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Ten Questions to a Media Lawyer: Kathleen Conkey

Kathleen Conkey is an experienced New York City entertainment, media and copyright lawyer with a focus on television and film content and production, as well as books, plays, musicals and screenplays.

1. How'd you get interested in media law? What was your first job in the business?

I was a reporter and editor for my high school student newspaper and freelanced articles back then for my local city newspaper. I went to college at the University of Kansas and reported for the University Daily Kansan till I graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from KU's William Allen White School of Journalism. My first job out of college was as a staff writer for Ralph Nader in Washington, D.C. I wrote a book-length investigative report on state of the United States Postal Service. It's out of print now, but you can still see it on Amazon—The Postal Precipice: Can the U.S. Postal Service Be Saved? All- together, I spent eight years in various writing and press jobs before I went back to law school. I've just always loved all media.

My first job in media LAW was with Lankenau, Kovner & Kurtz, the New York City media boutique that has since merged with Davis Wright Tremaine. I went there after three years at Debevoise & Plimpton and immediately knew I had found my niche--representing magazines, newspapers and authors. I was privileged to learn from the best media lawyers in the country there, making it an easy jump to my first in-house job with King World Productions, the maker of Inside Edition, American Journal, The New Hollywood Squares (Whoopie Goldberg was the center square) and a bunch of television talk shows including ones with Roseanne Barr and with Martin Short. Suddenly I was an entertainment lawyer! After many years at King World and CBS Law, I went to MTV, where I worked on a huge number of reality shows, as well as The Stephen Colbert Show, The Daily Show and some scripted sit-coms and movies.

2. What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?

I love pre-publication review, particularly fair use. I love helping a documentarian, an author or a television producer be able to tell the story he or she wants to tell without getting sued (hopefully).

I also do a fair amount of transactional work and talent agreements are not my favorite. I hate the single-color M&M clauses.

3. How has quarantine affected your work and routines?

It hasn't affected my routine much because I've been in solo practice since 2007 and I have always worked from home. I have a home office in New York City and a home office in the Catskill Mountains. I've been at the mountain house since mid-March and the main difference is I get to work in my gardens or roam the woods when I take a break up here instead of walking the streets with a chai latte in the city. Covid has definitely affected my work—television and movie production ground to a halt in March, so some work I was planning for disappeared. But my clients are still doing development, still writing books, a few are in post- production, some have even done shows about Covid, so after an initial period of shock, things have picked up.

4. Highest profile or most memorable case?

I don't do any litigation, so I have no cases to report. But being an entertainment lawyer, I have certainly worked with some interesting characters. I've had heated discussions with John Stewart about fair use, and with Roseanne Barr about libel. I've represented filmmakers who were nominated for Academy Awards, a novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize, well-known news people, and some controversial documentaries that got distribution despite the threat of suit. Still, the most fun I have is making the world safe for reality television shows, the story lines and participants of which never cease to amaze and amuse me.

5. It's almost a cliché for lawyers to tell others not to go to law school. What do you think?

Go...to...law...school. If you have the time and the money and the guts, go to law school. You will never regret it whatever you end up doing. Thinking like a lawyer is a skill that will follow you all your life, just like being a good writer. Whether you go on to a career in law or a career in writing or you become a carpenter instead, good writing and clear thinking will come in handy whatever you do.

6. What's your home office set-up?

I love this question! I'm very lucky to share a two-bedroom apartment in the West Village with my girlfriend of 16 years. When I moved in with her, the extra bedroom was idle, but I immediately pictured it as a possible office. When I started my own practice two years later, I turned it into my dream office. My desk faces a window that looks out on a tree-filled courtyard. When I'm on the phone I'm also bird watching. The walls are lined with all the file cabinets, draws and storage I could want, with lots of surface space for books and spreading out notes and cases. I have a laptop opened to my billing system and a monitor where I do my work. All the comforts and space of a corporate office, without the commute. My "summer" office in the Catskills is similarly equipped, but it has more windows!

7. What's a book, show, song, movie, podcast or activity that's been keeping you entertained?

I had been reading The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers about trees, but some weeks ago an African American friend sent me a link to, a site full of "anti-racism resources for white people" and now I'm immersing myself in those articles and talks. I went to law school at Rutgers-Newark, a progressive school with a strong minority student program and a big emphasis on urban clinics, so over the last thirty years, I've been clinging to this picture of myself as knowing something about the black experience. It took me awhile to admit to myself that I had never studied black history, never read any of the recent work in the field of anti-racism and barely talked about it for years. Now I'm trying to catch up. I wouldn't call it "entertainment," and it's extremely humbling, but it's long past time. For entertainment, I watch any documentary available—I just re-watched PBS's POV-The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers from 2009. Great movie. All that aside, late at night I sneak in an episode or two What We Do in the Shadows, a sit-com about three vampires living together in Staten Island, a letter-perfect parody of a reality show.

8. What's a typical weekday lunch?

Unless I'm meeting a colleague or a client, it's invariably whatever is left over from last night's dinner. If there are no leftovers, it's peanut butter on an apple.

9. Your most important client takes you out for karaoke. What do you sing?

First I have to say that I'm a ham and I would enjoy this situation immensely. Depending on the client's mood that night, I would either sing "Comin' Home Baby," a cool jazz number made famous by Mel Torme in the early 60's, and I would sing it exactly like Mel Torme, or Patti Smith's version of "Gloria," starting slow and ending at the top of my lungs.

10. Where's the first place you'd like to go when the quarantine is lifted?

Kansas. I'm scheduled to become Chair of the Board of Trustees of the William Allen White Foundation this year, but our annual April meeting had to be put off. When it gets rescheduled we will be presenting our annual citation to Marty Baron of the Washington Post. The Foundation's goal is to promote excellence in journalism through the example of William Allen White, the turn of the last century editor of the Emporia [Kansas] Gazette. It's always fun to be back on campus and meet the new generation of journalists. Even better, there's a wonderful ranch for horseback riding nearby in Chase County and three siblings to visit.

 
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