So, You Want to Be An Art Lawyer?

This is the second and updated version of my “So, you want to be an art lawyer?” blog post, originally posted on December 19, 2009. I am writing this version for three reasons: one, given how many hits this post has acquired; two, looking back at the 2008 economic crisis, and three, (and mostly) because of how many individuals contact me asking me for advise on how to become an art lawyer (incidentally, just today I received three e-mails from law students asking for this advise). So, here we go, an updated version with a few new thoughts and observations. I hope it’s helpful.

The 2008 economic crisis has not left the legal market untouched. Law schools, firms, nonprofit legal organizations, and legal practice have all been affected to some extent. Law schools are seeing a decrease in student enrollment. Law firms are taking fewer summer associates, and with the overflow of law students many that would normally go into law firm practice opt for nonprofit organizations, leaving fewer opportunities for law students.

Increasingly, many law school applicants and current law students (many with undergraduate studio art or art history degrees) are becoming interested in art law. This is not surprising, as recent legal battles between artists and artists and art institutions have attracted large amounts of media attention. Secondly, and arguably, the art market is at an all-time high, with extravagant amounts of money floating around a largely unregulated industry. And let’s be honest, where there’s money there are lawyers. Thirdly, the cliche still rings true: lawyers second-guess their current legal careers and think about jumping ship to another law-related career or pursue a different practice area. Confronted with this existential question, many lawyers opt for hot or up-and-coming legal areas. Others begin by asking themselves what makes them happy or what they like to do.

As an art lawyer, I am often asked about my career and if I like what I do. I am also asked for pointers on how to “get” where I am. In all honesty, I am unable to give a precise and succinct answer to these question because I too am perplexed by how I “got” here.

So, how do you become an art lawyer? Eleven starting points.

First of all, do what you love, and love what you do. As cheesy as that sounds it’s true. You have to have a passion for it, which means that you won’t find doing any of what I mention below to be boring, excruciating, or a chore. In case you didn’t know this, we are in an age of transparency and honesty, and with social media sites and the Internet the days of being able to fool others and be pretentious are over. If you’re doing this solely so you can hang out with rich and famous artists, you’ve got another thing coming. Artists aren’t stupid; they’ll see right through you, especially when they’re paying you. And, as I’ll explain further in number eight below, you’ll still be practicing law, so you’ll have to primarily love that.

This leads to my second point. Artists don’t like to feel or be made to feel that what they do is a hobby. Artists don’t want a lawyer to question their work and ask, “why is this art?,” and they certainly don’t want to have to convince you that what they’re doing is art. If you do that you’re certain to lose their respect and their business. Make an effort to understand contemporary art and an artist’s particular method of working. Artists are the opposite of lawyers: lawyers are risk-averse; artists are risk-takers. This distinction will lead to some difficult but necessary conversations with artists. You, the lawyer, will be forced to utter a word non-existent in an artists’ vocabulary: “no!”

Third point. Contemporary artists work in diverse media and the good artists (at least I think so), engage complex and controversial topics. You’ll probably have a traditional painter and sculptor as a client, but you’ll also have potential clients that pose unique and challenging legal problems for you. Here’s a short list of artists to give you a taste of what I’m writing about. Do yourself a favor and Google them and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.

(Christoph Büchel, Michael Asher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Adrian Piper, Santiago Sierra, Superflex, Tehching Hsieh, Gordon Matta-Clark, Larry Clark)

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