The Nina Chronicles
Nina Shaw helped found one of Hollywood's most important law firms
Published in 2009 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 21, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
When Nina Shaw started negotiating her client Laurence Fishburne’s salary for the sequel to The Matrix, she was prepared for the challenge. “Sequel deals are always difficult to make,” she explains, when they are not pre-negotiated, as you balance your client’s perceived leverage against the producer’s desire or need to hire talent. But Shaw mastered the negotiation, securing a deal that trade publications estimated at over $10 million.
For Shaw, the deal was nothing unusual. A founding partner in Los Angeles’ Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka, Lezcano & Finkelstein, she has spent more than 20 years structuring lucrative contracts for a long list of stars, among them Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, James Earl Jones and Cedric the Entertainer. In 2005, she received the Women in Film Crystal Award, a testament to her distinction among Hollywood’s movers and shakers. She has been named in Hollywood Reporter’s “Women in Entertainment Power 100” and featured in Black Enterprise’s “America’s Top Black Lawyers” and Savoy’s “The 100 Most Influential Blacks in America.”
Even with all the press about her being a prominent African-American attorney, Shaw doesn’t focus on race as a primary part of her work. While many of her clients are well-known black entertainers, Shaw says, “I feel extremely lucky to be in the position to provide minority talent with superior representation, but it’s not like I thought to myself, ‘I have to go out and be some kind of savior.’ I’ve just focused on doing a good job and building a good practice.”
Considering that Shaw works in the notoriously brutal world of entertainment legal dealings, her goal is deceptively simple: staying hyper-vigilant about keeping talent safe, sound and well-compensated. And while some may roll their eyes at the high sums that celebrities earn, the attorney thinks otherwise. Celebrity earning power only exists in most cases for a limited period of time because it is the rare celebrity who can sustain a career at its peak over time—people get older, the public’s taste changes and there is always a new fresh face waiting in the wings. Her goal is to make sure her clients share in all revenue streams.
That means holding her own among entertainment industry sharks, which, she says, doesn’t necessitate that she behave like one herself. While she’s known for being tough, she says she plays fair. In fact, Shaw has turned down potential clients who insisted that their representation “kill” the other side. “I had a couple of people who said outright that they wanted an attorney that everybody would detest,” she says. “I’m focused on solutions that get the client all they deserve, but I don’t feel like I have to destroy the opposition in the process.”
Tall, slender and reserved, Shaw is more gazelle than shark. But her delicate stature is grounded in a confidence built on years of success.
She was born and raised in Harlem, and describes her childhood neighborhood with fondness. “It was pre-integration so everybody lived there—teachers, doctors, lawyers. It was a vibrant community.” For Shaw, this energy was particularly apparent in the education system. “At the time there were fewer opportunities for black women and men, and teaching was a good option,” she says. As a result, she says, many talented educators worked in Harlem. “The teachers were completely invested in giving us a good education,” she says. They took a personal interest in students and would bring in books not issued by the school system on subjects like black history. “One teacher even got us excited about reading the encyclopedia in the back of the room as a ‘treat’ if we finished our schoolwork early,” she says with a laugh.
“Education was a huge deal in my family,” she adds, pointing to a black-and-white photograph on her credenza depicting a small group of African-American students dressed in turn-of-the-century garb. “That’s my great-grandmother and great-grandfather at their high school graduation,” Shaw explains. “They grew up in the South when there was no actual high school for blacks. The schoolteachers would just teach everything they knew and, at the end, the students would graduate.” Both Shaw’s great-grandparents attended college at Oberlin College and her grandmother attended Hampton University.
Shaw’s family members recognized the importance of receiving an education in an era where any kind of educational opportunity for blacks in the South was scarce. “One of the first things my grandmother would always point out about her mother was that she could read and write,” Shaw says. Growing up, Shaw maintained frequent correspondence with her great-grandmother. “I was in New York and she was in Virginia, so we would write each other letters,” Shaw says. Often the letters Shaw received from her great-grandmother included supportive critiques of the young girl’s writing. “She would always send little notes that pointed out details of what she liked. She’d write ‘your handwriting was so lovely in that letter,’ or ‘I liked how you described things in school.'”
Shaw always knew she would go to college. A legal career was on her radar from an early age as well. “Embarrassingly enough,” Shaw says with a shrug, “under my high school yearbook photo it says ‘Future Lawyer.'” Even as a child, she took careful note of a sign hanging outside a neighbor’s house that read “Attorney at Law.” “It was an older man who practiced out of his home,” she recalls. “I remember people would refer to him as ‘the attorney’ instead of using his name. It seemed like a big deal.”
Shaw felt it was the kind of big deal she wanted to pursue. After high school, she attended Barnard College, then went on to Columbia, where she earned a J.D. in 1979.
Being in the minority at Columbia Law School didn’t faze her. “I had gone to an all-women’s college, so being assertive wasn’t a problem,” she explains, saying that the entire city was a diverse learning place. Shaw also credits her great-grandmother for teaching her a lasting lesson about racism. “As a child,” she says, “I would visit her in the South in some summers, and there was a segregated park that only allowed blacks on certain days. I remember so clearly how we never went to that park, and my grandmother said, ‘We don’t go places where blacks are only allowed sometimes.'”
After earning her degree, Shaw moved to Los Angeles and took a job in the entertainment department at O’Melveny & Meyers. At the time, the idea of “entertainment law” wasn’t as sought after, and Shaw recalls her Columbia classmates being a bit baffled by her decision to move West and pursue the field. “They were all going off to work in corporate firms and would almost look down at my choices.”
The answer to the question quickly became obvious, particularly considering Shaw landed at O’Melveny in 1979, during one of the most exciting times in television. One of O’Melveny’s major clients was the television firm founded by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, and Shaw began her career working on television shows like All in the Family, Good Times and The Jeffersons. It was thrilling, she says, not only because of the quality of the talent, but also because of all the uncharted territory in the entertainment law field itself. “There were new issues being recorded every day, so the learning curve was huge.
“It was the best possible place for a young attorney,” Shaw says. And she looked young, remembering appearing in court with actresses from The Facts of Life. The judge mistook her for one of the minors seeking a court-approved contract.
Fortunately, Shaw isn’t easily intimidated. That quality has served her well during negotiations. In fact, she says, the more unpleasant the opposing side, the more rational and calm she becomes. Shaw describes a telephone conversation with an agent who had a reputation for being extremely loud and aggressive. “He was screaming and yelling and going on and on about a deal. I said to him, ‘You know, everyone warned me that you were a screamer, but you’re not like that at all.'” Shaw successfully caught him off guard, causing the agent to stop and laugh.
In 1981, Shaw left O’Melveny and joined the boutique firm Dern, Mason, Swerdlow and Floum. On her first day, she met her current law firm partner Ernest Del, and the two clicked. “We were instantly friends for life.” The two share many interests, including a love of jazz. “I still always e-mail Ernie to listen to jazz tributes on the radio, or if I’m at a club with a great band.”
The two attorneys also found that their approach to work was quite similar. “We both view the role of the attorney as helping to make things happen, and we’re both very focused on the bottom line.” While working together, Del and Shaw realized that they were primarily interested in exclusively being in an entertainment practice. In 1989, they decided to start their own law firm.
Over the years, Shaw’s star-studded client roster grew quickly. Many of her celebrity clients have been with her since the beginning of their careers. Shaw started representing Foxx when he was on the TV show In Living Color. Fishburne hired Shaw as he negotiated the Ike Turner role in What’s Love Got to Do with It.
While her clients may be a constant, Shaw’s job has changed rapidly over the years. “We’re all dealing with the evolution of technology, which is often moving so fast that the law can’t keep up with it.” One increasingly common scenario, she says, is the ability of nonprofessionals to create digital material like homage Web sites, which often use material copyrighted by others. Often, Shaw says, it won’t even occur to fans that what they’ve posted is infringement. “You would be surprised how many people turn themselves in. A James Earl Jones fan set up a Web site with dialogue from all the Star Wars movies, and then informed us via e-mail,” Shaw says with a laugh.
Ultimately, Shaw says, most of the changes in the entertainment business, and changes in the economy and the increasing consolidation, have made it more challenging to keep what she feels is a fair amount of compensation with the artists. But Shaw is ready for the challenge.
“As a kid, I would watch TV until late at night—my window was like that image of the last light in the cityscape going out at the end of the ‘Tick Tock’ theme in the old Late Movie Show,” she says. “I just love this stuff.”