The Lawyer Who Freed Prince

By Coeli Carr

L. Londell McMillan learned business and advocacy from the best: his mother

They say you can't go home again, but L. Londell McMillan just did. This past May the 41-year-old attorney brought the fruits of his 10-year-old law firm-including clients Prince, Stevie Wonder, Spike Lee, Michael Jackson and Kanye West-back to LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, the same firm that hired him after he graduated from New York University School of Law in 1990.

"I was turning away too many opportunities I could not service in a small shop," says McMillan. Though he was courted by several prominent suitors, LeBoeuf made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "I'm heading up the new global media, entertainment and sports division of an international law firm," he says in his reflective, soft-spoken cadence. "At this stage of my career, it was necessary for me to corporatize and internationalize my product."

His clients, he says, couldn't be more pleased. "They trust my judgment," he says.

Brought up in the Tompkins housing project in Bed-Stuy, McMillan, from an early age, helped out at Eleganté, the beauty shop his mother owned.

Lois McMillan was the first in her family to travel north from Milledgeville, Ga., and she gave her son a strong business sense. After school and during summer vacations, she'd pay him to sweep hair, wipe down shampoo bottles and run errands. "Customers would also tip me," he recalls, "and I'd come home with a pocketful of change and think I was the richest young boy in the world."

She also taught him the value of education and the pleasures of creative expression via piano lessons. When he narrowly missed being accepted into Brooklyn Tech, one of the city's prestigious high schools, she gave him an example in zealous advocacy by convincing the school's administrators to let her son attend summer school and then re-apply. It worked; he got in. Four years later, at 16, he was recruited by Cornell University, where playing football opened up a new world.

McMillan fell in love with sports and researched the business side. "There was this whole sports agent phenomena and salaries started to go through the roof, and I thought, ‘It would be very interesting to work at a sports agency,'" he says. So he went through a list of Cornell graduates, found those who were in the sports representation business and fired off letters. Athletes and Artists gave him a summer internship. He did so well that they invited him back the following summer for pay.

As McMillan continued his studies-majoring in negotiations and collective bargaining at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations-his future became clearer. Attorneys, he observed, could work not only to benefit their clients but to advance the social contract. And the law school at New York University, with "a strong commitment to both private practice and public interest" and a diverse, multicultural student body, appealed to him. He enrolled. His second summer, he landed at LeBoeuf. When he graduated, they hired him.

McMillan did legal research related to Time Warner and the Discovery Channel, both clients of his mentor, Richard Berman. "I wanted to make sure that anything he gave me would be handled capably and diligently," McMillan says. "I knew my role and position, just like in the beauty parlor." When his mother died, McMillan, who had always been called by his middle name, started incorporating the first letter of his first name as a tribute to her. He also became a workaholic. "It helped not having idle time to think of the loss," he says.

In 1993, when Berman left LeBoeuf to pursue a judicial career, McMillan left too. He struck a deal with a smaller firm, Gold, Farrell & Marks (which is now part of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal). In exchange for taking a pay cut and devoting a certain amount of time to litigation, Gold's core business, McMillan developed a transactional contract business for that firm, and started to build his own practice.

He worked on high-profile matters. He did research for the suit brought by Billy Joel against various parties that involved charges of fraud, accounting and other fiduciary issues, and he helped the Beatles' estate company, Apple Corps, in its litigation with record label EMI. "I was cutting my teeth and learning the trade," says McMillan. "I saw how even superstar artists could have their business not handled properly and need good representation."

During that time, McMillan also networked and published articles. He represented basketball players Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley during the 1996 Olympics and lobbied for the NBA to create a women's league. He brought in his own clients, including rapper Doug E. Fresh, filmmaker Spike Lee and Prince.

For years, Prince had tried extricating himself from a creatively restrictive contract with Warner Bros. Initially the musician's handlers deemed McMillan too young and passed on him. But months later, after several lawyers failed to deliver, McMillan heard that "Prince's advisers suggested they give this smart lawyer with nothing to lose a shot." At their first meeting, at the musician's Paisley Park studio near Minneapolis, McMillan believed the artist was "a person who was in pain, very genuine, and sincere to close that chapter of his life and move forward."

It took McMillan only four months to get Prince out of his contract. "We were prepared to go to litigation, but ultimately it was the creativity of reaching a deal on terms the parties had to acknowledge made sense for all involved," he remembers.

He soon decided to take his work to the next level. "I had a small capacity issue," he says. "So if Gold wasn't willing to go full-fledged into a transactional business to complement their litigation business, I had to do it myself." He did. On Martin Luther King Day in 1997, McMillan, then 30, opened his own firm. "What greater day for me to launch a dream?" he asks.

"Setting up your own law firm, particularly as a relatively young lawyer, is extraordinarily difficult," says Steve Davis, chairman at LeBoeuf, who was instrumental in luring McMillan back. "Just the fact he was willing to try I took as an incredibly powerful statement of his character."

McMillan started representing institutional clients, such as TIAA-CREF, CWCapital, The New York Times and Mercedes-Benz. Corporate work became a quarter of his practice. Not long before he returned to LeBoeuf, he began to represent Michael Jackson, helping defend him in a $48 million claim. The stakes were huge-Jackson could have lost ownership of the Beatles catalog. To the pop icon's relief, the "case resolved and settled successfully," McMillan says.

The high stakes are exactly why they come to him. "I'm the go-to guy when people are in a jam, or when they want to take their career to another level," he says. "Clients realize I get the job done." He credits what he calls "seminal, historical wins"-the Prince case, for example-as helping attract new business.

Equally important, he believes, is his well-rounded corporate and entertainment expertise. "I create contracts and go to court. I'm a throwback to a time when lawyers had to know a lot about a lot of things." Cathy Hughes, the founder and chairperson of Radio One, says McMillan is like a "vigilante" who doesn't want to challenge the system, but wants to protect and advocate for clients within it.

McMillan is his own best advertisement. In addition to his personal real estate investments, he has partnered with Bruce Ratner, a real estate developer whose handiwork-the MetroTech Center in downtown Brooklyn, for example-McMillan has esteemed since boyhood. "I admired his ability to develop big projects and interface in urban areas that many developers were less excited about investing in," says McMillan, who became one of several investors in Ratner's newest project, the Atlantic Yards, a $4.5 billion residential, retail and commercial development that will include co-ownership of the New Jersey Nets. As early as 2009, the team will move to Brooklyn and call the Yards' sports arena its new home. "It feels surreal to be part of a group that has its own team," says the former athlete. "It's gratifying to have equity in something I'd support as a fan."

Over the years, many of McMillan's clients have evolved into genuine friendships. "At this point and stage of our lives, Prince and I are probably better friends than attorney-client," he says. This past year, he went to South Africa with Oprah Winfrey to celebrate the opening of her girls school. He also flew to the Bahamas to celebrate Stevie Wonder's birthday. But he says it's tough, particularly these days, to move from professional to personal. "The demands on my time are different," he says. "I've grown up. I'm busy and I have a family."

His only daughter, about to start first grade, has even developed familiar traits. "Some of the things she'll say, or the way she'll attempt to get her way or leverage her position, you think: ‘Wow, you'd be a great advocate for someone.'"

Being back at LeBoeuf, he concedes, has taken some getting used to. "When you're a small shop," he says, "you do what needs to be done and you don't have those divisions of labor and hierarchies. Here I have people saying to me, ‘You don't need to do those things.'"

One of the things he has done: He installed a piece of art he brought from his own firm-a large copper-and-brass ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, that's mounted on a poster-size wood backing. Resembling a raised, metallic seal, the ankh is the color of a shiny penny and is carved with hieroglyphics representing the archetypes and traits that McMillan holds dear: family, loyalty, work ethic, courage and love. "It may sound a bit mushy, but I integrate a little love in my law practice," he says.

He remembers his mother always telling him, "Work hard, baby, get an education, and everything will fall into place," and it seems to have done just that. And if she could see him in this place? What would she think? "She would have thought I was hot stuff," he says with a smile.

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L. Londell McMillan

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