Forging a Legal Career in Hollywood

 When I reflect on my path to a career in law, I have to give a lot of credit to my parents, particularly my father. A legal career was not even in my thoughts growing up in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles. My parents, however, did teach me about perseverance and reaching higher and achieving more—and in the end, that’s what started me on the path to my career.

I was born in Bogota, Colombia, and was just two years old when my parents moved to the United States. My mother was a homemaker and my father—who did not speak English—persevered through night school and went to work at ARCO, where he stayed for 30 years.

He always encouraged me to keep learning, and I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. My father taught me many valuable lessons. Still, I didn’t grow up with any lawyers in the family or with access to legal mentors, and I had considered law to be something beyond my reach. In fact, I didn’t give a legal career a thought until I had already embarked on a different career path.

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I obtained a BA in Psychology from the University of California (UCLA) and had originally intended to become a high school or college guidance counselor. I landed a job as a caseworker for Catholic Big Brothers where I counseled and worked with at-risk youth in East Los Angeles, but I decided fairly quickly that I wanted to try something in the business world.

I went to work for a commercial lines insurance company as a claims representative, handling liability and workers’ compensation cases. That job sparked my interest in the law. After meeting many lawyers in insurance work, I realized that I was as smart and capable as any of them. So I decided to apply to law school and spent three years in San Francisco attending UC Hastings College of the Law, where I met my future spouse, a fellow law student, before returning to Los Angeles to commence a law career.

First Jobs After Law School

As a young lawyer, I gained experience at a Los Angeles law firm—in maritime law, personal injury, and product liability cases. But it was after tackling some cases involving employment law that I had my “a-ha moment.”

Employment law was a great fit for my personality and background in psychology. Everyone can relate to being an employee or a manager of people and it is a dynamic and rapidly changing specialty.

So I specialized in employment law and litigation, and moved to another large firm, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, where I found mentors who encouraged me to strengthen and refine my knowledge. I spent more than five years working in the large law firm environment before transitioning to in-house counsel positions.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the world of Big Law, but I couldn’t really envision remaining an employment litigator for my entire career. My personality was more collaborative. An in-house environment offered the chance to become a partner to management at various stages of a particular matter.

Transition to In-House Roles

After leaving Sheppard Mullin, I became senior counsel at Union Bank, California’s third-largest financial institution, and in 1998, moved into the world of movies and theme parks at Universal Studios, now NBCUniversal. During the succeeding years, the company has been acquired by four different owners (Seagram, Vivendi, General Electric, and Comcast) and has expanded to become one of the major players in the entertainment industry with operations in film, television, English and Spanish language broadcast stations, cable channels, sports networks, digital content distribution, and theme parks and resorts.

Working in an ever-changing industry keeps in-house lawyers at entertainment companies particularly busy and challenged. As one of a team of seven employment lawyers, I advise management across the various divisions of NBCUniversal on matters of employment law. Much of the day-to-day routine involves counseling executives and line managers on how to avoid sticky employment law situations and strategizing responses to employee-related legal issues—even though “normal” legal rules are challenging to apply to such work environments as a theme park, a film production, or a television show.

We have such a variety of employees and businesses that one day is never like the next. I might be advising on how to hire minors to work in crowd scenes in Louisiana on a film, and the next day deal with issues involving sports reporters at TV stations, or characters in costume at an Orlando or Hollywood theme park, or union employees on the Universal back lot. We have to navigate a lot of different agendas and rules that are custom and practice in the industry, from collective bargaining agreements to casting decisions to executive contracts to social media and ever-changing federal and state legislative initiatives. Many problems arise simply from a lack of information. I enjoy knowing that my advice and training can often lead to a better outcome not only for the business, but also for the individual employee.

Few Latinos hold a senior position in the entertainment field, but I am working to change that. In 2007, I was fortunate to be recognized by the Imagen Foundation as one of the most influential Latinos in the business, although frankly, being considered “influential” often just means being around for a while and having a good network. What I would like to see are more women and persons of color in every facet of the entertainment world, in front of and behind the camera, from acting to directing to corporate jobs. To help achieve that, I mentor students considering careers in law or entertainment, and I am active on various boards, including the UCLA Academic Advancement Program, Los Angeles Universal Preschool, and the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. I also teach evening courses in business law and HR management at Pasadena City College as an adjunct professor.

Pro Bono Work

My most fulfilling legal experiences have been pro bono cases and helping others who have no access to legal assistance. Early in my career I represented “Oscar,” a 20-year-old Salvadoran conscientious objector, who had refused to enlist in the military during the Contra war in the late 80s because of religious scruples and was seeking political asylum. I was able to obtain asylum for Oscar, who in the 25 years since, has obtained permanent residence, had children, and now manages apartment buildings. Oscar, an American success story, now has a son in film school and I am glad to have the opportunity to help him apply for an entertainment industry internship. More recently, I volunteered through the pro bono legal agency KIND (Kids in Need of Defense), to help a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl who had been abused and abandoned by her family, to stay in the US.  I look forward to keeping in touch of her progress as she starts a new life in Los Angeles.

Advice to Attorneys Interested in In-House Careers

Many lawyers ask what it takes to be successful in-house. First, become a good lawyer and develop a specialty that will likely be in demand in the industry where you may seek to transition. Most corporations do not have the luxury of hiring and training lawyers fresh out of law school and are usually looking for counsel who have worked in a law firm environment for at least 4-5 years. Labor and employment law is a good background for almost any industry as is intellectual property and licensing, particularly in entertainment and technology.

Second, use resources like LinkedIn and professional associations to network, meet, and stay in contact with lawyers and clients you have impressed along the way. I found my current role by contacting a former colleague from a law firm who had been working in-house at Universal. We had stayed in touch since we had both departed our old firm and were members of an employer trade organization. When a job opened up, it became an easy conversation about getting my resume in front of the GC in a “who you know” type of business.

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Finally, keep in mind that while moving in-house may have so called “quality of life” advantages, with more control over schedules and workload, corporate jobs can often be just as stressful and frenetic as law firm life (albeit, without the billable hours). Working weekends is not uncommon and resources (libraries, paralegals, assistants) can be limited. Career growth also may be a challenge, since there are usually only a few “deputy GC” or “managing attorney” slots and only one general counsel, among perhaps hundreds of lawyers in a large company, so that hitting a ceiling in a flat organization is not unusual.

Furthermore, the law department in most corporations is a cost center, and lawyers are employees of the company, subject to layoffs when the business changes, and we are subject to the unpredictability of new management regimes. I have known several in-house lawyers in businesses like defense and telecommunications who were told they needed to move to the Northeast or the Southern U.S. from California when the company changed its headquarters or they could accept layoff packages. For some it was opportunity to move to a lower-cost state and others struggled to find other work, but it exemplifies the relative lack of control that exists in the in-house world, which may or may not be as prevalent at a law firm or government agency.

Still I would not have done it differently. Working for a corporation as an in-house lawyer, particularly in an area like entertainment, has a unique rhythm and, as my wife reminds me when I occasionally get jaded or cynical about my job: “You work on a movie lot—quit complaining.” All law careers, including in-house roles, have their challenges, but it can be a great alternative.

About the Author

Nestor Barrero is Vice President-Employment Law for NBCUniversal Media LLC in Los Angeles. He can be reached at nestor.barrero@nbcuni.com.

 

 

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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