The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sekou Campbell.
Sekou, based in Philadelphia, PA, began his career at an AMLAW 100 firm litigating a variety of commercial matters, and supporting the entertainment department in Philadelphia, New York, and LA. For the past two years, he has served as a partner at Culhane Meadows, PLLC, a majority women-owned virtual law firm where he represents clients in matters like company formation and governance, content licensing to providers (e.g. film studios, streaming sites), a range of service agreements, and related significant transactions. The Network Journal recognized Sekou as a “Forty under 40,” deeming him a “Renaissance man” for the range of work he’s done — from performing and producing theater, to education and law — and the Philadelphia Arts & Business Council acknowledged Sekou as a “Volunteer Lawyer of the Year” for his pro bono work with arts organizations in the city.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
Iwork with “intellectual creatives” — businesses and individuals engaged in developing technology and the arts; often both. In both tech and the arts, clients tend to own and control intangible assets. Meaning, a significant amount of both the value and the risks inherent to their business lies in the way that they license their work product. I, with my colleagues, work to mitigate the downside risk and leverage the value of our clients’ work. In “lawyer speak” that looks like the types of transactions mentioned in my bio: formations, content licensing deals, and service agreements. Those broad categories can be broken down into greater specificity. So, for example, a formation often does not just mean filing the 1–3 page document with the appropriate state agency but rather advising clients on the set of risks their particular business poses and how they may set up a structure to maintain some separation between the downside risks inherent in their activities while improving the upside potential in the same. One traditional way that may work is if I represent a singer/songwriter, we may separate out their singing and songwriting activities and form separate entities for each purpose because they pose very different value and risk propositions.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three characteristics that I think translate to success in law, and in any field for that matter, are (1) persistence, (2) humility and (3) love. I actually think of these three characteristics as pyramidal. Meaning, persistence necessitates humility, which in turn, requires love.
I find it hard to believe that any success at all is possible without persistence, sticking with something when it gets hard. Even if succeeding in law school was easy, most lawyers would agree that law school is not the same as lawyering. Likewise, the challenges of a first-year lawyer pale in comparison to those of a more seasoned attorney. The reason, in my view, we refer to the profession as a “practice” is because experience informs expertise in the law. I’ve found that as one gains experience, they are often confronted with more complex issues. So, persisting on large, complex problems over time helps build a lawyer’s toolbox and prepares them for the next, even more difficult, issue(s) they face.
When orienting myself to a new challenge, I often do not try and self-aggrandize but rather focus on the issue I face. By making myself secondary to the problem, I believe, matters become easier to solve without as much stress. Moreover, by focusing on the problem, I am able to persist because I understand the issue as separate from myself and can take a more objective, measured approach. Humility also allows lawyers to develop relationships with clients, colleagues, and even “adversaries,” which is important in the legal profession.
Love, in this context, complement’s “humble persistence.” Merely plugging forward without love or care may yield some nice results, but I think they do not help lawyers build relationships personally or professionally. Love does not mean the kind we see in the movies but rather the serious dedication to the principles by which one chose to practice law in the first place. I’m reminded of something a prominent lawyer shared at a “lunch and learn” I attended while interning in the Eastern District of New York, “Take some time to remember why you went to law school in the first place.” I do this often and would implore others to do the same. The origins of one’s interest in the law often aligns with their love for it. Finding that love will prove wise guidance as one makes their way through their career.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
Luck or serendipity or coincidence exists in the world and plays a part in success and failure. So yes, luck has played a part in my success. That ranges from meeting mentors to clients to working on matters, all of which have shaped my experiences.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
Yes, where you go to school has a bearing on your success. Top-tier schools have access to resources that others don’t. However, where one goes to school is not determinative of success. I would liken it to an exercise regimen. If I go out and buy the best running shoes, shorts, and shirt I may be a few seconds faster, but ultimately, it is my heart, lungs, and muscles that determine my success. Those cannot be purchased, they must be built. The same goes for career success. There are certain things that can give you a boost, like going to a particular school or working for a certain judge or law firm, but ultimately, the only thing those things really give you is exposure to more opportunities. I deeply believe that no one is completely incapable of anything, if they are willing to humbly persist with love.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
I would not change anything, not because I did everything perfectly over the last 25 years but precisely because I didn’t. I am where I am because of everything that I did, both good and bad. While I like to reflect on the past, I do not generally like to dwell on things that are unchangeable, like the past. One would be wise to keep certain things constant: honesty, integrity, ownership of one’s successes and failures, etc. Otherwise, I think it’s important to “Amor Fati” (love fate) and embrace all that comes as a learning experience.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
Charles Hamilton Houston’s quote always stands out for me: “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite.” I find myself in a privileged position to help socially engineer the next generation. That drives me to help make the world better. I am motivated by people like my grandfather, a Black lawyer in the 50s in Philadelphia. As one could imagine, he and his fellow partners, at a firm they founded, had an immense challenge facing them as they endeavored to simply practice law. However, out of that cohort of lawyers, nearly all became federal, state or municipal judges. And I know that here, in Philadelphia, the world looks very different because of that firm.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am really excited for a cadre of clients that have soon to launch products on the market. One is a FinTech company, another is an AI music composition company, and another is a record production company releasing a cast album for an adaptation of a popular children’s book.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I would like to continue to service clients who make a positive impact on society. I really enjoy my firm and would like to see our firm become an institution of change within the legal industry. So, I don’t know that my title will change substantially any time in the near future. But, I hope that we make the world a more hospitable and productive place for all people.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
This is not really a “war story,” but one of my proudest moments as an attorney has to be while representing an artist who was brilliant but as of yet unrecognized. We worked with her to ensure that she made good decisions as she went into a major project release. She was able to secure important rights that were later exercised and is progressing nicely at the moment.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I work remotely. I think the future of law offices will, as they have always done, mirror changes in business practice.
What I enjoy most about our firm is its move towards a flatter model that I think reflects businesses practices today. Businesses are moving away from standard practices of PTO or traditional hierarchies and exploring ways to structure their business to operate more efficiently. Nearly all industries are becoming more fractured, thus agility has become more important relative to sheer strength. Meaning, as companies grow these days, I think we will see a focus on obtaining the best talent, wherever it may exist, to provide the products and services they offer. Those same companies will expect similar approaches from its legal service providers. Businesses today are asking for more senior and more diverse attorneys to staff their matters. I think that demand will only grow.
I see, in our firm, a strategic advantage to having an all-partner firm with a model that encourages diversity. I imagine this model may become the model for the provision of legal services in the next decade or so.
Technology, also, has and will likely continue to take much of the grunt legal work away and clear a path for more strategic legal advice. Even now, my sense is that in-house counsels want advisors who can help them think through legal strategies that support the business almost as much as avoiding risks to the business, though that will remain the chief priority for law firms. There is a need for lawyers to have intimate knowledge of their industry and develop efficient ways of communication, practice, and research to accomplish tasks in a dynamic environment.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
I think people have become more understanding and empathetic. I hope that lasts.
During COVID, I think we removed the false barrier between professional and personal life by either working from home, having our children home with us while we worked, sharing a collective moment of deep vulnerability, and having to accommodate a new way of doing things. Out of those realities, I have seen lawyers of all walks of life take a step back, listen more, and think more clearly about all positions in a conversation. Some of that will go away as we return to normal. But, I think we now share this collective experience, and as horrifying as it was, we may feel closer as a result.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
Yes, law is a referral business. So networking has been and will continue to be critical. Networking has certainly changed. Social media, including sites like LinkedIn, have given more people more access to information than ever before. How a lawyer presents themselves digitally is nearly as important as any of their credentials. That said, I think person-to-person intimacy is still the most important way to network. I would say that young lawyers should consider their brand wherever they go: sitting on a board, participating in school meetings, coaching little league, etc. All of these things have helped me grow my network.
Of course, one should also be intentional and develop relationships in their own practice area and industry as well as in those areas where there is much overlap. It is important to note which practice areas and industries complement or otherwise have needs in your practice area or industry.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
I am very bad at this, but I think social media could be useful depending on your practice. The question one must answer with respect to social media is where is your audience? If you service in-house counsel at Fortune 500 companies, TikTok is probably not the right platform.
Once you’ve determined the appropriate platform, decide your identity on that platform and how you will communicate in terms of frequency, content, and “look and feel.”
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
Writing: In all fields, lawyers primarily write to communicate. I do more writing than anything else as a lawyer. So I teach, practice, and read good writing. One can and should make writing a lifelong endeavor.
Networking: Law, above all else, requires trusting relationships. So build them in networks where you seek to grow business.
Empathy: Good lawyers can help solve a problem, great lawyers can help put a client at ease. Lawyers must develop keen listening skills and ways to get more information from a client than they may want to divulge in the first instance.
Knowledge: Like writing, learning should endure throughout your professional life. First, learn about one’s practice area. Second, learn about the industries one works with. Third, learn about life: art, culture, history, etc. Become a well-rounded person who can contextualize legal needs in to the practice, business, and the world.
Management. Learn to manage people, time, priorities, skills, and any other aspect of your practice. Develop habits and processes for the repeatable aspects of your practice and ways to think through new ones.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this.
I would love to dine with Barack Obama. As noted above, I love good writing and there are few writers alive today better than Pres. Obama. He expresses his thoughts with such clarity and precision and he has, I think, inspired an entire generation of Americans to hope. That concept of hope has power in times like these and can help the kinds of upward mobility that lie deep in the “American Dream.”
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!