Fashioning a Lucrative Legal Specialty

Susan Scafidi, Fashion Law Institute in Crain's New York Business, November 03, 2013

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On a Saturday in October, three dozen new and emerging fashion designers packed a law firm's conference room in midtown, eager to learn the ins and outs of protecting their brands from copycats. Many of the well-dressed fashionistas even hung around for an extra two hours after the six-hour program had ended, thirsting for knowledge that was not available until recently.

"It was enormously successful," said Lauren Wachtler, head of the year-old fashion-industry practice at law firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. Her firm partnered with Damsels in Design, a group of female designers, to host the legal program, which covered a span of issues ranging from dealing with a deadbeat supplier to labor laws involving foreign talent.

At a time when law-school attendance is declining, the field of fashion law, which has emerged as a specialty only in the past few years, is on the upswing. As of August, there were nearly 59,500 law-school applicants for 2013 in the U.S.—an 18% drop from the same period in 2012, according to the Law School Admission Council Inc. By contrast, Fordham Law School reports that a quarter of incoming students ask about its Fashion Law Institute, which it founded three years ago.

Other educators, such as Brooklyn Law School and SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology, have also begun to offer fashion-law classes, and law firms and independent attorneys are now styling themselves as fashion specialists.

"It was really after 2010 that we had this explosion," said Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute, which is partially funded by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "There was a bubbling of interest in 2006, amid what was still ridicule and joking and disbelief, but heads turned when we launched the institute."

In addition to the glamour factor—fashion carries an air of excitement that few other specialties can boast—attorneys are finding yawning demand for legal help from potential clients within the industry. With the evolution of the Internet, retailers and designers have found themselves more vulnerable than ever to having their creations ripped off. Hiring a legal expert schooled in copyright protection, trademarks and intellectual-property rights could help defend a company from copycats who have replicated designs online.

'Better marketability'

Lawyers are also seeking to distinguish themselves from the competition by offering more knowledge in certain areas.

"There's a trend in law schools toward specialization," said Monica Richman, chair of the fashion-law committee at the New York City Bar Association and a partner at Dentons. "The law schools feel that if people come out and take numerous classes in one area, then they have better marketability."

Two years ago, the bar association introduced the fashion-law committee, which now has 34 members who work as in-house counsels at retailers and at law firms, to meet demand. Each year, Ms. Richman hosts seven programs, ranging in topic from using song licenses as background music during runway fashion shows to dealing with bankruptcy. Fordham now offers six annual courses in the category, up from a single seminar in 2006.

In addition to attracting new law students, fashion law is generating interest from established lawyers. After the big turnout for her October event, Ms. Wachtler expects to repeat educational programs on a quarterly basis. Each year, the Fashion Law Institute offers two-week-long condensed "boot camp" courses that are open to lawyers, fashion insiders and anyone else interested beyond just Fordham law students.

The field is not just limited to apparel, either. Fashion models and agencies are also finding a need for legal experts to make sure images are not misappropriated without proper payment, and to deal with labor issues.

"The use-of-image issue is very important in this electronic age," explained Doreen Small, who founded Marquart & Small, a firm specializing in fashion and entertainment, earlier this year after stints at Warnaco and Ford Models. "Agencies have to be cognizant of these new uses."

Too popular?

But while the category is growing, it may be becoming too popular. Some attorneys warn they are already seeing overuse of fashion-law branding as lawyers market themselves as experts or specialists, often to the point of violating legal advertising rules. Last fall, the Fashion Law Institute hosted a cautionary-tale program about the do's and don'ts of labeling oneself in fashion law.

"In any project you'll have a few crooked stitches," said Ms. Scafidi. "It's a matter of concern."