‘My Lawyer Is a Black Woman’: How Bernie Lawrence-Watkins Went From Sticking Up for Family to Representing Latto, 21 Savage & More Rap Heavy-Hitters
During her acceptance speech at Billboard’s Women in Music event, rapper Latto shouted out the most important women in her life who helped push the platinum selling artist to where she is today, including her attorney, Bernie Lawrence-Watkins: “My lawyer is a Black woman — Bernie. Hey Bernie!”
“It’s not too often you hear clients shouting out their lawyers. So for that to happen in a public forum, shows that she is appreciative of the services that our firm provides,” Lawrence-Watkins says. “It was a very touching moment for me.” (Jon Platt, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Publishing, even gave her a congratulatory call after the shoutout.)
Lawrence-Watkins began working with the “Big Energy” singer when she was a 17-year-old aspiring Atlanta rapper, fresh off of Lifetime’s reality TV competition, The Rap Game, which she won. After receiving a call from her father, the three met and have been working together ever since — with Lawrence-Watkins securing rights for all of Latto’s projects, brand rights, trademark, performances, tour deals and endorsement deals, including Sprite, WingStop, Burger King and Spotify. “I always make sure the deal is not done until she’s satisfied,” says Lawrence-Watkins.
With over 24 years of experience under her belt, Lawrence-Watkins’ roster of clients also includes 21 Savage, Baby Tate and Young Nudy, all of whom she negotiated record deals for. She picked up 21 Savage in 2015, during the making of his wildly successful EP, Savage Mode, released the following year. After the project’s release, Lawrence-Watkins describes the ensuing label response as a “bidding war,” with Epic Records coming out on top. Lawrence-Watkins negotiated quite the deal for 21, including ownership of all his masters, which she owes to the rapper’s leverage.
“[He] created a name and a brand that was very dominant in hip-hop,” Lawrence-Watkins explains. “When it was time to negotiate a deal, we could make certain requests. It was just about understanding where your client is at a particular time in their career.”
But it was a failed deal that led Lawrence-Watkins to becoming a lawyer in the first place. Raised in East Elmhurst, Queens, by way of Dominica, she grew up with an itch to perform — even attending LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which boasts alumni including Nicki Minaj, Kelis and Eartha Kitt. While attending Howard University, her brother Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence got signed to a Columbia imprint as an artist, but struggled to make money through his music, eventually losing the deal.
“My brother was a starving artist,” she explains. “I watched him go on a lot of promo tours, not being paid. [He was] trying to get videos on MTV at that time and the notion was, ‘Oh, your video is too Black.’ I said, ‘I need to be part of this industry to help make a change. How do I do things in a way that’s going to be beneficial to my client, and [causes] people take notice and start doing things differently?'”
Her brother’s experience in the industry led Bernie into law, with Ron himself eventually moving into production as a member of P. Diddy’s original studio team, The Hitmen. The transition proved successful, with Ron going on to co-produce “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G, “Been Around the World” by Diddy, “Money, Power, Respect” by The Lox and “Love Like This” by Faith Evans.
Representing Ron and fellow hitmaking producer Bangladesh, Bernie — who now operates under the slogan “Bernie gets you paid” — began her own practice and eventually began representing small businesses and artists, in addition to her usual roster of producers. “I wanted to be someone who was part of the change, someone who was going to really fight for my clients’ rights and not close deals until they were done correctly,” she says.
According to the American Bar Association, only 5% of lawyers are African-American. Bernie attributes this number in part to a lack of visibility of Black lawyers, and low effort by firms to hire them. She hopes that her presence as a Black woman in the space will help inspire a new generation of lawyers of color.
“When you look at talent in the hip hop, and r&b community, a lot of them are African-American. You don’t see a lot of us that are representing them. There are so many of us that are talented that can do the work, but for some reason, we’re not being represented,” she explains. “When people say, ‘We did a search and we didn’t find anyone that’s qualified,’ that’s BS.”
From time to time, Bernie says she’ll receive calls from other women lawyers seeking her advice on how to start their own firms. “Working in a white male-dominated industry, I made a decision to not go the traditional route and build a firm,” she explains. “It wasn’t easy, [but] I understand that I’m not just doing this for me. I’m doing this for other women who are looking to follow in my footsteps.”