Q&A: Sony general counsel Leah Weil on life as a studio's top lawyer

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Q&A: Sony general counsel Leah Weil on life as a studio's top lawyer

Thu Jul 15, 2010 @ 05:22PM PST

In conjunction with THR's annual Power Lawyers issue, our Raising the Bar honoree Leah Weil sat down for an interview on life as the top lawyer at a studio...

By Matthew Belloni

Weil,leah 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. The senior executive vp and general counsel of Sony Pictures Entertainment 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.

THR, Esq.: 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, Esq.: 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, Esq.: 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, Esq.: 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, Esq.: 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, Esq.: 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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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]

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