Q&A: Raising the Bar recipient Leah Weil

5:40 PM PST 07/14/2010 by Matthew Belloni

Sony's general counsel succeeds with a simple strategy: "I'm fair, but I'm not soft."

 

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Divas populate the walls of Leah Weil's office in the Thalberg building on the Sony lot: Patti LuPone, Alicia Keys, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. But a decade into her run as the studio's top lawyer, Weil presides over perhaps the most drama-free operation in town. She is THR's Raising the Bar honoree because she has successfully put out fires for an unusually broad group of divisions -- she oversees global theatrical, home entertainment, digital, television, government affairs, music, acquisitions, compliance, litigation, intellectual property and labor -- all while balancing two kids and a mild addiction to Broadway musicals. She sat down with THR's Matthew Belloni.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's a typical day like for you?

Leah Weil: A lot of it is advice and counsel to either the business units or to lawyers who are part of the external-facing world. If something needs to get closed, I'm the closer. The perception when I took over this job, at least on the litigation side, was that we were a little soft, a bit of a pushover. So one of my early agendas was to say, "I'm fair, but I'm not soft." If you are a worthy adversary, bring it but be sure you want to bring it.

THR: You were a rising star in showbiz law, then took a few years off for family, but it didn't hurt your career. How?

Weil: I took a gamble. My first job back at the studio was a very junior job, but it really was just about the opportunity. Why did I rise? It's not enough just to be intelligent; what distinguishes someone is the creativity, the trust and the ability to make your opponent feel like they have been treated respectfully. You are an advocate but you do it in a manner that doesn't make the other person feel like they have lost. You can win without decimating them.

THR: What's a key requirement for you in hiring outside lawyers?

Weil: Are you responsive? Because I want to feel like the prettiest girl in the room. You might have 15 things going on, but I don't care --well, I care because I'm sympathetic as a human being, but I don't want to know about it. I am a big client and I think that we are an important client. If you're a senior partner and you say you're going to be on (the case) and then you disappear, you won't get more business.

THR: Studios are looking to trim expenses. Are you spending less on lawyers?

Weil: I won't let cost dictate legal services if it is an important matter, and I think other (studios) might. But law firms need to really hear their clients; their business model needs to be revisited. Studios are certainly getting a lot more aggressive about discounts (on fees). If you want my business, you're going to have to be creative and understand my business.

THR: What has been your hairiest moment as general counsel?

Weil: Any time there is a threat of an injunction (against a movie's release), certainly that's not a great moment. But we are pretty conservative; we spend an awful lot of time poring through rights to figure out where potential problems could pop up. I don't think Opus Dei was very happy with us when we were making "Da Vinci Code." But are those hairy moments? Hairy moments have been when big deals look like they are falling apart. That whole notion of MGM "firing" us. Was that a hairy moment? It was a challenging moment.

THR: Where do you keep the "Spider-Man" chain of title?

Weil: We have it in a file. (Laughs.) You can't see it.

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