Meet the officer: an interview with NARF’s Chair Kelli Sager

Wednesday 20 April 2022

Manuela de la Helguera

Four-C Experts, Mexico City


Kelli Sager

Davis Wright Tremaine, Los Angeles


Kelli Sager needs no introduction in the world of media and entertainment law. With over 35 years of experience, she has been recognised as one of the most influential attorneys in media law and has held leadership positions in virtually every media-related bar association and in numerous non-profit organisations. Kelli is one of the best First Amendment lawyers around and she believes that ‘what happens in a courtroom is really the public’s property’. In this interview, Kelli shares how she built her impressive career and why she is so passionate about First Amendment rights and cameras in the court.

How did you discover your vocation to become an attorney and why did you end up practicing entertainment law?

I was on the debate team when I was in high school and in college, which is a great training ground for a legal career – you must do a lot of research and distil the information into arguments that you present to judges, much like litigation.  Most of the college debaters I knew were planning to go to law school.  I was a journalism major and thought that going to law school would give me an area of expertise, so I could become a legal commentator or write about legal issues.  But while I was in law school, I learned that there were lawyers who specialise in representing journalists and media companies and knew that was a perfect combination of my interests!

What do you enjoy the most from your career?

I feel very fortunate to practice in a specialty area that I am passionate about – defending First Amendment rights – and that allows me to work with journalists and media companies investigating and reporting things that I think are important, including the conduct of government officials and powerful companies.

Your first big case related to media issues was getting access for the press and the public to the trials of O.J. Simpson. Can you tell us more about your experience in winning this case?

I joined Davis Wright Tremaine (DWT) as a partner a few months before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in June 1994.  I’d been doing a lot of work representing media companies, both at my prior firm and at DWT. One day, I got a call from the woman who was then general counsel for Gannett, who had gotten my name from a lawyer for the Los Angeles Times.  The judge handling pretrial motions in the Simpson murder case had closed the courtroom for a hearing and the reporters were all sent out into the hallway.  I raced down to court, was allowed in the courtroom to argue why the media should be allowed to attend the hearing, and the judge wound up changing his mind and opening the doors to the reporters.  After that, I began representing all the media when there were media issues in the case, including at the hearing about whether cameras would be allowed at the trial.

One of the things that was unique at that time was having a single lawyer representing all the media.  I thought it made sense from a financial standpoint for the different media companies to share the cost of having a lawyer, and if a hearing is opened or documents are unsealed, everyone was going to get the information – so I was able to explain to the different news organisations covering the Simpson trial, all of whom were competitors, that it made sense to have a coalition that spoke with a single voice.  They agreed and hired me to represent everyone.

You seem to be very passionate about free speech and the rights of the public to attend criminal and civil cases. Tell us a little about getting cameras in the court, why do you feel so strong about it?

Court proceedings and records are presumptively public in the United States – for good reason.  History has taught us that injustice and corruption flourish in the dark; as one US Supreme Court justice said, ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’.  But most people can’t take time off to go down to the courthouse and watch a hearing, or sit through a trial, and often people who aren’t lawyers don’t really know much about how the court system works.  The best way for people to be able to see what is happening is if it is available to them on television, or on the internet, so they can watch from home.  This not only provides them with valuable information about one of the three branches of government, but it also gives members of the public confidence in the system if they are able to watch what happens for themselves.

Following up on that, what has changed after the pandemic, and do you foresee that in the near future all courtrooms will become public?

When the pandemic struck, courts closed; they did not want people coming in person into the buildings.  But proceedings are supposed to be open, so the courts quickly developed systems for handling hearings remotely.  That meant not only lawyers, but also journalists and members of the public, could watch hearings (or even trials) from their homes.  Judges who might not have ever had a camera in their courtroom became familiar with the technology, and many of them became more comfortable with the notion that their court proceedings could be observed by people who were not sitting in the courtroom.  I hope that when courthouses open up again, they retain these ‘remote’ options, which enabled many more people to see what was happening in the courts.

You have been regularly recognised among the top lawyers in your field, being named ‘Lawyer of the Year’, ‘Litigator of the Year’, ‘Top Women Litigators’, and we could go on with the list! What drives you to be so outstanding and not settle for less?

My parents always reinforced with my two older sisters and myself the importance of doing your best – you may not always be successful, but if you have done your best work, you can be proud and have no regrets.  I feel very fortunate to have had such great role models, both in my parents and in my sisters.

You are considered as an extraordinarily eloquent arguer and to have spectacular oration skills - can you share with us a few advocacy skills that have helped you win a case?

As I mentioned earlier, I was on the debate team in high school and in college, which provides great experience researching and putting together arguments, and speaking publicly.  I don’t think there’s any substitute for being well prepared, so I spend a fair amount of time not only reviewing the briefs and related materials before a hearing, and outlining the arguments I want to make, but also thinking about what questions the judge might ask.

There was one downside from my debate experience, though. For certain kinds of debate, like the kind I did in college, the debaters learn to talk very quickly so that they can make as many points as possible in a limited amount of time.  But when I am in court, I am constantly reminding myself to slow down – the court reporters have a hard time keeping up! 

You have served as officer in the IBA for more than ten years now, what’s the best thing about getting involved in the IBA and what’s the best way to contribute to an organisation like the IBA?

One of the best things about being involved in the IBA is getting to know smart, interesting, dedicated people from all over the world, and learning about different cultures, both by meeting people from other countries, and by having the opportunity to visit those countries and learn about their legal systems.  I believe strongly in the rule of law and having an organisation like the IBA that promotes the rule of law is extremely important.  Every member of the IBA can contribute, by attending conferences, writing for IBA publications or simply broadening their minds by learning about other cultures.

Women lawyers experience great challenges when it comes to building a successful career and having a family or even a ‘life’ outside their profession - how have you found that work-life balance whilst being the best at what you do?

Since my husband and I don’t have kids, some may question whether I’m in the best position to answer this question. I have great admiration for women who have balanced careers, kids and personal relationships, particularly during the last two years, when it was so much more challenging for many families with kids to manage everything.  But everyone needs and deserves to have time for themselves outside of their jobs, no matter how much they love their work.  It’s a challenge with litigation, and in all honesty, I have found it difficult sometimes. I have a hard time saying ‘no’, particularly to interesting cases or to clients I’ve worked with for many years.  But my husband retired from the practice of law after we got married, so when I travel (for work, or for things like the IBA), he’s able to travel with me.  That gives me a great incentive to carve out some extra time to explore the city we are in, or to add a day or two to the trip so that we can visit something nearby.    

What would you say to the younger generations of women attorneys who are starting their career?

No matter what kind of work you choose, you are going to spend a lot of your life doing it – so pick something that you really care about or really enjoy.  It’s too much of your life to spend doing something you hate!

What are your three rules to thrive?

One, there is no substitute for hard work. Two, don’t give up. Three, if you’re tempted to look for a shortcut to get where you want to be, read the last two rules again!