Celebrities make headlines when they find themselves in heaps of legal trouble. And that seems to happen often these days. We often read about someone in the limelight seeking legal counsel over a DUI, bankruptcy, copyright infringement, or tax liability issue. Matthew Middleton, attorney and chairman of the Black Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Association (BESLA), has represented a variety of reality TV stars, songwriters and producers, as well as Grammy-award winning artists. His past clients include Kanye West, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Fabolous and the estate of the Notorious B.I.G where he negotiated the deal for the hit movie Notorious. BESLA is hosting their 34th Annual Conference in Playa Del Carmen through October 26.
Middleton talks with us about where all these legal troubles come from, sharing a bit of legal advice in the process.
MadameNoire: What are some of the most common legal woes that celebrities experience?
Matthew Middleton: It really stretches the whole gamut, but what we typically hear about are the things like the DWI case, being in possession of a controlled substance or being in possession of illegal weapons, the allegations of sexual or physical assault. Then you have clients that are going through very public or bitter divorces, child custody battles, and even now the unauthorized taping of private moments, sex tapes. They’re facing a lot of these issues today and now with social media, we just hear so much about all of these different matters.
MN: What preventative measures can they take to better protect themselves?
MM: Most celebrities are either creative people, personalities, or athletes so they’re not that well-versed in the law. That’s where having a good and competent lawyer on your team is invaluable because part of what we can try to do is educate our clients. A lot of the times celebrities, because they’re used to having their own way or because they’re well-known, when they encounter the police they try to talk their way out of the situation. Oftentimes, by making statements they’re further incriminating themselves. So it’s important for them to know when you are being confronted by the police or charged with an alleged crime, it’s probably best to just remain silent, call your attorney, and let your team handle it from there.
…Obviously, [with] celebrities because they’re in the public eye, there’s a lot of scrutiny. Everyone is watching to make sure that this certain celebrity isn’t being treated more favorably. A lot of times, I feel that the government, the court, or the police, they go overboard to make sure that the celebrity is not being treated more favorably. I wouldn’t say that they’re targeted because of the media attention and the fact that they live their life in the public eye. It’s just a heightened level of review.
MN: If they do find themselves in trouble, what are some ways that they can amend their situation?
MM: With celebrities, these things affect their brand. It affects their sponsorships, endorsements, their ability to remain on a team; there are just so many ramifications that celebrities are confronted with, you have to have the right team around you. A lot of times, when we are dealing with high-profile cases, we advise the client that they may have their normal publicist or PR rep as a part of the team; but when these situations arise we need to have a crisis management PR person as a part of the team. As a lawyer, you’re not only trying to fight for the best possible outcome in court, but now you’re also fighting in the court of public opinions. The court of public opinion may sometimes be more important than what comes out of the actual courtroom. The most paramount thing is to have the right team around you…and let them come up with the best strategy and deal with the matter.
MN: Is it common for most celebrities, in these circumstances, to avoid jail time due to their social status?
MM: I’ve seen it happen both ways. [Celebrities] have resources that they can avail themselves of to best deal with this matter. So when you have the “best people” involved, nine times out of 10, you get a better outcome than the average person who may not have those resources.
Sometimes, celebrities are sent to jail… because the judge or prosecutor want to be shown as being tough on crime. So they use them as an example… [M]aybe if it was an average person you would have been able to avoid jail time.
MN: How are the different offenses handled? Copyright infringement, bankruptcies, tax liabilities?
MM: Bankruptcy and civil matters like that, they’re more embarrassing and [have] more affect on the brand as opposed to affecting the celebrity’s way of life. They’re not going to affect their livelihood per se, but they’re affecting their image and their public persona. A civil matter you would deal with differently than a criminal matter.
MN: Can you tell us about BESLA?
MM: BESLA is the Black Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Association. This is our 34th year in existence. This is an organization of professional lawyers, some business professionals that work in entertainment, television/film, sports arena. The majority of our members either represent high-profile clients or work for companies or agencies that represent high-profile clients.
Our primary focus is to provide synergistic networking opportunities for professionals in this area so that we can network and share information. We have our annual conference where we put on panels and programs. We have experienced professionals come and share their experience and give advice.
A lot of people don’t know that the popular show Scandal is loosely based on an attorney who’s an experienced crisis management professional. She’s come to speak at our conference to share her experience and give advice to a lot of the lawyers or agents who are members of our organization.
We give out scholarships to deserving law students who show an interest in a career in this profession. Basically we are an organization trying to do whatever we can to promote the excellence of professionals in this industry and encourage diversity in this area as well.