Tim Epstein ’04 wanted to be Corbin Bernson in LA Law. Watching television with his mother, he saw the good-looking actor riding around in convertibles and having fun in the courtroom and identified something he’d like to work toward.
“I wanted to be a lion in the courtroom,” he said. “My second summer clerkship, at Corboy & Demetrio, I realized that the lions of the court, the real trial lawyers, they die with their boots on. So, there wasn't going to be an opportunity for me to rise through the ranks quickly. And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to rise quickly, and I wanted to be entrepreneurial.”
Epstein was no stranger to cutting his own path, however. As a student at Illinois, he enjoyed the extracurricular offerings, but couldn’t find one that fit him, so he created his own. The Irish Law Students Association was his creation, an outlet for him to do things like service trips to Appalachia and social outings like marching in the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade, where he met and had a beer with a young candidate for Senate named Barack Obama.
Using the same spirit he put into creating the Irish Law Students Association, Epstein bent his will toward carving out a niche in sports and entertainment law where he saw a void. As a 3L, having already had a note selected for publication in the Elder Law Journal, he focused on research that would become a law review article accepted by the University of Virginia on “disappointment lawsuits” in sports. Shortly after graduating, while doing the work and learning how to be a lawyer (“my day job”), he also spent time researching and getting in on the ground floor of the emerging field of sports law.
That independent sports law work at the College of Law and in his early years of practice led to Epstein rising through the ranks to Duggan Bertsch’s sports law practice. There, he does a bit of everything, from Olympic arbitrations to NCAA enforcement cases. But sports wasn’t the only area in which he saw opportunity.
“I got great advice from one of my mentors at Donahue Brown, who told me, ‘If you want to be a partner in a law firm, the fastest path to partnership is to do something that other people are not doing,’” Epstein said.
Major music festivals were in a nascent stage in 2004, when a friend asked Epstein to help him with the legal aspects of organizing a festival in Chicago. He jumped at the chance to help with the Pitchfork Music Festival, which has attracted thousands of music fans to Chicago annually and spawned new iterations around the globe. Working on the early installments, however, helped establish Epstein within the field. His work diligently poring over contracts with artists, vendors, and sponsors earned him a reputation for great work and a foot in the door with the many promoters and festivals that have sprung up in the years since.
Now, along with his role chairing Duggan Bertsch’s Entertainment, Events, and Festivals industry group, he leads a team that provides counsel to nearly all of the independent major festivals in Chicago and many more across North America. He represents over 100 festivals, over 100 live event promoters, and a couple hundred venues.
“I look at myself, really, as an entrepreneur and the majority of my clients are entrepreneurs. We really regard ourselves as part of our client’s team, not just as some fungible piece,” Epstein said. “I have relationships with brands and vendors, I have my own ticketing terms with all the major ticketing platforms. I have terms in place with all the major music agencies. And so, what it does is it provides my clients not just substantive expertise, but it gives them leverage that they wouldn't otherwise have unless they were a Live Nation or AEG.”
Building those relationships and becoming an asset for clients required Epstein to use his innate will and determination, skills he honed at the College of Law. The challenge of earning a degree at Illinois remains vivid to Epstein and an important factor in helping him on the path to becoming one of Billboard’s top music lawyers.
“The academic rigors, quality of the fellow classmates, and the quality of the faculty and dedication to teaching,” he explained. “You have so many people fully dedicated just to the art of teaching…not only are you more focused on the academic side, but your fellow students are as well. Being all together in C-U for those three years provided a great foundation.
“I think the relationships that I developed with faculty and with fellow students at Illinois were 10-20 times better than what I've seen from any of my other fellow attorneys that they experience in their law schools,” Epstein added.
When students ask him for advice, at the Sports & Entertainment Law Society event he spoke at this month or in classes he teaches at Loyola University School of Law (where he has been adjunct faculty for almost 15 years), he cautions them against seeking out a job because of their personal enthusiasm for the subjects. In his entertainment practice, Epstein makes a point to only represent the buyers of talent and to avoid all work with the talent themselves in order to deliver the best results for his clients. Although he is a sports and music fan himself, he is decidedly not a “fanboy.”
“My enthusiasm for both sports and entertainment law is first and foremost based on development on the ground floor of a practice of law, and not any fandom,” he said.
What Epstein encourages students to do is use their own resolve to find a niche in an industry where they can establish themselves as a powerhouse.
“Don't start something just for the sake of starting something to say it’s yours. I would say see what is out there and see what is missing or broken and then attack it and make it your own,” he said.
With a growing list of accolades including a place on Law Bulletin’s Forty Under 40, his sports law practice being ranked among the best, as well as accolades from Billboard for his work in live entertainment, following Epstein’s advice might be a great idea for any young legal mind.