Role of a lifetime

Swanson Martin & Bell partner Brenda Robinson works to aid and elevate talent

Swanson Martin & Bell partner Brenda Robinson (left) with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Mary Beth Minnis at the premiere of "Jump Shot" at the Chicago International Film Festival last October. Robinson served as an executive producer of the documentary. - Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt
Swanson Martin & Bell partner Brenda Robinson (left) with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Mary Beth Minnis at the premiere of "Jump Shot" at the Chicago International Film Festival last October. Robinson served as an executive producer of the documentary. — Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt
February 2020
By John McNally
Managing editor

Update: Corrections were made to clarify that Brenda Robinson took part in the relaunch of the film fund Gamechanger Films, where she is a partner, and that she was an executive producer of the documentary film "Jump Shot."

Jan. 7 was a busy day for Swanson Martin & Bell partner Brenda Robinson, but she did not record any billable hours. It still was an exciting, and productive day, nonetheless.

Robinson — who is part of the firm’s entertainment and media law practice group — participated in the relaunch of the film fund Gamechanger Films, where she is also a partner. The group announced that it helped to finance the film “Passing,” which is currently in post-production and being produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, along with Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker, and stars Alexander Skarsgard, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.

A Chicago native, Robinson received her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In addition to her law practice, she is outside counsel for and sits on the board of directors for the Chicago International Film Festival and its presenting organization, Cinema/Chicago.

She’s on the board for the Grammy Music Educational Coalition, Lyric Opera of Chicago and is an investor member of the Sundance Institute and sits on the Women at Sundance Leadership Council.

Last October, Robinson was an executive producer with two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry for the documentary film "Jump Shot," about the life of basketball player Kenny Sailors, which played at the Chicago International Film Festival and is expected to be available on streaming platforms in April.

Robinson’s work keeps her active on both coasts, and in the Midwest, which she sees as fertile ground for entertainment talent. Her passion for social awareness through storytelling and legal work has helped develop a one-of-a-kind career.

“I’m able to take all these interests and parlay them into something pretty special,” Robinson said. “It’s very fulfilling for me and I think very productive for all the groups I’m involved in.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago Lawyer: It really seems your passion for law and entertainment intersected. How did that come about?

Brenda Robinson: (The) entertainment attorneys that I know, they share the talent of the people they represent. A lot of music attorneys do play instruments. You see a lot of film attorneys that also act as producers or executive producers. It’s becoming more commonplace.

For me, I started out traditionally as an IP attorney. But I grew up in the entertainment industry through my family. So, when I came out of law school a lot of my early clients were people who I had been around as a child. As is the usual case when you are a lawyer, the minute you come out of law school — even before you know anything — you start getting questions from people seeking advice. Then you become an expert .… maybe even faster than you expected.

I ended up in the entertainment space that way. I represented clients early on who we would consider “legacy acts” in music and film. I began to personally become involved once I started spending more time with people creatively and understanding the business from that perspective.

I brought legal knowledge to the role, but ended up becoming more deeply entrenched on the creative side. Then I became an investor and I’ve been involved as a financier now for both narrative and documentary films.

CL: How did you come to Swanson Martin & Bell? What made it the right fit for you?

BR: They extended the opportunity to lead the film and television practice and I thought it would be an extraordinary opportunity to pursue at this stage of my career.

I feel strongly about bringing more industry to Chicago. We have a vibrant market here for music, film and television. Having spent time on both coasts where there obviously such a high concentration of the industry, I think Chicago can be an equally strong market and there is a lot of talent in Chicago and the Midwest. Having the opportunity to represent some of those artists has been incredible for me because it shows it is possible to sustain a career in entertainment right here in the Midwest.

CL: How big is the entertainment practice at Swanson Martin & Bell since you’ve taken it over?

BR: Jeff Becker is the head of the entertainment group and he has expertise in those areas, but is focused primarily on music. I work in music, but focus on film and television. I was able to transition clients and ironically most of my clients are not based in Chicago, which I think is significant. The highest concentration of my clients is in California, second is New York. It’s significant that they place their confidence in a Chicago-based law firm.

One part of it is that people hire people and not firms. The other is I was able to maintain those relationships because people saw that I could relate to them on the creative side. It wasn’t just me being a lawyer: It was me being a partner. I’ve been an executive producer on some clients’ film projects. On the music side, I’ve worked with songwriters and performing artists of all genres.

They appreciate that I’m present. I’m there for their performances. I’m on the ground on film sets. I’m backstage or on the road. I am involved behind the scenes and I’ve created a level of comfort and confidence in them. They see me as more than their attorney .…I’m their adviser and their partner.

CL: How did you become involved in the Women at Sundance Leadership Council? What are the group’s goals and the goals of the many other boards you are a part of?

BR: Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute is the premier independent film festival in the world. I became involved because I had been attending early on as a lawyer and going to festivals and networking, meeting other lawyers and filmmakers and, soon, other investors.

I became a part of an investment group that Sundance curates called Catalyst. We had something called the Catalyst Forum — an investment group that can go to Sundance and listen to film teams pitch us for financing for film projects. It also gives you one-on-one contacts with the filmmakers themselves and be involved in the process.

CL: What is your perfect project?

BR: We’re most interested in socially impactful films and stories. I grew up in a political family and I really do credit them. A lot of the resources that I have is a result of their hard work. We then have to decide how we’ll make an impact and make use of the resources and to spread them as far and wide as we can to others.

I see my role as elevating stories and storytellers. My form of being impactful is to provide resources to people to get messages out. That is the most effective way to make change. For example, when you look at certain films on the documentary side, films about climate change, social justice, gender equality, all of those films have the potential to make a meaningful impact on important issues.

CL: How do you strike the balance between your film projects and your billable-hour work?

BR: The good news is that thankfully everyone needs something different at different times. I am able to manage various tasks simultaneously because everyone needs attention in their own time. Part of what makes it manageable is that it’s all related to the work that I do.

Clients are involved in the same matters. When working on a film project, there is a familiarity with how things are supposed to work. It just helps the work go a little bit faster.

I really enjoy having this outlet and building on what we started on the coasts here in Chicago. I am here because I want to send a message that we too can be a player in this place. To have a strong firm here in the city to offer resources really gives us an advantage. We have reached beyond this market and we’re not just a local firm. That has meant something to clients.

The key to all this is being able to relate to the work of the client and understand the business of the client. Clients see, in the most definitive way, that I can relate to them. Then my advice is all the more credible because it comes not just from the perspective of a lawyer, but from someone who is also on the ground with them.