney who grew up in a show business family in the midst of performers, I’m used to this. Most of these artists intend to abandon these day jobs, with or without an employment severance package, once they get signed to a development deal, record contract, or otherwise “make it”. But what happens in the meantime? What if an artist works for a company that intends to jettison him or her as an employee, rather than the other way around? What if the company counts on using an employment severance package as a hedge against risk of an after-occurring wrongful-termination lawsuit? Employment
These past few years have comprised a particularly bad time in terms of employee and contractor lay-offs and firings. As a working entertainment lawyer in New York I have seen many artists and others downscale and change jobs in recent years. Many situations which used to prompt a severance package to materialize in the prior decade, do not do so any longer. The fact of the matter is, a large proportion of employees and other workers misplay the handling of their job exit, if and when it occurs in the employment law context. In the interests of employee and worker empowerment before the blue-ink dries on the release and settlement agreement or other severance documents, this article follows. Though written by me as a media and entertainment attorney working with entertainers, the same principles apply to employment work in other industries and sectors.
I suppose that the first rule of employee empowerment is fairly pedestrian-sounding, but vitally important. An employee must read and review every employment document pertaining to his or her job and career, carefully – including the following disclaimer. The employee should secure counsel promptly, if he or she sees any legal issue looming on the horizon which may affect the employee’s career or rights – including legal issues relating to employment and severance packages. As an entertainment lawyer friend and entertainment law professor of mine used to say, “every deal is different”. What applies in one employment context may not apply to the next one. The employee must make sure that he or she seeks individualized legal advice as to any important matter pertaining to the employee’s career or rights generally. It is not uncommon that a soon-to-be-terminated worker starts calling attorneys as soon as offered an employment severance package.