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November 2023

Ten Questions to a Media Lawyer

By Deanna K. Shullman

Deanna K. Shullman is a partner at Shullman Fugate in West Palm Beach, Florida.

How did you get interested in law and the First Amendment?

I left undergrad with no idea I would ever go to law school. I worked as a news producer for an ABC-affiliate. One night, while the anchor read a story about an accused sex offender, we played video depicting another man. I thought to myself, “Huh. That can’t be good.” As far as I know, the station never got sued (I can’t be sure I even told my News Director what happened), but the incident planted the seed. A bit later, when I realized my prospects in the news business meant lots of relocating for career advancement, I began to think about law school. But because of my journalism background, I went to law school for the purpose of studying media law.

What was your first legal job?

I worked as a legal assistant to an entertainment lawyer who mostly did licensing and venue agreements for local Gainesville bands.  

What would you advise a recent grad looking to break into media law?

Media lawyers are some of the sharpest thinkers and writers I know. If you did not get a strong foundation for your research and analytical skills in law school, you will need to spend some time on professional development in those areas. Assuming you’re on the right track there, the media bar is small and not hard to find. Make connections with current members of MLRC and other First Amendment / media law groups. If you can’t land a media law job fresh out of law school (and most cannot), get experience at a clerkship or the biggest firm you can and keep working the media bar connections until one pays off. (I mention the big firms because the resources they invest in training young associates is unparalleled. But there are certainly smaller firms where you can get solid training, especially firms (like mine) that are very niche practices).

What are some of your most memorable cases?

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. I counted the defamation cases I’ve defended a half decade ago now and it was close to 200 then. Weird things happen. Plaintiffs go full throttle, then you get a voluntary dismissal in your inbox out of the blue. Plaintiffs, judges, and plaintiffs’ lawyers drop dead in the middle of a case. Plaintiffs turn around and sue their own lawyers. A pro se plaintiff teaches you (essentially his adversary) not to turn in a leased vehicle unless you know its value is less than the buyout price. You pass a kidney stone during a deposition. You get accused of witness tampering (baselessly, of course). You get called in from the gallery by a judge to assist counsel in a defamation case you’re not involved in because the lawyer arguing is struggling, and the judge knows you can help. You win the ones you thought you’d lose and lose the ones you should win.

It’s a very wild ride. But I will always cherish the one where I represented a source, who was sued for defamation alongside the media organization she gave information to. It was both humbling and frustrating (she was stuck in the case for six years!), and I learned a lot about the human side of free speech. I also learned a lot from a cluster of cases that lingered almost eight years brought by an overseas marine park and one of its officers. Our client was Flipper-trainer turned dolphin activist Ric O’Barry and the non-profit he worked with at the time. So many wacky things happened in those cases that I have yet to be surprised by anything that comes across my desk in the ten years since.

More recently, I went to do an interview with what I thought was a local reporter I know well from a local TV station, only to find myself holding a presser that apparently was so circulated that friends as far away as Greece saw it (see below).     

Shullman holds an impromptu press conference outside a federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, Florida after a hearing on several media organizations’ motions to unseal a search warrant executed at former President Trump’s Palm Beach Club in August 2022.

What do you like to do when you’re not working – any unusual hobbies?

I love to travel and to be outdoors. I have seen all fifty states! The 2022 MLRC London conference was my first trip overseas (except for a few Caribbean island destinations). It sparked my interest in international travel, so this year I visited eight countries. I’ll get to at least another four in 2024.

You can throw a dinner party with a few jurists/lawyers past or present. Who do you invite and what do you order?

RBG. I have some questions. And I’ll have the scallops.

Are you able to maintain a decent work-life balance? What are some rules you follow?

I hate the phrase work-life balance. It’s misleading. Media litigation is not a 9-5 job. It’s just not. The news runs 24/7, and while media lawyers don’t necessarily need to be on call 24/7, you do need the flexibility to be able to adapt to issues that arise at odd hours. We have to pre-pub or provide newsgathering advice at night. We have to seek to overturn gag orders on short notice. Sure, many days you can get up from your desk at 5 or 6 and call it a day. But sometimes you cannot. I prefer the term “work-life blending.” It carries the flexibility needed to handle media law issues in a 24-hour news cycle. What works for me is looking at what my to dos are for the day in both my work and home life, then fitting them into my day wherever they fit best. I’m often at my desk, for example, from 7-9pm, when my teenagers are doing their homework but often NOT at my desk from 4:30 – 7 when they are getting home from school and we’re having dinner. My best advice is to find what method of blending works for you and an employer who supports that.  

What’s a book, movie, song, podcast or other form of entertainment you’ve enjoyed over the past few months?

I am a true crime junkie. And while it was not a recent listen, I urge all of you to listen to In the Dark Season 2, the Curtis Flowers story. It is hands down the best use of public records laws in investigative journalism I have ever witnessed. If I’m not listening to true crime, I’m watching 80s sitcoms, with my favorite being the Golden Girls.

What’s something people get wrong about Florida?

People think Floridians are kookier and dumber than citizens of other states. We are not. Our public records laws just ensure everyone sees the crazy, stupid things we do.

Shullman Fugate goes out for karaoke night – what are you singing?

“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper.