Viacom Legal Lands on Corporate Counsel’s Best Legal Departments List

by Stuart Winchester, Viacom

​Viacom is a lot of things. Anthropomorphic sponges. Celebrities rocking on stage in a lip-sync duel. Talking upright turtles roaring through sewers wielding katana blades and nunchuks.

Another thing it is: home to a top-flight legal team, which is essential in bringing all this entertainment to your televisions and movie screens and smartphones all over the world. This is the group that (among many other things) manages talent contracts, protects the company’s intellectual property, and makes sure employees and brands and properties comply with a tangle of laws across more than 160 countries. This team is so good at doing all of these things that Corporate Counsel recently selected the department as one of only four on its best legal departments of 2016 list.

“It’s a great booster to us to be recognized this way,” says General Counsel Michael Fricklas. “We have a team that’s really passionate about seeing the company be successful.”

In order to best serve a globe-spanning multimedia company seated at the stormy heart of a rapidly changing industry, the department is constantly evolving.  Last year, the Paramount and VMN business and legal affairs team reorganized to make sure legal expertise moved out of silos and across entire business units, giving lawyers broader exposure and ensuring that experience could be more broadly applied across the studio and television channels. Department-wide task forces focus on wide-ranging topics, including managing outside counsel, diversity, litigation, automation, “the art and craft of the deal” and competition law. They have automated many workflows, including bill-paying and the tracking of deals and deal terms, and launched an online departmental portal to streamline daily collaboration that has become a model for other portals around the organization. The team brainstorms further efficiencies in regular meetings.

“To be a good lawyer, you can’t spend your day talking only to lawyers. You have to know what’s happening in the company and in the industry, and you have to know how what you’re doing fits with that. So if Fans First is a mindset that Viacom’s adopting, BALA has to be thinking about how we can be supportive.”

To complement this department-wide focus on constant improvement, Fricklas has long nurtured a culture of individual evolution and growth, echoing the internal mobility mantra that is now a Viacom-wide priority. This includes courses like those offered through their BALA (Business and Legal Affairs) U! curriculum and is manifested in the many lawyers who change positions throughout their Viacom tenure.

“We’ve invested a lot in developing our folks, making sure we provide them with systems and leadership that let everybody succeed, as well as access to opportunities throughout the organization,” says Fricklas, who has published every open legal position to every lawyer in the entire company since 1994. “Part of this is making this an attractive place to work. You can give people opportunities to grow and to keep growing. It’s a great hiring tool. You’re not going to come in here and be stuck in the same job for 30 years.”

But the benefits transcend individual growth – more versatile lawyers create a more nimble legal team that is better able to respond to our industry’s ever-changing circumstances. With responsibilities that include deal-making, rights and clearances, digital, litigation, content distribution, competition, employment, compliance and more, Fricklas needs adaptable lawyers with wide-ranging expertise.

“You learn by doing something that pushes the boundaries of your experience,” he says. “If you are just a person who got really comfortable with the playbook, that might have worked 20 years ago. It doesn’t work anymore. You have to think and you have to evolve.”

To reinforce this culture of learning, Fricklas asks leaders from around the company to address his team. Legal town halls have featured presentations from CEO Philippe Dauman discussing major strategic issues, to channel heads speaking about their vision, to tutorials on Viacom’s data initiatives and content distribution strategy. After a recent marketing strategy meeting detailing Viacom’s Fans First trade campaign, BALA initiated a complete rebranding that would both sync with the overall company initiative and reflect the team’s collaborative, client- and solutions-oriented ethos. Their new tagline is “Solutions for a Fans First World.”

“You’ve got to get out of your silo,” Fricklas says. “To be a good lawyer, you can’t spend your day talking only to lawyers. You have to know what’s happening in the company and in the industry, and you have to know how what you’re doing fits with that. So if Fans First is a mindset that Viacom’s adopting, BALA has to be thinking about how we can be supportive.”

With such a dynamic team, Viacom ends up frequently on lists like Corporate Counsel’s. In April, Fricklas made National Law Journal’s list of 50 outstanding general counsels.

This excellence spans the department’s global operations – Channel 5 General Counsel Marcus Lee landed on Legal Business’ In House General Counsel Powerlist for Technology, Media and Telecoms in the UK, while Group General Counsel & Company Secretary of Viacom18 Sujeet Jain earned India’s Star General Counsel of the Year Award.

How do you build such consistent success?

“In any situation where you see my name or the name of other top Viacom lawyers, you’re really seeing the strength of the organization,” Fricklas says. “We have built an attractive environment, are attracting the best people in the industry, and are working every day to motivate them to do their best. My job is giving them the tools and support they need to execute really well.”

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