When Media is Your Medium: In a Highly Dynamic Industry, Alumni Are Making Their Mark
Laura Coates ’05 always knew she was a storyteller at heart. A St. Paul native, Coates always loved performing on stage with school and community theater groups and was drawn to the law because it offered a different kind of stage—the courtroom. As her career unfolded, Coates did put her persuasive storytelling skills to good use in court—initially as an intellectual-property litigator in Minneapolis and New York and then as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., where she first handled voting-rights cases in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and then prosecuted major felonies as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Then, 10 years on, Coates stepped back and did a career assessment. Pregnant with her second child in 2015, she began to contemplate what she might want next in her career. The answer soon became clear. She had things to say about criminal justice, about voter fraud, about the presidential race that was beginning to take shape. And she wanted an audience.
“I had no experience in journalism or broadcasting,” she says, “but I knew I was a storyteller and that I had conviction. And I said, ‘It’s now or never.’ If one day my children come to me and say they have a dream for themselves in what they want to pursue, I didn’t want to be the person who says, ‘I never tried, but you should.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to try it and see what happens.’”
The result of that commitment has been a rapid ascent in the world of broadcasting. Through a connection provided by a former paralegal of hers, Coates met SiriusXM satellite radio talk-show host Karen Hunter, who gave Coates opportunities to provide legal analysis on her show. “I would break down issues that were happening in the law,” Coates recalls, “oftentimes with my baby in my Bjorn in front of me—I’d be sure she had a bottle or was being quiet at the time—and it eventually led me to doing television.”
She began making appearances on MSNBC and CNN, and then in 2016 she signed an exclusive deal with CNN. In 2017, she launched her own daily radio program, The Laura Coates Show, on SiriusXM’s Urban View channel, providing commentary and guest interviews dealing with “the intersection of law and politics and pop culture and whatever interests me.” Her escalating popularity as a legal commentator even caught the attention of Jeopardy game-show host Alex Trebek, who, when asked to recommend a potential successor, named Coates.
Combined with a class she teaches at George Washington University Law School on legal writing for criminal litigation, Coates is balancing an extremely busy schedule. She rises at 4:30 a.m. to appear on early CNN programming and prepare for her radio show and is often summoned on very short notice by CNN for commentary on breaking news.
“It’s challenging, but I love the freedom of being a storyteller,” she says. “There’s nothing I’d rather do.”
Media Was Her Plan
Another Minnesota Law alum who created a career as a media personality, Roshini Rajkumar ’97, took a somewhat different path in that she had her sights set on television even before law school.
Rajkumar emigrated from Sri Lanka when she was 2 and grew up in Edina. She did her undergraduate studies at Boston College, where she had her first experience interviewing people for the campus TV station during her freshman year. After college, she returned to Minneapolis and took a year away from studies before starting law school in 1994. During that year, she took her next steps into television as an intern for PBS’s Newton’s Apple (produced at TPT in St. Paul) and as a sports intern for KARE 11.
Rajkumar began law school thinking about how she might combine law with a career in TV. Then, during her 2L year, the O.J. Simpson trial became a national obsession and changed the landscape for aspiring legal journalists and commentators. “It made it a possibility in my mind that I could mesh my law degree with TV,” she says. “I was thinking that maybe one day I could work for Court TV.”
After law school, Rajkumar embarked on that path, working as a reporter and anchor for TV stations in Fargo, Des Moines, Nashville, Minneapolis, and Detroit. Sometimes her stories involved courts and legal angles. Today, she is based in Minneapolis and is a regular contributor for KARE 11 and Twin Cities Live on KSTP-TV. She has her own weekly show on WCCO Radio, as well as a new podcast, Real Leaders with Roshini. Both can be found on iTunes.
For the last 13 years, her full-time job has been her business, Roshini Performance Group, where she provides services as a mainstage speaker—keynoter, conference or event emcee, panel moderator. When not on stage, a large portion of her work involves strategic communication and crisis prevention for C-suite executives, frequently prepping them for how to deal with the media or other inquirers.
“Little by little, the coaching practice grew,” she says. “Early on, I was coaching all levels of people; now I’m mainly coaching high-level executives or the equivalent in professional services—strategic leaders at law firms, hospitals, and banks. It’s more than just prepping them to get on a stage and speak. For example, if someone has to testify in front of Congress, my clients would be well prepared and would not fall apart like we saw Mark Zuckerberg or the CEO of Wells Fargo fall apart. That would not happen with my clients.”
Media Lawyer Turned Consultant
Another alum who has followed a career path to crisis management and media coaching is Amy Rotenberg ’92. After completing her undergraduate studies at Harvard, Rotenberg came to the Law School, where her experiences led her unexpectedly to practice media law.
She recalls being inspired by constitutional law professors Philip Frickey (who died in 2010) and Dan Farber (now at University of California Berkeley School of Law) and then by Chief Judge Donald Lay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, who taught a law-school seminar on the U.S. Supreme Court. Lay hired Rotenberg to be his law clerk after she graduated in 1992, and during that clerkship a case came along that piqued her interest in media law. Ruzicka v. Conde Nast Publications involved a breach of promise by a magazine writer not to reveal the plaintiff ’s identity in a Glamour magazine article on therapist-patient sexual abuse.
Following her clerkship, Rotenberg headed to New York to join Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which had a well-established media-law practice, and to work with partner Stuart Gold, one of the lead lawyers for Time Warner. She worked extensively on media-law matters there for two years and then returned to Minneapolis to join Dorsey & Whitney, initially handling complex commercial litigation. But when a partner who represented many of Dorsey’s media clients transitioned to a nonlitigation role, another partner asked Rotenberg if she was interested in taking over that portfolio. She was, and she began representing a number of TV and radio stations, newspapers, and book publishers.
“I loved it,” Rotenberg recalls. “I really loved learning about how the news is put together and also counseling the reporters, producers, and editors. I helped them understand what could and couldn’t be on the air, helped them get access to information under Freedom of Information, protected them against claims of privacy invasion and other things that go wrong during news gathering. And then, when they got sued, I defended them in court.”
By 2000, Rotenberg had begun to notice a curious recurrent reality about the matters she was handling. “When I was on the side of the media and they were doing investigative pieces, I was always astonished that I never heard anybody on the other side trying to shape the narrative or turn the story in a different direction. It was like, ‘This is going to be a really bad story about XYZ,’ and nobody was trying to do anything to fix that.”
Rotenberg saw an opportunity to shift her career in a new direction: crisis communication. She assembled a pitch to Padilla Speer Beardsley (now Padilla), a large Minneapolis public-relations firm, and the company brought her in as a vice president in 2001 to launch its first “litigation and critical issues communication practice.” In 2004, she left to launch her own company, Rotenberg Associates, which remained Minneapolis-based until 2013, when her husband, former University of Minnesota general counsel Mark Rotenberg, was named vice president and general counsel at John Hopkins University. She opened a second office in Baltimore, and then, when her husband took a new position last year, the couple moved to Washington, D.C. Rotenberg relocated her Baltimore office to Washington and continues to maintain her Minneapolis office to better serve her national client base.
She describes her work as “helping clients at the intersection of legal claims, regulatory attacks, and media scrutiny,” and contends that her status as a licensed attorney is a valuable benefit for her clients. “I work very closely with my clients’ lawyers, and we set the engagement up so that we can best protect the client under attorney-client privilege,” she says.
One of the biggest recent upticks in her work, she says, has been the #MeToo movement, which has resulted in sexual-misconduct allegations against individuals and a sea change in how institutions are beginning to deal with bad press.
“Years ago, I think there was more opportunity for institutions facing claims like this to make them go away by paying a settlement to the accuser and having the accuser sign a nondisclosure agreement,” Rotenberg says. “Then the accused was quietly removed from their position—or, in many cases, the accused stayed in the position and it was the accuser who went away. What I have observed in the last couple of years, however, is that the nondisclosure and the quiet payment options are really gone. They’re rarely enforceable anymore and the public won’t tolerate anything that looks like silencing a victim.”
Making Her Way In Media Law
Shannon Jankowski ’17 was inspired by her experiences at the Law School to pursue a career in media law. Long active in theater—she has a B.A. in theater from the College of St. Catherine and has frequently acted professionally in the Twin Cities—Jankowski recalls starting law school drawn to any subjects that dealt with freedom of expression. Professor Heidi Kitrosser’s First Amendment class made a big impact, but it wasn’t until she took a First Amendment practicum from Kitrosser that she knew media law was for her.
In that practicum, she and other students worked with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, looking into the practices for unsealing criminal records in Minnesota and writing a report for that committee. “It was a wonderful opportunity to get hands-on experience dealing with media law and access-to-records issues,” Jankowski says. “I knew then that I was really interested in this and wanted to go further with it.”
After receiving her J.D., Jankowski joined Faegre Baker Daniels, where she works in the firm’s TCAM (trademark, copyright, advertising, and media) practice area, in which she has done a significant amount of media-law-related work, including assisting a “major news organization” with obtaining access to judicial and government records and defending clients in defamation cases.
In addition to her practice, Jankowski is continuing to work pro bono with the James H. Binger Center’s Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic, where she served as student director and had the opportunity as a 3L to argue a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.
“I got such a broad range of experience at the Law School, at the Immigration Clinic where I was able to argue the case at the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then doing the practicum with Professor Kitrosser. I feel that I received not only a strong academic training but excellent practical experience as well.”
Tackling Today’s Nontraditional Media
When Los Angeles attorney Benjamin Mulcahy ’94 talks about his media clients, it becomes apparent that many of them are quite untraditional. After working as a litigator in the Minneapolis firm of Winthrop & Weinstine following law school, Mulcahy moved to LA for personal reasons in 1997 and became an entertainment lawyer in the firm of Hill Wynne Troop & Meisinger. At first, he was an associate in the litigation department, but he then moved to the transaction side of the practice and has continued in that vein ever since.
Last year, he joined DLA Piper in Los Angeles, where he is a partner in the firm’s intellectual property and technology practice, heading the firm’s national advertising practice. “My practice is focused on the creation, distribution, and monetization of content for traditional media companies,” he says, “but also for nontraditional media clients.”
Mulcahy’s clients are diverse, including major film studios and retailers, but a large portion of his practice is devoted to the broadcast industry—which, he points out, is changing very rapidly. First, he says, traditional companies like Fox Broadcasting are moving in new directions; second, the kinds of clients are changing.
“An example of the first is recent projects we’ve done for Fox that have involved launching FX+ and Fox Nation, which are two over-the-top online and mobile channel content delivery platforms. They’re designed to reach predominantly younger viewers who consume media through digital media channels, as opposed to traditional television, on their mobile devices and their computers. An example of the second type is REI, which is now producing a significant amount of original content, all themed around outdoor activity and outdoor recreation and not necessarily branded REI, but designed to encourage people to spend more time outdoors.”
It’s been almost 25 years since Mulcahy left law school, but he still credits it for the base that allowed him to make the transition from litigation to transactional law. “I loved law school,” he says. “So many of our professors at the University of Minnesota laid such a strong foundation for what it means to think like a lawyer.”
Flipping the Script: When a Reporter Becomes a Lawyer
The discussion of alums who work in the space where law and media intersect also includes somewhat of a reverse story in the person of Daniel Oberdorfer ’92, a partner in the Twin Cities firm of Stinson Leonard Street. That’s because Oberdorfer started out as a journalist—he was a prize-winning reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and the Minneapolis Star Tribune— before becoming a lawyer.
Oberdorfer joined the Tribune in 1979 after graduating from the University of Michigan and stayed for 12 years. Over the final five years before law school he was a courts reporter, a beat that convinced him that he wanted to give lawyering a shot. “I was watching the courtrooms and seeing how lawyers could make a difference,” he says, “and I thought: I’d like to try this.”
Oberdorfer says he knew immediately after he started law school that he’d made the right decision. He also knew that he had a leg up on his fellow students due to the fact that the skills he’d developed as a journalist were similar to those that are important to lawyers: “Basically, in both professions you have to gather information, sift through the information to figure out what’s important, and then you need to communicate it.”
He joined Leonard, Street and Deinard (now Stinson Leonard Street) in 1993 and has been practicing employment law, mostly counseling and litigating for businesses on employment issues, ever since.