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Fashion Law

 "How can I get into fashion law?"

Several times each week -- more during interview season -- a Counterfeit Chic reader asks me this question.  I've heard from aspiring law students, current law students, recent graduates, law firm associates disillusioned with their current jobs, law partners interested in a new group of clients, and former lawyers who've spent quite enough time at home changing diapers, thank you very much.  I've received messages from parents seeking advice for their children, colleagues seeking advice for their students, and innamorati seeking advice for the objects of their affection.  Your emails have come from every continent except Antarctica -- and any day now I expect to hear from a lonely scientist with a great new anorak design and an interest in becoming a patent lawyer. 

Just a few years ago, the most accurate answer would have been, "You can't."  After all, "fashion law" is only now starting to be recognized as a distinct field.  Of course, as long as there have been fashion houses, they've had a need for legal services.  But bar associations don't have fashion law sections, law firms are just starting to create groups specializing in fashion or luxury, and it's not on the bar exam -- yet.  Even now that I've finally established a course in Fashion Law, the first at a U.S. law school and hopefully part of a trend of its own, the second most common question I hear is, "Fashion law?  Really?"

Yes, really.  

But back to the original inquiry.  I'd love to have time to email each of you personally or accept all of your invitations to lunch or coffee, but instead I've compiled a few tips. 

  • Excel at law.  Of all the attorneys whom I've asked about their paths to fashion-related positions, only a couple started out with that goal in mind.  Many don't even consider themselves fans of fashion.  And those who do will not hire you for your eagerness to chat about the latest season or trend.  They may, however, hire you for your excellent grades, achievements, and references.  While a degree of enthusiasm for a prospective job is fine, it's far easier to hire a star legal eaglet who can learn to apply her skills to the needs of a fashion client than it is to hire a ditzy fashionista and teach her how to read a case.  As a colleague of mine says, "You can't teach smart."  And yes, dear follower of fashion, you're up against stereotype.
  • Think laterally.  As with other "cool" areas of law, you can't expect fashion law jobs to come to you.  Law firms typically don't visit campus in search of fashion lawyers.  And, like other companies looking for in-house counsel, fashion houses rarely hire directly out of school, at least in the U.S.  Consider instead joining a firm with fashion clients and requesting work on their issues as it arises.  If you're connected within the fashion industry, let acquaintances know you're out there and engage in the fine art of rainmaking.  Don't disdain pro bono opportunities.  And, if the opportunity arises, marry into a fashion family.  (Hey, it worked for Patrizio Bertelli.) 
  • Do your homework.  After reading the last tip, a number of you are poised to email me requesting a list of firms in your area.  Don't.  I do not keep a written list, which would have to be updated regularly and which would inevitably run the risk of omitting and thus offending some fine folks out there. 
It's up to you to target your search.  Start by reading news stories, looking at case documents, and trolling websites for information on who's growing a legal practice in the fashion field.  It's still extremely diffuse at this point -- lots of attorneys have had a fashion client or two -- but there are already significant nodes of experience in many cities.  New York is, of course, the center of the American fashion industry, but don't overlook L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, your own hometown, or the myriad of international opportunities. 
  • Learn the ropes. If you're going to work in fashion law, you need to know as much about the industry and its legal issues as possible, and you need to stay current.  Reading Counterfeit Chic is a good start, of course.  In the U.S., you should also subscribe to and study the daily gospel, WWD, along with other newspapers and periodicals that cover the business side of fashion.  I've personally given quite a few CLE lectures on specific issues related to law and fashion, and there are other opportunities out there. 
A caveat:  Continuing education is a business, and one virtually free of quality controls.  Beware of the flimsy credentialing opportunities that are sure to arise.  If the organization advertises on the side of a bus shelter, offers an unfamiliar "degree," or makes exaggerated promises of access to the industry, think twice.
And most important of all,
  • Make yourself uniquely valuable.  On a recent episode of the TV show Mad Men, a character summed up her career philosophy:  "This is America.  Pick a job, and then become the person that does it."  Whether or not you're reading this stateside, it's brilliant advice for an emerging field.  While I'm flattered by those of you who tell me, "I want to do what you do," think about the possibilities for forging a path of your own.  Intellectual property is my own favorite legal field as applied to the fashion industry, but you could also develop a specialty in M&A, securities law, mediation, employment law, international trade, tax, or any number of other areas that I have made part of the fashion law curriculum.  Some of the best student papers I've supervised have focused on the federal sentencing guidelines and on zoning and urban planning, respectively.  Learn, think, practice, write, speak -- and turn yourself into an expert in your own niche.

And now a few caveats, based on my observations and informal conversations with attorneys in the field.  If you really want to start a career in fashion law, avoid assuming any of the following roles:

  • The Park Avenue Princess.  Perhaps you recall the scene in the Sex and the City movie in which Carrie is interviewing potential assistants.  The first is a heavily accessorized, designer-clad blonde who notes that she doesn't lift boxes and then proclaims dramatically, "I would love a career in fashion."  I can't count the number of individuals who have told me that they hate the idea of law firm hours but that fashion law sounds like so much fun.  Translation:  I don't want to work very hard, and fashion seems like a soft option.  It's not. 

  • The Reluctant Lawyer.  If you don't particularly like law in the first place, why chase after a career in fashion law?  You most likely won't be a convincing candidate, and you won't necessarily enjoy the work if you do get a Prada pump in the door.  A new fashion label still requires a trademark search, an accessories licensing deal is still a contract, and those plans for a trendy new boutique still call for a commercial lease.  Note to well-meaning elders: Fashion law is not the ideal compromise between a parent who wants legally trained offspring and a child with design aspirations and runway dreams.  If (s)he doesn't become the next Marc Jacobs, law school will still be there.
  • The Fan Girl (or Boy).  There are cheaper and easier ways to get into a fashion show or meet a designer than to go to law school.  If you do persist and secure an interview, however, you should not ask questions like, "OMG!  Did you get to go to the fall show?  How cool is [insert designer, model, or editor's name here]?  Do you just love the new collection?"  In other words, the more you sound like a wannabe celebrity stylist, the less you sound like a promising legal candidate.  If you don't know what a celebrity stylist sounds like, you're on the right track. 
  • The Champion Shopper.  Remember Elle Woods in Legally Blonde?  Like the Fan Girl, the Champion Shopper defines him- or herself through a passion for fashion, but is more interested in wearing the clothes than in venerating the genius who created them.   Asking your interviewer whether the job comes with a house discount is a definite "don't."  And yes, it has happened.
  • The Counterfeit Chick.  By all means, dress professionally for your interview -- as in the legal profession, not that of a fashion editor or window dresser.  It's not necessary to wear something from the fashion house or a client of the firm with which you hope to be associated.  If you do so, however, make sure it's genuine.  Fakes have indeed been spotted on hubristic hopefuls -- who somehow never received return calls. 

Now it's up to you.  If you have additional tips that should be on the list, please let me know.  And good luck!