For employment lawyer Perry Smith, songwriting is just a hobby; but that didn’t stop American Idol from calling
Published in 2011 Southern California Rising Stars Magazine on June 14, 2011
Perry Smith’s stepfather, a part-time songwriter, had one of those “I was pretty darn close to getting a big break, but it never panned out” stories, and, in 2007, Smith wanted to give him a special birthday present. So he took a rough, homemade recording of one of his stepfather’s songs, sent it off to producer Gary Carter—who had once been Randy Travis’ music director—and had it professionally produced. The result was so pleasing that Smith dusted off his own electric piano and began writing his own songs—something he hadn’t done in 15 years. Within months, his phone rang and 19 Entertainment, the management for American Idol winners, was on the other end.
Along with 40,000 other hopeful songwriters, Smith, an employment plaintiff lawyer, had submitted a song, “You Believed in Me,” for 19 Entertainment’s contest to find the first single for the winner of American Idol’s seventh season, David Cook. Smith thought he was being punked when he got a call that he’d made the top 100. Then he made the top 20. Then the top 10.
“Because I always loved music so much,” Smith says, “and [listening to it has] always been such a big part of my life really, it was exciting to think about being involved in creating it on a level that, frankly, I never thought I could approach.”
Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, still changes the station when the eventual winning song, “Time of My Life,” penned by a professional, comes on the radio. “Everyone was so disappointed that I, quote-unquote, lost,” Smith recalls. “I couldn’t stop smiling; I couldn’t stop laughing. Are you kidding me? … I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.”
Smith continues to write songs as a hobby. “Listening to music has always been my escape during hard times,” he says. “Now writing it is my escape from the stresses of my law practice.”
He started out practicing employment law exclusively for employers, but because he’s a self-described “underdog kind of guy” who grew up loving Rudy and The Karate Kid, representing plaintiffs was a better fit. He left his firm, Payne & Fears—he admits that his work at the firm sometimes lived up to the name—and along with partner Doug Barritt, started Barritt Smith in Irvine.
“I have recovered millions of dollars for employees and haven’t looked back,” Smith says. “I tend to have my clients’ cases turn into my cases—meaning I tend to take them personally.”
Smith says he’s become a better legal writer because of the songwriting. “There’s some hook that your whole song should be focused on. ... In a legal brief, you really should do the same thing. You really should write to your theme and really clarify your main point or points. All of the surrounding stuff, if it wanders off too far, it’s not going to be a good, tight piece of writing.”
Smith has signed a few of his country and rock songs with a Nashville publisher but doesn’t expect to get rich anytime soon. “I did not cash my first royalty check,” he says. “I’m going to frame it. It is for $145.50—less than half of the hourly rate courts have awarded me in the last year.”