For Cynthia Maxwell '06, a former ballet dancer, basketball player for Bowdoin College, and art history minor, the Clinical Seminar in Law and the Arts was the perfect way to blend legal education with her interests. Cynthia had been exposed to a variety of arts-related legal issues by working on the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts (which also addresses sports issues) and by taking Trademarks during her second year. The clinic, with its strong focus on intellectual property law and the basics of nonprofit governance, brings together the transaction and litigation sides of arts law.
Starting the clinic in the fall of her third year, Cynthia began working with Chaise Inc., an innovative nonprofit organization that produces an art and music "magazine" on DVD. Begun in 2004, Chaise Inc. came to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts—where clinic students are based—seeking help with its 501(c)(3) application for tax-exempt status. Cynthia spent seven months working on the application. During that time she worked with the supervising attorney at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts as well as with the two executive directors of Chaise Inc., drafting and revising the application and responding to the organization's questions. The application was filed with the IRS in the spring of 2006 and is currently pending approval.
"The staff attorney oversees the project but really let me take hold of the whole thing," says Cynthia, who appreciated having the opportunity to do the type of pro bono work that a first or second year law firm associate might do. "On our first conference call with the client, I thought I would just be there to supplement if the supervising attorney needed anything, but he handed the agenda over to me to lead the conversation, which was a remarkable experience."
In addition to working with Chaise Inc., Cynthia, together with her Law and the Arts classmates, takes calls each week from artists who need legal assistance with their arts-related legal matters. Typical calls, she says, come from artists who want to form nonprofit organizations, authors who need publishing contracts drafted or reviewed, or an artist claiming that a third party is infringing his or her copyright. Since clinic students may not act as lawyers and must limit their initial conversations with callers to fact gathering and intake, one of the greatest challenges, says Cynthia, is managing the callers' expectations so that they understand the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts policies and procedures and do not expect to receive legal counseling over the telephone.
"It's like a doctor who won't diagnose you over the phone but rather wants you to make an appointment to come into the office to get treatment," she explains. "We have to explain to callers that if their legal issue is arts-related, and if one of the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts services fits their need, they can come into the offices to receive proper legal counseling."
Overall, the clinical experiences—inside the classroom, in out-of-class simulated experiences, and with Chaise Inc.—have taught Cynthia critical lawyering skills such as communicating with clients to extract their stories and the pertinent facts, counseling clients, drafting memos, and understanding general intellectual-property law.
In the second semester of the clinic, Cynthia became a Teaching Assistant and is now supervising new interns from the clinic.
"This is by far the best way you can learn to practice law," she says. "It's fun and well worth the time. Plus, the clients we talk with and see are doing fascinating work and are very grateful that we have been able help them pro bono. It has been a really fulfilling experience."
The clinic instructor, Teri Silvers, a highly experienced arts attorney, invites many guest lecturers who are top arts-related lawyers to speak with the students about their practices. Some guest lecturers during Cynthia's semester included the general counsels of a museum and a music company, and a law firm partner and associate practicing intellectual-property transactions.
Cynthia says that these opportunities are the perfect complement to working at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts because they expose the students to the vast array of ways in which they can pursue arts law in their own careers. Indeed, she had no idea that she wanted to do intellectual-property transactions prior to law school, but now as a direct result of the clinic, she is planning to tailor her law firm practice in that direction.