In fashion circles, lawyers becoming sought-after accessories

NEW YORK Tue Sep 11, 2012 9:25pm BST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of the hottest new trends in fashion is emerging from an unlikely venue: law school.

Fashion law is a burgeoning niche practice in New York and Los Angeles, both hubs of the approximately $200 billion U.S. apparel market, with both legal firms and design houses hiring specialist attorneys.

Their charge is to negotiate real estate deals, advise on mergers and acquisitions, deal with employment disputes and, in some of the most high-profile work, litigate copyright claims.

Those claims can be crucial to fashion labels. Witness French footwear designer Christian Louboutin, which won a major legal victory ahead of New York Fashion Week when an appeals court granted trademark protection to the bright red soles on its high-heeled shoes.

Fashion got its law school start six years ago when New York City's Fordham Law School began offering courses, with the warning that the effort would be cancelled if at least three students didn't enrol.

Since then such classes have become part of the curriculum elsewhere, including New York University School of Law and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Loyola Law School in Los Angeles plans to launch its first fashion law course in January.

"I'VE CREATED A MONSTER"

"A colleague recently told me that I've created a monster!" said law professor Susan Scafidi, academic director at Fordham's Fashion Law Institute.

"Fashion law is a real career choice," said Lois Herzeca, a partner at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP and co-chair of its 80-attorney fashion, retail and consumer products practice group.

Industry groups don't keep numbers on how many lawyers work in fashion, so it's difficult to confirm whether more are focusing on fashion law or if a practice that's long existed is just now getting a name.

At the moment, Gibson Dunn is one of the few major law firms to have a dedicated fashion practice, and many fashion houses operate without in-house counsel.

Still, Barbara Kolsun, general counsel at Stuart Weitzman and former general counsel at Kate Spade and 7 For All Mankind, said many fashion houses have built or expanded in-house legal groups in the last five years.

Loyola law dean Victor Gold said he was sceptical about starting a fashion law program but changed his mind after looking at student demand, the size of the retail market and the fashion industry's increasingly global reach.

"It's a place law schools need to be," he said.

Kolsun, who wrote the first textbook on fashion law in 2010, cited the industry's world-wide trillion dollar impact as a reason for increased specialization. She hires law students who want to work in fashion law to intern at Stuart Weitzman and many have gone on to work in-house at places like Coach and Burberry, she said.

One former intern, Julie Zerbo, a student at Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., authors The Fashion Law blog which focuses on knock-offs, emerging brands and analysis of industry-related litigation such as the recent case involving Christian Louboutin.

Another former intern, Rakiat Gbadamosi, graduated from Fordham and serves as liaison between prom and evening dress brand Jovani Fashion Ltd's business team and its outside counsel. Once she is licensed to practice law in New York, she'll serve as its one-woman legal team.

Gbadamosi also has a degree from Parsons The New School of Design, took fashion law courses at Fordham and interned at four fashion companies.

"For me, this is what I wanted to do. I had a passion for the industry," she said.

Fashion law attorneys cite a desire to work in a creative industry, even if their work is on the paper-pushing side. Ali Grace Marquart, in-house counsel at Wilhelmina Models, noted fashion is an industry forced to reinvent itself with each season, and attorneys in the industry must change with it.

Herzeca, the Gibson Dunn attorney, echoed that sentiment, saying one lure is the novel legal issues the industry presents but that it has its brick-and-mortar appeal too. "It's nice to be able to go to a store and say I did this deal to get this product on the shelf," she said.

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Eric Walsh)

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