By Daijha Morrow
Joi Rideout is currently the Senior Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs for Unscripted Television at Warner Bros. Discovery. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Rideout has had an illustrious career in the entertainment industry. During her career, she has supervised business and legal affairs for numerous unscripted programs and their digital ancillaries including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, TMZ, EXTRA, The Real, Judge Mathis, Peoples’ Court, Crime Watch Daily, Candidly Nicole, Punk’d and numerous other documentary films and reality programming. Prior to managing the development and production of unscripted television, Rideout also served as a business affairs executive at MTV and Nickelodeon, where she worked on both scripted, animated, and reality television series. Prior to her career in television, Rideout spent time in the music industry representing recording artists, producers, and songwriters and her first few years after law school at a major Wall Street law firm.
Daijha Morrow sat down with Ms. Rideout to discuss her background, experience at law school, and the role of mentorship in her career.
Daijha Morrow: Hi, Ms. Rideout! Thank you so much for being here with us today! Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Joi Rideout: Hi! Happy to be here. I grew up in Houston, Texas. My parents are both fourth-generation Black Houstonians. Go H-Town! I grew up with two younger brothers and we were surrounded by a lot of loving, caring and supportive people – family, friends, and my parents’ colleagues and business associates.
I was a ballet dancer for 18 years. I was the first Black graduate of my super small all-girls Catholic high school, Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart. A lot of people at that time stayed in state to go to college. When I graduated, there were only three of us that left the state of Texas. I was one of the few who did choose to leave after applying and being admitted to Wellesley College, which is right outside of Boston.
I was inspired to attend Wellesley by one of my parents’ friends, Alvia Wardlaw, who happened to be the first African-American curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. While my mother served as a docent at the museum, I did volunteer work for Ms. Wardlaw on weekends and during the summers as a high school student and really fell in love with art. My parents were collectors and I dreamed of having a museum career as well, so I asked Ms. Wardlaw where she went to college and she told me about Wellesley, how she went there to study art history, etc. It’s true what they say about visualizing goals for yourself – I saw in her what I wanted to become and had the guts to ask her how she did it. Needless to say I applied to Wellesley with plans to major in art history. While my father wanted me to go to Harvard for undergrad, I was sold on Wellesley. Luckily, I didn’t get into Harvard and did get accepted to Wellesley where I majored in, you guessed it, art history.
After graduating from Wellesley, I originally planned to get a PhD in non-Western art. I was particularly interested in traditional African, Aboriginal and Native American art.
My dad, however, encouraged me to go to professional school, and since I wasn’t pre-med, that ruled out medical school, and according to my father, business school didn’t count – so that left law school. Beginning in my sophomore year of college, my parents introduced me to an African American partner at one of the biggest law firms in Houston, and before I knew it I ended up with a job working as a junior paralegal at Vinson & Elkins (“V&E”) in Houston during the summers. Even though I still had museum curator aspirations, I was impressed with the firm and by some of the women who were junior partners there.
I changed my mind – or more like I had my mind changed – about getting a PhD in Non-Western art and decided to apply to law school. But then, my college counselors told me that I wouldn’t get into any law schools because I didn’t major in Political Science or Economics. That fired me up, and I’m pretty competitive. I went on a mission and applied to 13 law schools, wrote some really good essays and shocked everyone when I got in everywhere I applied except one. Stanford even offered me a scholarship!
Law School Experience
Morrow: That’s amazing! How was your law school experience?
My first year of law school was really rough, but I made the best of it.
When I got to Harvard Law, there were only three other black girls in my section. I made friends with two of them and we sat together all the time. They called us “The Supremes”. We are still friends to this day.
I tried to do things that would balance my life there. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with a law degree, especially during my first year. I was struggling to find an area I was really interested in, and eventually gravitated to trial practice and white collar crime.
I was a TA for my trial practice professor my second year, and also started focusing on corporate finance, securities, and even took a course on corporate taxation. Then, I started taking classes at the business school and transferring credit back towards my law degree. I also tried to keep up with my interest in art and petitioned to put up an exhibit in Langdell. I don’t remember now where I got all the artwork or what I called the exhibit but I did get permission and set up a really cool installation on the circular hallway on the second or third floor of the connector between the library and the main admin building – is that still there? I was actively involved in the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) from day one and by my third year, the student social organization elected me as president. I threw some fun events and great parties! I also tried to keep up with my dancing, taking jazz and ballet classes in Cambridge when I could and teaching jazz-exercise class on campus!
Oh and I did try to write onto Law Review and didn’t make it, but I tried!
Morrow: So was law school a good experience in all?
Rideout: In the end, yes, but I have to admit it was rough on me but I did what I had to do, made some great friends and definitely had some really fun times. I also grew up there more so than in college, and began to learn what it meant to be a “professional,” to be of service to others, and that I could use my degree and training in many different ways. The summer after my first year of law school, I went back V&E. They were so excited for me because I was in law school and especially because I was at Harvard Law School. They encouraged me to come back and pursue corporate finance. But, it was more local, municipal finance transactions, like city and state bonds. And I knew for me that if I were to work in corporate finance, I needed to check out Wall Street first.
The summer after my second year, after I told V&E I was interested in corporate finance they suggested I split my summer between Cahill Gordon in New York (the V&E partners I worked for had colleagues there) for the first half of the summer and then come back to them for the second half of the summer.
So, I did just that and fell in love with New York. After my third-year of law school, I decided that I definitely wanted to go back to New York.
Post-Law School Graduation Experience
Morrow: Did you return to big law after law school?
Rideout: Yes, I did. By December of my third year, I had my offer from Cahill, and I went there for three years. At the time, I worked in corporate finance doing M&A and junk bond deals for the at the time top investment banks on Wall Street. I was there all day, all night, and sometimes weekends. It was a really intense time.
Towards the end of my second year there, people started getting in trouble. Ivan Boesky went down and people at law firms who were my age were getting arrested for insider trading. I started panicking and thought that I had to get out of the industry as soon as possible. At that moment, I was worried and thinking about what else I was going to do. I had met this music video director who lived in my building and we became good friends. It turns out he was one of the first big African-American music video directors in the late ‘80s.
He recommended that I become a music lawyer and then he began to introduce me to people. I met songwriters, recording artists and producers at recording studios and concerts. I got a couple of headhunters to help me find a job, but they didn’t know what I was looking for. They were sending me out to interview with copyright and trademark litigation firms and I wanted to do transactional work, to represent artists, performers, and musicians. In 1988 or 1989, I finally started to get interviews at talent rep firms and landed one at a small boutique entertainment firm, Beldock, Levine, and Hoffman. They represented mostly musicians and bands, but they also represented the popular syndicated television show Saturday Night Live. I got the job but I had to take a 70% pay cut. I kid you not.
I had to move out of my lovely apartment on Central Park West into a tiny studio flat and forgo a lot of taxis, expensive dinners, and designer clothes. And on the job I had to learn everything from the ground up – how to draft agreements from scratch, and make sure they were enforceable contracts. No more proofing ancient indenture language or voluminous 10-Ks at the printer’s offices. It was like going to law school all over again but this time dealing with real clients, real issues, and real peoples’ careers. But during this time, I met a lot of important people. One of the people I met, who I actually negotiated against, Dick Scott, hired me to go in house to work at his company that was just starting to blow up. That company was Dick Scott Entertainment, the managers of New Kids on the Block, which was at the time the biggest boy band ever after The Beatles.
So, I got in with them at the beginning and rode that wave for about four years until the end. That changed my life – going to that small firm and making that sacrifice. Even though I was kind of miserable personally, professionally I learned so much every day. Every day was super intense. I was really learning how to be a lawyer.
I used to get in trouble every so often because I made a lot of mistakes at first. I even made a few big mistakes. But, my bosses during that time were all amazing lawyers who had other great lawyers and managers working around them. The firm I worked for and the management company were like small families for me and they made sure I got the training that I needed and I’ll always be indebted to them for all they did for me.
I started to secure some of my own clients, and continued to network and meet as many people as I could. Especially the lawyers and managers I negotiated against, I made sure to become friends or at least colleagues with them because I learned, working in the music industry, it’s a small world and you are bound to run into them again. There were only a few Black attorneys in entertainment at that time. I’d say I’m in the second or third generation of black entertainment lawyers now and we made a big splash because, at that time, both R&B and Hip Hop were growing exponentially. The late 80’s and the 90’s was a very exciting time in the music industry, and I rode that wave. I joined the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association (BESLA) around 1990. Through BESLA I met mentors and became a mentor to so many young lawyers and law students.
In all, I learned that the people you know and the support that you receive is what matters most. I know that networking is an old phrase, but it’s truly all about finding and building “family” and letting them push you up and help you get to where you want to go, and then reaching back and helping others become who they want to be.
Mentorship & Career Navigation
Morrow: I love that. So did you have mentors or people who helped guide you and tell you, hey, do this step or take this step? Or how did you navigate knowing what steps to take and when?
Rideout: Early on, I definitely had mentors to help guide me. I was told to go and talk to certain people. Sylvia Rhone is one of the biggest black female record executives out there. Her father was a famous lawyer in Harlem and happened to know my grandparents. I used to go and sit with him several evenings a week. He would tell me stories about his former clients, who were some of the biggest African American entertainers of his time. He would talk to me about what I was doing, encourage me to keep on keeping on and I would help him pack up his briefcase and get in his taxi to go home.
Louise West was and still is a mentor of mine, as well as Kendall Minter, another well known African American entertainment lawyer practicing in New York then. I would call them and get advice, counsel and training on how to draft, negotiate and close deals all the time. By the way, things change all the time in the entertainment industry, and in most businesses if you are around long enough so you are always learning and having to keep up with new developments, customs and practice so it’s very important to have mentors and colleagues you can reach out to and consult, and vice versa. My peers back then were also super encouraging. The late Andre Harrell, for example, was one of my friends. He was a great guy. He would always tell me, “you gotta go for yours Joi, what are you doing?”
As far as navigating my career, after the New Kids On The Block boom was over, I helped plan and execute the wind down of Dick Scott Entertainment. I took one client with me, though, when I left: the popular R&B record producer Teddy Riley. Representing Teddy Riley when he was at the peak of his career, when he was producing songs for Michael Jackson and the classic R&B album, Blackstreet, helped me start my own practice handling business affairs for his production company and repping other recording artists. I eventually partnered with a friend, took on a few clients in the television industry and we ran our own firm for a couple of years until I decided to move into the television industry full time and took another in-house position at Worldvision Enterprises, an independent television syndication company, who by the way ended up launching and distributing Judge Judy, one of the most successful syndicated television shows to date.
Even though switching industries was a big jump, and I had to learn how an entirely different business within the entertainment industry worked, who the players were, what the norms, and business customs and practices were, it was one the best decisions I made and I’ve been working in the TV industry ever since.
Life Behind the Camera
Morrow: I wanted to ask you about that. How is life behind the camera? Especially coming from an artistic background yourself. Is there a difference between being in front of the camera vs. behind the camera?
Rideout: In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time in the arts while I was working. I wish I had participated in the art scene more, and been more involved with galleries and museums, and I do wish I had kept dancing. But, I realized that working in television production, especially daytime talk show production is like preparing to perform on stage. You have to get things done, you are on a clock and no matter what the show must go on – whether it’s a concert coming up, or somebody is trying to deliver a record on deadline, or we have to live tape, edit and distribute a show in less than four hours so that it can airs the next day. I discovered that I truly enjoy being a part of the production process and supporting the teams behind the camera.
Working in television production in particular, you start with an idea or you start with the host that you want to make a deal with. Then, you have to make that deal and get it done quickly. If it’s a big marquee talent, it’s important to get them off the market quickly, before your competitors do and then start the creative process quietly, to preserve the element of surprise and delight for your buyers and ultimately the audience. The highlight of my television career so far has definitely been working on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Every day is different. Producing daytime talk shows and news magazines like Ellen and TMZ is exciting because the show content is topical, and things are happening in real time, every day all day. They are in production on a daily basis and are quickly turning the shows around and delivering them that evening to about 200 television stations around the country to air the next day.
I think my background in performance has really helped me, and it’s probably why I like the high stakes pace of making talent deals and daytime series production. For some people, it’s too nerve wracking because it is so intense. You have to make some difficult decisions under pressure. Sometimes, you have to take a lot of risks, and of course make some mistakes. But, I enjoy the process. It’s become a way for me to combine my creative background and interest in the arts with my legal training and turn the practice of law into something that is interesting and fun for me.
And I’m totally aware that what I do is not super serious – it’s producing lite entertaining fare for mass consumption. There are many other more meaningful lines of work that I could be in, that I could use my law degree for, and honestly I’m looking in that direction more and more these days. I also know that there are a group of people who go to law school because they aren’t sure what else to do after college, or their parents made them, or for whatever reason other than they really want to practice law. Then, after they graduate, they don’t always, really find a way to convert that profession into something that makes them happy.
I feel like that sometimes too, even now, because I did have all these other aspirations that I never fulfilled, but then I think, okay, I’m only 63, that’s the new 43, right? I still have time to do something else! That’s what I’m thinking about now – what is my second act going to be and what is that going to look like?
Finding fulfillment in the practice of law is sometimes a big dilemma for law students and attorneys alike, and I talk to fellow lawyers about it all the time. I’m not sure there’s one simple solve, but I do know that a law degree is a professional degree – and you can become a professional at anything you put your mind to – at least that’s how I’ve applied legal degree and subsequent training to my various careers since graduating, and how I plan to continue using it in the future.
Advice for Current Law Students
Morrow: I know that we are approaching time for the interview, so I wanted to ask just one last question. I really appreciate everything you’ve shared so far and wanted to know, what advice would you give to current law students who are interested in pursuing a career in entertainment?
Rideout: When I was in law school, Harvard did not have any entertainment or sports law related course work. I think they do now. So, I definitely encourage people to take those classes if you are interested in entertainment and sports law, then try to intern for an attorney with an entertainment or sports law practice – or even at a talent agency, even if you have to work for free. I would advise working for a manager, recording company, or a performing arts center. There’s also a group in New York, I’m not sure if it still exists, called Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. I worked with that organization while I was working on Wall Street. I would help people with contracts and it was a great way for me to start learning about what happens in that industry. So, I would recommend anything like that to get practical experience. It’s important.
I also think it’s important to reach out to alumni. Go through the list. Call them and be bold. Hit them up on LinkedIn or whatever site and say hey, I need to talk to you. I need a mentor. Many of us are happy to help, even if we are not super active on Amicus or LinkedIn or other alumni databases.
And particularly for aspiring Black entertainment attorneys, I would recommend joining BESLA and doing volunteer work for the organization. I would attend the annual conferences as well. Typically, if you are a volunteer, the organization will waive your registration fee. Even if you don’t get a job out of it right away, you still meet a lot of people, and somebody there is going to introduce you to somebody else and so on and so on. Start being active in the organization as a student. I would definitely recommend putting aside some money, and volunteering your time to attend the annual conferences. It will pay off!
Morrow: That’s definitely good to know! Thank you so much for your time Ms. Rideout. It was such a pleasure talking to you, and I appreciate all of the gems that you have shared!
Rideout: No problem! It was my pleasure.