By Alyssa Hurst
Sure, John Burns is an entertainment lawyer taking on high-profile cases from New York to Los Angeles. But he’s also the co-founder of the ICON to ICAN Foundation, which helps inspire America’s underserved youth, and he teaches music and business law. On top of all that, Burns serves as a TV legal correspondent, lending his voice and insight to networks like MSNBC, BET and The Huffington Post. With all that on his plate, how does he stay sane?
How did you get into entertainment law? Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Burns: I always wanted to be a lawyer, from the time I was really small. I always enjoyed arguing. When I was growing up, in high school and middle school, I was involved in debate and things like that, where you really had to be an oral advocate and take a stance on an issue. And then in college, I took the LSAT and ultimately got into law school. In terms of the entertainment aspect of law, I’ve really been interested in media, art, music and film, and I always wanted to combine my two interests.
What has been your favorite part of working in that space?
Burns: It’s been amazing. My favorite parts … have just been the people I’ve been able to meet, some of the events I’ve been able to go to. And then to watch someone have a dream … and to be able to play an active role in that person accomplishing that dream is very rewarding.
You do some teaching. What do you love about it?
Burns: I teach at a recording studio. It’s a big school and they also have a recording studio out in Rockville, MD. I’ve been teaching music and business law for about five years out there. So I basically teach what you really need to be successful in the music industry from a legal and business perspective. … I love so much about teaching, but for me, it’s the energy. I love the energy and enthusiasm of the students because once you get into the real world, you become jaded by the profession. But when you’re a student, there’s so much enthusiasm and so much optimism. So I really get a lot of my enthusiasm and love of the profession from the students that are so interested and so hungry to get into it.
You’ve worked on some high-profile cases with big names in the entertainment industry. What are some of your favorite stories from your career as a lawyer so far?
Burns: Seeing the inner workings of some of these high-profile cases and kind of knowing the backstories. Without naming specific names, I’ve spent a lot of time doing some work in LA. I’ve run across high-profile people in the music and film business and had the chance to work with a lot of them. As you see these events unfold on TV, it’s kind of cool to be behind the scenes and to really know what’s going on.
Why have you decided to keep roots in DC even though you end up traveling to Los Angeles and New York frequently?
Burns: I’ve decided to keep roots in DC just because it’s my home base. I don’t want to leave DC completely because it’s such a city of influence and I think it’s good to have a footprint here in whatever business you’re involved in.
ICONTALKS is a major thing to come out of your nonprofit ICON to ICAN. Can you tell me about that?
Burns: We have a nonprofit called ICON to ICAN Foundation that provides programming and opportunities for kids in underserved communities and those dealing with terminal or very serious illnesses. We have extensive programming, but one of our key programs is called ICONTALKS. It’s a celebrated speaker series where we bring celebrities from different areas of expertise … to really provide them with a platform to tell their story and to really inspire individuals by their journeys. So it’s a fundraising arm for our nonprofit. We go to different cities around the country and host these amazing events. The big thing is the conversation element, and every conversation has a theme. We launched the company in San Antonio, with Chaka Khan. The theme of that conversation was “From Success to Significance,” about not only how she became a successful artist, but also how she became a significant human being. She talked about her trials and triumphs and how she navigated the tough times in her life to ultimately get to a better part of her life.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what ICON to ICAN itself does?
Burns: We have two chapters right now — one based in San Antonio and one based in Houston. So we have an active mentoring program that we do year-round at a couple of middle schools … where we basically provide the kids with exposure. I always learned that you never know what you don’t know, so we always provide them with extensive possibilities and kind of expose them to different professions and different types of people. We also have different athletic camps where we work with kids in more underserved and underrepresented communities to provide them with a chance to get out and really be physically active. We teamed up with a number of NBA franchises so we can bring some of the NBA athletes out there to participate. We also bring out some of the NFL athletes to participate because these kids really look up to them. We also have associations and partnerships with other organizations that work with kids who are dealing with things like cancer. We want to make sure they have an outlet for empowerment and inspiration as well. In cities where we don’t actually have a presence, we team up with like-minded organizations … and we help serve as a conduit to support their programming.
How did this idea come about? Why did you want to get involved with this type of work
Burns: I’ve always been involved with philanthropy my whole adult life. I used to sit on the board of a number of nonprofits and I currently sit on the board of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. I’m on the board of the Mid-Atlantic chapter. I used to be the vice president of 100 Black Men. I just wanted to do something that I could really navigate and guide. I got together with my other business partners and they said, “We really want to do this.” We’ve been so blessed in our lives to have such a level of achievement and success. We wanted to make sure we could give back, so we started the nonprofit about two years ago.
Why is philanthropy something that is so important to you? What sparked that passion?
Burns: My mother, without a doubt. Growing up she was … a noted activist and leader in the community and she always showed my brother and I the importance of giving back. That’s coupled with the fact that we also went to military school. I went to military school from second to 12th grade. So amongst everything that you’re taught in military school, with the discipline and the rigor of the daily life, you’re also taught the importance of civic engagement and community service. So that’s been instilled in me on several different levels.
You do a lot of TV work as a legal correspondent. Why is this something that is important to you?
Burns: I’ve been doing TV work at a local and national level for the last five or six years. I go on and comment on current legal events for a number of different networks, from BET to MSNBC to Huffington Post, and a number of different radio stations as well. It keeps me busy. So whenever you hear a high-profile legal issue or case that’s in the public eye, I usually am asked to come on and give a legal analysis on what’s going on. It goes back to my love and interest in media and entertainment and journalism, and the way a story is told. I think it’s an effective way to really educate the public about the underlying legal issues of these stories, because often times you only hear the surface issues that come into play. If I’m able to come on and really provide a succinct breakdown, I think it’s really helpful for people’s understanding.
It sounds like you’re a busy guy. How do you balance your schedule to fit in personal time?
Burns: I am just a great multi-tasker, so my workday is pretty jam-packed. I’m the type of person who really needs to take some time to myself. I really enjoy being around friends and traveling too, because I think with anything, you can get too caught up and then you can’t really be productive. Even if there are things you really need to do, put them on hold for a day and just take some time for yourself. I love to work out. I’m an avid gym rat. I love to travel, so if I’m not traveling for work, I’m traveling for vacation. I like to really experience new places and take it all in. And then just being low-key and hanging out with my friends, grabbing a drink or grabbing a bite.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.