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Langston Hughes once wrote, “What happens to a dream deferred?” But Richard Brenin, a fledgling D.C. theater producer, feels as though he’s postponed his dream of putting on the “small but mighty production” long enough. Brenin, local actress and playwright Laura Zam, and New York actress Norma Mindell are in the initial stages of crafting their first play — building it from the script up. All of them have backgrounds in theater, but none has been able to make a career out of it. Right now, Brenin and Zam both work at a yoga studio. They also don’t know anything about the legal aspects of putting a show together. Theater contracts, copyright issues, and royalty decisions might seem easy to someone with a law degree but, if handled incorrectly, can cause major problems. Nor do they have the cash to hire an attorney. So Brenin contacted Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, a legal service provider that caters to all things artistic. Through an e-mail referral system, John Lowe, the group’s executive director and the civil pro bono coordinator at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, put Brenin in touch with Tom Zutic, an intellectual property associate at DLA Piper. “It’s hard to believe in yourself after so many years,” Brenin says. “This opportunity, especially with the help of someone like Tom Zutic, is giving me the confidence to actually make this happen.” WALA has been providing legal advice and referrals to artists and artist groups in the District for more than 20 years. The system the group uses — an e-mail referral list sent out to 80 law firms and solo practitioners — is basic, but through it Lowe has been able to find attorneys for more than 700 of the approximately 950 requests he has received in the past three years. And there are few criteria that artists have to meet in order to find legal representation through the group. They have to have an income of $30,000 or less, and the artist or arts organization must be within the greater D.C. area. But WALA does not discriminate among art forms. Painters, sculptors, writers, or actors can all knock on WALA’s door, or at least send an e-mail. “We disciplined ourselves not to exclude art forms, and therefore the breadth of our reach just grew and grew,” Lowe says. The legal issue an artist has must be arts-related, but this too spans a wide range. Artists come to WALA with copyright issues, trademark disputes, creation of nonprofits, conflicts with galleries, studios, and landlords, and even immigration cases. “The variety of work that these clients need goes from the ridiculous to the sublime,” Lowe says. One interesting case the group has been handling involves a young violinist who wants to sue his former orchestra for injuries that he claims he received while on tour in Europe. The violinist alleges that the orchestra often didn’t provide him with a place to sleep, forcing him to curl up on the floor, and when he complained of back pain, the orchestra refused to help him get proper care. According to WALA’s case description, the violinist sustained back problems that could prevent him from playing again. One firm has already done the background work, and now WALA is sending out feelers for a D.C. litigation firm to file a complaint and if necessary take the case to trial. WALA puts out its referral list once or twice a month, and according to Lowe the cases get picked up quickly, often in a matter of hours. “I get these lawyers who are panic-stricken for pro bono work,” he says. He added that the cases WALA offers appeal to transactional attorneys who don’t often get the opportunity to do pro bono work in their field. Lisa Dewey, the partner in charge of pro bono work at DLA Piper, agrees, saying that young attorneys who handle copyright or trademark law don’t get many chances to use their skills for pro bono work. Dewey and DLA Piper have been working with WALA, providing a legal advice clinic for artists once a month. The firm is also starting up a clinic for artists who want to form nonprofits, giving them the basics of 501(c)3s. But all has not been well on the financial front for WALA in recent years. Prior to 2003, the organization had a full-time salaried executive director and several staff members. However, the economic downturn combined with budget problems almost forced the organization out of existence. “A lot of people for a time there thought we had gone under completely,” says Carl Settlemyer, president and chairman of WALA’s board. “There’s a sense in which delivering free legal services is a low-cost operation, but it’s not free.” After WALA had to lay off its paid staff, Finnegan Henderson and several other large law firms stepped in to save the organization. “It was obvious to me that if we didn’t take it over it was going to die,” Lowe says. In addition to giving WALA office space, Finnegan Henderson picks up Lowe’s salary and covers the group’s operational costs. WALA is alive, but working at a bare-bones level, with Lowe putting in a huge amount of hours coordinating the referral system while a part-time assistant helps with administrative tasks. The organization has recovered somewhat thanks to financial contributions from other D.C. law firms, and while still keeping costs low, Settlemyer would like to expand the group’s services with more educational programs, extra staff, and an outreach program that will let artists know that legal aid is available. “It’s very frequent that artists get a raw deal and don’t understand what it is they’re being asked to sign,” Settlemyer says. He adds that though WALA may seem less important in comparison to traditional pro bono programs “the livelihood of artists in this area often depends” on the services WALA provides. For Brenin, WALA has been “a godsend.” “Here’s an area of my project I don’t have to worry about,” he says. Brenin’s case has especially complicated ownership issues because he is working from Mindell’s life story, but Zam is writing the script. “In his case, they’re doing a production based on the life story of a real woman, and we have to have an agreement with the playwright and the actor,” explains Zutic, adding that once the group gets a venue they’ll also need to work out a contract with the theater. Brenin wants to put the finishing touches on the one-woman play, which is entitled “Norma Who?” by this fall. “Off, off, off Broadway would be a thrill,” he says.
The Common Good is a monthly column devoted to the pro bono community. Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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