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Although the most prestigious law schools have seen graduating classes with a 50/50 male-to-female ratio for years, the percentage of women holding the top legal jobs at Fortune 500 companies remains below 15%, according to recent surveys. Law firm partnership numbers are similarly grim, which gives particular resonance to the fact that three of the six general counsels for Hollywood’s major studios are women. Universal Studios’ Maren Christensen, Paramount Pictures’ Rebecca Prentice and Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Leah Weil come from different legal backgrounds and serve slightly different functions at their studios, but each directs an army of attorneys charged with protecting the company from everything from file-sharing pirates to labor strife to potentially onerous deal terms. The general counsels recently sat down with sister publication The Hollywood Reporter, ESQ. editor Matthew Belloni for a roundtable discussion about how their jobs have changed in the digital age and why studio legal departments are good places for lawyers. For more of this dialogue, visit www.thresq.com.
THR, Esq.: You all had successful law firm practices before jumping to your studio jobs. What was the allure?
Maren Christensen: As an intellectual property lawyer, I recognized we were coming into a very interesting digital age, and a very interesting place to be would be as a senior intellectual property counsel for a big content company.
THR, Esq.: Maren, you testified before Congress in 2003 that piracy is by far the biggest issue facing the industry. Is this still true?
Christensen: Yes. Even more so. I was prescient. (Laughs) I defy anyone to tell you that they predicted the way these issues have played out, but it’s been a wild ride. Obviously, piracy is going to be an issue in going from analog to digital. But now, our consumers can essentially distribute our product themselves. The whole motion picture distribution world has been turned on its head.
Leah Weil: It’s a challenge to your creativity to make sure that all the lawyers (in your company) appreciate these changes that are happening. We’re blessed as an industry to have people like Maren out there in the international field. But it’s also a challenge to our distribution and production lawyers when consumers don’t want to be captive recipients of our product. How do we develop compelling businesses where people are not ripping off our content and we control our destiny? It’s not easy. We can all read the same cases and the same legislative history, but the world is moving way too fast.
THR, Esq.: What do you consider to be a studio general counsel’s nightmare scenario?
Weil: You’re opening in 3,000 theaters … and then you’re not, because a lawyer missed something. That would be a nightmare.
Christensen: Or when you find that your movie that’s opening next week is up on the Internet. We take enormous precautions to prevent that from happening, but now we’re opening day-and-date around the world, and when you do that, you have to do screenings in all those places before the official opening. And even though you try to be careful about the shipment of prints, they get out there.
Weil: The pressure is knowing that in these nightmare scenarios, someone is going to look to you and say, “How bad is it?” When you’re on the pressure seat, you’ve got to make tough judgment calls.
Christensen: In these situations, my hope is that we find out about it before (the media does), because that’s a nightmare — to have people at the studio open up the papers and see something without being forewarned.
THR, Esq.: At this point, what would you consider a victory in the piracy war?
Christensen: That’s a hard and interesting question. It wouldn’t be eradication because we’ve always had piracy, and we always will. We’d like to contain it again so we could continue to get the product out there in various ways and get paid. We’d also like to have legislators and consumers have a better understanding of the economics of intellectual property, so we wouldn’t have these people who say, “Information yearns to be free.”
THR, Esq.: Is the litigation campaign against file-sharers threatening to turn customers against you?
Christensen: If we stop piracy completely, but everyone hates us, is that a win? Maybe not. You don’t want your customers to hate you or to look at you as the bad guy. We want to go back to the world where people liked motion picture companies.
Weil: I think a win is education and respect, getting consumers to understand what this is all about. A lot of governments don’t quite understand. It’s a multipronged attack, and litigation is an unfortunate part of that attack, but it’s a situation the industry has found itself in because there are some very bad players out there. I’m most frightened by college kids thinking our product should be free.
THR, Esq.: You’re all friends. Does that affect how you interact on behalf of your studios?
Rebecca Prentice: Maren and I have a lot in common because our companies have done joint ventures together (like the United International Pictures entity for international distribution, which is dissolving). We’ve traded employees from time to time. (Laughs) And when we have issues, it’s just easier to call each other and work those out in a way that makes sense for both of us.
Weil: Much easier. There’s a level of trust and a respect for intelligence and integrity. Sometimes, we’re on opposite sides of a business issue, and I have the ability to stop and say, “Oh, Maren’s concerned, Rebecca’s concerned.” This GC relationship is across gender lines. I’ve had occasions where I’ll call (Warner Bros. general counsel John) Schulman or others to see if something’s on their radar. For instance, we have “XXX,” and Fox has “X-Men.” A marketing executive may take exception to whether our X looks like their X. A quick phone call can avert someone going apoplectic.
THR, Esq.: Do you find it surprising that three of the six top legal positions in the industry are held by women?
Weil: The jobs have become gender-neutral. If you talk to (Sony’s) Michael (Lynton) or Amy (Pascal), they want a smart, good advocate. And the heads of the company really are our primary clients. I came from a smaller firm, and it was a bunch of really aggressive guys, which may have shaped the kind of lawyer I became. (Laughs) But I think as you look at the legal departments in parallel industries, like technology, women are breaking through. I look at Sony Corp., which is a Japanese company, and they have a Western, female general counsel (Nicole Seligman). Now, it doesn’t really matter if the person is male or female.
THR, Esq.: Are there challenges for lawyers in this industry that are unique to women?
Christensen: I don’t have children, but I think the home/work balance has to be difficult for both men and women, and it may hit harder on the women.
Weil: It’s easy to label these as women’s issues. But I think it’s hard for anyone who’s in a very demanding career that’s time consuming. There are pressures — whether it’s hobbies that you don’t have time for or friends that you’ve lost contact with or relatives or children. For women who decide to have children, there are no two who do it exactly the same.
THR, Esq.: Lawyers tend to have high rates of dissatisfaction with their jobs.
Weil: That’s what we use as our recruiting tool! (Laughs)
Christensen: The studios are nice environments for lawyers. We do tend to work fewer weekends than the folks in the firms do, but we work like dogs during the week. When I was a litigator, the work tended to bleed over into the weekend. One of the reasons I decided to take the Universal job was that I wouldn’t have to spend every Sunday afternoon getting ready for a hearing in federal court.
Weil: When you’re an outside lawyer, you sometimes get dissatisfied because you’re just working matter to matter. In our positions, you chart your destiny a little more. The product that any lawyer sells is (his or her) intelligence and creativity and strategic rationale, and if you’re only getting paid by the hour, there’s no widget at the end that you’re selling. So, the opportunity to bring that skill and really be a part of a team and make a difference makes it less dissatisfying.
Christensen: We work with the same people within the company, and they depend on you to be there. It’s very fulfilling in a way that working for hire isn’t.
THR, Esq.: What do you look for in lawyers you hire?
Weil: Collegiality is mandatory. And business literacy. If you don’t understand your client’s business and what they’re trying to achieve, you could be 100% right on the law and do a lousy job for your client.
Prentice: Smart people you can train. Teamwork. I talk to people about their outside interests a lot. I love it when somebody plays sports because I feel like they’ve been out there and mixed it up a little bit and are able to handle themselves in a group dynamic. I like people who do things that are completely different from practicing law.
Christensen: Curious people. And that can come out in various ways. Travel — what places they liked best and why.
THR, Esq.: You all have so many duties on your plates. Are there aspects of your job that you gravitate toward?
Weil: I like the fact that in any given day, I’m dealing with production issues, litigation, labor issues, music stuff.
Prentice: I love a good corporate transaction, like when we did the DreamWorks (purchase). That was very intense but fun.
Christensen: Sorry, I’m just wondering how anyone could love a corporate transaction. (Laughs)
THR, Esq.: Give us an example of a time when you said to yourself, “Gee, I’m not the general counsel for a trucking company.”
Weil: Most of the a-ha moments relate to working on the studio lot. I’ll be walking to grab a sandwich to take back to my desk — which is not at all Hollywood sexy — but I’ll have that moment when I look up and say, “Hey, I’m on a movie lot.” That’s pretty astounding.
THR, Esq.: As women, were there ever any unique challenges on your way up the ladder?
Prentice: At Kendall & Anderson, early in my career, I found myself as one of only two women in a firm of 55-70 people. And the other woman at the firm was a few years senior to me. We were friendly, but if you don’t have a group of people around who have similar experiences, it’s tough.
Weil: As a young lawyer, people would assume you weren’t a lawyer because you were the only woman in the room, especially in a corporate setting. Even now, I sometimes get, “The general counsel is Leo Weil.”
Christensen: Once, back in the law firm, I was walking down the hall, and there was a big meeting going on, and one of the clients — who’s a recognizable name so I won’t mention it — came bursting out of the conference room, saw me and said, “Oh, dear, we need more coffee in here.” So, I went into the coffee room, and I put it on a tray and walked in the conference room and set it down. When the lawyers saw me, I thought they were going to have a heart attack. I’m not sure the client ever knew. Hopefully, he’ll read this.
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