Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (Special guest: Jennifer Williston)

Today I’m taking a break from being the resident “Lawyer Ruby.” Okay, fine, that’s still my role, but our special guest is going to talk shop today instead.

Please welcome my good friend Jennifer Williston. When she’s not being forced by my two-year-old daughter to do sticker art with her, Jenn is an intellectual property attorney in the Washington, DC area. In addition, she’s the Chair of the Literary Committee for Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts.  

Jenn and I taught a popular workshop together on basic copyright and trademark law at the 2009 RWA Conference. (It was moderated by Nora Roberts!) Since then, we’ve co-authored an article for the RWR. But today she’s flying solo, talking about her pro bono work in the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts movement. Take it away, Jenn!


The other day at lunch the friend of a co-worker approached me with a legal question.  As you can imagine, this situation is not an unusual experience for me. Once someone finds out I’m an attorney, the legal problems and hypothetical questions come from every possible direction. I’ve been asked to help with parking tickets, income tax, wills, landlord tenant disputes — the list goes on and on.  My typical approach in these situations is to listen to the question and then politely decline to provide an answer, usually referring the person to an attorney I’m familiar with who is knowledgeable in the field or to the local bar association.

 Today’s question was different, “Can I name the restaurant I’m developing after the title of a popular novel?” I’m sure all the writers who are reading this blog want to shout out “absolutely not” and “under no circumstance.”  Intrigued with the idea, instead of my usual deferral modus operandi, I answered, “Well, it depends, because in most circumstances a writer has no legal basis to protect the title of his or her work.” 

I’ll spare you the details of my hypothetical-filled conversation with the budding restaurateur. I decided to share this anecdote with you because it stresses the need for writers to determine what their rights are and, more importantly, how to protect them.  Many budding and unpublished authors are so consumed with their manuscripts that they do not take the time to protect their rights or, with limited income, do not believe they have the resources to pay for legal representation.  I want to stress to you that understanding your legal rights is just as important, if not more, than the quality of words you write each day.  While this task may seem daunting, it’s not. 

There are many non-profit legal organizations a writer can turn to for assistance, with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts organizations at the top of the list.  The organization I’m a member of, Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (covering artists in the DC-metro area) provides access to education, advocacy and legal services through workshops and seminars, legal clinics and pro-bono referral services for creatives.  Known in the community as WALA, the organization provides members in need of legal representation with referrals to pro bono attorneys who will answer your legal questions and take legal action on your behalf. If you do not meet the minimum income guidelines, WALA will refer you to specialized attorneys who may negotiate a discounted rate to assist with your legal needs. 

The organization also offers many educational programs throughout the year, for example, we’re just wrapping up our Creative Entrepreneur Series.   A six-part seminar on common issues creatives face in their professional career, the Creative Entrepreneur Series features topics such as copyright and trademark protection, contracts and licenses, and negotiation skills.  Last year, WALA represented approximately 150 artists in legal matters and has already served over 375 members of the creative community through educational programming this year. 

Most states or large cities have a volunteer lawyers for the arts program that provides artists and creatives with similar legal services for a small membership fee, or in some instances, no fee at all.  I strongly encourage you to get involved with WALA or your local VLA and protect your legal rights.  Then, if someone tries to copy your work, asks you to agree to an atypical publishing agreement, or wants to open a restaurant that uses the same name as the title of one of your books, you’ll understand your rights and be ready to take action.  

For more information about WALA, visit  For information about a VLA in your region check out this list compiled by the New York Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

18 responses to “Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (Special guest: Jennifer Williston)”

  1. Gwyn says:

    Thank you for being with us and sharing this information, Jennifer. Wrapping my head around the ‘stuffy stuff’ of writing is a necessary evil. How I wish it weren’t. It can erase creative joy faster than a scathing review.

  2. Liz Talley says:

    Welcome, Jenn, and thanks for visiting us today with some really aweseome advice. I will shamfully admit to being ostrich-like when it comes to these sort of issues. But this is a bit of a wake up call. I should treat my intellectual property as any other and legally protect it.

    So if I don’t live in a large city that has a cool organization like yours, where do I start? I’m in Louisiana. We have lots of lawyers…but usually of the personal injury variety. Any clue?

    • Amanda Brice says:

      I’m not Jenn, but I’ll answer. I just checked the VLA list quickly, and there is a Louisiana Lawyers for the Arts pro bono group. True, their mailing address is New Orleans, but it’s quite likely that they do have attorneys from all parts of the state that volunteer with them. So that would be the first place I’d check. After that, I’d check with the Louisiana State Bar’s lawyer referral service.

    • Jenn Williston says:

      I echo Amanda’s comment and encourage you to check out Louisiana Lawyers for the Arts. If they cannot help, you can also contact you local bar association (start with the state bar and then check the county, or in your case, parish, bar organization). Also, this varies per VLA, but WALA does not have residency restrictions for members, so you can also look into membership in some of the VLAs where the publishing industry is more prevalent.

  3. Terrific information! Thanks so much for sharing it with us, and prodding us in the right direction regarding safeguarding our creative and intellectual property rights.

    Cheers and thanks again for sharing.

  4. Hope Ramsay says:

    Jenn, thanks so much for being here today. I live in DC and I had no idea about this organization. Great work!

    My agent is also an attorney, and I cannot tell you how many times she has looked at contracts and come back to me with things that I would never have been concerned about. In my business life, I’ve never signed a contract without having it reviewed by legal counsel, and I think authors should do the same thing. A agent is great for helping to make a sale, but if your agent isn’t a knowledgeable rights attorney, she might miss something that could really bite you in the fanny. In fact I have a couple of author friends who have found themselves in bad contracts because they didn’t stop to ask for counsel.

    Thanks so much for sharing. This is very important stuff.

  5. I had no idea these organization existed. I’m defenitely going to search for such an organization in my area.

    Thank you so much Jenn for sharing your knowledge and to Amanda for inviting you here.

  6. Jenn, thanks so much for your informative post! I had no idea that there was an organization like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. What a great resource!

  7. Oh, wow. I’d never heard of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Sounds like a great (and apparently, much-needed!) organization. Thanks for being here today, Jennifer!

  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    What great information, Jennifer!! Thanks for this.

    Like others, I had no idea organizations like this existed!

    I’m going to look to see if there’s one in the Bay Area (I’m betting there is….)


    • Amanda Brice says:

      Indeed, there are two in your area, depending on where in the Bay Area you’re located. One is in San Francisco, and the other is in San Jose.

  9. Rita Henuber says:

    Add me to the list of I didn’t knows. Thank you for sharing the info. The VLA link is now in my favorites

  10. I’m one more who didn’t know such organizations exist. Thanks for the heads up!

  11. Addison Fox says:


    Thanks for joining us today and sharing your expertise.


  12. Elizabeth Langston says:

    The biggest legal question I’d had so far pertained to signing an agreement with my agent. On some of the loops I lurk on, other authors said they were fine with a verbal agreement and to be careful about signing something.

    So I checked with an attorney friend of mine–who said she thought it was a sound idea, but because this area of law wasn’t her specialty, she really couldn’t advise me (fee or not).

    It’s nice to know that there is a group out there who are available to respond to concerns like this.

  13. Jenn Williston says:

    Thanks Ladies! I’m glad you found the information useful and hope you take steps to stay informed and protect your legal rights.


  14. Thanks so much for the terrific information. I had no idea these organizations existed!


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