You may not be familiar with the name Jennifer Justice. But for the past two decades, she’s been the legal force behind some of the music industry’s biggest deals, working with everyone from Outkast and Mark Ronson to Beyoncé and Jay Z (she represented the hip-hop mogul for a whopping 17 years). Though she quickly rose to prominence in the field of entertainment law, Justice learned early on in her career that, behind closed doors at some of the biggest record labels and entertainment firms, women were getting anything but, well, justice.
“During meetings, I would be one of the only women — if not the only woman — in a conference room,” she tells InStyle. “I’d be having conversations but in the back of my head, I’d be thinking, ‘He just took my idea and now he’s not looking at me; he’s only looking at the male partners.’ Or I’d wonder, ‘Am I saying enough? Am I being aggressive enough?’ Of course, you couldn’t talk about being the one woman in the room in this male-dominated world, because then their eyes would roll. So it was kind of like having a double identity where I had two different roles: I was making money for men by day, and trying to overthrow the patriarchy by night.”
Justice didn’t let the boys' club nature of the music industry hold her back. After graduating from Cornell Law School, she worked as a litigation associate at a business and financial law firm in New York before interviewing for a job as an entertainment attorney at Carroll, Guido and Groffman LLP in the late ‘90s. She quickly impressed the team with her taste in — and passion for — music. “They went through their whole litany of artists, which included Marilyn Manson, Sugar Ray, Dave Matthews, and all these big bands at the time,” Justice recalls. “Then they added, ‘Oh, and we have this young hip-hop artist named Jay Z.’ I went, “Oh! Reasonable Doubt is my favorite album!” They couldn’t believe that I even knew what Reasonable Doubt was, and they said that if I was hired, the first thing I’d be doing was working on Jay Z’s upcoming album, Hard Knock Life. So I got the job, and that’s what I did.”
Justice made partner at the firm in just three years, racking up a full client roster in addition to representing Jay Z. In late 2009, she left Carroll, Guido and Groffman to join the six-person team launching the rapper’s entertainment company Roc Nation, where she held the titles of General Counsel and EVP of Strategic Marketing and Business Development. But after five-plus years at Roc Nation (including a year-long stint as Beyoncé’s personal attorney), Justice was ready to move on. She served as President of Corporate Development at Superfly for three years before she decided that it was time to launch a company of her own: a female-focused advisory and legal firm appropriately named The Justice Department.
Here, Justice opens up about her goal to make women “just as rich as men,” what it was like to work with music’s reigning power couple, and how the #MeToo movement inspired the next phase of her career,
Becoming a lawyer: I come from a very modest background — my mom was 16 when she had my sister and 19 when she had me. She didn’t graduate high school, and the rest of my family wasn’t formally educated, either. I was the first one to go to college in my entire extended family on both sides. I went to the University of Washington and spent a lot of time seeing grunge bands that were coming out of the area at the time, long before anyone else in the world knew who they were. When I graduated, I worked at the prosecutor’s office before I decided to go to law school. Thankfully I got in to Cornell on a scholarship. Before I left, I had a going away party. All of the bands that were big in the area at the time were there, and they kept saying, “You should be an entertainment attorney. Ours are women.” I was like, “Wait, what? That’s what I’m going to do!” Ignorance is bliss, and I thought I could just waltz out of law school and become a music attorney. But in the end, that’s kind of what I did.
Making partner in just three years: I was really ambitious. I wanted to do really well and move up in the ranks. I didn’t just want to be a worker bee; I wanted to be a partner. And in music, I knew I could. Musicians are often from a similar background as I am, so I knew how to talk to them. Even though 50 percent of my time was spent on Jay Z, I still brought in a lot of clients. I was really successful at that, so I became partner in three years.
Infiltrating the music industry’s boys’ club: At first, I was not aware that there was an issue with women. I didn’t have any insight into the business, and I was ignorant that there was such a thing as a glass ceiling. Early on, I did a deal for this guy in a publishing company, and he was getting $130,000 a year at the director level. Then I did the senior director’s deal at the exact same company — which had just signed a big artist at the time, meaning a lot of money was about to come into the company. The senior director was a woman, and she was getting $90,000. I was like, “Oh hell no, this is bullshit!” I went to negotiate for more, and ended up getting her another $10,000, but not the equal pay. After that, I started representing more women and negotiating for them. I had real vision into what women were getting paid since I was representing people in the same company. And there was just such a massive disparity.
The birth of Roc Nation: Jay really wanted to take the next step in his career, because obviously he’s ambitious. At the time, Live Nation was signing artists for these exclusive touring deals, and it was a lot of money up front. They started talking to Jay and wanted to make it a bigger deal, and Jay was like, “Look, I’m open to doing this, but I want to start an entertainment media company and you guys should partner with me and help fund it.” I was part of the team that negotiated that whole deal, and then he asked me to come in-house as general counsel and help grow Roc Nation as a company. If you’re gonna build something that’s scalable and you want to make an impact, you can’t just do it by yourself; you have to get different people on board who have different skill sets and experiences. It’s a lot about building complementary capabilities. Of course, we also had the leverage of Jay and other clients that we started to manage by then, like Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, and Kanye. That helped, too.
What she learned from working with Jay Z: Jay’s somebody who was never afraid to say no to a deal. He’s an artist that no one wanted to sign originally, so he funded and did Reasonable Doubt himself. Then all of sudden, everybody came running. He was like, “Wait a minute, I sold this album by myself. I understand how much you can make from this. I don’t want to just be ‘artist,’ I want to be ‘owner.’” So he was always the person that was cutting out the middlemen and trying to push the needle to get the best deal possible. If somebody said, “That’s not how we do it,” he would say, “Ok, then you’re definitely not doing it.” He wanted to do best-in-class deals and things that no one’s ever done before. So I took all of that knowledge and learning.
Representing Beyoncé: She was in the middle of changing her whole team, around the time that she released her album 4, the one with “Who Run the World (Girls).” Jay asked me to help her for a month or so, and I ended up being her attorney for a year. She’s literally the hardest working person in the world, I think. It was really exciting to represent such a powerful female. I got to know her from a different side than just being Jay’s wife. She’s an amazing human being, and I got to see how she works, how meticulous she is, and how she’s just really integral in the business of it all. Plus, she can literally go on for days and do things like photo shoots in the middle of the night. She’s a force.
How Time’s Up and #MeToo inspired her next career move: When I left Roc Nation [in 2015], I don’t think that even women were ready to acknowledge the fact that we weren’t treated equally. It wasn’t until Gretchen Carlson [filed a sexual harassment suit against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in 2016] and the #MeToo movement that women started talking among each other and discovered that we’re not all being treated the same as men. I realized I had this great experience I could use to help women build businesses, negotiate, and become confident in themselves and what they deserve. That’s why I started The Justice Department, so that women can be just as rich as men.
The inner workings of The Justice Department: We’re a law firm that women can hire to be their attorneys and do things like paperwork, but they also get all the business acumen from our individual work over the past 20 years. So the other side of it is advising, consulting, and strategy. We can come in and be your pop-up executive team, helping you wade through everything from figuring out your corporate development strategies to using capital. We have a vast network, having played in the sandbox with men our entire careers, and we’ve seen how they do business. We understand how they give each other business, help each other rise, and how they’re constantly doing business on golf courses and in fantasy football leagues. So we are applying all of that, from a feminine point of view. Their day of golfing is our dinner party. Their fantasy football is our getting mani-pedis together where, instead of talking about our kids, we’re talking about business. And we have capabilities well beyond music and entertainment media, too.
The biggest challenge she’s faced: Trying to convince women that they have the voice that’s in all of us, and to get them to understand opportunities that are before them. Half of it is like being a life coach or therapist. We’ve had testimonials from women saying, “I didn’t know my worth until I was represented by you. I now walk with my head high and I know my value.” So it’s just showing them what’s possible and not making them feel stupid for asking questions. You need to ask all the questions, because you shouldn’t know everything. Why would you? That’s ridiculous. But for some reason, in business, women think we have to do it all ourselves and that we have to prove to the world that we can. That’s not how men do it; they hire people. So why would you think that you could do all of these things by yourself?
What she does when she’s off the clock: I sleep! That’s what I do in my free time. I’m a single mom to six-and-a-half year old twins. When people are like ‘self-care Sunday,’ I’m like, “That’s hilarious!” But I had my kids late, so I had a lot of self-care Sundays…and Mondays and Saturdays and Fridays. [laughs] So I’m all good.
The most badass thing she’s ever done: Taking a lot of non-traditional routes for women. I never got married. I had kids on my own. I quit Roc Nation when my kids were two-and-a-half without a job. Then when they were six, I started a company that literally makes me unemployable in a male world. [laughs] There is no way a man is ever going to employ me again.
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