The following are the composition of employment and severance pay

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?

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.

There are attorneys, entertainment attorneys and otherwise, who routinely handle “employee-side” legal matters. A number of attorneys may be able to do so affordably for even a modestly-compensated employee, in the context of a severance proposal or otherwise. An employee-side lawyer should be accustomed to representing people who have limited financial resources, and this is a particularly-familiar fact-pattern for an entertainment lawyer handling artist-side work. There are parallels. And, assuming that one is not a lawyer, one should no sooner handle one’s own legal work than handle one’s own dental or medical needs oneself. The severance and employee-exit scenario most often entails some analysis of employment legal issues governing the exit. Given the economic realities faced by those in the artistic world, all entertainment lawyers need to be familiar with these employment legal issues.

The employee should remember that most employers themselves have in-house or outside attorneys. Indeed, the employment, severance, settlement, release, and exit documents are most often drafted by these attorneys. They may be entertainment attorneys, employment attorneys, litigators, or generalists. However monikered, often an employee’s securing of his or her own counsel is the only way to equilibrate the proverbial scales of justice in a severance or other job-related scenario. Exploitative and even abusive treatment of employees is unfortunately rampant in the employment law context, including at the time of worker exit – particularly in highly-competitive cities like New York and Los Angeles, and in highly-competitive industries like entertainment and media as any entertainment attorney will tell you. The good works and lessons taught by historical pro-labor figures like Samuel Gompers should not go for naught. The employee should not look to the employer, or the vicissitudes of chance, to protect the employee and the employee’s own legal rights in the workplace or in the context of a severance or other exit from employment. Rather, the employee should empower himself or herself, and should not be inhibited in seeking out the advice and opinions of those professionals who handle employee-side legal work for a living.