Neville Johnson '75, Founding Partner, Johnson & Johnson, LLP
How did your legal education prepare you for your career as a media attorney?
The overall education was invaluable; you have to know the fundamental rubrics cold to be a competent lawyer in any sector. I was fortunate to take classes on copyright, advertising law, entertainment law, the music industry, Constitutional law and an advanced Constitutional law seminar, all of which were helpful.
The professors were excellent and the classroom discussions stimulating. Law school was an education in the social history of this country, I learned how to think in a logical fashion and argue coherently and dispassionately, plus I made some great friends. Law school was exciting, fun, enriching, and fulfilling. I was on my way into a wonderful profession.
The 2004 Albany Law Review article on your career mentions that Sanders vs. American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the 1990s was your first plaintiff verses the media case. Prior to that, what kind of cases were you handling?
I started off just wanting to do music business transactional law. Eventually I came to represent Yoko Ono Lennon and the Estate of John Lennon, and many other clients in that industry. In 1984, I started to litigate, doing mostly entertainment industry cases, but others, including psychiatric malpractice, public nuisance, and credit slander. In 1993, a right of privacy case walked in my door, and the rest is history. The Sanders case is studied in all law schools across the country and is in at least three casebooks, including the standard one for torts, and two that cover entertainment law.
As a plaintiff's attorney who sues journalists or media outlets on behalf of clients, explain why your work actually strengthens the First Amendment.
The right of privacy is just as important as freedom of speech. To have robust discussion in society, we must be free from fears that we are secretly being monitored. The use of hidden cameras is generally a cheap, sleazy way to do a hit piece on the subject with a preordained conclusion, namely that the object thereof is a wrongdoer and the producer/journalist some "white knight." The cases I bring ensure that laws of general application, such as the right of privacy, are not violated, which fosters fair dealing overall, and in particular, honest journalism. Likewise, good defamation cases protect not just the victims thereof, but society because journalists know they must write the truth in a fair manner. Journalists need to know there are boundaries they must not cross.
What is your litmus test for taking on a client? Have you ever had to turn down a case because you believed your client was wrong or didn't have a strong enough case?
When I was younger, I was more willing to take cases on because they were "righteous"; now, with a partner, that is no longer a compelling reason, but we always look for cases that are interesting intellectually and are financially worth our effort. If we get a case that has a pro bono or "righteous" component, that's a bonus for us. We do feel an obligation to "give back" to the community and we try to do so, especially in class actions where we are quite active protecting consumer rights and those of entertainers. For example, we recently sued the Writers Guild of America and The Director's Guild of America and forced them to pay out over $100 million due members of their unions, as well as non-members on monies they had secretly held onto since 1991. We turn down cases all the times for many reasons: we can't win them, or if we do, they are not worth enough for the effort, or because it just doesn't "feel right." We can't right all wrongs.
Do you believe hidden cameras can be employed to protect the public from potential harm, or is it more often a conduit to deceive unsuspecting citizens?
Hidden cameras are usually used to obtain ratings and commonly are found during "sweeps" periods. Often, journalists set up stings with law enforcement when they should be monitoring them. It becomes too cozy a relationship otherwise, and even more so, when as sometimes happens, a third party is involved to set up a hidden camera "sting." It is inventing news for "info-tainment" purposes and ratings. Hidden cameras "investigations" usually do not give a fair, accurate and complete report of the "controversy." If the right of privacy and other laws are not being invaded, then there can be occasions when a hidden camera might be useful, but would be rarely so. There is a fundamental problem with using deception to gather the news: if one lied to get a story, why should it believed? Most ethicists in journalism say hidden cameras should only be used as a last resort and on a very important story. That, sadly, has not been the case in our country to date. The victims of hidden camera investigations often suffer permanent injury to reputation and psychologically, as do their family members. Naras Kersis committed suicide during his trial by drinking himself to death as a result of the unfair hidden camera investigation by ABC. ABC's conduct remains unforgivable; a good person died needlessly because of television ratings.
Do you represent clients who claim humiliation, defamation, or endangerment from participating in reality TV shows? Or are the contracts/releases the participants sign now so meticulous that it makes suing the shows' producers impossible?
We have represented clients who were on, sometimes unwittingly, reality shows. This is a burgeoning industry for plaintiffs' attorneys. The contracts/releases are often so one-sided as to be unenforceable (including one I saw for the movie, Borat, that said effectively if we are defrauding you by this release you can't sue us"), or they are signed under conditions which demonstrate coercion or duress. The injuries can be substantial. The vetting of participants poses additional problems. People can get seriously injured, even die, and there may be serious psychological injuries.
Has the proliferation of the Internet, online news and information sites increased invasion of privacy and defamation?
The web has caused huge problems with privacy and defamation. The Federal Communications Decency Act provides a "safe harbor" for the internet service providers (a law which really needs to be changed), and the defamers and privacy invaders usually are not worth pursuing financially. We have successfully sued for defamation on the Internet and I am sure we will again. One huge problem is that the defamations/invasions can stay up for years; with newspapers, they go in the garbage and are more quickly forgotten. Google gives a worldwide boost to the tort.
As an avid supporter of newspapers (and former owner of a Bay Area entertainment bi-weekly), what do you believe is the most egregious offense being committed in journalism today?
The "snarkiness" of tabloid journalism, the intent to hurt the reputation of or humiliate others, is appalling. The paparazzi is often out of control, invading privacy, causing accidents, encouraging assaults. Hidden cameras remain a big problem, especially when under the control of uneducated, unsupervised producers in search of ratings. Then there is always the problem of an investigative journalist failing to get two sides of a story when in almost every case, the person complaining has an agenda and a bias. I am friends with and have represented many journalists over the years. I'm after the rogue journalists.
In your June 2008 article for Los Angeles Lawyer, "Ten Rules for Success in the Practice of Law," you advise not to be a jack of all trades. By what point in new lawyers' careers should they have a good idea about the kind of law they want to practice?
When I started out, I thought I wanted to spend my life being a transactional lawyer. Instead I ultimately became a litigator, and it took some time for me to realize that was my true calling. Jobs are tough to get in this economy, so one may not have the luxury of exploring areas of practice that may be interesting. Generally speaking, a lawyer should know where he or she is going to concentrate three years after admission to the bar.
What is your advice to current law students as well as new attorneys who wish to pursue careers in media law?
I have greatly enjoyed my work in media law and recommend it to all, whether they lean towards plaintiff or defense work. The issues are always on the cutting edge, the parties and players interesting, the stakes high.
What inspired you to write The John Wooden Pyramid of Success?
In 1981, I had achieved my goal of representing the biggest group in music, namely, the Lennon Estate and I was questioning my "success" as I didn't feel all that fulfilled. I came across Wooden's Pyramid of Success and it inspired me to understand the philosophy of the greatest coach in the history of any sport, which reduced to its essence is: "Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you have done your best to be your best." Wooden - whose basketball records at UCLA, are not just unequaled, but unapproachable - is one of the finest persons who ever lived and writing this book was a thrill, the greatest challenge of my life, and what I am most proud of ever having accomplished.
What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of the legal profession?
Cindy Johnson, my wife and fellow Southwestern alumnus (who I met at an event at the school!) and I own Cool Titles, which publishes books, fiction and non-fiction. I will soon release my third album as the recording artist. My nom de plume is Trevor McShane; I play rhythm guitar, write and sing the songs. I work with top professional musicians and producers, and do two duets with legendary singer Mitch Ryder on the new CD. We perform live and in the new year I will release 52 new recordings, one a week, for 52 weeks and offer free downloads, and I will publish 365 poems, one a day, to build an audience.