We are so excited to introduce Kiffanie Stahle, a lawyer, photographer, fellow small business owner, and an active participant in our Creative Lady Collective Facebook group. Kiffanie has been helping artists and creative entrepreneurs in her law practice since 2011. Practicing law has solidified her passion for teaching the creative community about the law. Through the artist's J.D. she provides resources that empower you to tackle and understand the legal aspects of your creative business.
There is so much goodness for everyone in this interview. Seriously, put down what you're doing and dive in; you won't regret it.
Tell us about your path to becoming a lawyer for creatives.
Before law school, I was a wildlife biologist. And after nearly a decade of counting birds and rodents, I was ready for a change. But I wasn’t sure what that change was.
At the time, I was showing my nature photography in galleries and I debated trying to go full time.
But law school had always been something that called to me. And after much thinking and discussion, I decided to take the leap.
During law school, I continued to show my work. And once the secret got out that I was in law school, everyone started asking me questions.
Sometimes I could help. But often, since I wasn’t an attorney yet, I couldn’t.
So, I started searching the San Francisco Bay Area for a law firm where my friends would feel comfortable and treated respectfully and fairly. And while I found good options, I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted.
Because of that, I decided to open my own firm and create the place that I couldn’t find for my friends.
And that’s what I did. I graduated law school in May 2011, took the bar exam in July, and impatiently waited until November for my passing score. On Friday, December 2, I was admitted to the California bar. And within an hour, three friends agreed to be my first law firm clients.
I’ve been helping creatives as their attorney ever since!
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
From Day 1, my good clients have reached out because a friend told a friend, “Call Kiff and she will help you. And if she can’t help, she’ll tell you who can.”
Because a mutual friend is involved, we already know we have things in common and shared values. We already have a little bit of trust with each other. And these are all ingredients necessary to make a good attorney-client relationship.
Your pricing structure differs from many other lawyers'. What inspired this unique structure?
There’s a reason that attorney-client confidentiality exists. It’s there because an attorney’s job requires knowing the whole story, even when parts of it make you look bad.
And when we both sign the dotted line to make me your attorney, I need the inside scoop. I need the good, the bad, and the ugly. I need to have your trust. I need to be part of the team.
And charging on an hourly basis makes that harder. Because when you bill hourly, there isn’t an alignment of motivations.
My client is afraid to call or email me because she's afraid to start the hourly billing clock. So, she doesn’t tell me everything. This is fine by me because I know that eventually, I'll get the whole story. And the longer things drag out, the more and more money I make.
But when you switch over to billing on a flat-rate basis, our motivations line up.
My client is paying the same amount regardless of how many times she calls or emails. And she doesn’t mind when I ask a ton of questions (and even more follow-up questions). She shares her story with me. She shares her fears with me. She shares her hopes with me. And by listening to her, I get what I need to efficiently wrap things up.
Of course, there’s a risk for both sides with flat-rate billing.
Some projects will go as planned and the flat rate lines up with my desired hourly rate. And some projects will be super easy and I make out like a bandit. But other projects drag out and my hourly rate is a tenth of what I want it to be.
But for me that risk is outweighed by my client knowing I’m on her team.
Can you tell us a bit about your motivation to start the artist's J.D.?
After a couple of years as a lawyer, I started being able to predict who would create a successful, thriving business. And it all boiled down to one factor, was a creative business owner willing to:
- learn about the legal side of her business
- take action on what she learned to build her business on a strong foundation
But the hard part was convincing my friends of this. And when I did, the resources I found for them were confusing, full of legal jargon, and didn’t have examples relevant to creative businesses.
So, I started creating what I was trying to find. I created resources for my friends that added ease to the legalese of running their businesses.
And that’s still what I’m doing today at the artist’s J.D.
Bit by bit I’m helping you find the answers to your questions, discover questions you didn’t know you should be asking, helping you take action, but most importantly injecting a little ease into the legalese.
Since you run your own law practice and facilitate at the artist's J.D., do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Over the last seven years, I’ve used lots of different methods to keep myself organized.
Currently, Asana keeps the big scary task list and helps me project manage. But I switch up how I execute what appears on that list based on my workload, mood, and what feels best because I’ve learned that the most important productivity tool is listening and trusting myself.
I’ve learned I have to accept and give myself grace when things aren’t working. And when that happens, I give myself permission to mix things up and experiment with something new.
How do you recommend freelancers set up their business when just starting out?
- getting an EIN and business banking account so you can get your financial house in order
- getting business liability insurance so you can cover your ass(ets)
- picking the right legal business type so you can sleep at night and protect your family
- getting any permits or licenses so you can cross off the legal red-tape
- creating a client contract so you can be the kindest freelancer around
But once you do these, the terrible lawyer answer of, “it depends,” is the best answer. Because the next best use of your time and resources depends on your goals and how you define success.
What are some of the biggest legal mistakes that creatives often make?
The biggest mistake (that also can have the longest impact) is signing a contract that you don’t 100% understand.
Contracts are always written to favor the person who created it. And while some companies try to be fair, they aren’t going to point out where the contract favors them.
So it’s important that you 100% understand how this contract impacts you immediately, and in the future. (I’m especially talking to those of you who sign licensing deals!)
Yes, having a lawyer review a contract isn’t cheap. But if you find the right attorney, it's a game changer. Because it will not only empower you about this contract but be an investment in every future contract you get.
You should get your attorney to explain:
- why this contract is/isn’t a good deal
- what changes they are making and why
- what specific clauses mean
- what you should look for in future contracts
- what clauses are deal breakers given your goals/plans
- how this contract might impact you today and 5/10 years from now
And take copious notes.
If you do this, you’ll have a better understanding of what your next contract says (and if it’s a bad deal).
You’ll be able to review contracts and start identifying red flags and deal breakers without involving an attorney. And if for a specific contract you do bring an attorney on board, you’ll do so already knowing areas that give you concern.
Are there any contract must-haves that you would advise freelance creatives to include? Curious if there are essential items that you notice creatives often leave out?
Contracts get a bad rap, but they make you the kindest biz owner around, because they exist to make sure everyone is on the same page, and that you don't disappoint your client because you had different understandings of the goals, process, and outcome.
Once you realize this is the goal, then what you need in your contract becomes obvious. Your contract should cover the places ripe for misunderstanding:
- who does what
- what they’ll get
- when it’ll happen by
- what changes or input your clients get to make on the deliverables
- what each of you can do with the deliverables
- how much it’ll cost and when and how payments will be made
- how either one of you can exit gracefully if it’s a bad fit
Of course, there are other things you might want to include depending on the project. You can see all 17 possibilities here.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Curiosity, courage, and endurance.