Attorney, Music Industry Expert & Women’s Business Advocate
Born with what she calls a compulsion to achieve, Jennifer Justice went from humble beginnings to graduation from the University of Washington. An opportunity to attend Cornell University Law School sent her flying across the country to the east coast, thus setting her feet on a path that would lead her to become one of the most highly respected attorneys in the music business—including representing Jay-Z for almost two decades. Today, as co-founder and CEO of The Justice Department, she focuses her talents on helping women build businesses and succeed.
You were born in Centralia, Washington. Tell me about your mother and father.
They were very young, 16 years old, when they had their first child and only 19 when they learned they were pregnant with me. My father worked at a supermarket. I don’t know that my mother was working at the time.
You are the second child of three children. Are your parents together today?
No, they were getting divorced when I was born.
Your mother remarried three times; do you remember how many times you moved?
Before the third grade, probably six or seven times. We stayed in Centralia for six years. When my mother remarried, we moved to Yakima, Washington.
Where were you living during your teenage years, and what were they like?
My teens were split between Centralia and then Yakima. I was a cheerleader and on the dance team, all normal teenage activities. I was very social and outgoing.
You were a good kid?
I don’t know about that. I liked to have fun, and I went out a lot. I wasn’t a “stay at home” type, but I did well in school. My grades were really, really good. I liked to push boundaries though.
You attended the University of Washington for your undergraduate degree and completed law school at Cornell.
Yes. They gave me scholarships and grants. I signed up for financial aid et cetera because my parents had no money. I was given work study grants, and basically, the four years of undergraduate school were free. I think it was like $8,000. I was very lucky.
You tested exceptionally well and achieved success in school. Why?
Both of my parents were very smart. I was just born with a compulsion that I had to do exceptionally well. Academia came naturally to me. When I applied myself, I would achieve.
Did you envision yourself as a lawyer doing the type of work that you do now?
No, not at all. I didn’t know what I might end up doing. I certainly did not have any kind of vision. There were no mentors or examples of success to show me what it was possible for me to do. Some of my friends’ parents were in business, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. So, becoming a lawyer was more de facto because I didn’t know what else to do after school.
You moved from the west coast to the east coast for law school. How did Cornell come about?
When you take the LSAT, you sign up for the LSDAS, a service that aggregates data about you, including your financial status. I was solicited by Cornell to apply with a fee waiver since it was too expensive to even apply to those schools. I was accepted, and a few weeks later, I was given a scholarship. It was like a gift. I had to say yes, right?
Did you assimilate well at Cornell? Was the transition easy?
I had never been to the east coast, never flown cross country before. I landed at night in Ithaca, New York, and I didn’t know anybody. It was very clear that a lot of these kids had totally different backgrounds and upbringing than me. Many had parents who had attended law school, undergraduate or even prep school there. (I didn’t even know what prep school was.) I thought if you were sent to boarding school, you did something bad, that your parents didn’t like you. I didn’t know that attending prep school was a good thing. It was just a whole different world. I showed up wearing patched Levi’s and Adidas. I literally looked the part, straight out of a grunge video. They asked, “Oh, so you are from Seattle?” “How did you know?” I laughed.
Did you make friends there?
Yes, I made friends. It is a small school with approximately 180 in the freshman class. None of us really knew each other even though some may have had similar backgrounds. However, we were all in it together.
After you passed the bar, you worked at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, which is a big Wall Street firm. How was that experience?
It was good, and I’m still in touch with them today. They are very interested in making sure their lawyers are happy. If you’re not, they like to help you find a new space. I have talked to many of their associates about other things they may want to do. I was a litigation associate, which is not at all what I ended up practicing. I learned a lot of interesting things as far as big firms go. I probably had a better experience than most people.
Your life sounds very dreamlike, very unchallenged. Was it?
No, it wasn’t unchallenged at all. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had something defined as the Impostor Syndrome. I would ask myself, “Why am I here?” I didn’t relate to anybody. I thought nobody had my background or understood what it was like not to have money or know people or have family that had gone to school. My mother didn’t graduate from high school. It was very odd. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I understood that there were people of all shapes and sizes, different in every way, that fit everything. I don’t mean literally shapes and sizes, but people that were different and had backgrounds similar to mine.
Did you ever tell anyone that you were lonely?
I had a law school boyfriend. He knew I was pretty miserable for a while. My second year of law school, I met two women: one from Oregon and one from upstate New York. The three of us became very fast friends. They helped me assimilate more into law school and like it a little bit more. It was essentially “finding your tribe,” your footing on your own, versus having your parent’s network of friends or having people you grew up with doing the same thing. It probably took me longer to find that network. I had come this far, and I certainly couldn’t stop. I just had to go through it and get to the other side.
You have two amazing six-year-olds. Did you transfer that professional loneliness into their wellbeing?
The reason I chose to have kids was because I came from so little and then came this far. There had to be more than just being able to buy another handbag or going on another amazing vacation. So, passing that along to children was a big thing. Since they were born, I haven’t ever felt that kind of loneliness. For me, it literally was about building your tribe.
You waited before you had your children.
I wanted to really be sure. For so many people, it is not a conscious decision. It’s just like, “Oh, I’ll just have kids.” But it is a sacrifice. There are a lot of compromises, especially if you live in New York with crazy, fun, fast-paced lives. You have to be willing to stop. You know, things change.
Can you take me through the steps of being a single mother and share the experience?
Once I decide something, I just do it. When I think back, I ask myself, “How did I do that?” It was an out-of-body experience. I had them by IVF, with a sperm donor. My mom was a single mother for the most part, and most of the women in my family have at some point been single moms. I was just a single mom with some means. It was easier because I was able to hire people, which made it a lot more convenient. I shouldn’t say easier. It’s hard. But there is a different convenience level with means. I didn’t know any better, so being a single mother wasn’t as daunting to me. So many people have told me they could never be a single parent. The reality is with the current divorce rate, about 50 percent of the population is a single parent at one time or another.
How do you feel when you visit your parent’s home in Washington state?
It’s like a foreign place. It is where I grew up, and I understand it. It’s just that my life is so different now. I don’t really know how to explain it. I grew up there in a completely different situation where basic day-to-day needs were something that you had to think about. Here, those needs are taken for granted. It almost makes me feel guilty when I go back there, living the lifestyle that I live, because it is how most people live.
When you visit your parent’s respective homes in Washington next month, what will you get out of it?
I think it’s great for the kids to see them, see where I’m from and understand where they are from ultimately.
Do you think that it will bring them perspective as well?
Hopefully. I don’t know at this age, but yes. A little bit.
Do you have nephews and nieces around the same age?
No. I have nieces and nephews, but my sister had kids when she was very young. One of my nieces has kids older than mine.
Did you feel that your mother loved you the same way you love your babies?
Yes, but could you imagine being 16 years old and having kids? I know 16-year-old girls, and it is crazy to think about a 16-year-old mother who is also trying to be her own person, trying to figure out who she is. How can you raise a child and be an adult figure when you are just a child?
Do you feel guilty for your success?
Yes. I think it’s real. Like when you spend a ridiculous amount of money on a pair of shoes and realize that is somebody’s rent for months on end. I try to “meet in the middle” and put it in perspective and acknowledge the privileges that I have now.
How did you end up with your law firm, advocating for women in the world of celebrity?
From a very young age, I recognized that women weren’t treated the same as men. We didn’t get access to the same things. I never understood why. I always wanted to rebel when I was told I couldn’t get something, or I couldn’t do something. It wasn’t like I was encouraged to go to college. It was quite the opposite because our family didn’t do those kinds of things. So, of course, I chose to go to college, law school and live 3,000 miles away in New York. It doesn’t matter what kind of wealth a woman has either; they all face barriers. No matter how high up you get, it doesn’t change.
You have the backs of women because no one had your back?
I just know that I’m a very good advocate for other people. I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s easy for me to protect my clients and make sure that they’re getting the best possible service or deal; whatever it is that I’m doing for them. I know that I’m good at it. I really believe that if women and men were equal, the world would just be a much better place.
How many clients do you carry at any given point?
I have about 40 to 50. But clients have differing needs at different times. Work load varies with individual’s needs.
What is the percentage of female to male?
95 percent female.
Yet, you are known for having represented Jay-Z for almost two decades.
That was a different incarnation when I was representing just musicians. At that point, it was probably 80 percent men, to 20 percent women. I represented him individually when I was at a firm called Carroll Guido & Groffman, and then I went to Roc Nation and helped him build that with a whole team. It was 17 years total. Once I decide something, I just do it. When I think back, I ask myself, “How did I do that?” It was an out-of-body experience. I had them by IVF, with a sperm donor. My mom was a single mother for the most part, and most of the women in my family have at some point been single moms. I was just a single mom with some means. It was easier because I was able to hire people, which made it a lot more convenient. I shouldn’t say easier. It’s hard. But there is a different convenience level with means. I didn’t know any better, so being a single mother wasn’t as daunting to me. So many people have told me they could never be a single parent. The reality is with the current divorce rate about 50 percent of the population is a single parent at one time or another.
So, tell me about Jay-Z.
I always did well with musical clients because we mostly came from the same kind of background. Usually, they did not have a lot of money, came from a broken home, with no father figure around all the time. They were never in a position to hire a lawyer. You understand what I mean? And that’s an intimidating thing, right? Having to hire a lawyer? Can you imagine having to do that? I don’t even know how to interview a lawyer. So, it was always great working with him because he is an extremely loyal person, extremely demanding and very smart. Jay-Z is one of those rare breeds that literally has the “complete” brain (half business and half creative), and it’s usually one or the other. He has always been truly visionary and demanded excellence and pushed us. For him, there is no such thing as a “standard deal” or the idea that “this is just how things are.” We were always doing state-of-the-art, first-class deals and ground breaking stuff.
If you were to say something to Jay-Z, what would it be?
Has there been anyone, other than Jay-Z, that was a game changer for you?
There have been people throughout my life who have supported me. But, that experience with Jay-Z is probably the most profound.
What differentiates you from a typical attorney focused on the women centric genre? The Justice Department, your firm’s name, does it bring business?
I have been advocating for my clients for 20 years. It doesn’t intimidate me anymore. No one can really intimidate me. I stand up for my clients and understand where art meets commerce. That sweet spot is what they need, and it helps me see a brighter vision for them. First and foremost, I’m a business lawyer and a business person. I build a bigger vision for my clients. I get clients through word of mouth, so the name is not the draw. I’ve had a whole client base before. My two cofounders are well known in their fields of expertise: one in tax investment, one in tech startups and social impact and me in entertainment. We had all been practicing law the last 20 years, advising men and making them a lot of money. We had a front row seat in how they do business with each other. We decided to overthrow the patriarchy basically. We were having dinners together, and people, mostly women, were asking us individually to represent them or consult for them. So, we decided to just do it and really focus on helping women build their businesses and succeed. Unfortunately, it’s just not what women are taught. Growing up, we’re not trained the way men are. We don’t play team sports, which is big because it really teaches you how work with others to achieve a goal and gives you confidence. We don’t get those day-to-day lessons. And when you graduate from college, women don’t typically have college roommates or the dad network either. Our firm wants to be a conduit for women and be available in all the different services. We offer corporate development, business strategy and development and legal services. Those services are provided from female founders to executives, brands, talent and creatives.
Is this your last job?
I think so. It’s really humbling because we’ve got a lot of amazing outreach, people wanting to hire us, et cetera. It’s become abundantly clear that they feel more comfortable with female representation. A lot of women feel more comfortable being vulnerable about what they do and don’t know about business around other women. We want to help them get the best deals. If they’re not feeling comfortable telling an attorney their vulnerabilities, how could they possibly be getting the best deals?
What is your biggest fear?
I have a poverty mentality. I grew up with nothing. I’m always scared of not having anything. For me now, it’s more about being able to provide for the kids. That’s really it.
Where will you be 15 years from now?
In more of an advisory capacity, serving on some boards perhaps. I want to continue my work, but not on a day-to-day basis, because hopefully by then, we’ve grown this company into something really big. We don’t want to remain just the three of us. We want to grow the company while helping a lot of women and make ourselves redundant. That’s the goal, right? We are not talking about female founders or female law firms. We’re talking about law firms equally represented; that is the ultimate goal.
Is there any talent just unbelievably gifted?
Jay-Z because he thinks with both sides of his brain in a way that most people don’t. They get stuck in either the creative or business end. He was always pushing us as a visionary. I was extremely fortunate to work with him for so long and see that. It’s hard to compare others to him. I mean, of the clients that I have right now, Margo is obviously extremely talented. She is multidimensional and very creative. I represent another band called Mondo Cozmo that are just guys. Phenomenal songwriters whose words go right to your core and are so relatable. They are amazing.
What piece of advice can you give our cover model Margo from your life experiences that legitimately may help her?
I was very fortunate to be working with somebody like Jay-Z in the beginning. He wasn’t who he is today. We all grew up together. I think we all felt a little bit entitled. So, no matter what, you have to stay humble and thankful and grateful for every step along the way because you just never know where you will end up. Go along for the ride knowing that you’re very lucky to be where you are. That’s something that I wish I had known earlier. We were privileged to be hanging out with the crew that we were hanging out with. People read about these people in magazines. When you’re in it every day, it just seems normal and natural.
And then one day you lift your head up…
Yes. And you say to yourself that this is crazy. I should be more thankful for where I am today, be more humble about the whole experience and learn to not take anything for granted.