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Local law firm fills entertaining niche: Lawyer's music background helps land creative clients

June 30, 2008

In the late 1980s, Lafayette native Robert Meitus set off for Los Angeles with his band East of Eden in an attempt to make it in the music business.

The group that shared management with Guns N' Roses [singer Axl Rose grew up in Lafayette] never reached a sliver of its fame, however fleeting. But the experience did give Meitus an introduction to what ultimately would lead to a burgeoning career as an intellectual property lawyer.

Capital Records came calling, but not to sign East of Eden to a recording contract. Rather, executives were interested in another band of the same name and wanted to purchase the rights to it, which Meitus had trademarked. Capital offered $800; Meitus countered with $10,000. They settled on $4,000.

"It's kind of symbolic that I was trying to make it in the music business and I made more money on an intellectual property deal," Meitus said. "Fast-forward 20 years and I'm making my money in the intellectual property business and playing on the side."

The 43-year-old is a founder of Meitus Gelbert Rose LLP, a downtown boutique law firm that has built its niche serving clients in the arts and entertainment industry, as well as in the traditional corporate sector. On a personal note, he also is the husband of Indiana singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

Meitus manages her career and that of Steve Roslonek, better known as SteveSongs, a children's recording artist and host of PBS kids' shows. Likewise, he and his partners, Randee Gelbert and Anthony Rose, handle copyright and trademark matters for a diverse clientele.

The roster includes Ron Artest and his Truwarier Records label, the Wes Montgomery estate and world-famous pool player Jeanette "The Black Widow" Lee. Wishard Health Services and Davis Design Group, owned by former Indiana Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis, are among businesses the firm represents.

Meitus, a guitar slinger who graduated from Wabash College in 1988, has created somewhat of a novelty in the Midwest, considering similar practices typically flock to the coasts to be nearer the action. Yet, Meitus' time in L.A. helped establish the framework of his firm.

Time for a real job

Meitus still enjoys playing music and is working on new material with a band he recently formed. But his skills as a lawyer are what pay the bills.

After finishing at Wabash, he traveled to New York and earned a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University. On a trip back to Lafayette to sort out his life, Meitus said, he met Newcomer. They soon fell in love, with Meitus playing in her band and serving as manager.

Before marrying, Meitus became concerned over how two musicians would have access to adequate insurance, 401(k) plans and predictable income. So, in 1997, he entered the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington and put his degree to work by joining Indianapolis-based Baker & Daniels LLP in 2000.

A few years later, he began practicing copyright, trademark and Internet law, and even created an Internet law course while at IU that his partner, Rose, now teaches. The course's creation coincided with the heavy-metal band Metallica's copyright lawsuit against Napster in which IU was named a defendant.

Meitus has taught at IU on an adjunct basis since 2002 and met his other law partner, Gelbert, while at Baker & Daniels. The two left to launch their practice in 2004 and brought on Rose, who had left Haverstick Consulting Inc., the Carmelbased defense-consulting firm. He met Meitus while attending a seminar at which Meitus was teaching.

Gelbert's copyright and trademark experience coupled with Rose's technology background complement Meitus' entertainment forte.

Outside the office, Meitus helped found in 2003 the Creative Arts Legal League, a local not-for-profit referral network that matches artists seeking legal services to lawyers.

Parlaying his musical talents and professional determination into a thriving entertainment practice is particularly impressive given the complexities involved, said Jonathan Polak, a colleague and IP partner at the local office of Cincinnati-based Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.

"Robert's a really, really smart guy," he said. "That, coupled with the experiences in the industry, really gives him a leg up."

Yet, Meitus Gelbert represents a variety of corporate clients, some of which have a creative slant. They include IU's Jacobs School of Music; New York-based Jim Brown Productions, which produced the "Pete Seeger: Power of Song" documentary on PBS; and Redcats USA, whose shopping catalogs include Chadwick's, Jessica London and Brylane Home, and also is in New York.

Corporate work isn't "as glamorous, [but] it's as valuable to the firm as the somewhat more exciting work we do in the entertainment field," Meitus said.

Laid-back approach

Meitus Gelbert is on the fourth floor of the Morrison Opera House building, whose marquee tenant is the Hard Rock Café. Perhaps reflecting the creativity of its clientele, the firm's progressive décor may be more becoming of a trendy ad agency than that of a legal practice.

Meitus said, however, that his clients need to connect with the relaxed atmosphere. If nothing else, the firm is unlikely to be mistaken for its neighbor, the more conservative Indiana Republican headquarters.

Since its founding in 2004, Meitus Gelbert has added two lawyers-Rose and associate Jordan Olivetti. The plan is to bring two more aboard within the next two years. Revenue the past year has grown 50 percent, indicating the firm may be hitting its stride.

Still, billable-hour requirements found at larger rivals are non-existent at Meitus Gelbert. It's that type of climate that appealed to Roslonek, who, as SteveSongs, helps host PBS' weekday morning program block.

He signed his first recording contract, with Rounder Records in Boston, about 18 months ago and chose Meitus to represent him. Meitus had been recommended by a friend of Roslonek's. He was so impressed by the way Meitus handled contract negotiations that he brought him on as his manager.

"It just makes me very comfortable to know that he's looking out for my best interests," Roslonek said. "But at the same time, he's not adversarial with the other side."

Meitus' knack for making clients feel comfortable became apparent to Roslonek during their first meeting. Roslonek was interviewing prospects to represent him when, toward the end of the conversation, he asked Meitus whether he had anything else he wished to mention.

To which Meitus quipped: "I'm not technically a lawyer, but I read a lot of books."

The response, for a moment, left Roslonek speechless. But the humor, he said, ultimately helped seal the deal.
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