From his 15th-story perch in midtown Manhattan, amid the glamour of the Great White Way, Tom Carpenter oversees the rights of the theater stars he has long admired. As general counsel of the Actors' Equity Association, he also serves as one of the organization's three regional directors, overseeing the eastern division, which includes Broadway.
Before he joined Actors' Equity, Carpenter was chief labor counsel and assistant national executive director of SAGAFTRA, which was formed by the merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Prior to the merger, Carpenter had been general counsel and director of legislative affairs for AFTRA, handling contracts for network correspondents and television anchors. Carpenter's first job out of law school was with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, where he helped reform the union's structure, investigated corruption in cooperation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and handled arbitration and litigation. During college and law school he also clerked for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and worked at a small law firm that handled employment issues. Carpenter graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1993.
CORPORATE COUNSEL: What drew you to this industry?
TOM CARPENTER: The excitement of live performance is something that can't be replicatedthere's really nothing like live theater. Everybody on this team has a real affection for this industry and its diverse, vibrant community. I'm excited to be a part of that.
CC: Do you have any acting experience yourself?
TC: I directed some student films when I was at Northwestern University. My professors always had the same critique: If you knew something about acting, the films would be so much better. So I joined a campus improv comedy group. That also gave me some skills that have served me well as a lawyer; crafting a narrative, listening to other people, and seizing on things that can be used to change the atmosphere in the room. Improv skills are also really helpful for knowing how the members of Actors' Equity work.
CC: What do you like about employment law and working with a union?
TC: I have an opportunity to make a difference in the working lives of union members at a time when so many people are working in difficult circumstances. A union, if it's well run and operating for the benefit of its members, can be an effective tool to help people fix problems in their careers.
CC: How are you balancing the legal and business components of your position?
TC: My role is to identify and manage areas of legal risk and exposure and to do that from the inside so that it's cost-effective and integrated within the operations of the organization. To have such a large portion of my job be operational and administrative gives me the opportunity to see how the organization is functioning from 30,000 feet up, where it's a lot easier to see where the moving parts are and to figure out how the legal function fits in with them.
CC: What do you consider the highlight of your career?
TC: Negotiating Dan Rather's union contract before I was even 40 was really exciting. More recently, I worked for about a year helping to put together the merger between SAG and AFTRA. And then, in June 2012, we had a really great victory at the World Intellectual Property Organization, getting the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances passed. That was really tremendous.
CC: What are you most excited to accomplish in this job?
TC: Striking a crucial balancedoing good work on behalf of our members while also acknowledging the economic challenges in this industry today. That, I think, is a tremendous challenge, and that is the next big thing on my plate.
This article originally appeared in Corporate Counsel under the headline “Not Just Acting GC.”