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VOL. 36 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 13, 2012

Free legal help available for artists

By Judy Sarles

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When Andy Duensing was a struggling filmmaker, he didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer to advise him on the legal impediments of getting his feature film, Make-Out with Violence, distributed, so he contacted Volunteer Lawyers & Professionals for the Arts (VLPA), a Nashville-based organization that enables artists and emerging arts nonprofits to receive pro bono legal services.

“Basically, what they did for us, they helped us put together an LLC around the company that I started with some friends of mine in order to make a feature film,” Duensing says, “and then they also helped us with all of the legalities surrounding the music and licensing music and a number of other things that came up with the music, because we had 44-plus original pop songs, mostly produced and recorded here in Nashville.”

VLPA was founded in 2006 as the Tennessee Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts by director Casey Summar, Bo Spessard, chief operating officer of Emma Inc., and a small group of attorneys to address the legal needs of the arts community.

About a year later, the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville (ABC) was founded by Martha Ingram, former chairman of Ingram Industries, and other prominent Nashvillians to encourage an alliance between the arts and business.

Since one of the programs ABC was contemplating had to do with business people volunteering, a concept similar to Tennessee Volunteer Lawyers, ABC President and CEO Connie Valentine and Summar decided to meet to talk about a merger of the organizations.

“Because there was so much synergy between the two organizations, and we were both still at the early stage of development,” says Summar, “we thought we should just join forces entirely.”

They did just that, with Tennessee Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts changing its name to Volunteer Lawyers & Professionals for the Arts, and have been together for more than three years.

All services offered by VLPA offers are free to qualified low-income artists of all disciplines residing in Tennessee and to the state’s emerging nonprofit arts organizations with annual operating budgets of $1 million or less. Income limits are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Once artists qualify, they may be helped by VLPA staff or matched with one of the organization’s volunteer lawyers. There are almost 250 lawyers volunteering with VLPA.

The program to assist nonprofit arts organizations has been in place for about 18 months. Approximately 30 business professionals volunteer to assist the nonprofits for free. The business professionals are primarily accountants, but there are volunteers from other fields, including technology, management, marketing, public relations, and human resources.

VLPA also makes paying referrals to volunteer member lawyers or professionals for clients who do not qualify for pro bono services.

Membership benefits for VLPA volunteer lawyers and business professionals include monthly e-mail newsletters, discounts on seminars and continuing legal education (CLE), invitations to social events and other networking and marketing opportunities. In addition, volunteers receive a 50 percent discount on an ABC individual membership.

The pro-bono legal assistance Duensing received from VLPA’s volunteer lawyers, including David Crow, a partner with Milom Horsnell Crow Rose Kelley, was instrumental in getting Make-Out with Violence released in the United States on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix, as well as in about 10 countries around the world. The film also was screened at film festivals and had brief theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles.

“It took us a year and a-half to get the film distributed,” Duensing says, “and when we finally had the opportunity, because we worked with the VLPA, we had everything in order, we had the paperwork.”

Crow, an entertainment lawyer who has been volunteering with VLPA since its infancy, says before he counsels VLPA clients he determines whether he is qualified to meet their needs and can give them the time and attention they require.

“I actually do believe that being someone’s lawyer is a really serious responsibility,” Crow says. “Whether they pay or not isn’t relative. Everybody should receive the same service, care, and attention. I work very hard to make sure they don’t feel like it’s a favor.”

VLPA’s funding comes from a variety of sources. Clients are asked to become members of the ABC, for which individual artists pay $30 and nonprofits $50. Money also flows from foundations, public and corporate funding, and individuals.

The organization has worked with more than 1,000 artists and 300 arts nonprofits. In June, VLPA announced it had reached the $1 million milestone in total amount of services volunteers have provided to the arts community.

VLPA volunteer lawyers have helped Southern Word (formerly Youth Speaks Nashville), a spoken-word nonprofit youth organization, with many legal matters, including advising on its initial formation and helping to establish its 501(c)(3) status. VLPA and its volunteers are continuing to work with Southern Word on a couple of projects.

“They played a critical role in us getting started and up and running,” says Benjamin Smith, Southern Word’s executive director. “As a new organization, you don’t have a lot of resources. But you need lawyers, and that’s a rather expensive proposition for a new nonprofit. So they’ve been really critical in giving us the expertise necessary to make the right decisions.”

John Ray Clemmons, an associate at Chaffin & Burnsed, is one of the volunteer lawyers helping Southern Word. He also has worked with musicians, singers and other nonprofits on contract issues, negotiations and protecting them from potentially defamatory issues and cases. He volunteers for VLPA as a way to give back to the community, which he says is full of young entrepreneurs and artists.

“This is one way in which my profession allows me to do so,” Clemmons says. “It’s just one of those opportunities in which we as attorneys can help people starting out or possibly struggling to take proactive steps to get their business on track or to protect themselves.”

VLPA fills out its staff with 10 to 12 legal interns from all over the country during the course of a year. Most of them are Vanderbilt Law School students, and some are starting to come from Belmont University’s new College of Law. The interns do the initial intake for clients, as well as several research projects over the summer to help prepare resources for clients.

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