Revealed: Billboard’s 2020 Top Music Lawyers

Timothy Epstein was in the Florida Keys. Dina LaPolt was in West Hollywood, and Berkeley Reinhold was in Los Angeles. Casey Higgins was in Washington, D.C., and Jay Cohen was in New York. All of the attorneys remember exactly where they were when they, and their associates, responded to the call in March to help artists and companies navigate the economic crisis created by the coronavirus.

Two months later, attorneys Vincent P. Phillips and his legal associate Aurielle Brooks were in Atlanta, and Ron Sweeney was at his home in Malibu, Calif., all guiding clients through the pandemic, when they learned of the death of George Floyd on May 25. His suffocation beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer — captured on cellphone video — ignited weeks of protests and a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racism.

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“It brought up terrible memories,” says Sweeney, “of myself, as a 12-year-old [living in South Central L.A.], on my way to church — a white cop forcing me to the ground and putting a shotgun to my head and telling me, ‘You n—s better stay in your place or else.’ I thought about my 2-year-old grandson and how I would not be able to protect him from racist cops no matter how much money I had. For me as a Black man, it was nothing new, just another day in America. We just happen to have cellphones now. I’m 66 years old and still when I see a police car I keep it in my sight until it disappears.”

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Phillips has talked to clients, “especially my African American male clients, about how they feel about what is happening — and has been happening for so long — and I talk to them about being responsible if they do choose to lend their voice,” he says. “I do not push, but I do support. I let them know that when I was their age during the 1992 Rodney King protests, I was a participant. Change is slow, but we have to push for change and growth.”

Pushing for change, first through the economic turmoil of the pandemic and subsequently through the protests for racial justice, has consumed many in the legal profession in recent months. Instead of highlighting the work of one Lawyer of the Year for this annual feature, Billboard is focusing on how eight of the attorneys from our Top Music Lawyers 2020 list have stepped forward at this unprecedented time.

Epstein, a partner at Duggan Bertsch, got an early hint of the impact of the coronavirus as the attorney for independent promoters of events including festivals such as Pitchfork Music, Riot, Life Is Beautiful and Baja Beach and the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam. In early February, international clients began to reach out, concerned about potential postponements and cancellations.

Yet it wasn’t until March 5, when Epstein flew to Key West, Fla., for what he thought would be a relaxing weekend with his wife when anxiety over the virus escalated stateside. He fielded nonstop phone calls and spent the entire time counseling his nervous clients. Epstein reviewed “the various implications of postponements, cancellations and refunds, and how those worked out. While a number of my clients have significant financial wherewithal,” he says, “there are a number that do not, and when that ticketing money comes in, it’s used to finance various events on the festival side. So obviously, some of that money has already been spent.”

Epstein had hard conversations about postponing all fall events. He advised clients that even if the situation suddenly changed at a certain point, they didn’t have enough financial strength to sell tickets. Besides risk-management assessment, he has been helping them navigate insurance claims, analyze contract terms and obligations in relation to force majeure (which waives liability for events beyond a party’s control) and develop strategies for the short, medium and long term.

On March 16, LaPolt, founder-owner of LaPolt Law and counsel to Songwriters of North America, received an urgent call from Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. Herbison had been privy to a draft of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to address the economic fallout of COVID-19. As it stood, he told LaPolt and SONA executive director Michelle Lewis, the language in the legislation wouldn’t cover the music community.

LaPolt had been sheltering at home with her wife, Wendy Goodman, and adjusting to the demands of home-schooling their twin 7-year-old boys. She immediately went to work — remotely.

“It was very clear that [the law] was not going to cover not only people in music, but it wouldn’t cover anybody in TV or film or writers, where everybody’s an independent contractor and self-employed,” says LaPolt.

She was among those who helped launch an aggressive lobbying campaign that included everyone in the industry — labels, publishers, performing rights organizations, the Recording Academy, the RIAA — to create a broad music coalition to pressure legislators. (Jordan Bromley of the Music Artists Coalition is also credited with shaping the legislation to help independent contractors.) On March 27, when the bill passed the Senate with an amendment that expanded pandemic unemployment assistance to self-employed workers, independent contractors and sole proprietors, LaPolt said the feeling was “incredible.”

LaPolt then helped create the website Music Covid Relief to streamline the process for freelancers and other self-employed musicians to apply for federal aid. She also helped establish an assistance fund through SONA that on March 15 began handing out $1,000 emergency grants to songwriters facing economic hardship.

Along with independent contractors and promoters, indie venues quickly recognized they would be severely affected by canceled and postponed events.

Higgins, a senior policy adviser at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, took a call in early March from Gary Witt, CEO of the Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee. The theater needed help navigating the intricacies of the newly launched Paycheck Protection Program. It became immediately clear during the call that without a lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., independent venues were at risk of missing out on desperately needed federal assistance. After a virtual town hall meeting on March 12, these venue operators created an association to make their case for help.

The Anthem in Washington, D.C., is one of scores of independent venues that have united to lobby for pandemic assistance. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

On April 22, the newly formed National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) tapped Higgins to be their voice in Washington, backed up by Akin Gump partners Ed Pagano and Brian Pomper (and at least seven others at the firm). Higgins oversaw an intensive lobbying campaign that sent hundreds of thousands of letters to congressional leaders introducing the new association and asking for their support for additional relief.

Higgins says she’s focused on influencing the next phase of relief legislation, allowing flexible use of loan proceeds and loan forgiveness with no minimums attached for how much funding is allocated to uses like rent and mortgage payments, as well as a ticket revenue tax credit that would give independent venues credit for refunded ticket revenue.

“It’s going to be a long road for these venues, and they need a longer program,” says Higgins, who adds that NIVA has been a passion project for her firm. “They were the first to close, and they will likely be the last to open.”

Reinhold had already been doing work for Global Citizen when on April 7 she received a call from Brian Mencher, general counsel for the international anti-poverty organization, asking if she would help with a new project. The group was planning One World: Together at Home, a global TV broadcast/online concert to raise money for front-line health care workers and the World Health Organization. With 10 days to go before the event, Global Citizen asked Reinhold to take the lead on securing all of the artist agreements.

“I was honored to have them call me to be a part of it,” says Reinhold, who is president of her own firm — the Law Office of Berkeley Reinhold in Beverly Hills, Calif. — specializing in music, concerts and entertainment. “I had seven days to clear and negotiate all of the rights from 72 artists.”

She worked 18 hours a day, spurred on by the collaboration with all working for a great cause — artists, talent and business managers, lawyers, publicists and more. Besides the six-hour digital program, Reinhold had to negotiate rights for the two-hour TV network presentation, an international radio feed, a highlights program and video-on-demand. In all, she had 130 licenses to clear.

“The adrenaline rush kept you going,” says Reinhold. One World: Together at Home ultimately set two milestones in the book of Guinness World Records — one for the most musical acts to perform at a remote festival and one for the most money raised for a charity by a remote music festival: $127.9 million. (Reinhold reprised her work for the Global Goal: United for Our Future concert from Global Citizen on June 27.)