Is an in-house job as an entertainment lawyer the “dream job?” I recently sat down with a good friend who went from BigLaw to Business and Legal Affairs at NBCUniversal to find out the answer.
Name, law school, year and first job?
Jeffrey Fuhrman, Penn Law, class of 2001. Associate, Skadden Arps, 2001-2004, banking and institutional investing department.
Executive Director, Business and Legal Affairs, NBCUniversal Inc. More specifically, working with the networks: E! Entertainment, G4 and Style and a production studio called Comcast Entertainment Studios.
What does that actually mean?
I negotiate with agents and lawyers. I would say I am the company corollary to talent agents and talent lawyers. I secure rights to projects as well as the services of production companies, producers and on-camera talent in connection with cable TV development and programming projects.
Is being an entertainment lawyer as fun as it sounds? You know everyone in BigLaw reading this thinks they want your job.
Relatively speaking, yes. It’s a dream job for a lawyer. It’s a shit job for a creative. It’s still service.
Would you say you’re a creative type? Do you think you need to be in order to excel at what you do?
I would say I am an aspiring creative type, I don’t think you need to be creative to excel, but I do think you need to be passionate, because once you get over the thrill of having a “cool” law job and not having to work at a firm any more, you need to care about it or else you’ll get very frustrated.
I remember being in BigLaw and being like “God, let me do anything, anything else and I’ll be happy forever.” But the truth is when you’re years down the line on a different path, you need to stay motivated, so you can progress.
So lets get into that progression. How does one actually do what you did and get that job? Take me from Skadden corporate lawyer to guy who works at NBCUniversal? Was that a plan?
Yes, I never wanted to be a lawyer. I always wanted to work in entertainment. I viewed law school as the path of least resistance. Little did I know it’s the worst, most roundabout way to get into entertainment.
You’re telling me! It’s the worst, most roundabout way to being a comedian as well, but here were both are, so something obviously went right…for you at least?
What happened was, when I came to the fork in the road, I took the risk. Three years into firm life I had the opportunity to follow some colleagues to another law firm and fortify my banking experience. I knew if I went that direction I was never going to be truly successful because I wasn’t passionate about it. So I chose to take the other fork, which was to stay where I was and look for new opportunities, and through a turn of fate, I found one. When the colleagues I had been working with left to work at another law firm I became a law firm orphan. At that time our group in LA was short-staffed and Skadden sent me to help out for a month. While I was in LA I was referred by a friend for an interview for a production attorney job in NY on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” I had the advantage of interviewing in person in LA with the hiring person for the NY job. I got the 2nd round on the spot. Being in LA allowed me to meet the critical people and gave me an advantage in getting the job, so I was hired, without any relevant experience.
So now is the time where everyone hopeful to follow your path is probably deflated because it sounds like it was a fluke?
Here’s the thing, I took a six figure paycut. Unless you really want something, you are not going to do that. I was fortunate enough that I came from a high paying job so I could afford to take the risk (Not to mention I had a very cheap apartment). Also, never underestimate the professional value of friendship and networking. If my friend hadn’t of thought of me in that moment, everything would be different now.
How did people at Skadden react when they found out you were leaving to work on Who wants to be a Millionaire?
They were like “what the hell?” I would say that goodbye email was the most gratifying email I ever sent.
So you’ve just started at the production company, was there someone to lean on considering you never worked in TV or really had any experience in entertainment?
Yes, there were two people. One, my boss in Cali who quickly became a mentor and a constant source of support, and two, a peer working on a sister production who helped train me as she had also worked on Millionaire the prior season. So even though I was the sole attorney on Millionaire, I had resources.
Have you ever thought about what it would have been like without their support? Do you suppose you would have been able to make a go at it?
I sure would have tried. But I definitely would not be where I am without them. I basically knew nothing but what it really comes down to is, getting people to believe in you as a person because if you have the legal training, the skills are highly transferable. When you go into a situation like that, you need to get people on your team and let them know you are on their team. If you need to be trained, you want to people to participate in your success. If they spend their time educating you, you better spend your time supporting them and pushing the team forward. When people take a risk on me, I have an obligation to make it worth their while.
So you would say that you can you jump from corporate to entertainment in-house without mentors in place?
You can make the transition, yes. However, the key to any success I have had thus far has been identifying people who I admire and want to learn from and working with them. If you go into a new, unfamiliar situation you need allies. You can’t rely on your degree, your prior legal training or your pedigree.
Also, they weren’t labeled as mentors when I got there. These relationships grow overtime after you establish initial trust. Because I’ve had that experience in my career thus far I now feel the obligation to pay it forward, even though I am always in need of mentoring.
I’m just going to chime and say, that knowing you as I do, you would have paid it forward regardless. So anyhow, what did you do at Millionaire?
I was the sole on-sight attorney dealing with the day-to-day legal affairs of the production which included briefing contestants, overseeing game play, resolving any game play issues.
Did anyone ever cheat?
Not under my watch.
You obviously ran a tight ship. So let’s fast forward a little, now you’re and Executive at E!, how did you get there from Millionaire?
Part II of the interview coming soon.