Shakeena Melbourne of Upton Law: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Attorney
Keeping a daily schedule. I wish someone told me about the importance of creating a daily schedule as an entrepreneur because I can get pulled in multiple ways in a day and my to-do list will continue to pile up without getting the first items completed. So, by creating a schedule, I can try to stay on task for the most part.
As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an attorney” I had the pleasure of interviewing Shakeena Melbourne
Shakeena Melbourne is a Michigan-based attorney specializing in expungement and bankruptcy law and is one of the only African American bankruptcy lawyers in the state of Michigan. She founded the law firm, Upton Law PLLC, in 2018 and has more than seven years of experience in both areas of the law she specializes in. She also assists her clients by providing financial advice and executive coaching. Melbourne attended the University of California, Riverside for her bachelor’s degree in political science and received her master’s and a doctorate in law from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
Melbourne founded her practice after she discovered that many owners of businesses across Michigan have prior criminal records or financial hardships that cause delays in financial growth and hinder access to larger business contracts or the means of business expansion. She wanted to create a law firm tailored toward assisting up-and-coming business owners and business owners seeking growth, providing them with options they didn’t have before. Melbourne has provided essential legal assistance to individuals across all backgrounds and fields, including entertainment stars. On top of her law practice, she serves on the board of three nonprofits and has authored three books.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?
The story my mother usually shares is that I wanted to be a judge since I was 3 years old. Apparently, I used to be the judge when my teddy bear and Barbie doll got into a fight over candy. Similarly, in the second grade, I had a teacher ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And in Shakeena fashion, of course, I said, “I want to be a judge.” So, every week for about four weeks, we sat down and figured out what schooling was required for me to become a judge, i.e., elementary, middle school, high school, college and law school. I followed that path without stopping. And by the age of 24, I had completed law school with a juris doctorate. By age 25, I had completed an LLM (master of law) in Corporate and Finance and was a licensed attorney. And by 30 years old, I had started Upton Law, PLLC. My focus on law has always been a central part of my life and being able to found a firm and have the opportunity to help others accomplish their goals and aspirations is a dream come true.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?
The most interesting story is that despite the entire school schedule and plan that I had since I was in the second grade, I did not think to include the bar exam. I graduated high school and began to pursue my higher education toward law school and was excited. I made my way through my bachelor’s degree studies and as graduation approached, I just knew getting into graduate school would be an easy cakewalk.
Of course, that was not true or the case at all, as I quickly learned. Upon graduating from undergraduate studies, I was placed on several waitlists for admittance to law school. I went home after graduation defeated, questioning if I would get admitted anywhere. I made a promise to God, that if I got into law school, I wouldn’t care where it was located, that I would pack up all my belongings and move to make my dreams come true. Well, I got into law school at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan. I never even knew where Michigan was on a map prior to that, not to mention Lansing, Michigan, but I got into law school, and everything was going to be fine. After three long years of final exams for each and every course there I realized there was still a final, final exam that would need to be completed. The crazy part is that despite going to law school and planning to go to law school for so long, I never knew or gave it a second thought that there was a bar exam, until I was getting ready to graduate law school and found out it was a separate exam from my educational studies.
This realization was a shock to me and left me completely confused. I was done with school and had graduated, had hundreds of thousands of student loans and now there was another hurdle? I was totally over it, not interested and simply did not want to take the infamous bar exam. Of course, in the end I did and have since accomplished a lot but in hindsight, it is a funny memory and moment from my life.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am very interested in and working on helping individuals with bankruptcy in expungements (removal of past criminal records) and small business development. I am currently working with the owner of two marinas in Detroit, Riverside Marina and Erma Henderson Marina. I am finding marina law to be very interesting. Followed by assisting with startups of businesses, such as salons, real estate businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Another essential area of the law firm is helping entertainers, musicians and artists in many of these same areas. Many artists, musicians and entertainers are unaware of the legal rights they may have outside of simply a contract, which is the typical area of law for entertainment lawyers. However, many may be at risk as candidates for bankruptcy if there are significant financial gaps between gigs or job opportunities, because their debts or monthly expenses remain the same. Similarly, many of them qualify for an expungement for any past criminal records. I have recently noticed that many artists, musicians and entertainers fail to turn themselves or their works into businesses. By turning their art into a business, it would reduce liabilities, show professionalism and ensure that the contracts entered into are legal and valid.
What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?
I think many, if not all, of my cases are interesting, because they are all different. Expungements cases vary on a case-by-case basis dependent on the original charges and what the clients are looking to get expunged. One example: I worked with a gentleman with a criminal record from 1987. At the time he was convicted, he was only 19 years old. His criminal record had been burdening him for decades before he reached out to me for help, so much so that he was unable to get an insurance license vital to his career and livelihood, despite working in the insurance industry for more than 20 years. After I represented him and won his expungement case, he is now a fully-licensed insurance broker and making six figures a year. Something that never would have been possible without legal services and representation.
Similarly, every bankruptcy case changes on a case-by-case basis. Bankruptcy is a formula and the answers to that formula will determine if a person is eligible for bankruptcy in the form of Chapter 7, Chapter 13 or, in some instances, a Chapter 11 (business bankruptcy).
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
The people who have inspired me most are previous attorneys that I have worked with, along with my mentors. I typically have at least three or four mentors. Each mentor has at least 10 years or more experience in either business or law. I am then able to ask questions about how to run my business on a day-to-day basis, as well as about hypothetical cases, to find out the best strategies and plans of action on specific cases I may be working on. Each mentor specializes in their area of the law or business and continues to inspire me daily because they do not stop dreaming, planning and strategizing and aspire to create new monthly, quarterly or yearly goals.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?
A career in law can be inspiring, exhilarating, stressful, pleasurable and world-changing and impactful to the community. Instead of looking at the title and value, it may have in society, I see practicing law as an honor. In the United States, lawyers take up 1–2% of the population. It is inspiring to be a part of this industry. But you are at the mercy of your client, because you are their representative and you work for them. You are giving a voice to the voiceless and strength to those who may not be able to defend themselves, so you must take the job seriously. But also make sure to find time to have fun and build relationships with your clients and your coworkers (partners, associates, paralegals, legal assistants, court clerks, receptionists and opposing counsels). And remember to stay focused, because in many areas of the law, there is always help to do better and to learn from your experiences.
If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?
I am not sure how to answer this question, because the legal system is portrayed as fair on both sides, the side of the plaintiff versus the defendant in a civil case. I only practice civil work, so in the civil arena, the judicial system has created more opportunities to allow the plaintiff and the defendant to work together to figure out a settlement and come to a resolution. I have not embarked on many issues that need to be changed. However, since the pandemic, the timing of the case and the length of getting court hearings have been delayed significantly. So, the change I would say is to increase staff to get more cases resolved sooner and faster.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have brought my success to bring goodness to the world by finding niche demographics of clientele to help with legal matters that they did not know were options. For example, many individuals think it is normal to “rob Peter to pay Paul.” But that is not true. There is a legal way out of the financial burden by considering bankruptcy. There are more benefits than burdens, such as no more collection calls, voicemails and letters in the mail. An increase in a credit score within 90 days. The ability to get a driver’s license back if it was suspended for unpaid parking tickets, to stop foreclosures, to stop evictions, to stop repossessions, to lawsuits, to stop garnishments; simply put, to get a “fresh financial start.”
In my eyes, for every one client I have in bankruptcy I just helped a family of four, a single mother with children, a single father with children, a family comprised of a mother, father and two children.
I have also written two books about bankruptcy to help with the education and understanding of the benefits of bankruptcy, “The Scoop: Bankruptcy and Why You May Need It?” and “How to Be Debt Free in 90 Days.”
I am also on the board of three nonprofit organizations to help the youth in the community with literacy programs and programs regarding music and art.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
My driving force is looking at a potential client that is tense, nervous, confused, full of questions and concerns and enjoying the transition as they get the answers they are looking for and the help they need so their shoulders go down, they take a deep breath and, with a sigh of relief, they can then get sleep at night.
That sigh of relief, the smile on the client’s face, the joy that exuberates from the client when there is hope — that moment of time is what drives me to wake up the next morning and do it again. Because that same client may come back with a new legal issue or recommend a friend, family member or coworker for the same relief.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
(1) Keeping a daily schedule. I wish someone told me about the importance of creating a daily schedule as an entrepreneur because I can get pulled in multiple ways in a day and my to-do list will continue to pile up without getting the first items completed. So, by creating a schedule, I can try to stay on task for the most part.
(2) Meditate. Take time out of each day to meditate, even if that is for 30 seconds, to simply take a deep breath. As an attorney, people typically call you in need of help. Some conversations are positive but for the most part people are in dire need of legal help and the pressure can be overwhelming at times, so taking a deep breath every so often can be beneficial.
(3) Understand that you are always a student. The legal career is called “the practice of law.” It is called the practice, because it can never truly be mastered but through your experiences and constant reading, reviewing and staying on top of any new changes in an area of the law, you will always be a student — learning, growing and building.
(4) Stay focused. Remember to stay focused on why you are working, and why you are helping and take time for self-care. The best person to help someone else is someone that is in the position to help and in the right state of mind to help.
(5) Enjoy the journey. Life is short and we learned that during the pandemic. So, take the time to be grateful for the journey, for this career, for this opportunity, for this time to be alive, and to be able to continue to dream and accomplish those dreams.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Yes, if I could meet with anyone it would be Serena Williams. I believe Serena is a woman of strength, tenacity, goodwill and positive energy. As a black woman in the public view, she has been able to be successful with many people supporting and encouraging her, but it also has exposed her to a lot of scrutiny. Despite the scrutiny, Serena has taken it all in good spirits and kept a positive spirit and mindset in the public eye and I have always been inspired by that alongside her drive to never give up. We share many of these same qualities. As a black woman in the law, there are times when strength, tenacity, goodwill and positive energy are necessary to counsel a client but also when negotiating and working with the opposing counsel. For these reasons and more, it would be a pleasure to share a meal and have a discussion with her.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!