Meet Jaia Thomas, a Los Angeles-based sports and entertainment attorney with over ten years of experience. She represents film producers, television writers, and various industry talent, assisting them with intellectual property and transactional matters. Thomas has negotiated deals with several networks including ABC, NBC, HBO and Bravo and assists professional athletes with brand protection and production company formation.
Thomas is currently an adjunct professor at UCLA, where she teaches about law and the entertainment industry. Prior to being a professor at UCLA, she was an adjunct professor at American University in Washington D.C. where she taught graduate students about the inner workings of production company formation. She has guest lectured at several colleges and universities, including Stanford Law School and Georgetown Law School.
Thomas recently launched Diverse Representation, a platform aimed at increasing the exposure and number of African-American agents, attorneys, managers and publicists working in the sports and entertainment industries, due to noticing a void in both industries. In addition to hosting various education events, Diverse Representation provides the first-ever comprehensive database of African-American agents, attorneys, managers and publicists who work in the sports and entertainment industry throughout the country. In September, Diverse Representation launched a scholarship specifically for future sports agents. This fall, Diverse Representation will be partnering with several HBCU’s to begin building a pipeline for African-American students interested in pursuing careers as sports and entertainment agents, attorneys, managers, and publicists.
I spoke with Thomas about her experiences with being an entertainment and sports attorney, why she created Diverse Representation and where she sees the company in the next five years.
Dominique Fluker: Share your career journey. What attracted you to a career in entertainment law?
Jaia Thomas: I attended college in upstate New York at Colgate University. I was a political science major and initially thought my career trajectory would lead me into politics. After graduating from Colgate, I attended The George Washington University Law School in Washington DC. From there I went on to work at a law firm in New York City. After practicing in New York City for a few years, I eventually decided I wanted to work and be fully immersed in the entertainment industry, so I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Now, I run my own law practice – primarily focused on the television and film industry. I’m also an adjunct at UCLA, where I teach courses on copyright law and the inner workings of how to start a law practice. In terms of what attracted me to the entertainment industry, I’ve always been passionate about the way African-Americans are portrayed in the media and wanted to be a part of reshaping some of those portrayals and narratives.
Fluker: How did you establish a career as an entertainment and sports attorney?
Thomas: As a law student I had various internships that touched upon the sports and entertainment industry, but it wasn’t until I moved to LA that I was able to really immerse myself in the industry. Once I moved to LA, I actually decided to go back to school and enrolled in a producing program at UCLA. It was a truncated 6-week program that taught everything about the television and film industry from ideation to distribution. Prior to this program I only understood the legal side of the industry but never really understood the practical side and this program helped broaden my understanding. From there I eventually started my own practice, focusing on sports and entertainment. Once I launched my practice, to help get my foot in the door, I did a lot of writing and got published in a handful of law journals and various publications.
Fluker: What inspired you to start your own practice, The Law Office of Jaia Thomas?
Thomas: My parents actually inspired me to start my own law practice. At the time I was at a career crossroads and my parents told me I could continue building someone else’s empire or build my own. The rest is history.
Fluker: As a woman of color, share your experiences as an entertainment and sports attorney. Were there any trials and tribulations?
Thomas: As a Black woman attorney who practices sports and entertainment law, I’ve faced a lot of trials and tribulations. I think one of the biggest trials in dealing with the preconceived notions many people have in terms of what an “effective attorney” looks like. A lot of people have preconceived notions that effective attorneys have to be white and have to be male. So many people have brainwashed into believing that their attorney should have a name like “Michael Silverstein” as opposed to “Jaia Thomas.” So, I think just dealing with the subtle (and not so subtle) microaggressions, misconceptions and ignorant comments have all been trials in and of themselves.
Fluker: In 2018, you created your own startup, Diverse Representation, in efforts to increase the exposure and number of African American agents, attorneys, managers, and publicists who work in the sports and entertainment industries. Share the vision behind Diverse Representation.
Thomas: A lot of my clients are African-American but oftentimes I’m the only person on their team who looks like them. Their agents, managers, publicists, financial advisors, and assistants will all be white. After seeing this time and time again in Hollywood I thought it was time to begin shifting that paradigm. There’s a big push for “diversity” in the entertainment industry right now but it’s a very one-sided push. We aren’t addressing and having substantive conversations about the lack of diversity when it comes to agents, attorneys, managers, and publicists in this industry. It is also oxymoronic that some of today’s most well-known African-American actors preach about diversity but many don’t have one diverse person on their team. I wanted to bring this issue to light. I also wanted to create this directory so that no one could ever use the excuse anymore of not being able to find or locate an African-American agent, attorney, manager or publicist.
My vision for Diverse Representation is three-fold: I want to ensure more African-American athletes and entertainers are hiring African-American agents, attorneys, managers, publicists and financial advisors. I want to create a more tight-knit community of African-American entertainment professionals and I want to create a pipeline for the next generation of African-Americans to thrive and succeed as agents, attorneys, managers, and publicists.
My ultimate vision for Diverse Representation is rooted in economics. African-Americans create so much money for the sports and entertainment industries but most of that money isn’t funneled into the pockets of other African-Americans. I want to ensure that we’re doing a better job of recycling the money we generate in these industries back into our own communities.
Fluker: How is your company, Diverse Representation currently making an impact?
Thomas: We are generating business and creating opportunities for African-American agents, attorneys, managers, and publicists. We are also generally connecting African-American sports and entertainment professionals across the country.
Fluker: In addition to providing a comprehensive list of African American sports and entertainment agents and attorneys, Diverse Representation is now offering a scholarship for future sports agents. Explain why the Diverse Representation Sports Agent scholarship is important and needed.
Thomas: This summer the NCAA enacted a new set of rules for sports agents looking to represent basketball players testing the NBA waters. One of those new rules required agents to have a Bachelor’s Degree. Once the rule was enacted there was a lot of pushback many argued that it was specifically targeted at African-American agents like Rich Paul (LeBron James’ agent) who don’t have a Bachelor’s Degree. Many saw this new requirement as one additional hurdle many African-Americans would have to overcome to enter the sports space as an agent. Even though the NCAA ended up later redacting some of these new requirements, it still shed a light on the fact that: (a) there aren’t a lot of African-American sports agents and (b) there are a lot of hurdles and obstacles African-Americans have to overcome to become sports agents. Instead of jumping into the conversation and complaining about the problem I thought it was an opportune time for Diverse Representation to present a solution.
There has never been a scholarship opportunity specifically geared towards African-Americans looking to become sports agents. This scholarship program seeks to usher in the next generation of African-American sports agents and ensure that there are just as many African-Americans on the court as there are at the negotiation table.
Fluker: What’s next for Diverse Representation? How do you see your company scaling within the next five years?
Thomas: This fall Diverse Representation will be partnering with several HBCU’s to begin building a pipeline for African-American students are interested in pursuing careers as sports and entertainment agents, attorneys, managers, and publicists. Some of the schools we are working with include: Morehouse College, Hampton University and Florida A&M University. We will unveil the full-list and schedule of on-campus programming soon.
This year we’ve also done a lot of programming around marquee sports and entertainment events such as NBA All-Star weekend and Sundance Film Festival. We will be replicating that programming next year. Additionally, we are in the early stages of planning our first national conference for 2020.
It is also worth noting that I am currently rebuilding the website and developing an app for athletes and entertainment professionals to more easily connect with African-American agents, attorneys, managers, and publicists. We are also launching a job board this fall for sports and entertainment agencies, firms and companies looking for diverse candidates.
Five years from now I want Diverse Representation to be the hub for African-Americans working in the sports and entertainment industry. I want it to be the ultimate destination for African-Americans to share resources, referrals, information, and business.
Fluker: Give several pieces of advice for the woman of color who aspires to be an entertainment and sports attorney.
Thomas: Find a niche: The most successful attorneys in this industry usually have a specific focus area and really become an expert in that area. Entertainment law is broad and can include television, film, music, fashion, digital, etc. It’s hard to really be an expert in all those areas. I always recommend finding 2-3 areas to really focus on and honing your craft in those areas.
Be authentically you: Throughout my career, I’ve seen women of color strip away parts of their identity to appear more palatable and acceptable in predominately white spaces. I always encourage women of color to fully embrace who they are and wear it confidently. People will always learn to adjust and accept it.
Think Outside the Box: School (especially law school) teaches us to be very linear in our way of thinking. School oftentimes teaches us that to be successful you have to do A + B but there are a lot of various paths to success. Think outside the box and don’t be beholden to one route to success.