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Nina Shaw has long stood as a tireless trailblazer and beacon of hope for diverse representation in Hollywood, but 30-plus years ago, when she was trying to break into L.A.’s talent law community, she felt as if she had to whitewash her résumé to get her foot in the door. The Columbia Law grad was already working in the entertainment group at O’Melveny & Myers, but every application for a new job was met with the same rejection: You don’t meet our qualifications.
“I didn’t understand how much who you knew mattered,” says Shaw. “It’s one of the issues you face if you’re not an insider: You don’t know it matters, and you don’t necessarily know anyone to refer you.”
So when she answered an ad in the trades from talent firm Dern Mason, she was counseled by friends to wipe any mentions of Black film and Black lawyer associations from her résumé and to find an excuse to conduct her initial interview over the phone. Shaw isn’t sure if those strategies helped her get hired, but that was the advice she was given to increase the odds.
There has been progress in diversifying the ranks but, like the entertainment and legal industries at large, the field remains disproportionately white and male. And the disparity within the talent boutiques is compounded by the insularity of the practice, one that’s reliant upon referrals and networks.
“I grew up in Los Angeles but was not anywhere close or adjacent to the entertainment business, so I had no idea there were firms out there that represented talent,” says Hansen Jacobson’s John Meigs Jr., who was first exposed to the practice while working as an entertainment litigator at a big law firm early in his career.
“Right off the bat, if you have a firm that has very few people of color, it’s not as likely the people in the firm are going to have people of color in their social networks,” says Ziffren Brittenham’s Matthew Johnson, who adds that the lack of objective criteria in hiring is also a barrier. “A lot of it is based on whether it’s viewed that somebody will be a good fit. I don’t believe there’s a ton of explicit bias, but I do think there is implicit bias, and absent a real commitment to diversity, it becomes a real impediment.”
Venturing beyond one’s Rolodex is simply a matter of will, says Shaw. When her firm felt it wasn’t getting enough Latino applicants, she and partner Abel Lezcano looked up top lawyers’ lists for Latino bar associations and started cold-calling people. “It wasn’t a matter of Latinx lawyers not wanting to be in entertainment law,” she says.
Attorney Jaia Thomas’ Diverse Representation also maintains a database of Black sports and entertainment lawyers across the country. Another remedy is to adopt the Mansfield Rule: At least a third of the candidates for any given job must be from a historically underrepresented community.
Gang Tyre has done it, but partner Annie Lee, who serves on the firm’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, says retention is just as important: “What are you doing to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and has equal access to advancement?” she asks. “If you have someone at the table but they’re not getting to talk to clients or get in on the best deals, then [have you] really given them the opportunity?”
Because jobs are so coveted, boutique firms can get away with offering lowball entry-level salaries, which disproportionately affects lawyers from marginalized backgrounds.
“A lot of people of color don’t have parents who can subsidize that below-market salary,” says Del Shaw associate Sloan Whiteside-Munteanu, who adds that law school debt has skyrocketed. Those who choose to take the job anyway “can’t afford to go out and network.”
Building a practice isn’t easy for any young attorney, but it’s harder without referrals from agents and managers, who also tend to rely on social connections. Johnson says attorneys of color sometimes are put in a box. He recalls a white agent lamenting, “I don’t represent many African Americans, so I don’t know if I can help you build your practice.”
It’s not uncommon for talent to reach out directly in lieu of a referral from their reps. “As an African American attorney, you overwhelmingly are getting those calls from clients, not the agencies or management,” says Fox Rothschild’s Darrell Miller.
But that is changing among the next-gen set, says Whiteside-Munteanu: “Younger agents and managers of color are creating a coalition out here. We are actively referring people who are within these intersections.”
Meigs adds clients under 35 also seem to prioritize having diversity on their teams. He says, “The younger they are, the more willing they are to exercise their power.”
With increasing demand for diverse representation, the pressure is on for firms to provide those advocates, but racial progress can’t be achieved by people of color alone — lawyers, clients or otherwise.
“You cannot change the legal profession from the bottom up,” says Miller. “One or two [diverse hires] is usually an experiment, not a movement.”
This story first appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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