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Interview with Deborah E. Johnson, Entertainment & Sports Lawyer - On the Field: Women in Sports Law

Please welcome Ms. Deborah E. Johnson, an entertainment and sports lawyer from the Dallas area and Texas A&M University School of Law graduate. A solo practitioner for over five years specializing in entertainment and sports law, Ms. Johnson runs her own company, teaches government at a local college, and serves as in-house counsel of a construction company. Ms. Johnson has experience in diverse practice areas including compliance, education, juvenile representation, in-house practice, and transactional law.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me! Let’s get started. I enjoyed your post, How to Survive Law School, in which you discuss how you managed law school as a nontraditional, married student with two children. What challenges did you face, and what recommendations do you have for current law school students with children?

Ms. Johnson: Time management is obviously key for any law student. However, for the non-traditional law student, it will serve as a meter for success.  Managing the study of law, while also playing the role of mom/dad and husband/wife is definitely challenging.   I believe it is important to know what you are getting into, before you begin your legal career.  Just having everyone on the same page is such a great help!  For us, we did not know that law school would consume all of my “free” time.  This was quite the shock to myself and my family.  For the non-traditional law student, I believe that how you manage your time is so critical. Your time in the law library and studying case law must be twice as productive.  Focus is also a key ingredient.  Especially during the time I was studying for the bar exam, I wrote out a schedule that included time with the family.  Having a family calendar can also be beneficial for the law student with a family.

Additionally, I completed a great deal of case law study after my kids went to bed.  This wasn’t ideal, as it often left me sleep-deprived; however, after the 1L year, I was able to tailor my schedule to allow me to sleep in a little later and stack classes into Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday.  I would then use the other two days to study while my kids were at school, as if I were in class. Weekends were difficult because I wanted to spend all my time with the family, but Sunday afternoons were often dedicated to my studies. 

I will say this, it was extremely challenging, but my husband and I reminded ourselves that it was temporary, and if I worked hard, the journey would be complete in 3 years flat.  I also took summers off to just enjoy my family rather than work or take summer courses.  

What would I tell current law students with children?  Find balance.  It’s so important to spend time with your family even while attending law school.  The journey will be difficult, but it is possible.

As a former dance student, were you always interested in entertainment and sports law? Does having experience in the industry give you an edge with your clients? 

Ms. Johnson: I never envisioned myself becoming an entertainment and sports lawyer. No, I take that back.  Around my 2L year I was watching a music awards show, and the camera panned around backstage while Alicia Keys was performing.  I envisioned representing great artists like Alicia, while having the privilege of being backstage at key performances.

Past that vision, I never thought I would actually practice entertainment law.  In fact, the idea escaped my mind, as easily as it entered.  My final year of law school, I clerked at the family court and assisted with child protective cases as well as adoptions. I believed that child advocacy was my calling.

I did practice child advocacy for a short time following law school; however, the court appointments were sporadic and I needed to earn a solid living, so I took a position with a federal agency on a short-term basis.  Short-term turned into 7 years, and I felt like I had missed something in my legal career.

After being laid off almost 8 years into my federal career, a friend approached me about practicing entertainment law.  I obviously have always had a love for the arts, dance, music, entertainment.  She convinced me to move forward and just like that I jump-started my entertainment law firm.

That was 2013, and I am still going strong.  As a sidebar, I have actually attended a music awards ceremony and my dream of being backstage with great artists really did come true. 

As a solo practitioner in transactional law, what is your typical day like? How many contracts are you typically working on at a time?

Ms. Johnson: My day and my week varies.  This industry (and for me personally as a solo practitioner) has ebbs and flows. Most days I am in the office from 12 pm – 5 pm.  Just like law school, I work proficiently to make the most out of my time.  I can be working on 5 contracts at a time; however, I stagger them so that I am able to produce effectively.  If I know I am overloaded, I may turn down a contract or ask the client if the due date can be pushed back.  I have found that clients respond well to honesty and transparency.  I only want to take on as much work as I can effectively and efficiently produce.  Knowing your limits will also keep you out of trouble with the ethics board.

I have also found a small niche consulting entertainment clients, so a typical day may be spent on the phone giving legal guidance to clients.

What are some of the differences in representing clients in the entertainment industry as opposed to sports? What common mistakes do clients in both industries make?

Ms. Johnson: I actually have not noticed much difference in clients in both industries.  They both tend to procrastinate.  Athletes are focused on their craft and I remind them that your craft is a business and should be treated as such.  Entertainment artists do the same. Artists are actually worse at procrastinating and not returning calls/emails. smile 

Many clients I gain AFTER a contract has gone bad. They were not represented by legal counsel prior to signing a contract, which I highly discourage on all accounts.  When artists or athletes are just starting out, they are so eager to get “a deal.” They believe they really cannot afford an attorney and therefore sign legally binding documents without sound counsel.  After the deal goes sideways in some shape or form, they contact me.  I would prefer they spend the money upfront to receive legal counsel before entering the contract, which in the end, will save them money, time, and energy.

Transitioning between practice areas can be challenging. What skills and resources did you use to make this transition easier?  

Ms. Johnson: The Texas State Bar has unbelievable resources. I utilized their online webinars and in-person CLE conferences to educate myself on issues concerning entertainment law.  I also spoke with other entertainment and sports lawyers and asked them for book recommendations.  I have a few contacts, and when I get stuck on an issue, I just make a quick call or email to see if I can gain another perspective from a fellow attorney. Networking is key in any industry.

Finally, beyond working as a solo practitioner, adjunct professor, and contributing writer, you are also very involved in your community and run your own business. What are some of your top time-management tips?

Ms. Johnson: I really try to schedule particular tasks for certain days.  I also prioritize my legal cases and handle the more pressing issues first.  Having access to all your emails on your smartphone is a blessing and a curse.  I never miss an important email, but at the same time, I never miss an email! I also try to schedule “non-work” time, when either the phone is put away completely, or it is only allowed to be used for entertainment (no work).  For me, this begins on Friday at 6 pm and ends on Saturday evening. Sundays are usually spent with my family, but occasionally, I will work on a Sunday night.  This actually gives me a jump start for Monday morning, and helps me to plan out my week.

Thank you so much for your insight and helpful time-management tips, Ms. Johnson! 

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Tatum Wheeler is a law student at UC Irvine. When she’s not studying, she spends her free time exploring the coastline, connecting with friends and family, and cheering on her favorite sports teams. Please feel free to contact her with any questions, comments, or further advice.

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