'We Need to Tell Other Stories'
Lisa E. Davis’ decades-long battle for inclusion in entertainment and law
Published in 2021 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine on September 30, 2021
Some people don’t see much of a connection between entertainment law and racial justice, but Lisa E. Davis knows otherwise.
“The greatest opportunity and source of wealth for African Americans prior to the civil rights movement was in the field of entertainment,” says Davis, a partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz. “It was the one place they were allowed to collect wealth—though not as much as the people controlling the large companies that distributed our intellectual property. The history of Black creators is rife with stories of people being taken advantage of or signing away their intellectual property without realizing its worth.”
She adds: “Part of my goal as an entertainment lawyer is to balance the scales a bit, to make sure my clients understand the value of their work, and that they are paid the market value for it.”
Past and current clients include musicians such as Public Enemy, Missy Elliott, Mos Def and Sister Souljah; actors and filmmakers like Spike Lee, Wendell Pierce and Stanley Nelson Jr.; and authors including Terry McMillan, Kamilah Forbes and Manning Marable. She has also worked on such productions as August Wilson’s Radio Golf, the documentaries The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, and the TV series Bridge and Tunnel.
She also reps top media and tech executives, often people of color. “What’s been very satisfying for me is being able to get them a deal commensurate with what their white male colleagues get,” she says. “When a company says, ‘Well, we feel like our offer is market,’ I have enough experience, and a lot of white executive clients as well, that I’m able to say, ‘No, actually your offer is significantly below market.’”
“She’s a boss lady for sure,” says Sheila S. Boston, a partner at Arnold & Porter and president of the New York City Bar Association. “You don’t find many Black women or women of color who are so distinguished in her area of law. That’s a big deal.”
“She’s always operating on multiple levels—not only being a great lawyer but looking for ways to make the world a better place for everybody,” says Victoria S. Cook, a close friend and partner at Frankfurt. “That’s a lot of energy to be putting out into the world.”
Cook credits Davis with helping bring more women and people of color into the firm, and for improving the workplace for attorneys like her.
“It’s easier for every generation that comes after when someone’s already run at the door with the battering ram,” Cook says. “When I became partner, it was like I was standing on the shoulders of greatness.”
Davis was born in Queens four years before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Her father, Nat Davis, was a pianist who performed internationally. Her mother, Gwen Webb, and stepfather, Arnold Webb, were educators who made sure she knew where she came from. In second grade, a teacher assigned Davis a year-long project on a single topic. “My mother said, ‘You’re going to do yours on Black history,’ so I learned about people like Charles Drew and Matthew Henson,” Davis recalls.
She was soon living that history. The next year she was bused to a new school, and on her first day she was greeted by protesters shouting the n-word.
“I think I had armor going into that situation,” she says. “For me, it was, ‘Gosh, these people are incredibly ignorant.’ Even at 8, that was my reaction to it.” She adds: “We were the Brown v. Board generation, the first generation to go to school and take advantage of the opportunities that had been opened up for us by civil right lawyers and people protesting. We went into spaces acutely aware of the debt that was owed.”
She didn’t know there could be any other way to move through life: “Fish don’t know water is wet,” she notes. Years later, when she learned that her father’s parents had been the first Black family to settle in a neighborhood with a covenant barring people of color, she wasn’t surprised. “I know lots of Black people whose parents or grandparents had to overcome insurmountable odds,” she says. “If you scratch any Black person with any sort of means, somebody had to do something really unbelievable for them to get there.”
“Lisa has always been a lawyer,” says Dayna Cunningham, dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, whom Davis met the summer after sixth grade. “She’s the one in the room with the good judgment and reasoning, the sense of justice and fairness, the strong moral character. … Her logic was always annoyingly impeccable.”
Harvard followed for both women. “I majored in protest, minored in English,” Davis says.
She raised her voice against apartheid, urging the university to divest itself from companies that did business with South Africa, and advocated for more hires in the African American studies department. She stood with the university’s support staff as they sought a living wage and health benefits. Her good work wasn’t forgotten. In 2016, at a class of ’81 reunion luncheon, Cunningham remembers a kitchen employee coming up to Davis and saying, “‘Lisa, it’s so great to see you after all this time. I still remember what you did for us.’ It was just striking.”
Terri Seligman, now a partner at Frankfurt, remembers being “slightly intimidated” by Davis at NYU School of Law. “She sat in the front,” Seligman says. “She was on law review.”
She also had a wicked sense of humor. Seligman remembers Davis joking about creating bingo cards containing the names of students who were most likely to speak during classes “even if they had nothing to say.” On her first day as a summer associate in the corporate department of a large law firm, someone commented, “Oh. A woman in corporate. A trailblazer.” It was 1984. Davis wondered what was so trailblazing about it. She joked with friends that the firm was so sexist they didn’t even notice she was Black.
After graduation, Davis spent a year clerking for the Honorable Constance Baker Motley in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Motley, a legendary civil rights attorney who had worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund alongside Thurgood Marshall during the Brown v. Board of Education battle, was the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary. “That was an invaluable experience,” Davis says. “She was not only a judge but a chief judge of the Southern District—the mother court.”
The first firm Davis joined after her clerkship consisted of 100-plus lawyers and had employed no Black attorneys before her. Older Black lawyers gave her the advice she now passes on to young associates: “Do the best work that you can. If you’re excellent, that will mute a lot of criticism.”
When she moved to Frankfurt in 1988, she was instrumental in creating its diversity committee, which she still co-chairs. Three years ago, when the firm was having trouble retaining lawyers of color, it developed a sponsor and mentorship program where “every lawyer of color has a sounding board, an advocate, a guide, and they’re not just anonymously sinking or swimming,” she says.
“Lisa has been a tireless and effective advocate for diversity in the profession, both in her efforts at the firm and in her work with outside organizations,” Seligman said. “She creates programs, she ensures that DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] policies are baked into the practices of the firm, and she demands accountability from all of us.”
Davis also supports annual training on the difference between actionable feedback and opinion—pointing to Arin N. Reeves’ 2014 research on implicit bias in the legal profession. The researchers prepared a legal memo with 22 errors and attributed it to a generic male: Thomas Meyer, a third-year associate who graduated from NYU. The memo was then sent to 60 partners at 22 firms who had volunteered to be involved in a writing analysis study. The only difference: half were told the associate was white, the other half that he was Black. The partners found fewer mistakes and were more encouraging with the white Thomas Meyer, with comments including “has potential” and “good analytical skills.” Black Thomas Meyer’s feedback included “average at best,” “needs lots of work” and “can’t believe he went to NYU.”
“Part of what we have to work on is not just shoring up and mentoring lawyers of color but getting people to interrogate their own unconscious expectations and assumptions,” Davis says.
As an entertainment lawyer, representing, as she says, “interesting people doing exciting stuff,” Davis has unique client stories. She knew Spike Lee had everything he needed while filming Malcolm X because he called on a Sunday to talk about the Knicks and not the project. Then there was the time Flavor Flav of Public Enemy was 90 minutes late to the band’s first meeting with her, and a receptionist had to interrupt matters with an intercom announcement: “Lisa, there’s a Mr. Flav to see you.”
“I used to tease my friends who were at Big Law: ‘When you finish a deal, you get a tombstone and paperweight. When I finish a deal, I get to go to a premiere or opening. I get book galleys,’” Davis says. “Every day it doesn’t feel like work.”
She’s proud when her clients’ work has contributed to racial progress, citing Malcolm X, the recent HBO film adaptation of Between the World and Me, and the adaptation of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, “which demonstrated that there was a robust audience for films about smart, ambitious, three-dimensional Black women,” she says. She also knows she can’t be such a fan of her clients that she doesn’t tell them what they need to hear. “I’m known for my brutal honesty,” she says.
Uphill battles remain. When Davis attends an annual gathering of people of color in the film and television industry, everyone swaps similar stories. “Some of the people I represent, you see how many opportunities they get vis-à-vis their colleagues, who are not people of color,” she says. “I’ve observed that for years.”
The #OscarsSoWhite campaign helped improve the environment, she says. In the last five years, she’s seen more storytellers of color being hired. In the last year, she’s noticed more people of color hired as executives. The entertainment business is still a business, after all, and she points to a 2021 McKinsey & Company report that concluded that ignoring systemic racial inequities rampant in the film and television worlds leaves $10 billion on the table annually.
“A lot of people are waking up,” Davis says. “I think after Trump’s election, people sort of said, ‘This is the apotheosis of racism. We don’t want this. We need to tell other stories.’”
At the same time, Davis and her husband of 27 years, film editor Anthony Jamison, sometimes worry they’re leaving their children a more dangerous world than the one they inherited.
“To me, we have a sharper division in this country than any time since the Civil War,” Davis says. “You have one major party that has basically said: ‘We are adherents to white nationalism, white supremacy. We are committed to persecuting transgender people, to depriving Black people and Latinx people and indigenous people the right to vote, to criminalizing protest and rejecting science,’” she says. “It’s dangerous. The majority of people believe in democracy, but it’s a slim majority that’s facing structural obstacles.”
When things seem dark, she thinks of something civil rights activist/attorney Bryan Stevenson often says: Hope is our superpower.
“I think that’s really true. It’s actually cultural for Black Americans, because if we didn’t have hope, why wouldn’t we throw ourselves into the sea?” she says. “If you’re cynical or despairing, you don’t do anything. It’s only when you have hope that you take action.”