You’ve seen him on TV and on the web as “the lawyer” on TMZ. No, not the one with the graphic at the end of the show that says, “I’m a lawyer” (Harvey Levin), but the on-camera, in-office, actual lawyer. Jason Beckerman is the head of Legal and Business Affairs for TMZ, where he is lucky enough to work alongside “the hardest working and funniest group of people in the entertainment industry,” he says. “The days are long and the pressure is intense, but it’s never not interesting.” He sat down at the request of the Biederman Blog to discuss his work:
Question — What projects are on your to-do list right now and how typical is this of your typical workload?
Answer – I wear two hats at TMZ – legal affairs and business affairs. My legal affairs work is pretty much the same every day: I vet the TV show and the web site content. The business affairs portion of my job varies day to day largely depending on the nature and status of the various deals we’re negotiating. Today, for example, I’m working on negotiations with two companies that provide photos and videos to TMZ, and a third company we’re thinking about doing a joint venture with. TMZ is expanding incredibly quickly, which means we’re either contemplating doing business or actively negotiating deals with a host of companies at any one time.
Q. — What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?
A. — People assume I spend my day fending off angry lawyers complaining we defamed their celebrity clients. You’d be shocked how infrequently that actually happens. The web and TV production staffs, from Harvey Levin on down, really get the legal limits of what we can do and go to great pains to make sure we stay within those limits. In news reporting, there is a natural tension between the reporters who want to publish a story and the lawyers who want to exercise caution, but the culture here is to err on the side of caution. People can criticize the subject matters we cover at TMZ, but I’d put the quality and accuracy of our reporting up against any news organization in the country.
Q. — How much of your work is: traditional production legal; celebrity journalism; media based (web/apps/broadcast); and studio legal affairs for Telepictures/Warner Brothers?
A. — An average day is probably 40 percent production and 60 percent business affairs.
Q. — What questions do you get asked the most or confront the most often?
A. — 1) Is the newsroom discussion we see on television scripted? (No). 2) Is your job as fun as it seems? (Sometimes). 3) What’s in Harvey’s cup? (I’m sworn to secrecy).
Q. — How do your multiple roles — production legal, on-camera correspondent, live show host — differ from the undertakings of most Entertainment lawyers in Los Angeles?
A. -- I think I have a one-of-a-kind job, where I can be both the lawyer for a TV show and regularly appear on the show. It speaks to TMZ’s aim of breaking down traditional notions of what constitutes news. I am incredibly fortunate to work for a company that allows me to play both roles.
Q. -- How did you land in your current job?
A. — Like all good jobs, it was all about who I knew… in this case, a former colleague of mine from Kirkland & Ellis works as an attorney for Warner Bros. and she told me about the job. I was at the time a partner in an entertainment-focused firm, so it was a good fit. I interviewed with Harvey and somehow convinced him to hire me.
Q. — Over the years, as TMZ has grown, with the show breaking bigger stories and morphing from an insider’s perspective (e.g. clips of celebs denied entrance to hip clubs) to a more mainstream outlet breaking news of sometimes global interest, how have your roles and challenges changed?
A. — My job has gotten easier for two reasons: First, folks in the entertainment industry trust us and are more willing to work with us. If we get a tip on a celebrity, we can usually call the celeb or their rep for comment. We don’t always believe what they tell us, but either way we get a better sense of what really happened. Second, our staff is so much more experienced and more aware of legal pitfalls than they once were, and they’re able to address problems so I don’t have to.
Q. — What types of projects have become routine for you and which issues – whether by your call or protecting the show and its staff – keep you up at night?
A. — It’s not the issues that keep me up at night. … I think we’ve got those down. My fear is that as quickly as things move and with the enormous quantity of material we produce and publish, we’re going to miss something.
Q. — Which area of law is most germane to working in celebrity journalism? The First Amendment? Privacy torts? Defamation?
A. — You can’t separate them. Privacy and defamation concerns are subsets of any First Amendment analysis. From NYT v. Sullivan on down, courts have interpreted the First Amendment to give broad protection to media organizations and most states have crafted their privacy and defamation statutes to press right up against the limits of the First Amendment. The first question we ask ourselves when considering publishing a story that might be susceptible to a defamatory or privacy claim is “Does the First Amendment protect us?”
Q. — What, if anything, do you use from law school on a day-in and day-out basis?
A. — On my first day at my first job after law school, I realized that legal research is the single most essential class I ever took. I’ve learned everything else along the way. For example, I knew very little about the First Amendment when I took this job, but I am a damn good researcher and have been able to figure things out.
Q. -- If you weren’t practicing law, what would you like to be doing?
A. — Is traveling the world on someone else’s dime a legitimate answer?
Q. — Do you have any advice for lawyers who see you on air or online and think, “That looks like the coolest law job?”
A. — My job is very, very cool, as legal jobs go. But when the cameras turn off, I slog away over deal points, discovery responses and memos to the file, just like everyone else. My two pieces of advice are: (1) if you don’t really want to practice law, don’t. … There are a million great professions out there and a law degree is an asset to any of them; and (2) if you find an area of law that really interests you, go after it with all you’ve got. I spent years toiling in muddy trenches before I found this gig, and I wish I had the time back.
Q.-- We hear so much about unhappy lawyers. What’s your best advice for staying a happy lawyer?
A. — See above.
Before joining TMZ, Beckerman was a partner and chair of Litigation at Eisner & Frank (now Eisner, Kahan & Gorry) in Los Angeles, where his practice focused on entertainment-related intellectual property. He also served as a general litigation associate at SNR Denton in Los Angeles and Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C. He earned his bachelor’s at the University of Connecticut, his J.D. at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and is married and the father of two. [Photo courtesy of TMZ.]