Three Vegas attorneys on bringing women into gaming law
Published in 2021 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine on July 13, 2021
Las Vegas has long been a wellspring for gamblers, entertainers, entrepreneurs, and others seeking adventure on the Strip. But the bounty hasn’t come easily for everyone: Behind the scenes, the law firms helping those casinos navigate regulatory and corporate law have long been dominated by men.
That’s changing, slowly but surely. Jennifer J. Gaynor, an administrative law and gaming lawyer at J. Gaynor Law, and author of That (Expletive) Broad: Women Who Broke Barriers in the Casino and Gaming Industry; Jennifer Roberts, formerly of Roberts Gaming Law, now general counsel at WynnBET; and Ellen Schulhofer, who primarily serves gaming clients as a business/corporate attorney at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, are evidence of just that. These three Vegas-based attorneys have climbed the ladder and carved out a space for themselves.
Part of that success is owed to the women who came before them, such as Ellen Whittemore, executive vice president and general counsel at Wynn Resorts, who has worked with all three women over the course of her three decades in law.
“When I first started as a gaming attorney in private practice, it was not unusual for me to be the only woman in a room, consistently,” Whittemore says. Now, she adds, “There are a lot of exceptional women.
“But it’s still not easy.”
Why has gaming law been a boys club?
Gaynor: A lot of industries started off as boys clubs—it was just the time. Women didn’t do a lot of things. It took women who were willing to break the rules and ask for the jobs, training and experience in areas where they didn’t see other women. A lot of times you have to see it in order to be it. You need women with unique competence and vision to break down those barriers for the women who follow.
Roberts: [The field has been] pretty male-dominated. But you’re seeing a lot more diversity in gaming law, the gaming business, the sports betting business. We’re making progress, and you see organizations—like I’m involved with Global Gaming Women—which help support women in this field.
What drew you to gaming law?
Gaynor: I was born on Long Island and lived on the East Coast my whole life. When I graduated from law school, I really wanted to try some place out West. And I knew I was interested in government, administrative types of law, but I thought I would be doing something in communications. When I was clerking at the National Association of Broadcasters, they connected me to a Nevada attorney they worked with. It’s kind of serendipitous how that worked out.
Schulhofer: I grew up in Las Vegas. Then, when I was in law school, I clerked for the Schreck law firm, where I had some exposure to transactional matters and gaming issues.
Roberts: I took a gaming law class at the University of Utah College of Law. I wanted to go into sports law when I was in school. There are pretty limited sports law opportunities, and I found gaming law very interesting. And I wanted to get away from the snow, so I decided to look at Las Vegas.
Was there a formative moment early in your career?
Schulhofer: I can remember one transaction early in my career where the client called on a Thursday and said, “I want to acquire this hotel-casino by Sunday.” That was one of those things where you’d think, “That sounds horrible.” But it was such a team effort—seven or eight lawyers in a conference room for four days, in shifts, going home to shower and sleep and come back to get this deal done. You have to like your job and the people you work with to enjoy something like that. I knew after that that I wanted to do deal-work in this space. This is what made Las Vegas what it is.
Roberts: I was very lucky to have worked with gaming law attorneys that are trailblazers in this field. Not only Bob Faiss, but Ellen Whittemore, whom I’ve always considered a mentor. To have such a successful leader in gaming law be my mentor was highly valuable. I was just able to observe their interactions with clients, their abilities to tackle and resolve problems in gaming law, and monitor their work in the industry. That’s something you really just can’t repeat.
Gaynor: My introduction to lobbying was in front of the state Legislature. It wasn’t something I’d ever planned to do, but the lobbyist at Lionel Sawyer & Collins had left about a month before session was starting, so they sent me to Carson City to be a lobbyist for the firm’s clients. It was a trial-by-fire situation, but I really enjoyed it.
Is there a project you’re particularly proud of?
Roberts: I’ve enjoyed so many of the experiences that I’ve had: seeing the regulator side, the challenges of academia, and writing academic articles on gaming law topics. And I love in-house, and the challenges of being an expanding, innovating business. I’ve worked with governments all across the world in assisting their development of gaming laws and regulations, so being able to pay a very small contribution to that is an extreme honor.
Gaynor: Back in 2017, I worked with Derek Stevens. He was about to build a new casino. The way the land use and zoning was set up, you could only construct casinos in certain places where it was zoned for them. And the way the statutes were at the time, he wasn’t going to be able to construct his casino the way he wanted. I went to the Nevada Legislature and I had them change the statute to provide a new downtown gaming enterprise district so we could construct Circa Resort & Casino there.
Schulhofer: I’m proud of representing Wynn Resorts since its inception. We do all their Nevada corporate financing work and gaming work. We’ve represented Caesars Entertainment at least as long. Because we are respected and liked in our practice areas, these companies—even after they change ownership—keep us on.
What has been a challenge?
Gaynor: Imposter syndrome has always been something I’ve struggled with. A lot of women struggle with it. Getting to the point where I stopped second-guessing myself was really important.
Schulhofer: Balancing it all. There’s no such thing as work-life balance. I gave up on that 25 years ago. But being as responsive as you want to be for clients—when you have 20 clients who all want an answer in five minutes, it’s just the nature of the beast.
Roberts: There’s not always a clear-cut answer within the laws or regulations. But that’s not necessarily negative. It tests your creativity, it tests your ability to present something that’s difficult [that] you have to help define. Sometimes you can’t get the interpretation that you’re trying to pass on. But when it does happen, it’s highly rewarding.
How has the industry changed for women?
Gaynor: I’ve had the great fortune to work with many amazing men and women who have treated women as equals. At the firms I was working at, it was never an issue. Where you saw it most would sometimes be from clients. Especially some of the old-school guys, they would see a woman and assume that you were a secretary or a paralegal.
Schulhofer: A lot has changed in the last 10 to 20 years. We have more women gaming partners. It’s still male-dominated, but more and more women are coming in. More and more companies are making sure that women are represented on their boards. Before I retire, I would like to see an equal number—or even more—of women on boards and running gaming companies. We’re moving in the right direction. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.
What’s one unique aspect of your career?
Gaynor: Last year I wrote a book about women in gaming law. I was a journalism major and I’ve always wanted to write. This was my first solo book project. I came up with the topic when I was at a gaming law conference—I was sitting there, looking at the agenda, and it was panel after panel of all men. I realized there were a lot of women doing a lot of great things in the world of gaming law, but you didn’t always learn about them when you learn the history. … I wanted to make sure that someone wrote the stories of women who have had great accomplishments in the area of gaming.
Schulhofer: I am a corporate lawyer, so I do M&A transactions. I’m corporate counsel to public and private companies in Nevada, and many of them are gaming companies. I don’t do, for example, gaming applications. But I work on the transactions that give rise to those gaming approvals. I wanted to do high-level, complex corporate transactions. Having the best gaming lawyers in the state, everyone who comes to Nevada and has a complex corporate issue that involves gaming, they’re going to come to our firm.
Roberts: I’ve had the unique opportunity to experience all sides of gaming, meaning I’ve been in academia, I’ve been a private-practice gaming lawyer, I’ve been on the regulator side briefly, and now I’m working in-house. So I’ve been able to see gaming law from a variety of perspectives.
What challenges and opportunities lie ahead?
Schulhofer: Diversity is a challenge. At least there has been an effort to hire more diverse candidates and have diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. That’s a huge issue at many law firms, and there are initiatives impacting things in positive ways. As more women and diverse candidates come up through the ranks, that’s going to be easier to do.
Gaynor: We’ve seen women make a lot of strides. But since the pandemic, you’ve seen a lot more women leaving the workforce than men. It’s not proportional. We want to make sure we don’t lose the progress that we’ve made in the world of gaming. You’re seeing a lot of women doing great things in gaming now. There are a lot of opportunities; right now it’s all about learning. Esports, online gaming, sports betting—growing expertise in these areas is extremely important. I think the sky’s the limit.
That (Expletive) Broad
Jennifer Gaynor got her undergraduate degree in journalism, and while she’s contributed to numerous articles and books for gaming law professionals, she hadn’t done a solo project until That (Expletive) Broad: Women Who Broke Barriers in the Casino and Gaming Industry. Published in 2020, the book is a look at women—like Claudine Williams, Eleanor Dumont, Shirley Brancucci and Lottie Deno—from the gold rush to present day who have overcome the odds and made their marks in the gaming world.
Gaynor was at a gaming law conference when she came up with the idea. “I was looking through the agenda for the panels for the day, and it was panel after panel of all men,” she says. “But then I looked around the room, and I saw people like Ellen Whittemore, Jen Roberts, Becky Harris and Sandra Douglass Morgan. … I’d read a lot of histories of gaming law in Nevada, and I never heard about any women—in any of them. I wanted to make sure that someone wrote the stories of women who have had great accomplishments.”
One of her favorites concerns Debra Nutton, who in the 1970s became one of the first female craps dealers on the Strip. “When she first wanted to start dealing, her boss was skeptical of having a woman in that role. He told her that bending over the game would ruin her ovaries. Fortunately, she had a bachelor’s degree in nursing, so she knew that wasn’t the case,” Gaynor says. “At 25, she was promoted to pit boss at the Sands. Her male colleagues were not happy she was there—especially in her leadership role.
“That’s actually where I got the name for my book,” she continues. “They would call her ‘That Bleeping Broad,’ and they would even put that as her name on the time sheets. She would hide in the women’s bathroom during her breaks because she got so much harassment. But she persevered, rising to executive-level roles with MGM and the Wynn. She went on to get a Great Women of Gaming Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.”