Ask entertainment attorneys of color about diversity in their chosen profession, and you’ll hear plenty of examples about an industry that loves to talk about inclusiveness but falls short in practice.
“Many times in my career, I’ve looked around a courtroom or a conference table and have not seen any other people of color, let alone women of color,” says Cassandra Seto, a partner in O’Melveny & Myers’ Century City office specializing in entertainment law who is Chinese American.
It’s hard to get an actual read on the amount of diversity within entertainment law. But the American Bar Assn. does conduct an annual national lawyer population survey that tracks demographics, and the numbers clearly indicate that attorneys of color and women are underrepresented. ABA’s survey found that while Blacks accounted for 13.4% of the U.S. population in 2019, they accounted for only 5% of the country’s lawyers, the same percentage as 2009. The numbers were worse for Latinx (18.1% of population/5% of attorneys) and Asians (5.8% of population/2% of attorneys).
Male attorneys accounted for 64% of U.S. lawyers surveyed; the number of female attorneys has grown 5.2% gain since 2009, but still falls short of their 50.8% share of U.S. population.
These figures might seem discouraging given the ample spotlight on diversity in recent years. But there’s optimism among entertainment lawyers that real systemic change is at hand in Hollywood and elsewhere in the wake of recent racial protests that have earned widespread support from both individuals and corporate America.
“There’s not just Black outrage, there’s a collective human outrage across all racial, social and national lines in a way that I’ve never seen before,” says African American attorney John Meigs Jr., a partner at Beverly Hills-based Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren, Richman, Rush, Kaller & Gellman.
“I don’t think this is one of those situations where if you’re just making a lip-service announcement of solidarity that you’re going to get away with it,” says prominent African American attorney Nina Shaw, a partner at Century City-based Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano who has been calling for greater diversity in Hollywood for years. “People’s feet are being held to the fire.”
Attorneys including Elsa Ramo, founder of Ramo Law, are working hard to ensure that their own firms are truly diverse. She’s a first-generation Syrian American, her partners Michelle Chang and Erika Canchola are Asian American and Mexican American, respectively, and her 14-attorney firm is roughly half-female. “We used to be only women, but we just got so big that it was inevitable that men were going to have to come along,” Ramo says.
Attorneys acknowledge that underrepresentation could in part be due to pragmatic career choices: some fledgling lawyers from traditionally marginalized communities may consider the entertainment biz — even on the legal side — too risky.
“There were plenty of Latinos that I graduated with at USC who seemed to be going into corporate law,” says Chris Perez, a partner at Donaldson + Callif who is Mexican American. “Even if you did want to get into entertainment law, people told you to take your lumps at a big firm, make your money, and pay off your debt.”
But Joshua Edwards, an African American attorney with Fox Rothschild, says: “It’s not that talent isn’t there. People just need to go against tradition and hire someone who is equally talented, but doesn’t look like them.”
Many attorneys from underrepresented groups are also involved in organizations promoting diversity in the legal field, such as the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, the John Langston Bar Assn., the California Assn. of Black Lawyers, the Black Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles, the Black Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Assn. and Professional Entertainment Female Attorneys.
In the end, increasing diversity in the entertainment law field is not just about hiring and promoting attorneys of color, but better serving clients, attorneys say.
“My background is similar to their background,” says African American attorney Damien Granderson of Granderson Des Rochers, whose clients include Kanye West and A$AP Rocky. “So I can relate to sensitivities in their art and wanting to maintain creative control because they don’t want their voice or the message to be suppressed.”