“We are dynamic people that have other interests besides the law… Keep an eye out…Try different things. And just keep putting yourself out there… At the end of the day you want to look back on life and feel really proud of the way you spent your time.”
It’s a philosophy that’s proven effective for New York – based attorney, Jennifer Newman Sharpe. She runs a successful entertainment practice, serves as CEO of Sparkplug and still finds opportunities to regularly give back to her professional community.
Sharpe recently sat down with New ESQ and spoke about the moment she realized she was ready to start her own firm, finding fulfillment in passion projects and achieving work/life balance when it comes to her most important role yet, mom.
NE: Thank you so much for sitting down to talk to our audience today. Tell us, when did you know that you wanted to practice law?
JNS: Good question. I actually wasn’t sure that I wanted to practice law until the middle of law school to be honest. I knew that I wanted to work in the music industry specifically and I went to law school because a lot of the executives working in the music industry that I admired had law degrees. So, I realized that that type of educational foundation would be pretty essential to getting to a certain level in my career in the music industry. But I didn’t think that I necessarily wanted to be a lawyer or practice law. Once I went to law school and I started working for a boutique entertainment firm, I realized it could be fun, that it’s intellectually stimulating and that I enjoyed the client facing, more than I thought I would. So, I’ve been doing that ever since. I haven’t wanted to go in-house or pursue a career outside of that.
NE: It was the music that led you to the law and not the other way around?
JNS: Exactly. I studied undergrad at New York University in a brand new department. I was in the inaugural class of the Clive Davis Department, now the Clive Davis Institute, of Recorded Music. It was this department set up in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts by Clive Davis. The curriculum was a mix of music production and music business with some entrepreneurship built in. I spent time in the studio and know how to mix and record and produce; make a record. But I also learned a lot on the business side as well.
NE: Let’s talk a bit about your experience as a law student. This question is from our contributor, Nicole. Are there are any specific law school courses you would recommend for entertainment law students?
JNS: Definitely take as many copyright courses as possible. I actually got more from the copyright classes – skills that I use every day – than I did from my entertainment law class. You should still take entertainment law courses. But I think copyright is very important, especially for anyone interested in transactional work. It’s also important to take contracts courses and get experience in that area even if it’s not specific to entertainment.
Corporate law courses are useful as well because most companies need corporate law work. I do some of it as well as some general practice. I don’t do any complex corporate law, but I do need it often and refer out to a lot of other attorneys at this point. It can also be very useful if you plan on representing artists. Artists start out as individuals. But eventually they often need to form loan-out companies or holding companies to handle their business. So it is important to understand how to structure so their companies and their assets are protected.
NE: How often do you find yourself collaborating with an artist’s team?
JNS: Quite often, if I am working with an artist. My clients are really a mix. I probably spend 70 percent of my time working on the business side and the remainder working directly with artists, though when I started my practice it was the opposite.
But you work with their team quite a bit. If they have a manager you’re probably communicating with their manager often, more than you are even communicating with artists. This of course depends on what you are looking to accomplish for the client. It takes a great team. You, as an attorney, are a cog in that team trying to make it function well.
NE: How did you make the transition from student to practice?
JNS: I ended up starting my practice about a year after I graduated from law school. Even then, it took some time to really decide that I was going to do that full time. I was working part time in a design firm doing business affairs. I’d had two years experience during law school at a boutique entertainment firm and I started to get clients because of my relationships in the music industry. I was getting work here and there and then I realized at a certain point – I should just be doing this. Why am I doing anything else? It was keeping me busy and making me more money than I would at another job. And, it was really satisfying.
NE: How long did it take for you to feel like you had grown into your role as an attorney?
JNS: I don’t know if there’s ever really that one moment. It kind of happens gradually. Six months after I started representing clients was when I decided that I was not going to do any other jobs. It was a big, pivotal moment for me. And I was relieved because I didn’t feel the need to look for any other jobs or opportunities.
Another pivotal moment for me came two years after I started my practice. It had grown to a really healthy level. I was approached by a number of law firms to join those firms and bring my practice and work with them in some capacity – either of counsel or associate or counsel. Being able to say no to those opportunities, when I knew that a year before I would have jumped in, was a really cool moment because I realized things were going well. So sometimes there’s value to be had not only in making changes, but in staying and realizing you are happy where you are.
NE: You touched a bit on how your practice led to other business opportunities. Tell us about your startup.
JNS: Of course. I co-founded a startup about two years ago called Sparkplug. It is an online marketplace where musicians rent instruments, gear and space to one another. It’s kind of like Airbnb, but for musicians and their gear rather than for lodging. I launched it with three other co-founders and I am currently CEO of the company. I now dedicate a lot of my time to it. It’s been great because I do some of the legal work as well, but I’m able to take on another role that’s really rewarding and it has nothing to do with being a lawyer.
NE: The success of Sparkplug is a perfect example of how law grads can utilize their degrees by doing something else great outside of practicing.
JNS: It really is. For a little while it was difficult to reconcile the two and let go of being an attorney in my work with Sparkplug. Now I really relish it and value it so much. I do contracts and some of the legal work. But, we’re not just attorneys. We are dynamic people that have other interests besides the law. So, being able to fulfill yourself with ventures and projects that are outside of practicing – just like you’re doing with New ESQ – I think it is really amazing.
As attorneys, we are trained to go to law school to work for a firm for an insane number of hours and that’s it. In New York especially there’s so much pressure on hustling and working – and that’s great, and I’m always looking for opportunities. But there’s also something to be said for doing things that have nothing to do with work and for having passion projects. At the end of the day you want to look back on life and feel really proud of the way you spent your time.
NE: Speaking of outside opportunities, you’ve been very involved with a New York based organization, Women In Music, or WIM.
JNS: Yes. It’s a great organization. I’ve been a member for ten years now – on the board for six years, Vice President for three years, and I just recently stepped down as general counsel, which position I held for three years. The organization is run by a group of volunteers that give a lot of their time. I’ve gotten so much value and met so many people through the organization. Whether it’s WIM or a different group, I really encourage people to join at least one organization and be generous of their time. You never know how that relationship might evolve. I mean, look at us today!
NE: That’s true, we actually met through WIM.
JNS: Having great relationships in the industry is how I started my firm and how I’ve been able to maintain it. I’ve also made some incredible friendships outside of the professional relationships. No one knows what the future may hold or who could be a future client, a future business partner, a friend, someone to go to yoga with.
NE: What advice do you have for those who aren’t sure where to start, when it comes to relationship building?
JNS: I do realize that it depends on personality. Some people are comfortable with being direct and taking the lead. Back in 2010, I ran the door at the WIM holiday party. It wasn’t a huge role but I met everyone that walked in and it helped me put faces with the names. There are valuable opportunities all around, even those that aren’t on a large scale. And if you make a good impression, even better! Yes, we’re attorneys and traditionally perform a certain type of work but it doesn’t mean we can’t roll up our sleeves and get out there. With my startup for example, I’m CEO but I do a lot of the day to day minutia. I’ll do anything that needs to get done. That’s what it takes when you run a business and you’re practicing solo. I have help but I still do a little bit of everything at my law firm.
I would also encourage people to think outside of the box. There are jobs besides big law. It is very hard to get into a boutique entertainment law firm right out of law school. I’m asked that all the time. I will say that it doesn’t mean you can’t make your own opportunities. I do usually recommend that attorneys practice for at least a couple years. But there are others things out there. Keep an eye out. Have passion projects. Try different things. And just keep putting yourself out there.
NE: You run a busy law practice and second business. What is the typical day like for you?
JNS: I started my practice about five years ago and now it consists of mostly businesses in the music industry with a handful of artists that I work with. As I stated, I also focus a lot of time on my startup right now. But for my practice I usually start around 9:00 am. I get emails out of the way and then I get into the meatier agreements. I also usually have a couple of calls during the day with clients who want to discuss or with other attorneys to negotiate agreements. If I have time around midday, about twice a month, I’ll do informational interviews.
In the afternoon I usually focus on administrative work, responding to client requests and sending out engagements letters if I have new clients. I conduct my initial client consultations in the afternoon as well. Then I pause work everyday around 5:00 pm. This wasn’t the case six months ago. But, I pause everyday now because that’s when I take care of my baby for a couple of hours. I usually go back to work around 7:30 or 8:00 and tie up any small stuff.
NE: How has being a mom impacted you and your career?
JNS: I welcomed my first baby in June. When I needed to take leave, I had an attorney friend who I trusted immensely, who was able to step in and take on some of the work.
Now that my son is here, when I’m working, I’m working, and when I’m with him, I’m with him. I would rather be with him and be very present and in the moment, than worrying about work during our time together. Before motherhood, I could work 12-13 hours a day, six or seven days a week. But I can’t do that anymore so in the time that I have to work now, I’m extra focused. I also feel lucky that I have a great partner and support system. It is a balancing act.
NE: What’s it been like for you to run a practice remotely?
JNS: It’s a choice. I think for a while people assume you work from home because you have to or can’t afford an office or you don’t have a day job. That’s not always the case. I had an office I went to every day for two years and then I realized I was wasting over an hour every day commuting. It wasn’t productive time. So I made the choice to leave my office space. I still have an office where I receive mail or can go to for conferences. But, I work from home and it’s great. I use this fantastic company called Ruby Reception as my virtual receptionist, so I still am able to keep work and personal lines separate and have that administrative support.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jennifer Newman Sharpe is an entertainment, intellectual property, and start up business attorney based in New York. Her clients include artists, producers, managers, record labels, publishing companies, digital distribution companies, and tech start ups. She has spoken at numerous conferences and institutions, including SXSW, CD Baby DIY Musician Conference, New Music Seminar, and NYU, on topics such as music licensing, artist agreements, the music business, and women’s role in the music industry. Jennifer is also co-founder and CEO of Sparkplug (www.sparkplug.it), the sharing economy marketplace where musicians rent their instruments, gear, and space to and from each other. Jennifer is Vice President and on the Board of Directors of the national, non-profit organization Women in Music.