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Byron Marchant isn’t just a lawyer anymore. Though he’s still the general counsel for BET Holdings Inc., the black-owned media and entertainment empire, he spends at least half his time managing the business operations that support the company’s ability to create and broadcast programs around the world. His responsibilities span human resources, information technology, real estate, satellites, telecommunications facilities and broadcast facilities. This is not what he expected to do. As a child, he craved a life of action. “My dreams were to be a jet pilot or an athlete,” he says. But as the years passed, “I realized my eyes weren’t good enough for me to be a jet pilot, and I wasn’t going to be big enough to be a successful athlete.” He wound up getting action another way. After college, he became a submarine officer, responsible for various weapons and communications systems. After five years in the Navy and a year consulting for a defense contractor, he began a new adventure: at the University of Virginia Law School. Marchant got off to a rocky start. “The first year was the worst,” he recalls. Used to “a place with life-and-death decisions where you had to act fast,” he found it difficult to adjust to students and professors endlessly analyzing the minutiae of statutes, regulations, and judicial opinions. He considered jumping ship. But over the summer break, he had an epiphany. “I realized I could combine my legal education and the technical knowledge I had acquired in the Navy,” he says. “I shifted my focus to the integration of law and technology” by taking courses at UVA’s business school. After law school, he says, he set his sights on telecommunications and media law and “evolved from thinking about putting things together [as an associate at Sidley & Austin] to helping deregulate the phone industry [as senior legal advisor to the FCC].” After a stint as general counsel for TeleCommunications Systems of Annapolis, Md., he joined Washington, D.C.’s Patton Boggs as a partner. During those years, he repeatedly crossed paths with Bob Johnson, chairman of BET. Eventually Johnson and BET’s president, Debra Lee, asked him to become general counsel. He finds his current job very different from working in a law firm. “Your decisions are immediately reflected in the company’s finances,” he says. “You have to have a broader perspective on business risk than you can possibly have as a law firm lawyer.” Private practitioners evaluate the legal issues in a situation. They are not making “a business judgment or an assessment of business risk,” he says. “There are very few lawyers who can do that.” Part of the problem, he believes, is that few lawyers have much experience in the real world. “Real-world experience in any field prior to law school will make a student’s legal training more valuable,” he says, urging students to “actively and aggressively shape your law school experiences. Don’t let law school shape you. Otherwise, you’ll get processed into [jobs] without knowing why.”

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