Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series Hosts Nina Shaw BC ’76, LAW ’79

The pathbreaking entertainment lawyer tells students that “art is a societal changing force.”

Powerhouse entertainment lawyer Nina L. Shaw BC ’76, LAW ’79 regularly sees herself on television. Not only on the news or at the side of award-winning clients like director Ava DuVernay and current Academy  Award-nominated actor Andra Day, but also in fictional characters who embody her combination of achievement and outspokenness: Think Maxine Shaw on Living Single and Trina Shaw on Real Husbands of Hollywood. Sometimes, Shaw said, “I can hear my advice to clients coming through the screen.”

It’s no doubt advice worth taking: Over her 35-year Hollywood career, Shaw has co-founded and built a law practice representing top artistic talents, earned a reputation as a skilled, wired-in negotiator, and used her talents and voice to advance diversity and inclusion. 

Portrait of Nina Shaw in a green and black dress
Nina L. Shaw ’79

Shaw reflected on her legal career, the role of advocacy in her work, and her experience at Columbia Law School in a conversation with Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, on March 8, as part of the Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series. (Watch the full event above.)

Dean Lester praised Shaw as a pathbreaker in entertainment law. “You’ve been a bold leader,” she said. “You weren’t standing on anyone’s shoulders when you came into Hollywood. . . . You’re the original [role] model.”

The artists Shaw represents—singer John Legend and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates among them—have been instrumental in conveying Black experiences to audiences through their work. Shaw has not only helped clients like these build their careers, but she has also called her industry to account as a founding organizer of Time’s Up, an organization backed by hundreds of prominent women with the mission of making the workplace a safe and equitable place. Since co-founding the firm of Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano in 1989, Shaw has spoken out repeatedly about the lack of diversity in entertainment jobs onscreen and behind the screen. 

“I kind of reached that point in my career a number of years ago where I just said, ‘You know, I’m going to say what’s on my mind.’ I’m going to not leave this profession unchanged,” Shaw said. “I just wanted to make sure that I left the entertainment business, and especially the entertainment legal practice, a better, more diverse place.” 

“I am part of a group of people behind the scenes who works very hard to bring the experience of people like us to the greater society.”

In her daily work, Shaw said she focuses on maintaining perspective—“As much as something feels like it is life or death, it is not”—and keeping calm when clients are in distress. (It helps that she keeps an eye on their social media.) 

“The essence of being a good lawyer is making people feel confident even at times when you don’t feel particularly confident,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to be the voice of reason without trying to be the funniest or the smartest person in the world. And then I just do absolutely believe in decency, in the sense of how you deal with people.” 

Asked by Dean Lester what advice she would give her younger self, Shaw said, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter as much as you think they do. . . . It took me a long time to understand that . . . I could take in a lot of information, I could use that to help form my opinions, but ultimately, ultimately my opinion was what mattered.” 

In 2019, Shaw received the Medal for Excellence, Columbia Law School’s highest honor. She has remained active as an alumna of Columbia Law and of Barnard College, where she is a trustee. She sees her involvement as a way to help ensure the university is more welcoming to women and students of color now than it was when she arrived as an undergraduate. 

“When I am prominent, and others like us are prominent . . . we remind the people, the organization, the institution as a whole, and the people in the institution that we are as much a part of it as they are. If we want to make the institution more like us, more accepting, more open to us, we have to be active in doing so.”

That wasn’t the case when Shaw was at Columbia. Although she was part of a “wave” of female Columbia Law students in the 1970s—when women still only made up a quarter of the class—she and other women found themselves overlooked in some classrooms.

“This was the first time that [law faculty] were seeing women and people of color in any numbers,” she said. “I felt there was a bit of discrimination in the classroom experience in terms of not calling on women, often not hearing our correct answers until they were parroted by a man.”

One day in class she grew so frustrated when a professor praised a male student for the same response she had just given that she shouted out, “What was wrong with that answer when I gave it?” 

The experience “made me even more militant,” Shaw said. “But I grew up in a time of militancy.” Black students of her generation, she said, felt a strong debt of gratitude to civil rights activists, and their sacrifice was a powerful source of motivation. “People literally gave up their lives so that you could vote, and you could be in schools like [Columbia Law],” she said. “You were going to do something just spectacular with your life because you owed it to the people who had given their lives for you.”

Shaw has lived up to that challenge in her career through her advocacy for diversity and her work helping Black artists build their careers. “I never have the feeling that I’m not doing enough. . . . I am helping people with art, and art at the end of the day is a societal changing force. . . .I think I am part of a group of people behind the scenes who works very hard to bring the experience of people like us to the greater society,” Shaw said. Speaking to the audience of students, she added, “I’ve done work that has helped you, many of you, and many people in the greater society see us in all of our fullness.”