When he was growing up in New York, there were signs that Lee Phillips would pursue a career as a musician: He went to the High School of Music and Art, where he specialized in clarinet; composer Sammy Fain, perhaps best known for the standard “I’ll Be Seeing You,” was a cousin by marriage; his brother Stu took that path, composing popular TV and movie themes like the one for “Battlestar Galactica.”
But when he was an undergrad at Cornell, a roommate taking the LSAT inspired Phillips to pursue a legal career.
If that hadn’t happened, “they wouldn’t be honoring me as a lawyer, they would be listening to me playing piano upstairs at the cocktail lounge,” he quips.
As the Beverly Hills Bar Assn.’s Entertainment Lawyer of the Year, Phillips is being honored for a career that has blended his passions for music and the law. He’s been one of the industry’s top music lawyers, with a client roster that includes Barbra Streisand, Steve Perry, Brian Wilson, Paul Anka, Burt Bacharach, Kenny Loggins, Randy Jackson and Tracy Chapman.
Repping the top recording artists of the past few decades, he gained a reputation for being able to navigate among many different personalities — some were “out there, to say the least,” he says — and to sort through the ups and downs and breakups of groups that create thorny contract and rights issues.
“They probably saw an intelligent attorney who basically was not going to be the star, but who would be there for them,” he says of his ability to build a roster. “It’s not about me. It’s about the client. They’re paying me for legal work, not to be the star.”
His career started in the 1960s, when many California artists were hitting it big and continued to the present as the industry grapples with finding new revenue streams. The rather straightforward deals of the past have given way to so-called 360-degree, mammoth arrangements that try to include all contingencies.
“When I started, a record deal was 12 to 15 pages. Now it’s 110 pages, covering every conceivable thing that may happen.
“And you actually have to read the contract,” he deadpans.
After Phillips graduated from law school at Cornell he went to work in Washington, D.C., at the Department of Justice’s tax division. Two years later, in 1963, he decided to move into private practice, taking a job at Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, where he developed a reputation for settling tax cases quickly.
He got into entertainment work in part by referrals from other attorneys. Some of his first clients were Green Stone Prods., managers who represented Sonny & Cher, and Bill Cosby — the latter was taking off on his comedy albums and as the star of “I Spy.” In the late ’60s he got to know David Geffen and repped his label Asylum Records, which boasted of such artists as Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. His roster also included the Fifth Dimension and Neil Young.
The ’70s were the golden era of the Sunset Strip, a tight-knit circle of musicians, and “every month you met a new client,” he says. “It was a wonderful time in the music business.”
He joined Manatt in 1977, and the firm was renamed Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in 1985.
Phillips has dealt with various personalities. One client was so conscientious of having to do a morning deposition that she slept on his office couch overnight to make sure she’d be there.
At one point in the early ’90s, he represented Prince, Axl Rose and Michael Jackson at the same time.
Phillips has also worked on rights termination, invoking clauses of the Copyright Act that allow authors to recapture their creations, and recently helped Anka reclaim his 1957 hit “Diana.” “Believe me, the other side is not happy,” he says. It’s likely such terminations will be a bigger issue in the business, as a clause of the Copyright Act has allowed late-1970s works to be reclaimed by their authors.
The future presents major challenges. The audience is expanding but music prices are going down. Piracy is still rampant, but there’s some willingness to pay for downloads and streaming. Changing technologies have made it more difficult to write contracts that cover all potential contingencies.
“You are constantly trying to stay ahead of the game,” he says, but predicts that the business will “eventually settle down.”