Lawyer Limelight: Keyonn Pope

Commercial litigator Keyonn Pope’s career seamlessly intertwines expertise in cutting-edge technology with the excitement and nostalgia of his childhood passions. Pope joined Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila (RSHC) as an equity partner last year, bringing with him extensive experience in practice areas including high-stakes intellectual property, entertainment, media, and commercial disputes. Originally an electrical engineer, Pope’s cases often dive into complex tech topics. In one high-profile case, he defended Nintendo in a patent matter involving its Wii gaming system; in another, he successfully represented cloud tech giant Box, Inc. in a $270M patent infringement suit.

An advocate for fairness and equity, Pope serves his community by devoting significant time to pro bono legal service, establishing scholarships and sitting on the board of multiple organizations. Those include Sunshine Enterprises, which advises prospective small business owners from Chicago’s underserved communities, as well as the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

Lawdragon: Tell me a bit about the range of matters you cover in your practice.

Keyonn Pope: My legal practice is divided across three primary categories: first, IP-related matters of all kinds (patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets, both litigation/trial work on those matters and client counseling); second, general complex commercial litigation, the subject matter of which could be anything from contract disputes to insurance-related matters, consumer protection statute-related matters, and class actions; and third, matters for media figures, artists, entertainers, athletes and other high-profile individuals. With regard to the media and entertainment-related work, I assist clients with issues related to tour agreements, recording contracts, endorsement and influencer opportunities. I also advise entities looking to engage the services of these entertainers or artists.

LD: What do you find most rewarding or exciting about your work?

KP: I love helping clients solve (or avoid) their most vexing and complex problems, and I find it gratifying (and humbling) that clients trust me to do so.

More specifically in the IP space, I joke that I’m a “recovering electrical engineer.” Prior to law school, I worked as an electrical engineer in industry and at one time thought I would pursue a PhD in that discipline. So, at heart, by training, I’m very much a technophile. When I have the opportunity to marry that side of my brain with my legal training, to stand at the intersection of those two worlds, it is just fantastic.

My move into complex commercial litigation was driven by client need. The reality today is that very few legal issues operate in a vacuum – they are all intertwined. From the outset of my career, I noticed that as I advised a client on issues related to IP, the issues would often intersect with other areas of the law, and that forced me to become conversant and competent in these subject areas so that I could provide my client with holistic and comprehensive advice.

My media and entertainment work is a labor of love. I come from a musical family and was a musician myself for some time, though not professionally. Likewise, sports were a big part of my life growing up. I jump at any chance I get to merge what I do (practicing law) with what I love (sports and music). It’s my own way of staying close to those two first loves.

LD: Tell me about your move to RSHC in 2021.

KP: I joined RSHC in August 2021, after almost nine years at my prior firm.  While I was not actively searching, the opportunity to join RSHC presented itself and it became readily apparent that this was something I should carefully consider. RSHC is newer than many firms, which means that it is nimbler in many regards, and the approaches to practice and firm culture are necessarily fresh and innovative. Most importantly, the level of excellence in lawyering and professionalism at RSHC is at or above any firm you can name. The people are fantastic. Given how important collaboration is to our work as lawyers, it’s always preferable to work with folks you enjoy being around.

My media and entertainment work is a labor of love. I come from a musical family and was a musician myself.

The firm’s emphasis on diversity was also a compelling piece in making the decision to join. So many organizations use “diversity” or “equity” or “inclusion” as buzzwords without the actions to back it up and that’s just not the case at RSHC. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are part of the firm’s DNA. We not only believe it, but we live it. To be clear, that’s diversity in all regards: race, religion, gender, LGBTQ status, diversity of lived experiences, and diversity of thought. All of this contributes to the excellence we marshal for the benefit of clients. Joining this firm has proven to be an excellent decision for me as a lawyer.

LD: What kinds of matters are keeping you busy lately?

KP: I worked on a complex deal that started in 2020 and concluded in 2021 for the Estate of Thelonious Monk, which was a dream project for a music lover like me. Mr. Monk is rightly heralded as one of the greats in the jazz community, completely ahead of his time. I had the opportunity to represent his Estate in monetizing some of its IP assets. The Estate is very focused on protecting Mr. Monk’s legacy, and it is therefore strategic about the deals it considers. In fact, this was one of the first IP-related deals the Estate has consummated because it’s about much more than the money to the Estate. The who, the how, and the when matter a great deal, and the Estate ensures the values of the party with whom it partners aligns with Mr. Monk’s ongoing legacy. So, in that regard not only was I assisting  in navigating the legal and business complexities, but I was also advising on those value-driven components of the deal that were ultra-important.

Threading the needle on delivering a profitable deal, which all parties could feel good about, was an exciting challenge. The project required me to intimately understand what mattered most to the parties. It was an opportunity to live up to being the kind of counselor, advocate and trusted advisor I strive to be in all my work. At times, the role I played went outside the “traditional” boundaries of lawyering. However, if embracing that broader role helped achieve the desired outcome, I was happy to do whatever was needed.

LD: That sounds fascinating. Can you talk a bit more about the details of the matter?

KP: This deal involved the release of a Thelonious Monk album called “Palo Alto” that had been in a vault, so to speak. In the late 1960s, the U.S. was in an uproar in terms of race relations, the Civil Rights Movement, and the assassination of important political figures including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Palo Alto, California, was a microcosm of all that was happening on the national stage. It was a divided city – Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, divided by railroad tracks – a segregated city with a lot of racial tension. The story goes that there was a high school student who was a Thelonious Monk fan, and he had this thought that Mr. Monk’s music could cut across this division in his city and unite people. So, he wrote Mr. Monk a letter and invited him to come play a concert in the high school gym.

Mr. Monk got the letter and felt compelled to say yes to this request. He was doing a show in the Bay Area around the same time and made time in his calendar to stop in Palo Alto for this show as well. There was a ton of fanfare. The show was sold out, and Mr. Monk showed up and played. Unbeknownst to anyone there that night, a custodian who worked at the school recorded the show. He stored away that audio footage for decades. He is still alive and contacted the Estate to share the footage. The custodian felt, over the past two years, the conversations and events around race relations in America felt a lot like the national stage in the 1960s, and now might be the time to consider releasing the music and footage. So, I had the role of brokering the release of that album.

LD: What an amazing story.

Given how important collaboration is to our work as lawyers, it’s always preferable to work with folks you enjoy being around.

You mentioned you were initially an electrical engineer. Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

KP: Probably the first time I got the seed of the idea that STEM and the law could have anything to do with each other was when a woman named Cheryl Belle came to speak to my group when I was an engineering intern. She was both an engineer and a practicing lawyer. I remember approaching her after her talk and peppering her with questions, and, fortunately, she was gracious enough to permit me to do so.

Fast forward to my time in industry as an engineer. I was in a design group, and we were always cranking out potentially patentable ideas . But it was a large corporation, and the process for getting the ideas reviewed could be slow and cumbersome. Eventually, someone suggested designating a liaison between our group and the legal department, and I volunteered to fill the role given my interest in the intersection of technology and law. Consequently, I began spending significant time with the lawyers and was exposed to what IP attorneys do. That exposure piqued my interest, and I decided law school would be the next step in my career.

LD: That’s great. What advice do you have for current law school students?

KP: Always be mindful of the power of relationships. When I think back to law school, there are so many of my classmates who I sat next to in class day in and day out, semester after semester. Some of them I got to know well; some not at all. So many of them are doing interesting things now, and I look back and realize that I missed the opportunity to get to know them better. I don’t mean I missed out on business opportunities – just opportunities to get to know some of the best and brightest who are at the fore of fascinating developments in every field imaginable.

Also, I cannot overstate the importance of honing your communication skills. Communication – namely, writing – is the life blood of the legal profession. Effective communication is critical.  Time dedicated to refining your communication skills is always time well spent.

And finally, just believe you can do it. And “it” is whatever you want it to be. So many times, we get in our own heads, in our own way of pursuing the things we desire. Just stay the course and remember you can do it.

LD: Did you have any mentors in law school, or as an early career lawyer?

KP: I’ve been so fortunate to encounter so many impactful people along the way, I hesitate to pinpoint people because I will surely leave someone out. But I would be remiss not to mention my maternal grandparents, Estella and Alex Bond. They were instrumental in my upbringing and shaping who I am as a person and ultimately as a professional. Interestingly, neither of them were formally educated, yet I learned more from them than any other two people I have encountered.

They were both born to sharecropper families in the Deep South – my Grandma from Mississippi and my Granddad from Tennessee – who relocated to Chicago as part of the “Great Black Migration” of the early 1900s. My grandfather dropped out of high school and later earned his GED. He left school to join the workforce because his parents needed the income to care for him and six siblings. My grandmother graduated high school, married my grandfather soon after, and they started their family. My grandfather pastored a church for 36 years while simultaneously working a full-time job that he retired from after 30 years. Their lives taught me so many lessons: grit, determination; high-level execution; the importance of fulfilling obligation; integrity; and devotion to causes bigger than self. 

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Does that background feed into it?

KP: I try to put my commitment to service first. I often joke that the job that most prepared me for what I do now is waiting tables, which I did in high school. Just as every patron in the restaurant was different, every legal situation and client is different. The more I can understand what my clients’ needs and preferences are – and learn to anticipate those needs – the better I can serve them, and the better the legal outcome will be. During my time as a server, I had a regular customer who would come in with his wife. His little idiosyncrasy was that he wanted his coffee, with two sugars and two creams, delivered to the table before he ordered. When I would see them entering the restaurant, I would get that coffee before I even brought the menus. It just made him so happy that I paid attention to preferences. It made him feel valued, heard, and respected. That’s the definition of service.

Always be mindful of the power of relationships.

I try to get to know my clients in that way – whether it’s their communication preferences, the way they like to see the briefs structured – whatever it may be. Everyone has their own quirks, and it's not for me to necessarily have an opinion on them. It’s up to me to deliver on them, provided they don’t get in the way of achieving the positive outcome we are seeking. All our lives are already stressful . If there is some small act I can perform to help make life easier for my clients, I want to do it.

I also just try to be an effective listener. Apparently, I was a garrulous kid, and my grandfather would always say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.” That gem serves me well as a lawyer and advisor to my clients.

LD: What do you do for fun outside of the office?

KP: I spend time with my family. I love music. Pre-pandemic, going to see live music was a big part of my life, and I hope I get to enjoy more of that this year. I also enjoy all things food: cooking and consuming.

LD: I know you’re involved in leadership positions for community organizations in the Chicago area. Can you tell me about those?

KP: I’m on a couple of boards. One is the board for the Jazz Institute of Chicago (JIC), a 50-year-old nonprofit dedicated to keeping jazz music alive and bringing jazz and culture generally to various neighborhoods across Chicago. JIC also uses jazz as a vehicle for educating and mentoring students, pairing students with professional musicians. Not only do the musicians teach the students about music, but the musicians become mentors in all areas of the students’ lives. Some of the students do go on to become well-regarded musicians, but many more go on to successfully pursue other professions. Either way, the students learn transferable skills from investing time in practicing their instruments, and from showing up on time for rehearsals and gigs. They learn how to listen to others when they play, how to be bold enough to step out when it’s time to take their solo. All of these are transferable skills the students carry into the rest of their lives.

The other board I’m on is for Sunshine Enterprises. Sunshine is all about helping under-resourced entrepreneurs and small businesses start or grow their businesses and ultimately build their community. Sunshine was founded in Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side, which is also the neighborhood in which I grew up, so my connection to the vision and mission of the organization is very personal. Often in under-resourced communities you may not see the big-box stores and the major chains, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t industry in that neighborhood. It may just show up in a different way, such as a catering business run from someone’s home kitchen, a cosmetology or barbering business operating in someone’s home basement, etc.

The entrepreneurs running these businesses are often very good at what they do, and the goods and services they provide are top notch.  However, they may not necessarily have experience or formal training that goes into running a business. Equipping business owners with this knowledge and these tools is a gamechanger. Sunshine runs a “boot camp” that meets once a week for several months to provide these nuts and bolts to scaling and growing a business.

LD: If you hadn’t decided to become a lawyer, what kind of career do you think you’d have had?

KP: I would probably have a career in sports or music – possibly working as a sports agent or an agent representing musical artists/performers.