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Meet the Lawyer Fighting to Help Models Get Fair Treatment

Tom Mullaney works on behalf of models who are cheated by their agencies.

Attorney Tom Mullaney has some impressive clients listed on his site, cases against big names like Donald J. Trump and Richard Gere, who he has taken on as part of his work in commercial litigation. 

Lesser known but still important are the clients he's taken on out of personal interest: models. Mullaney started representing models in court early on in his career when a few friends of his, who happened to be models, needed help.

"As I was young and starting out my business, I had a personal dislike for not getting paid what I was owed for things I had worked hard on," Mullaney explains. "You're a young kid, it's not like you've built up a lot of savings, you need to get paid what you're owed."

So what started as a favor for friends became something of a passion project. Even though these cases are atypical of his practice, Mullaney helps models collect money that they're owed and haven't been paid by their respective agencies or representatives, models who have been billed "padded" charges, or models who aren't being paid renewals for use of their images. He's continued to take on these cases because he thinks it's wrong that models -- often very young women -- are being taken advantage of in this manner. Mullaney does some work pro bono, and some cases for a contingency fee at "a significant discount to my normal hourly rate on commercial litigation," depending on the case and client, he says.

"[These cases are] important because there is an industry of older people -- sophisticated businessmen and women -- who are not regulated by any authority and they treat models anyway they feel like financially, and the models tend to have very little bargaining or economic power," Mullaney says. "For every Elle MacPherson, there are another 200 models who do several jobs a year but they don't get the same attention, they don't have the same leverage, and the agencies ought to pay the models what they're owed."

The difficulty is that not many young models are able -- or willing -- to sue. Not only is it an incredibly time and money-consuming process, it can leave a mark on a model's resume that costs her jobs as well. For models unhappy with their agencies, lawsuits are very much a David versus Goliath prospect.

"I know one agency I worked for gave me a hard time about paying my bill, and I'm a lawyer who's been around, I've done plenty of cases! I still can't believe it, my whole job is to sue people for money," Mullaney says laughing. "And I live right here in New York, I don't travel very much, and if the agency would give me a hard time, what do you think they do to a 20-year-old model who lives in a modeling apartment six weeks out of the year, is on the road the rest of the time and can't just walk down to the courthouse by herself to start a case and hire a lawyer?"

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What's important for models is that they unionize, something which Mullaney says has helped make other entertainment industries a better place to work. Modeling contracts, in his opinion, need to be standardized. Indeed, he makes an analogy to apartment leases, which are regulated by the government and more or less the same across the city. 

Other organizations -- namely, the Model Alliance, launched in 2012 -- are working towards providing a union for models. Mullaney is aware of the Model Alliance and its mission ("I'm hopeful they succeed," he adds) and maps out two potential courses of action it could potentially take to reach its goals.

The first, and more difficult, is to use business leverage, which would mean getting approximately 90 percent of models to refuse to work until those contracts are regulated. The second is to ask the state of New York to step in. The Model Alliance already made major strides last year when it got a law signed into effect protecting underage models, but there's still a lot of work to be done on the contractual front. Fortunately, the organization may have the opening it currently needs. 

"I know in the class-action case that's pending now -- it's called the Raske case -- the judge who is hearing the case wrote the attorney general and said, 'You ought to be interested in this case and look into it,'" Mullaney explains. "It seems like the judge thought there is a very good reason to believe there is a big group of employees in an industry very important to the city who are being mistreated and whose business ought to be regulated."

One hurdle that models face in this regard is that the general public doesn't see modeling as being a challenging or difficult job, a Mullaney himself held until he started to see these cases. Many imagine that models "live the high life" of traveling and partying, according to him, when the exact opposite is true. But Mullaney is optimistic when it comes to making changes to the modeling industry. 

"I think as more of the models of the world challenge the agencies and sue them to bring their accounting practices and business practices to light, the more that happens the more likely they are to do everything in a transparent and appropriate fashion," he says. 

"Pardon the pun," he adds with a laugh.

Above: Models leave a runway backstage at Berlin Fashion Week. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images