How disruptive technology is affecting legal teams in media

Taylor Root recently hosted a General Counsel in Media round table breakfast to discuss the issues facing lawyers in the rapidly evolving and often disruptive media space.

The event brought together lawyers from TV, publishing, music, media, film and broadcasting fields. All agreed the key to meeting the challenges posed by constant innovation and generational divides is through adaptability, getting out from behind the desk and gaining a thorough grounding in the business practice.

Robbie MacDonald, Director of Mergers and Acquisitions, Legal and Business Affairs at Time Inc. (UK) Ltd, chaired the event. What, he asked, is the role of the GC in this brave new world of disruptive technologies and rapid change?

Many of the attendees pointed to a major conflict stemming from the collision between the old world and the new. Some of the companies represented at the event are traditional, established businesses that have operated by doing the same things over a long period of time. Disruption, by definition, was agreed to be where the old way no longer works and a new technology rises up in its place - print, publishing and music industries being transformed by digital as an obvious example. The way we watch TV, the way we consume news, the channels we receive it by, the way we share it; the landscape has changed and innovation continues to grow exponentially.

At a granular level, the changes wrought to lawyers in this space have been significant. Email, remembered by some as being thought of initially as fraught with potential risk, is up against IM platforms such as Slack and its myriad other alternatives, in order to communicate faster. MacDonald, a confirmed Gen-Xer, said ‘I was trained in the middle of all this - eventually I got a computer on my desk. Now, I find I am advising people of younger and older generations who are either struggling with the pace of digital change or who are responsible for that change. There can be a real generational disconnect here, and General Counsels can find themselves caught between two worlds.’

One General Counsel commented that two generations in the same team can become like managing two separate teams. To combat the chasm, she suggested ‘finding out what makes everyone tick, because people are driven by different things, and have different attitudes to risk.’

One of the attendees echoed this point, and explained where it impacted risk assessment.’ We are a young company and people are on new things instantly, eager to be ahead of the game. But no one is thinking about the legal implications and neither are the board, who are also very young, straight out of university. In this case, you have to be the “lawyer”.’

One way of adapting is in diversifying, and this too changes the game for many companies. A member of the group said that: ‘Our company came from traditional broadcasting and we have recently acquired new businesses with a completely different environment and mind set. These are young people, gamers who don’t know about structure. They come up with wild, good and different ideas and you have to package these ideas back to the board. This is a challenge but it is also exciting to see the change in the way you do things.’ She added that it becomes about not saying ‘no’ at the last minute but being the business partner all along; not trying to quash the teams, but to encourage them.

Balancing of risk with innovation was a common theme among the General Counsels. One of the lawyers in attendance said that what he finds frustrating is the drive for the next shiniest thing. ‘Our biggest issue is information security - we might have someone in the US saying “look at this great new tool I’ve found” and we say “I know - it is insecure, so don’t use it”. Fundamentally many of these new platforms are just communication tools and so I think we just need to stop chasing our tail. Let’s move with the right tools at the right pace.’

Lawyers are trained to be careful and precise with document drafting and communication, whether they currently represent traditional businesses or the new disruptors. This is in direct conflict with the new environment of innovation, where speed is valued above all else. Martyn Freeman, General Counsel at BBC Worldwide commented: ‘In the broadcasting world, a programme had to be right when it went out, but now the whole approach to innovating product is very different. A product might be launched even though it is not quite right yet, and be gradually improved and reinvented. It may mean that people haven’t thought out the issues. It’s an uncomfortable environment for organisations more used to the traditional broadcast environment and that is perhaps why some analogue companies have found it harder to transition to the digital world.’

All agreed that the focus on rapid communication and faster output has other downsides. Ben Goodburn, General Counsel at Progressive Media Group suggested one consequence is that lawyers are less likely to call clients and see them face to face, and therefore less likely to know them and understand the broader context of what they’re aiming to achieve. MacDonald echoed this point, saying: ‘I like eyeball time. I want to know if someone is telling the truth or fudging it. This is important, to understand body language and to gauge what they aren’t telling you - it is a key GC skill and you can’t do this over social media.’

Stepping away from the computer was seen as a business imperative; a way to gain a deeper understanding of the business and a key to navigating the constant changes in the sector. One attendee said that in order to close the skill gap of internal networking and to capitalise on the power that teams have and the personal connections that should be made, there needs to be a move from behind the desk. Further, he suggested that where lawyers are physically placed on the floor can make a difference to their understanding of how the business works.

One head of legal commented that in some European companies, a new trend has been adopted in order to help make legal interact better. ‘Offices in some well-known businesses have now become an open landscape, scattering the lawyers, which has been somewhat of a ‘major trauma’ for them, but has been effective at getting lawyers in touch with the business, pushing them out into the business teams.’

Embracing change is never easy, but it might well be the best way to keep in the game. What about pushing for it? MacDonald asked whether one way to cope with the shifting landscape might be in selfdisruption. He challenged the panel: ‘Are there things you should be encouraging your business to train you in? Can we disrupt ourselves? How do we change with the times to make us more receptive?’

Jennifer Barrett, Head of Legal and Business Affairs at FremantleMedia International suggested that reverse mentoring was a way to keep up. ‘We are setting up a board to deal with it, getting the cool social media-type people to show us a different way and to see what’s happening and changing.’

MacDonald concluded by suggesting that disruption has always existed, and that anyone who works in a business will have experienced it. ‘We need to be more adaptable than ever. We can’t tell what future is going to bring so we have to come to terms with the pace. Know your business, get inside the business, so you can be more than the ‘no’.’

Freeman from BBC Worldwide added: ‘If you want to be effective in-house, you cannot be reactive but proactive. You need to be perceived to be adding value, not just saying ‘no’ at the last minute. The role for lawyers is not different - we are doing the same things we were before, but in an increasingly complex environment. That has actually always been the case.’