A new nonprofit offers pro bono legal services to creative types
By Whit Richardson
Mainebiz New Media Editor
Ezekiel Callanan, executive director of Maine Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, stands in David Marshall's Constellation Gallery, where the nonprofit's office is locatedWhen Eric Bettencourt incorporated his recording business Shadow Shine Records in Portland earlier this year, he spent six hours in meetings with a lawyer and ended up paying $1,400 in legal fees.
Given his modest budget, when Bettencourt's legal questions started piling up -- mostly trademark and copyright questions referring to his work with other artists -- he knew he needed to look for alternatives. So when the Portland Music Foundation referred him to a new organization called Maine Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Bettencourt gave it a shot. The organization, founded last June by two recent graduates of the University of Maine School of Law, put Bettencourt in touch with a local attorney who offered his services pro bono. "I don't know what I'd do without [the organization]," Bettencourt says. "I don't have the budget to go back to another six-hour meeting to figure it all out."
Bettencourt is exactly the type of artist the Maine VLA was designed to help, says Ezekiel Callanan, co-founder and executive director of the organization. Its mission is to provide legal and educational resources to Maine artists with limited financial resources. Callanan says every artist who makes a living through their craft is their own small business. "Maine is very rich and vibrant," he says. "[The creative economy] is something I see as the future of Maine's economy."
The organization is gaining steam this summer. It has set up some office space and has already helped 16 artists and organizations in Maine. The organization doesn't have a budget yet, but it is planning its first educational event in October that will focus on artists' finances and taxes. Right now the Maine VLA is a referral service, which means it puts the artist in touch with a lawyer willing to offer his or her services pro bono or for a fixed fee. In the future, Callanan says, Maine VLA would like to service clients in-house. Services are pro bono or fixed fee, with artists paying a $50 membership fee, as well as a $35 application fee for individual artists, and an $85 application fee for established organizations.
Artists of all stripes are welcome: graphic artists, culinary artists, martial artists, healing artists. "If you think you're an artist, you probably are," he says when asked how the organization defines "artist." The organization will help the artist navigate legal issues that are often lost on artists-cum-business owners. "Artists may have the skills to be successful artists," Callanan says. "But many don't have the skills to run a successful business."
David Marshall, a painter, Portland city councilor and owner of Constellation Gallery, agrees that artists aren't always the best business people. He says successful artists these days are expected to have more than just artistic talent. "To be an artist today, you're faced with many unprecedented challenges, not only from dealing with contractual relationships and intellectual property law, but you're also expected to maintain your own website in order to have an Internet presence, and so you have to become a jack of all trades to be an artist," says Marshall, who's also donated space for Maine VLA's office. "Any assistance that can be provided in the legal realm as far as how to set up a business model is really critical to moving artists forward. Maine VLA certainly provides that vital link."
Callanan founded the organization with Nick Holton in June 2008, then the pair spent the rest of the summer studying for the bar exam. The organization gained traction in December 2008, when it held its first board meeting. Holton had left the state for a job in October 2008, leaving Callanan, who's still searching for a paying job, to do most of the work himself.
The organization is modeled after a national Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts program. New York established the first one in 1973, and today there are currently about 35 independent VLAs in the United States, according to Callanan. When Callanan decided to start a Maine chapter, he discovered there had actually been a Maine Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts that operated in the state from 1993 to 2001, but was administratively dissolved when its founder, Elizabeth Adams, left the state.
Callanan says the organization already had grant applications turned down by the Libra Foundation, the Maine Community Foundation and the Maine Arts Commission, but he is confident the organization will receive the grants next year after it's proven how much it can do on a shoestring budget, and how much more it could do with money.
Besides the goal of providing artists with legal counsel, the organization also offers lawyers an opportunity to fill their pro bono obligation with interesting cases. Lawyers are expected to provide around 50 hours of pro bono work a year, but most of the conventional referrals are for family law cases, foreclosure cases, criminal cases -- all "pretty depressing" cases, Callanan says. Helping artists establish businesses, protect copyrights, negotiate contracts, on the other hand, are often more fulfilling cases for lawyers to work on.
Chelsea Fournier, a first-year associate attorney at Preti Flaherty, as well as Callanan's girlfriend, agrees. "Some of the clients we get in, even if you're doing it for free, sometimes it's the most exciting thing in your caseload," she says. "Artists have interesting things going on. They're in the trenches."
Fournier, who normally charges $165 an hour for her services, is currently working with a woman who has a business decorating plastic flamingoes and is trying to protect her trademark rights from a former employer. Fournier has spent 12 hours working on the case and has watched her client become empowered once she knew her legal rights. "It's rewarding as an attorney to see some growth, and that you may be having an impact on someone," she says. "There are a lot of artists who have problems, but don't know how to access the legal system, so it's an exciting opportunity for Maine's creative economy -- to make Maine a destination for artists."