Venable partner William Briggs was recently nominated by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to serve on the city’s Board of Police Commissioners. In this Q & A, Briggs discusses his journey from public high school to a prestigious law school, the legal accomplishments he’s most proud of, including his previous advocacy on behalf of disadvantaged children, and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role.
You were raised in a single-parent household in Los Angeles, where you attended a public high school. How did you get from there to one of the country’s top law schools?
I was lucky to have had some very good role models and teachers. One of whom was a biology teacher who I guess recognized that I had some potential and then helped me at an early age to get a job in a laboratory at UCLA. While there I worked for a doctor of Armenian descent who not only exposed me to a completely different culture, but also to a different way of thinking. Basically, he taught me that you don’t have to let the circumstances of your life inhibit your ambition. Like-minded friends of my mother told me the same thing, and my aunt, Dr. Dorothy Height, a civil rights activist, also strongly encouraged me to pursue an education. She had a connection with Bethune-Cookman College, a historically black college in Florida, so that’s where I ended up going.
What was it like being all the way on the other side of the country?
I was somewhat a fish out of water down south. The culture was very different from Los Angeles, and I didn’t really know anybody. But I knew enough to know that it was all on me to either sink or swim. So, I put my nose to the grindstone and ended up doing really well. Aside from the course work, I became the president of numerous organizations, including the student government association. Then, after I graduated, I went to D.C. and got a job as a paralegal in a firm where two of the partners were adjunct professors at Georgetown Law School. They encouraged me to apply there, and the rest, as they say, is history.
At that time there really wasn’t much diversity in the legal profession. Did you feel under pressure as a minority at Georgetown?
Once again, I got lucky. My class at Georgetown had one of the largest populations of black law students and women law students of any university at the time. In fact, the statistic was that Georgetown had the largest number of black students outside of Howard University. So, they did a great job both in recruiting minority students and in supporting us. I was an evening student with a full-time day job, however, so there was plenty of pressure on that front. We actually called ourselves the Zombie Squad because we were there so late in the evenings. But we easily formed study groups to work on assignments, and so on, and that sharpened us. I think we understood that we were going to rise or fall together. So, I was fortunate, as I have been all my life, to have been around people who were a lot smarter than me and who helped me rise with them.
Did you go straight from Georgetown to practicing entertainment law?
I practiced for a few years in San Diego before making my way up to Los Angeles, where I got involved in entertainment law and tried a number of cases. One of my first big trials was against Michael Jackson and his family, and I got to depose Michael several times and cross-examine him at trial. These days, I work with a lot of high-profile clients, so our legal strategy is to get the best possible resolution for them outside the court system, while also setting up their affairs in a way that mitigates the need for litigation.
So, you act more like a general counsel for your industry clients?
Exactly. Many of my clients have multiple aspects to their careers, so with the broad platform that we have at Venable, we’re well positioned to help them navigate the various aspects of their businesses, whether it’s transactional matters or trademark applications or tax and wealth planning. My clients’ interests lie across all of those areas, in addition to litigation.
Is there an aspect of the work that you particularly enjoy?
There’s so much I enjoy, but I was really proud of the work that we did for Marlon Wayans. As a director, Wayans’ creative process is to find what works by ad-libbing a scene rather than sticking to a written script. But in the course of ad-libbing a scene with an extra on set, the extra took offense to the exchange and brought a discrimination claim against Wayans. We argued that what had been said in this exchange was part of the creative process and therefore was protected by the First Amendment. The court accepted our argument and dismissed the claim. More importantly, the decision has implications for all content creators going forward, in that it firmly established that the creative process is protected. So, the decision was groundbreaking in that respect.
You’ve also done a lot of pro bono work.
Yes, I did supervisory work on behalf of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, which is an organization here in Los Angeles that helps place children in foster homes and aims to ensure their critical needs are met. Primarily, these are children whose parents struggle with addiction or have mental health issues. So, they often end up living with grandparents or other relatives who don’t always have the means to provide for them. The Alliance helps them secure access to healthcare and other social services and looks for additional funding where necessary from the city, county, or state to help them provide the care. Beyond those surface issues, the Alliance provides counseling services to the children to help them get a better education all the way through college. In terms of donating my time, I helped supervise the legal aspect of the organization’s advocacy work. Going forward, however, most of my spare time will be taken up with the work I’m doing for the police commission.
There have been a lot of calls for police reform over the past year. Do you envision changes ahead for the LAPD?
I do see the need for some reforms, namely a shift in resource allocation and a reassessment of how certain issues are handled. Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being the homeless capital of the nation right now, and the police have largely been left to deal with it. So, the push now is to find another social service agency where people who are properly trained will be assigned to work with the homeless. Another issue that needs to be addressed is how to respond to calls involving people with mental health issues. While police officers have been given some training in this area, they’re not psychologists or psychiatrists and are not adequately equipped to deal with people who present as mentally ill. So, we’re looking at integrating mental health professionals into the response teams on those calls. We’re also working on improving and expanding community policing, which is a model that focuses on building strong relationships and establishing trust between community members and the police who serve them. We’re already seeing that this model is helping to reduce crime in communities of color. These are some of the reforms we are pursuing. The goal is to make the city safer, while ensuring that people who are struggling with poverty or mental health issues get the help they need.
To learn more about William Briggs’ entertainment law practice, click here.