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Shawn Holley has long been a respected pillar of the legal community, and now her name is on the door of one of Hollywood’s top entertainment law firms.
The new Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump Holley moniker not only acknowledges Holley’s achievements but also continues honoring the legacy of the late Howard Weitzman, the firm’s co-founder who died in April.
Holley, who joined the firm as partner at its inception in 2006, is the rare hybrid attorney who represents entertainment’s elite in both criminal and civil litigation matters.
Though discreet about her work and reluctant to discuss clients, during her time at the firm she has advised an impressive roster including the Kardashian and Jenner families, Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, Tupac Shakur and Katt Williams. She’s also adding to her résumé with the Hulu series tentatively titled Reasonable Doubt that she’s exec producing with Kerry Washington and Larry Wilmore.
Her path to Hollywood law was winding and serendipitous. After five years as an L.A. County public defender, she was recruited in 1994 by the late Johnnie Cochran to work at his firm — and just a few months later found herself a member of O.J. Simpson’s defense team for the Trial of the Century. More than a decade later she’d be recruited again, this time by fellow Simpson lawyer Weitzman.
“Shawn is an extraordinary person and a commanding presence in the courtroom and boardroom, Kinsella Weitzman managing partner Larry Iser said in a Tuesday statement unveiling the news. “She is one of the best attorneys in the country at what she does, and it is an honor (and lots of fun) to practice alongside her.”
Ahead of the announcement, the UCLA and Southwestern Law grad and front-row SoulCycle rider talked with The Hollywood Reporter about making the change to entertainment litigation, lessons she learned from mentors Cochran and Weitzman, and how a soft touch and not flinching in the face of adversity have helped her in her career.
Was it always your plan to work as a public defender?
No, it was never the plan. I didn’t even know that I wanted to be a lawyer, just that my mom was the office manager at law firms. So I was always around lawyers. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just went to law school and then a professor at Southwestern said, “You should take a job as a summer law clerk in the public defender’s office.” She had been a federal public defender and she said, “I think you will love this job.” I said OK because I trusted her. I took that job and it changed my life. I don’t even want to say it changed my profession. It changed my life. It was the greatest thing, dealing with concepts of liberty and justice, and you could make a difference in someone’s life that was tremendous. As a law clerk, you saw racism and injustice and all sorts of really, really important things that you could effect change in. It was so important that I said, “This is what I want to be.”
I was a public defender for five years. Johnnie [Cochran] saw me in court and recruited me to go to his firm. Johnnie was amazing in L.A. at that time. You just knew who he was, and he’d done a lot of important work. It was a tremendous honor, but his firm at that time was all civil rights police misconduct — no criminal law at all — and I loved criminal law. So I deliberated about it, but I went. I was learning how to do civil rights police misconduct when the O.J. Simpson case came to the firm. Then all of my cases were taken away from me except for that one. I was on that case for the next year and a half. After that trial, I asked Johnnie, “Can I head the criminal division of the firm?” He said yes, and I started handling criminal [as well as] civil cases there.
What was it like, six months into this job, to find out you’d be working on what was later dubbed the Trial of the Century?
I could not believe my great timing and I couldn’t help but think about how there had been a chance I wasn’t going to take the job at Johnnie’s office. If I had said no and that case had come to the firm and I had missed it, oh my God, that would have been the worst thing ever. It was so fortuitous I was there at the time. Almost immediately, there was an incredible amount of work to be done. I was working 12-hour days, seven days a week. We didn’t take off for the holidays. I worked on Christmas and Fourth of July and, as the low man on the totem pole, I was the person who was always at the jail with O.J. on weekends.
I was in court almost all the time, but when we would get back to the office there would be several banker’s boxes filled with documents because the investigation of that case was ongoing. One of the most brilliant things that [Robert] Shapiro did was not waste time and start the trial when, really, the prosecution wasn’t ready. Law enforcement officers were out investigating the case, and new documents would be in my office every day when we’d get back from court. I was the only person responsible for looking at them and determining what was important and what wasn’t and figuring out what we needed to do about the important things. Johnnie was incredibly generous and let me have an equal say at defense team meetings. It was amazing to be a pretty young lawyer with those giants of the legal field on the Trial of the Century, for sure.
How did Howard convince you to join his firm?
I love Howard. Howard said that we met when I was a public defender. I don’t remember that. I remember meeting him in connection with O.J. since he had been O.J.’s first lawyer. He was the greatest and we had a great relationship and rapport. We ended up doing this show together on the Michael Jackson trial on the E! Network, and it re-established our friendship. I had recently left The Cochran Firm after Johnnie died, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. He said, “Come to the firm that we’re establishing as a partner.” It was a junior non-equity partner, but I was like, “OK.” All the lawyers came from Greenberg Glusker except for me, and I brought my assistant, Jentry, who came with me from The Cochran Firm. We were the only two people not from the Greenberg Glusker family. I didn’t really know what entertainment litigation or business litigation was, but he had faith in me. Off to the races we went.
What have been some of the highlights since you joined Kinsella Weitzman?
Well, I have learned entertainment and business litigation, which has been really rewarding. There are so many great lawyers at the firm who’ve taught me so much. I like to represent people, and I think I do a good job of helping people through a difficult time.
I think because of my public defender and criminal law experience, it causes me to have a soft touch in ways that others might not. I think that you develop that skill and that muscle and that heart, or you already had it which is what drew you to the public defender’s office in the first place. I had my criminal law experience and there, at some point, was a natural collision. The firm represented Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie and Justin Bieber in ligation matters, and then all of those people ended up having trouble with the police and prosecutors. So it really provided a natural transition for me to represent those people when they had those kind of troubles, and then that morphed and grew into its own niche, in a way.
I just represented a young man, a 14-year-old kid, who was accused of doing something that he absolutely didn’t do. It would have been devastating for the case to move forward. He and his parents were so scared because someone was making a false accusation against him, and it was absolutely clear that the accusation was false. I was able to demonstrate to the police that the accusation was absolutely false and it just completely saved him. That was so, so rewarding. Justice was done and I’m just so happy that I could have been a part of that.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career so far?
I think it is just always being authentic and genuine and honest. I really feel like I learned that mainly from Johnnie, and then later Howard. They were very genuinely nice, charming people to everyone. Losing whatever idea you might have as a young lawyer that you’re supposed to be adversarial and combative and look mean or act mean — neither of them had that. They were nice people who were incredibly effective in the courtroom and certainly not pushovers, but also recognized that there’s nothing wrong with mutual respect and kindness. That is a great lesson, and has continued to be a part of who I am and how I approach my job. I think people will say I’m really nice, but that is not to say that I’m not a fierce advocate and competitor.
When I first started doing civil litigation, I can’t tell you how many times I heard my adversary say, “You were the nicest opposing counsel I’ve ever had to deal with.” I think that’s a compliment. I’m friends with almost every single one of my opposing counsel on past cases because you don’t have to be mean to get the job done. You get to be who you are and not have to put on some façade of a tough, mean litigator.
How did you find out they were finally going to make you name partner and what was your reaction?
I guess I first got a clue shortly after Howard died while talking to Dale Kinsella. We were both sad and commiserating about Howard, and he said, “How would you feel having a different role in the firm?” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I said, “I love the firm and I’d be happy to hear what you guys have in mind.” Then Larry Iser, the managing partner, had me come in and told me that they wanted to make that offer. What’s ridiculous about me is I didn’t appreciate what a big deal it is. As a public defender, and even at Johnnie’s office, that just wasn’t a thing. Once I came really to understand how big of a deal it is, it was so exciting and it still is. Also, for a Black woman to be a name partner at a well-respected, well-regarded powerhouse firm is important not just to me but for others.
I have to say, the most special part about all of it is that in my sadness and nostalgia and reminiscing about Howard, I looked back at old texts and emails between us. There is an email from him to me the week the firm opened in 2006, and it’s a picture of the five partners then that was used on the website. His message to me said, “You’ll be in the next picture. I love you, HW.” That is the thing that really makes it the most special. I’m in the next picture, and the sad part is that he’s not.
That makes me very sad, but I know it’s something that he wanted for a long time, which I’ve learned since. I hope he knows this is happening and he’s looking down with pride. I’m just happy to be able to fulfill that dream, or legacy, or whatever it is that he had for me. It’s so meaningful and touching that I saw that email from 2006, that he said that and it came true.
That’s so sweet. As you just alluded to, there are extremely few women of color who have their name on the door at entertainment law firms. What does that mean to you?
Every step matters, and there is obviously visibility that comes with this step. It’s aspirational, and to the extent that young, Black lawyers or Black women lawyers see that I’m a name partner in an entertainment firm and it means that they can be that too? It sounds corny, but it’s completely true: To be able to see people who look like you in positions where you’d not seen them before, that matters a lot. So I’m proud of that. My daughter is about to go to college at Howard University, which has been her dream school. I’m also happy that she gets to see this as well. I think it’s important.
How has being one of very few women in the room, and often the only black woman, impacted you?
It’s changed over the years. Having started as a public defender, that’s really not a big deal. There are a lot of people of color and a lot of women who are public defenders. Johnnie’s office was a predominantly black firm. But since I’ve been at this firm, the rooms and the cases are very different than in my past jobs. I think, initially, it was probably a little bit intimidating. I’m not sure if that’s because I was a woman, or a Black woman, or just more because it was new and different and I didn’t know the players yet. As time has gone on, I like to think my reputation speaks for itself. I have confidence and speak up. I bring it, and I think living your life as a Black woman causes one to have a particular strength and backbone. There’s been adversity in your life, and you’ve dealt with things others have not, and that adds a tool to the arsenal as well. I don’t flinch in the face of adversity. Things others might consider to be a big deal I don’t think of as a big deal because it’s all relative. I think that can be a little bit of a superpower, too.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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