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Meet the World’s Most Sought-After Entertainment Lawyer

Joel Katz describes his unlikely initiation into law and what it’s like to work with the brightest stars in the music biz

There are certainly perks that come with having a road named in your honor. Joel Katz found this out a few years back when he was stopped for speeding along Atlanta’s Joel Katz Parkway. “I got pulled over on Joel Katz Parkway and the cop said, ‘You know what, I can’t give you a ticket,’ ” he recalls with a laugh “But I deserved one—I was going pretty fast.” It wasn’t the first time that Atlanta had been lucky for Katz. 

A certified Yankee, the Queens native won a scholarship to study law at the University of Tennessee and, after graduating, never went north again. Katz first came to Atlanta in 1969 to take an entry-level job at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but he found himself wanting for more exciting work. He tried his hand at teaching before setting up what he calls a “pathetically small” practice in Downtown Atlanta, sharing an office with four equally green lawyers and one communal assistant.

Despite these humble beginnings, today the 71-year-old Katz is the chair of Global Entertainment and Media Practice at the powerhouse law firm Greenberg Traurig. He’s not only a social staple whose philanthropic work has raised millions, he’s also arguably Atlanta’s most impressive attorney. How did that happen? To hear Katz tell it, his success has hinged on his chance meeting with his very first client. 

“In 1971, James Brown was the biggest star in the world,” Katz explains, and the two of them had been introduced by a former student of Katz’s, a friend of a friend of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. At the time, Brown needed someone to negotiate a contract with his new record label, requesting, among other things, a private jet and about $5 million. Katz had no experience conducting a deal of that magnitude, making him oblivious to the fact that Brown was requesting remuneration beyond what any experienced lawyer would be comfortable chasing. “He said, ‘You’ve never done one of these contracts, right?’ And I said, ‘Never,’ ” Katz recalls. “He said, ‘Great, you’re just what I want.’ And he hired me.” 

Brown wouldn’t be the last. Once word got out that Katz had negotiated that seemingly impossible deal for Brown, clients began seeking him out. In the years since, Katz has made a habit of working with some of the music industry’s greatest talents, and has brokered deals for everything from the televised broadcast of the Grammy Awards to Big Machine’s recent distribution agreement with Universal Music Group, making him the most important lawyer you may never have heard of. But there’s more to Katz than just a ferocious negotiator. What he says makes him unique is his appreciation for the creative mind. “I think that people in the arts are extremely intelligent, but they’re different than people who are in business,” he says. “They view problems differently—maybe more subjectively than objectively—and sometimes they need help with the situations they find themselves in.” It’s his job to provide that help. “I would say most of my business is counseling,” he notes. “75 percent counseling, 25 percent legal advice.”

Meanwhile, his clients praise his un-lawyer-like bedside manner. “He’s smart and hardworking, but he’s also very warm,” says Doug Morris, the Chairman and CEO of Sony Music and a client of more than two decades. “It’s different than the normal atmosphere you have with a lawyer; it’s the real thing.”

Some of that can be chalked up to southern charm. In an industry whose leaders tend to congregate in New York or Los Angeles, Katz has become a titan without leaving Atlanta, and that’s just the way he likes it. 

“Atlanta’s been good to me,” he says, sitting in his Buckhead office, where the walls are hung with pieces by Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Longo as well as platinum records from his impressive roster of clients. “From not knowing one person, I got to a point where I know just about everybody.”

That’s no understatement. These days, Katz represents some of music’s biggest names—from Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett to the estate of Michael Jackson—and he serves as general counsel to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He also happens to be the only lawyer ever inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. That street named after him? It was a 65th-birthday gift from his pal the governor.

Pressed for why he never left town for the more showbiz-friendly environs of a coastal metropolis, Katz confesses he prefers being a big fish in a less overwhelming pond.

“I’ve got an ordinary life in a not-very-ordinary profession, and that’s been good for me,” he says. “If I was in New York or L.A., I’d be living my business, but in Atlanta I live a relatively normal existence.” 

Well, kind of. Despite his humility, Katz still travels the globe with a who’s who of international power players and handles billion-dollar deals for household names. He hosts lavish dinners for charity, owns a reported 3,300-bottle collection of fine wine and endows scholarships at schools including the University of Tennessee College of Law, Hunter College and Kennesaw State University. 

Asked whether, with all the wealth and acclaim he’s collected, he feels as though he’s made it, Katz doesn’t miss a beat. “Are you kidding?” he asks. “I have the most interesting life of anyone I know.”