***Every Friday (#FeatureFriday), we will feature a young, up and coming woman working in film and television who is fearlessly blazing her own path in television and film while proving to the world that anything is possible. This week, K.Nicole Mills sat down with entertainment lawyer, producer, and author, Jaia Thomas who has been quoted in notable publications as The New York Times and USA Today. She is also a contributor for Uptown Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine, where she regularly authors articles pertaining to the intersection of sports, entertainment, entrepreneurship and the law. In this interview, Thomas shares her experience building her own legal practice specializing in entertainment law and producing the innovative film Nine Rides.
HBR: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment law, and once you realized this, what steps did you take?
Thomas: I realized I wanted to pursue a career in entertainment law around my second year of law school. I initially went to law school to be a civil rights lawyer which is completely different from what I do now. During my second year in law school I took an internship working for the television show, Dateline. That internship instantly changed my career trajectory. Once I realized that I was interested in entertainment, I began taking more courses in that area, and began looking for internships and positions that were directly related to entertainment.
When I graduated, I moved to New York City and was offered an opportunity to work at a major law firm that didn’t cover entertainment law; however, it paid really well so I ended up accepting a position there. While working at this firm, I was still very passionate about entertainment so I started my own production company, and began producing theater and off-Broadway shows.
HBR: When did you make the transition from the major law firm to a firm that catered more to entertainment law?
Thomas: I eventually made the transition and left my job in New York, sold all of my things, and purchased a one way ticket to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. When I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t have a job and didn’t know anyone who lived in the city. I was able to find an apartment on Craigslist; however, despite my legal background, it was really challenging to find a job. I got a hold of the Hollywood Creative Directory, which was essentially the yellow pages of every production company in Los Angeles. I spent one weekend going through the directory looking at production companies that I was interested in working for, and created a list comprised of 10-15 companies to call. I was expecting people to hang up when I called them out of the blue; however, people were really nice and engaging and wanted to know more about me and what I wanted to do. I wanted to find a job in producing, and my first position was at Overbrook Entertainment. While I was there, I was able to read scripts, write coverage, and assisted in the film development process. I was only there for a few months and left to work for another production company; however, after a year, I decided to move back to the east coast.
When I relocated back to the east coast I focused more on law for financial reasons. I had multiple school loans that needed to be paid (laughter)! It is difficult to get your feet off the ground in production, and at the time, things weren’t working out for me financially, so I had to transition full-time back into law. It was around this time that I decided to start my own practice, The Law Office of Jaia Thomas.
HBR: What challenges did you face when you started your own practice?
Thomas: Starting my own law practice was difficult. In law school, they teach you the law; however, they don’t teach you how to run your own business. In retrospect, I believe that every law school should teach a few business courses because so many attorneys end up starting their own practice. Luckily my dad is an entrepreneur so I relied on him a lot when I started out. I also took a course through the DC Bar, but during my first year, there was a lot of trial and error.
I am now five years into my own practice, and the bulk of what I do is entertainment law. Half of my work involves reviewing contracts, negotiating deals, etc, and the other half is based on intellectual property (IP). Content creators don’t really understand how IP works, so I get a lot of questions about registering content with the Writer’s Guild and then with the Copyright Office. I also help draft agreements, assist with contracts, pitch projects, trademark brand names, logos, and everything else pertaining to television and film.
HBR: You recently produced Nine Rides that screened at South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW). How did you become involved with this project?
Thomas: Nine Rides is a feature film set in Los Angeles and starring Dorian Missick as an Uber driver who gets life changing news on New Year’s Eve, and the 9 different groups of people he gives rides to that night. The film was shot exclusively with an iPhone 6s and was directed by Matthew Cherry, who is a good friend of mine. He told me about the film and I was instantly interested in moving forward with it. I learned firsthand the inner workings of everything it takes to create a film. I knew everything from the legal/contractual side of things, but this was my first time seeing call sheets every day and seeing how film festivals work.
HBR: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career thus far?
Thomas: The most rewarding aspect of my career is being able to help people. I’ve been able to help a lot of content creators and entertainment professionals with their own companies and projects. As a black women, it’s great for younger black women to see someone in my position, and it inspires them to go out there and start their own companies. I’m a huge proponent for black women and entrepreneurship, so for me it’s rewarding to be able to help younger black women or black people in general.
HBR: What do you hope to accomplish as a producer and as an entertainment lawyer?
Thomas: As a producer, my main goal is to create quality content that portrays black people in a myriad of situations, roles, lifestyles, and stories. I just want to tell different types of stories about African American life. In terms of the legal side of things, I want to help people understand the inner workings of the law and educate people on how they can use it to their benefit.
HBR: What can we expect from you next?
Thomas: I am still practicing law, and I teach a course at UCLA called Copyright Law in the Entertainment Industry. I’m also in the very early stages of pre-production for a couple of other projects. My partner and I submitted a few grant applications for production projects, so we’re waiting to hear back. I’m also in preproduction right now for another film. I am splitting my time between practicing, teaching, and producing projects.
HBR: What advice would you give to young up and coming women who are interested in pursuing a career in entertainment?
Thomas: There will always be naysayers who say it’s too hard or it’s too difficult. Ignore the negativity and just go for it because it can be done. Also, reading is very important. Whatever aspect of the industry you are interested in, you should stay current and be as knowledgeable about that topic as possible. Networking is also key. When launching your own company, always be cognizant of your own network. Build it, nurture it, and grow it.
For more information on Jaia Thomas and her legal work please visit her site HERE, and support her by checking out her book that is currently on Amazon: Entertainment Law: The Law Student’s Guide to Pursuing a Career in Entertainment Law You can also check out the teaser to Nine Rides below.