Spotlight: Jay-Z's Former Attorney Jennifer Justice Is Using Her Position to Uplift Other Businesswomen

Lisa Houlgrave
Jennifer Justice

“I felt like there was something bigger for me."

When Jennifer Justice -- and yes, that’s her real name -- was studying to be a music lawyer at Cornell University in the late ’90s, she landed an interview with the New York firm Carroll, Guido & Groffman. As the interviewer rattled off the firm’s clients, including Marilyn Manson, Sugar Ray and Dave Matthews Band, one newer addition caught Justice’s ear -- a young hip-hop artist going by the name Jay-Z

“I said, 'Reasonable Doubt is my favorite album,’” Justice now remembers more than two decades later. “They were like, ‘How do you know what that is?’ I knew every word.” 

She got the job and made partner in just three years. And over the next 14 years, she built a close bond with the business-minded rapper, helping him build Roc-A-Fella Records into the hip-hop powerhouse he sold to Def Jam for $10 million in 2004 and -- five years later -- buy back his contract from Def Jam to start Roc Nation in partnership with Live Nation. There, Justice rose the ranks to executive vp strategic marketing and business development, helped launch Tidal and even served as Beyoncé’s personal attorney for two years.

Even though they’re still friends, Justice -- or “JJ” -- hasn’t worked with Jay-Z since 2016. Instead, she is using her vast legal and business knowledge, and loyal “lady posse” network, to uplift other businesswomen with The Justice Department -- the advisory firm she co-founded with Anjali Kumar and Jacquie Duval in January.

The company -- which advises women entrepreneurs, execs, talent, brands and creatives on legal and tax strategy, business development, investment strategy and more -- already has around 60 female clients, along with, Justice adds, a few “woke men.” 

“I’m working harder than I ever did,” she says with a smile, sitting inside the Soho, New York, branch of women-only workspace startup The Wing on a rainy summer morning. 

Justice is used to weather like this, having grown up in a small town just outside of Seattle. There, she was raised by a single mother who was on and off welfare for most of Justice’s young life. “We were taught that we didn’t go to college,” says Justice, who speaks quickly with lots of hand movements. But she had a rebellious streak and was determined for her life to turn out differently.

She received a nearly full scholarship to the University of Washington, where she majored in political science and became the first person in her family to attend college. From there, she applied to law school (“my friends’ parents were always lawyers or doctors,” she reasoned) and was awarded a full ride to Cornell University. 

It was only at her moving-away party that Justice discovered music law as a career path. The grunge scene had just taken off in Seattle, and several of her friends who attended the gathering were in moderately successful bands. “They were like, ‘You should be a music lawyer, because we all have lawyers,’” Justice remembers. Someone name-dropped Michele Anthony (now executive vp U.S. recorded music Universal Music Group) and Rosemary Carroll (of the firm Justice later joined, Carroll, Guido & Groffman). “I was like, ‘You can be a woman and do this?’” Justice says. “Amazing.” 

At the time, Justice says she was largely ignorant of the hardships she would face as a woman in the music industry, where female artists make up less than a quarter of all songs on the Billboard Hot 100, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and veteran label executives like Dorothy Carvello have published tell-alls describing an environment of rampant sexual harassment and toxic masculinity. But those realities hit her soon enough. 

One day, while negotiating a job contract for a lauded female senior director at a label, she noticed that the woman was being offered $30,000 less than a male colleague in a similar role. Another time, she asked a male executive to give a female A&R rep who’d just signed a major client the same payout as a male counterpart who’d signed an of-the-moment band. “I remember him laughing at me that she should get paid the same amount,” she says. “It happens every day.”

Furious, frustrated and looking for answers, one day Justice ventured to a local Barnes and Noble looking for literature on women’s empowerment in business. She found just three books on the subject and bought them all:

1. Barbara Corcoran’s If You Don't Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails (“I shit you not.”)
2. Lois P Frankel’s Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office (“That is true.”)
3. Gail Evans’ Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman (“I still have [it] on my bedside.”)

At this point, Justice had just transitioned to Roc Nation. But a thought kept eating at her: “I felt like there was something bigger for me.” She left the label after five years to serve as president of corporate development at Superfly, the events company behind music festivals Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. By then, the #MeToo movement was starting to unfold and Justice watched with a mix of disgust and relief as Harvey Weinstein and other powerful male figures faced retribution for years of bad behavior.

“[At Roc Nation], I had a front-row seat in watching Jay-Z help his friends and them all becoming extremely successful,” she says, adding that Jay was “intimidating and powerful and supportive and loyal, all at the same time.” Wanting to do the same for women in her community, she left Superfly and started work on The Justice Department.

Justice, who lives in Tribeca, now runs the firm out of coworking spaces like The Wing and Soho House, where she often meets with female business founders to share her knowledge. Much of her spare time is spent with her 6-year-old twin children -- “I shouldn’t be deemed less business-like if I need to cancel a meeting because my son is sick,” she comments on being a working mother.

As the business grows -- with the plan to add a management prong soon -- Justice is wary of the work that remains to truly achieve gender parity in the workplace. “What scares me is that people are like, ‘Now we have two women in the office, so it’s fine,’” she says, “and it’s not even close.” 

It’s the same reason she’s been outspoken about the need for a pay audit in the music industry. Recent signs of change, including the establishment of womens’ empowerment initiative She Is The Music and reorganization at the Recording Academy, are just the beginning of a long, uphill climb. 

Meanwhile, she’s living up to her name. 

“Jay-Z always used to say, ‘Your name is crazy,’” she adds with a laugh. “I had to finally capitalize on it, and have a purpose.” 

SPOTLIGHT:

The best advice I've received was from [veteran advertising executive] Cindy Gallop who said to me (and many other women), when you aren’t feeling confident that you can do the “whatever" it is in business -- take the job that you have never done, ask for the raise, etcetera, just ask yourself, “What would a straight white man do?” And then do that. Similarly from [Beautycon Media CEO] Moj Mahdara who once said to me to me when I was not giving myself enough credit, “Pretend your name is Dick and do what Dick would do.” I heed this advice about 30 times a day. 

The great thing about supporting gender equality is that women represent half the population and are every race, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic level. The definition of feminism is merely the belief that men and women are equal. Not that radical or groundbreaking, really. Makes you wonder why so many people are so afraid to say they are feminists or to support gender equality really. Why wouldn’t you? 

Dealing with musicians has always been rewarding for me. Difficult at times? Yes. As you musicians all know, you can be difficult. Just admit it. But to watch them come from nothing and create movements and change culture and move people with their art has always motivated me to do right by them, to represent them in the best way that I can.  

It's good to have true allies in your corner. People who don’t give you the easy answer. The people you reach out to at night when you want to give up because having a business focused on the equality of women when you are a single mom to a 6-year-old is such an uphill battle every day and you feel like you should just get the cushy job and give up... And they tell you it isn’t going to get easier, but it will be worth it because the world will be a better place when women are equal to men, financially, politically and professionally. It’s actually not just good, it’s a great thing to have. 

What I've never understood is why anyone would believe it’s OK to pay two people, doing the exact same job, at the same level, two different salaries. How is it even conscionable as a human being to see this as okay based on gender or race or family situation? It’s the work that should dictate the compensation. 

Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.