Portrait of the Lawyer as a Young Arts-Lover
Mitch Mitchell doesn't just represent artists and writers, he is one himself
Published in 2006 Southern California Rising Stars magazine
on June 16, 2006
Updated on March 29, 2017
Mitch Mitchell, a partner in the recently launched law firm Arai Mitchell, is talking about bridges, specifically the theory that centuries ago Native Americans and Asians traveled over a land bridge and influenced one another’s art styles. “They share a similar philosophical viewpoint about man’s relationship with nature,” he notes.
Mitchell has a personal take on that connection, since his father was a Comanche Indian and his mother a Japanese American, but the bridge metaphor cuts even deeper with him. Mitchell is making a mark for himself by bridging the legal and art worlds. He’s handled complicated trademark and intellectual property issues for the likes of Japanese painter Ai Yamaguchi and Korean-American painter David Choe. A self-professed “magazine junkie,” Mitchell has also launched his own publication, Atomica, a quarterly journal devoted to fashion, photography, culture, contemporary design and music.
Perhaps fittingly, his legal practice focuses on issues surrounding federal Indian law and intellectual property issues with Asian-American artists, as well as healthy dollops of general commercial litigation and patent litigation. Mitchell easily finds a bridge between these diverse areas as well, explaining that they all require finding the appropriate vocabulary to most effectively communicate with clients.
“When you talk to people about federal Indian law, you now hear a lot of gambling terms even if the issue at hand has nothing to do with gambling,” he says. “People will say, ‘We need to 86 that proposal,’ which, in Las Vegas terms, means kicking out a rowdy person.” He says artists, in contrast, are conceptual and appreciate having general principles, like copyright and the meaning of different types of corporations, explained with clarifying metaphors.
All of this, along with a good deal of pro bono work, would be a lot for anyone’s plate, but Mitchell handles it with an easygoing, unhurried style. “As Native Americans, we say we walk in two different worlds,” he says. “I feel like I walk in three or four different worlds.”
Early Creative Bent
Mitchell’s walk began with a push from his older brother Jimmie. When Mitchell was 10 years old he told Jimmy, then 23 and a chemical engineer, that he wanted to be an architect when he grew up. Architecture suited Mitchell’s already developing interest in art.
“You don’t want to be an architect,” Jimmy firmly told him. “You want to have the architects work for you.” Jimmy, with the verve that only an older sibling can have, quickly laid out the plan: Mitchell would attend Harvard Law School and become a corporate lawyer.
“Next thing I knew I was in advanced government classes instead of advanced art classes,” Mitchell says with a ready chuckle.
That story reflects a strong cultural respect for older family members. But the anecdote is also told with a tongue-in-cheek flare. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Mitchell was interested in politics and notions of law and justice. His family had experienced discrimination firsthand and knew how racial issues impact the law.
Since he was wait-listed at Harvard Law School, he ended up attending the University of Chicago Law School. “I don’t think Jimmy minded that too much,” he says, chuckling once more.
With his early creative bent, Mitchell collected the artwork of some of his clients before he represented them. Others became friends before becoming clients. When Mitchell moved to California in 1995, he discovered a trendy new magazine called Giant Robot that covered Asian and Asian-American topics and would spotlight people like Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li years before most Americans were aware of them.
Mitchell met Giant Robot creators Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong at a speech they gave before the Japanese American National Museum. After the speech he told them, “You guys are too early in the business to need representation, but in time you will because I think you are going to be a great success.”
The three men became friends. Mitchell took to hanging around their loft in downtown Los Angeles, talking about art, music and magazines. “Eric has an incredible sense of emerging art,” he says. “Martin really knows about trends in the cinema.”
Nakamura had just published the fifth issue of Giant Robot when he met Mitchell. “We thought we’d hit the pinnacle, and there was no way we could do better than this,” he says. “Mitch was always pushing us to learn and grow. Even though he was about the same age as me, he seemed so much older. He was a very wise owl and was always pushing us directly or indirectly.”
Nakamura recalls that “it was really intimidating for us to meet a lawyer in a high-rise office. But Mitch kind of bridged the gap for us into the business world so we were not intimidated at all. He was always looking out for us even when not dealing with the law, such as suggesting accountants for us to use. He always had our backs and had a way of communicating with us, openly but intelligently, that made us comfortable.”
Less than a decade later, Nakamura’s company now includes a restaurant, gr/eats, and retail stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Mitchell, meanwhile, has kept busy convincing companies, ranging from a book publisher to a film production company, to keep away from using the “Giant Robot” name and Japanese anime-style lettering in their logos.
Multi-Tasking to the Max
In 2002, Mitchell decided that a thriving law practice and heavy pro bono work weren’t enough, so he launched Atomica magazine, a showcase for art, fashion photography and cultural criticism. The publication now has a circulation of 30,000 and is distributed in 17 countries.
“When he told me he was starting a magazine, I thought he was crazy,” Nakamura says. “Everyone knows that new magazines have a high failure rate.”
Mitchell has long been a magazine junkie, perusing everything from The New Yorker and The Economist to obscure art-fashion journals, such as BigTank and Parachute.
“Los Angeles is a Mecca for creative people, and I always enjoyed going out and meeting them,” he says. “It’s one thing to speak to people about the creative process; it’s another to engage with them in the creative process.”
To produce Atomica, he drafted lawyers who wanted to write something other than briefs. He found scriptwriters who were eager to try a piece of reportage as a change of pace. “I’ve always been a good editor, and enjoy throwing ideas back and forth,” he says.
His creativity is also on display in working for his clients. Mitchell represented artist Ai Yamaguchi in dealings with Shu Uemura, a Japanese brand owned by L’Oreal, which hired the artist to create distinctive makeup bottles as well as a mural in its San Francisco boutique. Gabriel Ritter, Yamaguchi’s manager, notes that even the idea of using contracts is relatively new in the personal, handshake world of art. However, for their own protection, artists must increasingly traverse the issues of copyright and trademarks as companies look to license their creations for T-shirts, postcards and packaging. Artists, of course, are concerned about the business matters, but protecting their artistic expression can be just as crucial.
Ritter was struck with how Mitchell was able to negotiate deals that left everyone happy. “A lawyer is supposed to represent his client’s best interests, and Mitch does that exceedingly well, but he also takes the other side into consideration,” Ritter says. “He has put language into contracts that is bilateral — kind of good-faith clauses. I’ve had other lawyers see these contracts and say, ‘That’s unusual, but I like it and we should leave it in.’”
Ritter stresses that this perspective doesn’t hurt his clients’ position. It calms potential fires, he says, and lets everyone succeed. “Companies see the artist is reasonable about giving them what they want, so the artists end up getting what they really want,” he says. “Artists don’t want to know about any legal issues. They just want to know that the end result is in their favor.”
A Good Guy
Mitchell’s strong ethical sense is a refreshing contrast to the typical caricature of attorneys. “Law is regarded as a cutthroat business, so to me the only thing that’s left in choosing a lawyer is who’s a good guy and who isn’t,” Nakamura says. “Mitch is a good guy.”
Ritter speaks about this quality as well. “When I talk to Mitch, I frequently catch him on his cell phone and he says, ‘Oh, I was just at the reservation doing some pro bono work.’ I never hear other lawyers saying things like that. He is ethically in the right place.”
In fact, the California Indian Legal Services named Mitchell the Pro Bono Attorney of the Year in 1998. He has argued that Native-American prisoners have the right to long hair as a religious freedom. Such issues resonate deeply with Mitchell. Until a year ago, his own black hair went down to the middle of his back.
“In our tradition, we cut our hair when we’re mourning,” he says. “On the ninth anniversary of my father’s death, I woke up early, braided my hair, cut it off, and went to the desert. I burned the hair, buried it, said a prayer, poured water and gave thanks.”
When Mitchell returned to the office the next day with a shaved scalp, a lot of people didn’t recognize him.
The only time his long hair drew attention, he says, was when one judge called attorneys into his chambers for a case-management conference. “The first thing he told me was, ‘Counsel, I’m jealous of your hair. I was a student at Berkeley in ’68 and now I’m stuck with a comb-over.’”