The lady, the law and rap

The lady, the law and rap – profile of entertainment lawyer Denise Brown-Noel

Michael Robinson

Three years ago, at age 28, entertainment lawyer Denise Brown-Noel took advantage of a change reverberating through the music industry and started her own law firm. Hip-hop music was becoming a dominant sound, and its artists – young, black and often angry – were about empowerment. They readily identified with this young, independent sister and were willing to give her a chance. “Historically, black entertainers have felt that, in order to get the best deal, they had to use white lawyers,” Brown-Noel explains. “It was the |street music’- type clients who gave me a shot. They were the ones who said, |I like you. I want to roll with you. I want you to represent me.’

Brown-Noel, whose entrepreneurial spirit was instilled early on by her father, the owner of a successful heating and air conditioning company, did not squander the opportunity. She developed a solid reputation for delivering first-rate work, and her success led to her being the object of a bidding war among several major firms. In fall 1993, she joined Mayer, Katz, Baker, Leibowitz & Roberts, becoming the only black and the only female partner at the blue chip, New York-based firm.

Marvin Katz, her managing partner, says: “We had the benefit of seeing her grow and develop as a lawyer over a number of years because she’s been involved in a number of our deals on the other side, as an adversary. One of the things that impressed us was her sense of fairness when negotiating. A good deal is one where both parties can leave with their heads held high and not one where someone feels taken advantage of.”

For Brown-Noel, whose practice is dominated by such cutting-edge hip-hop and reggae clients as the rap group Leaders of the New School and reggae crooner Beres Hammond, her partnership is just another step in a lifelong love affair with music. A classically trained concert pianist, she once dreamed of becoming the next Andre Watts. “I had speakers next to my crib,” she says, recalling her early years growing up in a suburban black middle-class enclave in Buffalo, N.Y. “I started piano lessons at 3,” she adds. “Music has always been an integral part of my life.”

When Brown-Noel graduated from New York University with a music business degree, she had set her sights on a career in entertainment law. While at Brooklyn Law School, she participated in an intensive internship program at CBS Records, at that time considered the training ground for the industry’s future leaders. “If you look at the record business now,” she explains, “a lot of the power brokers, like Clive Davis, Dick Asher and Al Teller, got their initial training at CBS.”

But entry into the legal department at most record companies required two years of corporate experience. So when a chance meeting with the late corporate raider Reginald Lewis led to an interview and a job offer, she jumped at the opportunity, becoming the only female associate at his Wall Street firm, Lewis & Clarkson. Being the only woman there did not bother her. “I didn’t really focus on that,” she says, recalling her hectic 70-hour-a-week schedule. “I didn’t have time to focus on anything except work. But I always felt like one of the guys.”

Her fierce negotiating skills, she says, were learned during her tenure at Lewis & Clarkson. Brown-Noel worked on Lewis’ $985 million acquisition of the Beatrice International Food Company, the largest offshore leveraged buyout in U.S. history. Lewis’ T.L.C. Beatrice International Holdings remains the largest black-owned firm in the country. “I don’t think that I could have gotten a better job coming out of law school,” Brown-Noel says. “Here was a black firm that was just kicking ass on Wall Street. Reg was the one who taught me not to be afraid to ask for anything.”

Keeping her eye on her dream, however, Brown-Noel maintained her ties to the entertainment world through Kendall Minter, then regarded as the industry’s top black entertainment lawyer. Minter recruited her aggressively, but other forces were also at work. The 1987 stock market crash changed the dynamic of the junk bond business. Leveraged buyouts had become a symbol of greed and Wall Street excess. “I knew the market had changed and that Reg would never do another deal like Beatrice,” she says. So in 1988, she left the world of corporate finance and joined the entertainment law firm of Minter & Gaye.

The transition was not an easy one. “Well,” she says, laughing out loud, “I took over a 50 percent cut in pay, moving from a six-figure salary to a low five-figure one. That was culture shock to me, ’cause I was living like I was getting paid.” She spent two years with Minter & Gaye, quickly learning the business. Then, frustrated with what she perceived as a lack of personal growth and eager for greater financial reward, she started her own firm.

The parting was amicable; in fact, she started her practice within Minter’s office. “To this day,” she says, “I joke with Kendall that he’s responsible for my practice because I think what precipitated it was really a money thing. I said I needed more money and he said, |Get your own clients.”‘ So she did.

At 32, riding the tide of a 7-year-old legal career, she is now one of a handful of black female partners in major U.S. law firms. “There are less than 10 of us in the country,” she says with a sigh. “And most of them are my girlfriends. It’s very discouraging. I don’t know how many black male partners there are, but I’ll put it to you this way: There’s a luncheon that’s held every year of black partners, and they don’t have to close out a restaurant.

“With so few black female partners in the country,” she continues, “there is a certain amount of responsibility that I have. I think that what I do impacts on other black female lawyers coming up through the ranks.” Serving on the board at her alma mater Brooklyn Law School and finding time to talk to aspiring entertainment lawyers is part of fulfilling that obligation.

Another responsibility, one not so conventional, is allowing clients to stay at her house. Brown-Noel’s attractive, sparsely furnished three-story brownstone, nestled in the heart of downtown Brooklyn, serves as a second office and sometime crash pad for traveling clients. “Ed!” she yells as the conversation is interrupted by silky smooth vocals coupled with a thumping reggae bass line. “Turn that music down a bit, I’m doing an interview.” Ed Robinson, a reggae singer and MCA recording artist who had been playing an advance copy of his debut album for a friend, is one of her clients.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the weekend doesn’t bring respite from Brown-Noel’s clients, for whom she is always available. Her phone rings constantly. “One of the things that I like most about my practice is that most of the people who retain me stay with me,” she explains. “You accomplish that by making yourself part of their team. You don’t just come in and negotiate an agreement for them and say, |Best of luck.’ You go through the process with them.”

Denise Brown-Noel will readily admit that she pays a price for her success: The long hours and constant travel proved too much for her marriage, and she believes stress is the primary cause of her frequent migraine headaches. “I work out regularly to relieve the pressure,” she says, puffing on a cigarette. Then she points to a blank wall space that will soon be occupied by the baby grand Steinway piano that she has ordered. “I can’t wait to start playing again,” she says.

Still, the moments of melancholy are fleeting. Knowing that she plays a key role in helping artists embark on entertainment careers is reward enough. “Hearing my clients’ records on the radio or seeing their videos on television,” she says, “is the ultimate.”

COPYRIGHT 1994 Heritage Information Holdings, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group