When she was about 10 years old, at an age when most kids are toying around with the prospect of such fantastical-sounding careers as rocket scientist or prima ballerina, Marissa Roman Griffith had already set her sights on becoming an attorney.
Now, Griffith, a partner at Los Angeles-based firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld is considered one of America’s top transactional attorneys, with a practice that focuses on media finance and entertainment transactional matters.
Griffith represents clients in numerous areas of production, from the financing and distribution of film, television and digital content, to co-financing arrangements in various countries. Recent projects on which she’s worked include the films “Hotel Transylvania 3,” “Mortal Engines” and the Netflix series “Ozark.”
It was Griffith’s mother who turned her on to law. “My mother started going to law school at Georgetown University, the night division, when I was in fifth grade,” says Griffith, the youngest of three kids whose parents divorced. “My mom was working full-time while going to law school. Sometimes there wasn’t after-school care, so I would just go there with her. Sometimes I would sit in on her class and I would basically be reading or drawing, half-listening to what was going on.”
Griffith attended a private Catholic high school on scholarship and was later admitted to Princeton, where she majored in art history. But despite being enrolled at one of the country’s top universities, Griffith, who worked myriad part-time jobs to pay for her books, felt slightly unsure of her rightful place among its ivy-covered walls and largely homogenous student body.
“The last 10 years or so has been amazing in terms of how diverse [Princeton] has become, but this was back in the early days,” says Griffith, both of whose parents were born and raised in Puerto Rico. “There actually was a Puerto Rican student group there, but most Puerto Rican students had grown up on the island, and I wasn’t the traditional Puerto Rican girl. I didn’t have an accent, I didn’t speak fluent Spanish, I don’t look Puerto Rican. Culturally you identify, but you also feel sort of out of place.”
It wasn’t a lack of self-esteem that Griffith felt, but rather a sense that at any moment someone at Princeton would realize “they’d made a mistake” in admitting her to the university. “You feel like you have to prove yourself all the time.”
Driven and serious, Griffith embarked on her first clerkship the summer after her freshman year, working for a tenant attorney in Washington, D.C. “I was going down to court with her, helping her fill out the complaints, answering phones, talking to clients — I really enjoyed it,” she says.
By the time Griffith entered law school at Stanford, she knew contractual law was going to be her area of focus. “I knew I didn’t want to be a litigator,” she says. “It’s not my personality. I prefer to build bridges and reach compromises. I really enjoyed Paul Goldstein’s copyright class [at Stanford]. And oddly enough, I really liked property [law], and a lot of people do not like property law. It was all very rule-oriented and, to me, there was something about property law that just made sense.”
Griffith’s first job out of law school was as a transactional attorney for the D.C.-based firm Arnold & Porter, “doing a little bit of everything,” including bank regulatory work. But there persisted this nagging feeling that she didn’t quite belong. “That imposter syndrome,” she says.
But going on 20 years at Akin Gump, a top firm with offices around the world, it’s clear that Griffith is a superstar in her field. The Legal 500 named her a leading attorney in media and entertainment, 2017 to 2018. Euromoney’s Best of the Best USA Expert Guides named her one of the Top 30 Media Lawyers in the U.S. this year.
At Akin Gump, Griffith heads the team representing Media Rights Capital (MRC) and its affiliates in conjunction with a JP Morgan credit facility backing MRC’s film and TV projects, working on such projects as “Baby Driver,” “Ted,” “Ted 2” and “The Dark Tower.” She also repped Endgame Entertainment in connection with the 2018 Netflix film “Come Sunday.”
“When someone asks me, what you do, if it’s a lay person, the analogy I give is, ‘it’s very much like mortgage lending, but instead of a house or real property, we’re talking about IP [intellectual property], an entertainment project, or even a company that’s being financed,’ ” says Griffith, who credits Akin Gump colleague P. John Burke “for being a great mentor.”
Griffith is also passionate about her philanthropic endeavors. She’s a board member of Female Executives & Entertainment, a nonprofit organization that supports advancement in the entertainment biz; a trustee of the Mexican-American Bar Foundation, which supports diversity and inclusion in the legal field; a board member of Outfest, which promotes LGBTQ equality; and a member of Akin Gump’s Inclusion Council and co-chair of the Los Angeles Inclusion Council, both of which promote diversity.
“From when I was young, giving back has always been important,” says Griffith. “My mother was a big role model for that. I’ve always volunteered, donated, even when it was only five bucks, because I didn’t have real money. It doesn’t matter what you give, just give. Our firm is extremely inclusive and everyone is open-minded, so celebrating diversity and different cultures is very important for people to see.”
As for what Griffith hopes to accomplish in the years to come, aside from finding more time to visit her large, close-knit family back East, she’s looking forward to seeing how both her career and the law profession as a whole take shape.