You can’t do it all, you’re not going to be good at everything, and your time is actually very limited in the grand scheme of things. I wish I didn’t have to learn this on my own, because I could have saved a lot of time if I realized just how limited my time was. It’s tricky, in the general business sense, like delegation and time, but when you’re starting out, you think you have to do everything.
As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mitra Ahouraian.
Mitra Ahouraian, Esq., is the founder and principal attorney at Ahouraian Law, a full-service corporate and entertainment law firm based in Los Angeles, California. She holds degrees from both UCLA and Loyola Law School, with a specialty from UCLA in Entertainment Studies and an emphasis in Business and Legal Affairs. She’s represented some of the most prominent actors, writers, directors, producers, models, influencers, financiers, and lenders in Hollywood, New York and more. Ahouraian’s philosophy is that her clients have more than just a firm working on their behalf; they have personal advocates who care about the outcome. She prides herself in being strategic, prepared and personable. Her aim is to make the law more accessible to others, which is why she takes great pride in the time she takes sharing useful information through her YouTube and Instagram channels. You can find her online at www.Mitra-Law.com or on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/hollywoodlawgroup and Instagram at @MitraEsq.
What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?
I was planning on going to medical school. I did everything possible to ensure I had an incredible career in medicine, including scientific research, working at doctor’s offices to gain exposure, and following my dad on rounds (he was a medical doctor), in addition to studying hard and being at the top of my class at UCLA. My dad got sick during my last year studying pre-Med at UCLA. My family and I spent a year in and out of hospitals and just living in survival mode, with one medical emergency after another, without really knowing what was going on with his health. I was helping care for my dad, so I wanted to stay local and also be with my family, and the idea of going away to medical school just didn’t seem like a reality at the time. So, I chose to go to law school because, in my eyes, three years was short, and I actually told myself that I could always go to medical school later once things settled. Sadly, my father passed away two months after I got my bar exam results, and the rest is history.
After law school, I got the best, highest paying job I could because that’s just what you do. Finding myself in the reality of a new career, one I hadn’t planned on per se, I thought I would go into patent law because I had a science degree, which you need in order to practice patent law. My pre-med background gave me an edge and it made sense to use it, and I wanted desperately to marry my love of science with my career in law. However, while I was working at a large law firm, I was assigned to an entertainment case. The Department of Justice was looking into a merger between two major entertainment conglomerates. I discovered that the president of one of the conglomerates had taught a course at UCLA in an entertainment business program. Always one to learn and be the best at what I was doing, I looked into that and began taking classes to further my knowledge of the entertainment business. I ended up really enjoying it and studying the entire program, all the while working more than full time, as you do as a young lawyer. I took a film finance class that I fell in love with. My professor at the time was the first lawyer I could actually identify with. She was young, brilliant, beautiful stylish, traveled, really great at what she did, and owned her own firm. I ended up going to work with her and learned everything I know about film finance from her. Of course, entertainment law is not just finance, but all of the other things that go into producing content, so after expanding my knowledge and experience at other firms, I eventually started my own firm.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?
One of my favorite moments came early in my career, less than a year and a half out of school. One of my first times in court involved a motion against a well-known $900/hour type lawyer. No one had prepared me but myself (I actually taught myself how to litigate on that case, which is a story for another time). I won. I remember the moment vividly: I was walking to my car in the Santa Monica Courthouse parking lot after winning my motion. My opposing counsel, unable to take a loss, ran after me in the lot and said, “You know, you should be very careful who your clients are because it’ll affect your reputation.” I just smiled to myself because this man felt so defeated, having lost to a newbie (and maybe even “a girl”), that he felt the need to admonish me. I knew, in that moment, that I was good. The moment wasn’t just winning the motion. It was realizing I was a capable adversary against a very experienced and respected attorney, and he felt threatened. I actually remember smiling at him, and I don’t think I said a word (which is unusual for me). Instead, I sort of chuckled to myself and reveled in the feeling. Ironically, the case was about his client not wanting an unauthorized biography to be released by my client, a book publisher, and didn’t want certain unsavory facts to come out.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
A client of mine, Justin Baldoni, just released a book called Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity, that is really exciting because he is opening up conversations that need to be had. Also, I represent Daniel Rojas, who is the youngest composer signed to Kraft-Engel Management (who represents all of the major composers you know). He worked under Hans Zimmer, and he most recently composed the score for Marvel’s new show MODOK. MODOK was the most streamed show the first weekend of its release, so that was really cool and exciting. There are a number of film projects I’m really excited about that I can’t speak of yet. And for the past several months, I have been co-hosting a Clubhouse room on entertainment law on Thursday nights. We make entertainment law entertaining, educational, fun, and applicable to the real world. We involve producers, actors, writers, etc., in the conversation, and have even had conversations with Tiffany Haddish and Bethenny Frankel about their experiences with dealmaking in entertainment law. I’ve found a new opportunity to be of service using what I know, and it’s been exciting to help create a digital space to give back on a regular basis.
What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential, can you share any stories?
I had a really fun case where Anna Nicole Smith’s sister was suing the publisher I represented. That was another one that I won because I found an obscure procedural law that required her to put up a bond for our attorney’s fees for the entire course of the lawsuit in advance, provided I could show we had a reasonable possibility of prevailing — which is exactly what I did. After presenting my argument and winning my motion, she was ordered to pay a significant bond that she either could not or found it not worth paying, so I ended up getting the case dismissed. I think even my client was surprised with the outcome, that I was able to get it dismissed so quickly without paying her a dime. It was a lot of fun and it was in the news. I think that was my first time being quoted in any major publication, and another self-taught success story in my career.
Also, we set up a studio for one of my longtime clients with a big influx of money through an investor. That was a great moment because we had been working together since the start of both our careers, and this was a big move for him. His career had exploded over time and this was the culmination of a lot of that success. That deal took months to close and really allowed me to put to use my knowledge of corporate law. On the opposite end of the deal was a team of lawyers from one of the top corporate firms in the country, and it was fun to revisit that environment but this time, owning my work.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I think Oprah will always be on my list because she really made her mark in a way that is uniquely hers. She created a cottage industry around her style of talk show. I’ve always admired her interviewing style and how she’s able to bring out vulnerable conversations. She creates a space for vulnerability and with that, elicits empathy and connection between the guest and the audience. She’s managed to use this for good in many ways. She is a force of nature and has made her mark. I love that.
Historically, any sort of innovative person inspires me. A quote by Thomas Edison that I love is from when he was researching to figure out how to get the filament in the lightbulb to light up. After thousands of attempts that didn’t work, he was asked why he kept going after failing so many times. He replied with something to the effect of, “I have not failed. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” What a fantastic way of looking at life.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?
Find your place in it. Many people find themselves working in an area of law they don’t like, and decide they hate being a lawyer. There are so many ways you can practice and so many fields you can go into. First off, the work you do in different fields of law are so vastly different. So, try a few fields, even if you have one that you have in mind for yourself. But beyond that, the experience of practicing law can be different depending on who you choose to service. You can have a lifestyle that doesn’t burn you out, you can work with the type of people you want to, you can be in-house at a company, you can be at a big firm, you can be at a medium firm where the caseloads and environment are a little bit different, you can have your own firm, you can be in private practice. Not all of them work for everyone, while some will be a perfect fit for you. I had to move around and find my place. I did that and now I love what I do.
If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?
- Making the law easier to understand. The knowledge is, for the most part, inaccessible to people, because it’s written in such a foreign language and oftentimes so complex. So, putting it in a way that is a lot more understandable to the layperson is actually one of my goals and part of what I think is my purpose as a lawyer.
- Making justice available for the majority of people. Your ability to bring people to justice more often than not depends on how much money you have and if you are willing to invest in it (and if it is worth the time). Oftentimes, there isn’t really any justice because the access to the justice system is dependent on finances. Even things like mediation and arbitration are incredibly expensive for the average person, so people are finding that they have to let go of a lot of unjust situations because of it.
- Financial and billing models. They don’t work for anyone. When you’re billing hourly and you’re at a firm, there is a minimum number of billable hours you have to log to earn your keep. There’s a lot of pressure to do that in order to advance, or qualify for a bonus, or even keep your job. Oftentimes, this means that there is overbilling, so that pressure is not good for the client either. At my level at a smaller firm, I very often don’t bill for things that I was instructed to bill for when I was at a larger firm. I enjoy having the freedom to decide what is fair — both for the client, and, as I often have to remind myself, to me. When you’re at a large firm you have to bill for every single minute; if you walk down the street with a client, that’s billed. If you drive to a meeting, that’s billed. If you send one follow-up email, that’s billed. There are things I feel are unfair to bill for, so I don’t. I’m a human being and not a billing machine. In a lot of ways, it’s not fair to me because I make money based on my time, and my time is limited. But the person I want to show up as in the world is someone who is fair and giving, so that has to permeate into my work. Many people are understandably nervous about hourly billing, and I hate being asked the question how long something is going to take because so much of it is out of my hands, but I completely understand wanting to know in advance. Again, the model isn’t perfect. If someone asks me how much something is going to cost, I often have no idea. I don’t know how long the negotiation is going to take, or how difficult it’s going to be, or who will be on the other side and what their temperament may be. I have no idea how many questions the client has or how many phone calls we are going to need, no idea what we’re going to be up against because deals and cases have unpredictable twists and turns. A client understandably wants a quote or estimate and you just don’t have that with the hourly billing model. I don’t know what the solution is, although I have played around a little with alternate models for certain kinds of matters.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The legal profession is not historically known for being filled with good people. Lawyers are oftentimes considered to be manipulative, dishonest, or wanting to take advantage of people. That reality exists and I face that every day. I aim to bring to my profession kindness, compassion, and empathy. When people are dealing with lawyers, it’s not always because something great is going on. There are a lot of lawyers who are black-and-white about things and don’t acknowledge the difficulty of some situations or get caught up in the legalese and forget that there are actual humans and lives involved. Also, I’m conscious in my dealings with opposing counsel and want to be an example of integrity in everything I do, regardless of who or what I am dealing with.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
Knowing what could go wrong if someone doesn’t have a lawyer and understanding the necessity of someone doing what I do is what drives me. I know that bad things can happen if things aren’t done properly according to the law.
What are your “things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
- You can’t do it all, you’re not going to be good at everything, and your time is actually very limited in the grand scheme of things. I wish I didn’t have to learn this on my own, because I could have saved a lot of time if I realized just how limited my time was. It’s tricky, in the general business sense, like delegation and time, but when you’re starting out, you think you have to do everything.
- There’s the lesson that you can’t do everything for free for people. It was definitely something I had to learn, I can’t just help everyone because they need help and can’t afford a lawyer, because my time is limited, and I need to bill for my time if I’m actually going to be running a business. I don’t regret doing that for years and I don’t regret when I do it now. I have to say “no” more than I did then simply because my time is more limited, but I have helped a lot of people along the way, and that makes me happy. So actually, if someone had told me that and I didn’t have the experience of helping a lot people in need before having learned that lesson, I think I may have missed out on a lot of really great opportunities to be of service. I think the advice is balance. Help others, but also be fair to yourself and value your time.
- Who you work with is everything. We’re very conscious of the people we surround ourselves with in life. Your friends, how much time you spend with different family members, the extracurricular stuff you do, what parties you go to, all of that. We are at least conscious and making decisions when it comes to that, but we don’t always make those decisions when it comes to our work life, which is where a lot of people spend the majority of their time. The people that you choose to work with, whether it’s a colleague or a client, is so important. This is something I had to learn to be conscious of and protective of, because ultimately, it’s my life and the people I want to be around and work with should be my decision. We are charged with creating the universe we want to live in.
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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Amal Clooney, because even though I don’t know a ton about her, I would love to get to know her, and not just to ask how she landed George Clooney. I’m kidding — she’s obviously brilliant and beautiful and he is certainly the lucky one. The work that she does is fascinating to me partly because it’s so far from what I do, and I love learning and expanding my knowledge in different fields. In particular, her work in the international space intrigues me, and I love that her background and career path has taken so many turns. I can relate to that and would love to dig deeper into what led to some of those choices and pivots. I also relate to her on many levels. We’re both of middle eastern heritage, and despite our families being immigrants, came from educated parents. We both have taught law, and I believe we’ve both chosen paths in law that are uniquely ours. I find her inspiring.
Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!