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Christine Lepera: Billboard’s 2024 Lawyer of the Year

Christine Lepera: Billboard’s 2024 Lawyer of the Year

Christine Lepera might be one of the country’s top music litigators, but decades ago, she wasn’t even sure she still wanted to be a lawyer at all.

In 1986, just a few years after she graduated law school, she was working at a New York firm where she was “dissatisfied” and, like many young attorneys, faced existential questions about her chosen career path.

“I never intended to be a music lawyer, and after four years at a corporate firm on Wall Street, I was basically ready to quit the law entirely,” she recalls with a laugh.


Billboard’s 2024 Top Music Lawyers Revealed


Today, that’s hard to imagine. Lepera — who is chair of the music litigation group at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp (MSK) — for years has been one of the music industry’s go-to trial lawyers.

She handles many different types of cases, from representing Daryl Hall in last year’s headline-grabbing battle with longtime partner John Oates that’s still pending to Dr. Luke in his just-settled defamation case against Kesha. But her primary specialty is defending superstar artists against allegations that they’ve stolen their songs from someone else.

Over the past year, Lepera has handled such copyright cases for Dua Lipa, Jay-Z, Post Malone and others; previously, she has done similar work for Katy Perry, Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), Drake, Ludacris and many more. For Lepera, who herself plays piano, working those lawsuits is not just about the people involved, but about their music — and their right to create without facing needless lawsuits.

“What I get the most enjoyment from is servicing the music,” Lepera says. “In many of these cases, what you’re dealing with is people who have not stolen anything and have just used basic musical building blocks. And the other side is literally trying to monopolize music that they shouldn’t.”

In recognition of her achievements, Lepera has been named Billboard’s 2024 Lawyer of the Year. Fellow partners Eric German, Bradley Mullins and David Steinberg join her on the Top Music Lawyers list.

Facing an impasse in her young career, Lepera turned to Martin Silfen — her former law professor at New York Law School and a music attorney who represented clients like Blondie, LL COOL J and Aerosmith — for advice. Silfen connected her with Leonard Marks, a legendary New York music attorney who counted Billy Joel, The Beatles and Elton John as clients over his long career.

The timing was just right. At that point, Marks was getting plenty of litigation business sent his way from John Eastman, another powerful industry attorney who is best known for representing Paul McCartney in his wranglings with the other members of The Beatles (prompted by their association with manager Allen Klein). The late Marks, whom Lepera fondly recalls as an eccentric attorney with you-can’t-believe-he’s-a-lawyer vibes, brought her into his small firm and gave her a shot.

“Len hired me, I started doing lots of entertainment cases and everything changed,” Lepera says.

From left: Attorneys Christopher Buccafusco, Christine Lepera and Carla Miller discussed how copyright law affects creators at a 2019 panel at Cardozo Law School in New York.

One of the first major cases she handled was a copyright lawsuit filed in 1990 against Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber that accused him of stealing the title song from his smash hit The Phantom of the Opera from a Baltimore liturgical composer. The case dragged on for years, featuring countersuits, multiple appeals and an attempted appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court before ending in the late 1990s with a victory for Lloyd Webber in a high-profile jury trial.

The long-running lawsuit provided plenty of material for the young music litigator to cut her teeth. “It was a 10-year extravaganza,” Lepera says, laughing. “And we won everything at the end of the day.”

In the years that followed, big music cases kept coming. In 2006, Lepera won a jury verdict clearing Ye and Ludacris of allegations that they had based their 2003 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit, “Stand Up,” on an earlier song. In 2015, she helped defeat a lawsuit claiming that Jay-Z and Timbaland had stolen material from an Egyptian composer for their 2000 smash “Big Pimpin’.” In 2017, Lepera won a ruling that Drake had made fair use of a spoken-word jazz track when he sampled it on his 2013 song “Pound Cake.”

The attorney’s trajectory culminated in 2022, when she won a federal appeals court decision that Perry’s 2013 single “Dark Horse,” another Hot 100 No. 1, had not infringed the copyright of an earlier song. It was not only a big win for the singer, overturning millions in damages, but also set an important legal precedent that individual songwriters cannot lock up simple musical “building blocks.”

For years, such lawsuits have been a source of anxiety for creators and companies alike, particularly in the wake of the controversial 2015 verdict that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines” had infringed Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” In the years that followed, artists became more cautious about vetting their songs with musicologists, often preemptively offering writing credits to would-be accusers rather than risking a lawsuit.

But from Lepera’s perspective, song-theft lawsuits didn’t increase after the “Blurred Lines” verdict; rather, they’ve always just been an unfortunate byproduct of success. “You write a hit, you get a writ,” she jokes. In fact, she suggests the verdict had a positive impact: More artists are willing to fight back against questionable allegations and more courts are willing to scrutinize bad lawsuits.

“They’re going to fight and not give into this fear,” Lepera says of her clients and other modern artists. “Even though it’s a very draining, expensive, uncomfortable and uncertain process, I think we’re seeing very strong advocates turning around and deterring these kinds of cases.”

In the past year, Lepera fought battles inside and outside the copyright sector. She represented Lipa in two high-profile lawsuits that claimed the star had copied earlier songs when she wrote her megahit “Levitating.” In June, a federal judge dismissed one of them, agreeing with Lipa’s argument that she had never heard the song in question; the other case, where Lepera has made the same argument, is awaiting a decision. Lepera also won a ruling in September dismissing a lawsuit against Jay-Z, Timbaland and Ginuwine that claimed they had lifted material from an old soul tune for the songs “Paper Chase” and “Toe 2 Toe.”

Perhaps more notably, Lepera resolved the decadelong litigation by Dr. Luke against Kesha, in which her client claimed the pop star had defamed him when she accused him of rape in 2014. After years of litigation and appeals, a trial was set for July 2023; instead, a confidential settlement was reached in June. As part of the agreement, the two issued a joint statement in which Kesha said she “cannot recount everything that happened” while Dr. Luke maintained that he was “absolutely certain that nothing happened.”

The Dr. Luke v. Kesha case, which started years before the #MeToo movement and was heavily litigated throughout that period, sparked strong emotions on both sides and sometimes thrust Lepera herself into the spotlight. In deposition videos made public in 2019, Lady Gaga told her, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

When facing such situations as an attorney, Lepera says she sticks to the “facts and the law” of a given legal argument and is not intimidated by the celebrities involved or the PR dimensions that can accompany it.

“I can’t advocate a position unless I believe in it,” she says. “I have to truly believe in whatever it is I’m arguing. I’m not really emotional. I don’t have that trepidation of ‘Oh, look who I’m representing.’ ”

Another major 2023 case for Lepera was the public breakup of beloved duo Hall & Oates, in which she served as Hall’s lead counsel. In the dispute, which attracted heavy media attention thanks to sealed filings later becoming public, Hall accused Oates of violating their partnership agreement by unilaterally attempting to sell part of their joint entity to Primary Wave, a prominent music company that has acquired many catalogs in recent years.

As the case unfolded, it became clear the matter was deeply personal for Hall, who in legal filings called the alleged sale by Oates the “ultimate partnership betrayal” and said it specifically had been designed to hurt him after years of worsening relations between the duo. Oates later responded by calling the accusations “inflammatory, outlandish and inaccurate” and saying that they had left him “deeply hurt.”

In late November, after a climactic court hearing in Nashville, a judge sided with Hall and Lepera, putting the Primary Wave deal on hold and allowing an arbitrator time to decide Hall’s arguments against it. The dispute remains pending.

Due to the massive media attention, Lepera says the case has been “very painful, obviously, for both of them.” Bands, she says, are “almost like family,” and when things “fall apart at the seams” after a long career, there are bound to be intense feelings for all involved. After decades of handling such cases, she says the job of a good litigator is to understand and absorb that human dynamic, but also to channel it into a winning legal argument.

“My challenge is to be there to absorb and listen to that,” Lepera says, “but also to just cut through and get to the result that’s needed.”

This story originally appeared in the March 30, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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