The Legal Department

What It Takes To Be A Good Lawyer In The Legal Department: Dana Lira Warner Brothers Discovery

The Legal Department | Dana Lira | Legal Department Lawyer

 

The client’s definition of “a good lawyer” is different than yours.” “Harry Potter’s Lawyer” in-house veteran Dana Lira SVP Legal at Warner Brothers Discovery shares tactics for being a good business partner and building relationships with clients. We talk about why communication is one of the hardest “soft skills” to master in-house and how you can grow your career by finding the white space in exploring a new area.

Listen to the podcast here

 

What It Takes To Be A Good Lawyer In The Legal Department: Dana Lira Warner Brothers Discovery

I’m Dana Lira. I’m the Senior Vice President of Legal for Warner Brothers Discovery Consumer Products, Global Brands Franchise and Experiences, and the clip licensing group. A fun fact about me is I am a two-time game show champion.

I am excited to welcome Dana Lira. She is Senior Vice President of Legal for Warner Brothers Discovery Global Brands and Experience. I told my kids she was Harry Potter’s lawyer. I’m excited to get into all the fun stuff that she does in the entertainment world. Dana, how are you?

I’m great. How are you?

I’m doing great. Normally on the show, I don’t get too much into the day-to-day of people’s jobs, but entertainment is a little bit of a mystery to a lot of people. I, from the Midwest to LA, was shocked that I moved to a company town so to speak. I think Warner Brothers was founded in the early ‘20s.

They celebrated 100 years

It is an amazing iconic company. I think it would be interesting for the audience to hear a little bit about the brands that you serve and a little bit about your role.

The main brands that I interact with pretty much on a day-to-day basis are, as you said, Harry Potter. That is a huge part of my job, as well as DC, so DC Comics DC Films, and then all of our animation library. We are the home of Looney Tunes, Hannah Barbera, and all the Turner animation. There’s a pretty extensive animation library. I always describe it to people as it’s a little bit of a roller coaster. I come in. I get into the roller coaster. I ride it all day, then I go home.

I would say every day is a little bit unique. One of the things that’s different for me being in-house from when I was outside counsel is that felt like my outside counsel life was a little more predictable. I would come to the office and know what I was going to do on any given day. In-house, I open up my email and I see what crises are hitting, and then I deal with those all day.

That’s the nature of the beast. It is a lot of putting out fires, running around, and trying to solve whatever problem is cropping up that day, things that you can’t even anticipate. I spent last week dealing with Wonka’s unauthorized experience that had pumped up in Scotland. It is now the subject of a thousand memes. The police were called. Wonka drama, who knew? That was something I never in a million years would have anticipated coming up on that particular day. It took up most of my week dealing with it. Every day is unique.

The nature of the beast is just a lot of putting out fires and running around and trying to solve whatever problem is cropping up that day and things that you can't even anticipate. Click To Tweet

I find a universal experience for in-house lawyers, not the Wonka drama, but the fact that you come in, you have a to-do list, you have things you want to accomplish, and then at the end of the day, you don’t even know where you’ve been because you get taken on this roller coaster through whatever is cropping up in the business. Maybe give us a little bit more detail about the Wonka drama being unauthorized use. I assume copyrighted or trademarked assets for the company. Is that your main portfolio? Managing the IP rights, or maybe a little bit more subject matter. What issues do you guys cover?

Dealing with the IP and the unauthorized use is part of what I do. I sit in the world of consumer products and there’s a lot of Licensing that we do. We deal with a lot of pirated products, and then unauthorized experiences and things like that. The main thrust of what we do is licensing the rights to our IP to third parties to produce and manufacture products, and then also experiences. My team does about 3,500 contracts a year globally. It covers all of the films that we put out and all of our television shows. Some things lend themselves more to consumer products than others.

Anything that we would call four-quadrant property, which means it’s attracting adults, kids, young people, and old people. Those are the types of properties that we do very broadly licensed for consumer products. That would be the Wizarding World Harry Potter, all the DC portfolio, and the animation portfolio, but then we have a big business in horror or the White Lotus. Things like that, we licensed as well.

We’re doing all those licensing agreements across a broad spectrum of licenses, anything from apparel, home goods, food and beverage, cosmetics, and toys. All those types of things are the types of licenses we deal with on the consumer products side. On the experiences side, we do all sorts of things from pop-up experiences to theme parks. We’ve licensed intellectual property to Universal for Harry Potter, which is globally in their theme parks. We also do things like a friend’s pop-up experience. We had a friend’s coffee shop open.

I’m sure my tween would love that.

It runs the gamut.

Size And Scope

That’s a lot of assets and a lot of properties to deal with. It’s not just you. You manage a pretty large team and folks who are also international. Can you tell us a little bit about the size and scope of your team?

My team is about 35 people across consumer products and DC Comics, and then I also oversee the clip and still licensing for the studio,

What does that mean?

That’s basically clips that are licensed either to a third-party production. If someone wants to use a clip in a television show, a film, or a documentary, we license those or things like the Oscars montages that you might have seen over the weekend.

They put together the montage and then your team has to handle getting licenses for each of those. They’re super busy then leading up to the event like the Oscars.

World seasons are very busy for that team. It’s the same thing with like there was a Rolex commercial that ran during the Oscars that had a montage of films. Another group within consumer products licenses things for licensed advertising, so that group we oversee as well. There are about 35 people on my team globally. I have a team that sits in the UK, and then I have contract administrators in Japan, Singapore, and Beijing.

Who Makes The Decisions

I want to talk to you about how you manage that team and how you get a team spirit and all that. As you were talking, one thing that was popping into my mind is who makes the decision at Warner Brothers that they want to approve licensing, a clip, a property, or whatever. Are you involved in those business discussions with them? Is it like, “Here’s what we want to do,” and you make it happen?

We get involved in the determinations about whether or not we want to license a clip to someone. We’ll see script pages or will ask to understand how the clip is going to be used. For example, if someone wants to take the clip and manipulate it, that’s probably something we’re not going to be too crazy about doing. We don’t want someone to replace our talent space with their face, and that type of thing.

There are parameters that you’re looking for to make sure it’s consistent with how the company wants to use the material.

That’s correct. We don’t want our material to disparage the industry or to disparage the company, that type of thing. Those are the parameters we’ll look at, and then we’ll make the case-by-case determination of whether it’s something that we want to license.

I don’t know about you, but what’s come up in my career is like, “You’ve done it before,” or “You let someone do this.” I wonder whether you guys keep any record or do you keep precedent so you know what you can answer to those, “Johnny got to do it. Why can’t I?”

That comes up all the time, “Another division did X Y and Z. Why can’t we do that?” I always tell my people that we don’t live in a black-and-white world. You have to get very comfortable living in the gray, and each decision is unique. One of the things that could be a factor in that decision is what talents are involved, who’s the director, or how prominent is the use, that type of thing. Precedent helps but it’s not determinative in what we do.

We don't live in a black-and-white world. You have to get very comfortable living in the gray. Click To Tweet

That’s another universal experience of being in-house. You do have to get comfortable in the gray. There are very few issues that ever come down straight down the middle.

That is so true. I’m very comfortable with like I can’t run off to the library and research the case law on this because there’s nothing to research.

Also, managing those political aspects, as you’re saying like, “I’m sorry, it does matter who’s asking.” Sometimes it can be awkward. I don’t know about you but I’ve had some awkward conversations where people have a hard time understanding how the world works. You’re like the person that’s trying to make whatever happens happen. That’s where my therapist role comes in sometimes. I’m not trying to manage your relationship with your peers or your boss. I’m trying to tell you that you can’t do that.

It’s so funny. One of my colleagues is the head of finance. She and I always feel like we are the group therapist for all of our executives. We spend a lot of time counseling people outside of our roles as finance and legal, but that’s part of the job.

It’s absolutely part of the job. I said I moved from the Midwest and I don’t know why I had this disconnect when I was moving to Hollywood. When I got there, so many people worked in the entertainment industry. I don’t think many people hear about the writers’ strike or other impacts in the industry. It does affect LA and the whole region. There are so many people and it’s not just talent. It’s not just directors. It’s people like you and people catering. There’s so much of the fabric of the region that is driven by entertainment. I have perceptions and this is like known lived experience. I wanted to ask you whether any of these perceptions about working in entertainment are accurate and fast-paced. Is it always fast-paced, like people want things yesterday?

In my experience and part of that is probably the roles that I’ve done working in entertainment because before I moved over to the consumer products group, I spent about twenty years working in home entertainment. I largely did a lot of the marketing legal work. Especially in anything marketing-wise, it’s very fast-paced because a few take a couple of days to make a decision about whether they can post something on social media. You’ve missed the moment, so it was a lot of making very fast decisions and being okay with maybe sometimes I got those wrong, but it’s not going to be the end of the world. I would say fast-paced is definitely true.

If you take a couple of days to decide whether you can post something to social media, you've missed the moment. So it's a lot of making very fast decisions and being okay with them. Click To Tweet

That must have been an adjustment though because lawyers tend to be risk-averse, cautious, careful, and then someone saying, “I’m going to post this in half an hour. Is this okay?”

When I first moved over, I was a litigator in my previous life. When I first moved in-house, the very first day someone sent me some advertising to review, I said, “You can’t do that.” It’s like, “This job is so easy. I can read and drink for the rest of the day,” and then I immediately got a phone call from this person blowing my hair back like, “What do you mean I can’t do this? This is done.” I was like, “I guess this job is not going to be what I thought it was.” I had to learn a lot more how to get to yes.

That’s another commonality. I could imagine that transition and you’re like, “This is yes and no, and it’s fine. When I get an easy one, it’ll be a yes.” That point, I guess even that conversation illustrates that I perceive entertainment to be a make-it-happen culture. We’re trying to promote our stuff. We want to have these relationships. Is that an accurate perception?

That’s very accurate when I’m advising my lawyers or anybody whom I work with, I’m always explaining to them that we are trying to figure out how to make whatever it is the clients want to do happen. Not always in the least risky way possible, but in a way that mitigates the risk to the company, Sometimes there’s a risk that you have to take and you have to get comfortable with what level of risk is acceptable. It’s very rare that I will tell my clients. You absolutely cannot do whatever it is they want to do. Usually, it’s about trying to find a way to make it happen

Are those pain points more around the experience stuff? I think about my kids watching the Wipeout show. I don’t know if you have that. I was like, “Who was the legal for the show? I don’t know what your waiver says. It’s super dangerous.”

On the experiences side, there could be some of that. It’s even true on some of the product side where people will maybe want to create a product that you’re like, “You shouldn’t be putting that on baby onesies,” or those lines.

When I was in higher ed, that make-it-happen culture was a big part of it because we had talent very similar to entertainment. It’s hard for people to understand what rules are and what risks are. That’s never going to happen. I’m sure this is similar to you. You don’t want legal to be the department of no. You don’t want it to be where the dreams go to die.

If you become the department of no or that’s your reputation, then the clients stop coming to you, and they do what they want to do anyway. That’s always been what I’ve counseled people on. The more that we can be seen as a business partner and someone who’s trying to facilitate business, the more we’re going to be brought in earlier and into all the conversations and help shape things that they can do what they want to do, but hopefully, it won’t be with the most amount of risk you could ever conceive of.

The Legal Department | Dana Lira | Legal Department Lawyer
Legal Department Lawyer: The more that we can be seen as a business partner and someone who’s trying to facilitate business, the more we’re going to be brought in earlier into all the conversations and help shape things.

 

I think sometimes you have to have a long-game approach. I think is a practice pointer for folks who are new to in-house practice. If you go to a meeting about something people are excited about and everything in your being is saying, “This is a terrible idea, you’re never going to make money at this, and there’s all this risk,” if you barf all that out in the meeting, no one is inviting you to the next.

That is so true. I don’t know if I always have the best poker face. Sometimes at these meetings, I’m like turning white. They’re all like, “Dana has completely freaked out.” It’s like, “I am but we’re going to figure this one out. We’ll get there together, friends.”

One technique I use is asking questions. You don’t need to tell people, but you just need to say, “How would we deal with it if the ink that was on the baby onesie had lead in it? What would we do then?” The other thing I perceive is that in entertainment, this might not be right, you have to make quick pivots. People want to do one thing and then all of a sudden, “We are going in different directions.” I would perceive that as something that makes the lawyers pretty agile.

I would agree with that, especially for Warner Brothers Discovery, we’ve had changes of ownership a lot in the last few years. For a period of time, we were owned by AT&T and then Discovery came in and bought us. That was a period of big pivots in the direction of the company where we were going. I think the lawyers had to figure out, “We were going in this direction. Now, we’re going to make a right turn. Let’s all get on board with that. How do we do that?” I do think you have to be pretty agile.

Going Up The Chain

I think for maybe folks coming from law firms, that can be challenging, especially if you’re litigating like, “This is how it goes,” and we know the rules of court. We’ve got civil procedure and we follow the game plan. Another perception is that it’s a hierarchical industry, meaning if so and so asks, we just do it or have to go up the chain.

I think it’s more hierarchical. In some ways, I anticipate it. I think one of the more difficult parts of the job is figuring out what is the chain that you need to go up. Sometimes you might think, “I need to let my boss know.” No, you need to let other people in your division know, and other people may be in other divisions because what you’re doing is impacting theatrical, television, or film distribution. I don’t know if I would necessarily say that’s hierarchical, as much as there are a lot of interdependencies that I didn’t appreciate when I first started working in-house.

The Legal Department | Dana Lira | Legal Department Lawyer
Legal Department Lawyer: One of the more difficult parts of the job is figuring out what chain you need to go up.

 

Sharing Information

That’s another foundational aspect of in-house practice, which is knowing who you have to share information with, when, and how. That was something else I was not aware of because you’re thinking, “The person who asked me this question, I need to give their answer.” You do have to have a broader view, ”So and so ask me this question, but it touches these other departments,” or “ I want to make sure their bosses are in the loop.” I think there can be awkwardness in that in the communication pathways, but then you have ethical obligations, and who’s your client at any given moment. It’s very complex.

It’s so true. I think it’s one of the things that’s probably the hardest part of the job. When you said when you let them know, that’s often maybe the most challenging part because you don’t want to be letting people know something too early before it is fully fleshed out, but then you don’t want to wait too long and then people are like, “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” I think that’s a challenge and I’ve been very fortunate in the positions I’ve had in the company where I sort of always say, I sit at the bottom of the funnel.

We have theatrical production, television production, and then everything ancillary to that, so home entertainment and the consumer product side. I’ve always sat at the bottom of the funnel, and so I’ve had a very broad view of the entire business of the studio. That helped me have this broad perspective of who might I need to loop in on something, but it’s a challenge. As the company changes or people leave, “Who’s doing this job now?” It’s very confusing.

One technique I’ve used, not necessarily on timing, but especially if there’s something awkward, where I think somebody is in the company. Maybe there’s somebody above them or parallel to them. I might ask them, “Does so-and-so know about this?” You might want to let them know because they’re going to ask me about it. I try to empower the clients. Sometimes I’ve had some awkward situations where I had to tell somebody, and then the person I’m working with is irritated or thinks that I’m a snitch or something.

I do a lot of like, “I’m trying to help you. It doesn’t blow back on you,” and so and so.

Navigating Relationships And Situations

We talked a lot about there’s technical skills involved. I don’t like the word soft skills, but they are business skills and learning how to manage and navigate relationships and situations. I think that’s helpful. When we were talking before, you said that the client’s definition of a good lawyer is different than yours. I thought that was such an astute observation. You worked in entertainment for twenty years. What does it take to be a good lawyer from the client’s perspective?

That’s a good question. I don’t think the clients think a good lawyer is someone who has the best legal skills and the best legal mind, can quote cases, all those kinds of things. In my experience, the clients warmed up most to lawyers whom they see as business-friendly and who are trying to understand their business, who ask a lot of questions to learn all the ins and outs of the business. Why do we set up a deal the way we set it up, or what are the financial goals? What are we trying to accomplish here? To the extent that they see it more as a business partner as I said before.

I think that’s key, having relationships with them where they feel like they can come to talk to you about not just the legal issue that comes up but how to navigate some of the politics. How do I get finance on board with this? How should I approach this issue? Not to use the soft skills, but I think that’s key to being a good in-house lawyer. It is having that relationship building, and not just within your division but across the entire company. That’s been one of the things that’s helped me a lot.

The Legal Department | Dana Lira | Legal Department Lawyer
Legal Department Lawyer: The key to being a good in-house lawyer is building relationships not just within your division, but across the entire company.

 

I appreciate those. The idea of being a business partner is something that I think is another universal theme in in-house practice. I think it’s helpful the way you’re describing it because I think there could be a perception from people who are new or want to get into in-house practice that it just means you say yes, and it actually does it. It’s what you’re getting on, which is being curious about what they’re trying to accomplish, and also looking at a broader view. It’s not just the legal, how can we structure it, what’s on our document, but what is involved in getting from A to B for you? I’m going to have an eye out. I’m going to be your sounding board for those different things. It’s so much more than being like, “Legal, let us do that.”

Right, or coming into the paper deal. Especially in my experiences side, those deals are complex. Each one is pretty unique. I would say legal and finance sit with the business people every step of the way talking about how should we structure this, what makes the most sense, and not just how can we paper it, but what are we going to offer, what are the terms, business terms. They’re not necessarily what is our indemnification provision going to be.

I try to tell people you don’t want to be worried about the legal terms. If you’re worried about the legal terms, the deal you’re doing has gone wrong. That was a good observation. If you reflect back to when you started in the in-house role, what did you think being a good in-house lawyer was?

That’s a good question to think way back. I thought it was going to be protecting the company, and saving the clients from themselves and all their crazy ideas. I thought it was going to be a fair amount of saying no. As I said, that was my first day in Warner when I was like, “This is not that bad.” That was a big revelation to me like, “This is a lot more of getting into this business and understanding it and not just being the group that sits over here saying no to everything.”

You’re not going to learn all that. A lot of folks that listen to the show are people who aspire to be in-house or they’re in an entry-level in-house role and they’re trying to figure out how to move up. You went from day one and now you’re a senior vice president managing a large international team. You didn’t just go from A to B overnight. I know that you made some investments in your own professional development. I think it would be helpful for the audience to hear what did you do? This is not our normal legal training to be like, “Let me figure out what they want to do and help them get there,” as opposed to you saying, “No, no, no, nothing to do. Nothing to speak here.”

Becoming In-House And Moving Up

I think I did different things at different points in my career. When I first came in-house, I would sit down with various business people and ask them to explain to me they’re part of the business and what they did because a lot of it was unique to me. When I came into Home Entertainment, we were still doing VHS tapes and making the transition to DVD, understanding the whole DVD process, and why that took so long because again, I thought we could make a change at the last minute, and understanding the fact that no things are printed. Six weeks in advance and ships however for events and all that was again a revelation to me of understanding this timeline makes a big difference.

It’s the same thing in the consumer products world. We’re already working on late 25 or late 26 right now, and we’re in 18 months to 24 months business. That was a huge learning for me when I came over to this role. Sitting down and understanding what everyone is doing in the business helps a lot. Also, when I moved into the role I’m in now, I hired my own executive coach because I felt like I was at a certain level and I needed to make the step up to the next level, and that was hard to do on my own.

Making that investment in myself was huge. I think it helped me. I already knew how to manage people and wasn’t so much in that role. It was more the managing and I hate that term, but how do I present myself as more of an executive and feel comfortable in this more senior executive role that I’m now being asked to do? Hiring a coach was a huge investment in myself that I think helped a lot.

I’m a huge huge fan of coaching. I encourage everybody who is in a corporate or otherwise environment. It makes such a difference to go off on that for a little bit. You can get feedback from people you work with, from your boss, your peers, and the people who report to you. The coaching relationship for me has been such a great neutral sounding board where you can freely explore things that, as you’re saying, “I’m at a new level now and I want to make sure I know how to play with these folks and I’m presenting myself appropriately.”

That’s the safe space to do that and somebody who has a nice unbiased view and where you’re trying to go. I can’t say enough about it. I think it’s the business. To that end, when we talked before, you worked to get this role. You said that to get promoted, you went after it because no one’s going to put a tier on your head. I want you to talk about seeking out new roles and what you did to do that.

This is the advice I always give people who are asking how do I get promoted? I always say to them. What you need to do is to find an area that is being underserved in the company. For me, a lot of it when I was still in Home Entertainment was this was sort of the launch of, now I’m going to date myself so much, but it was the launch of MySpace and Facebook and all those things. I saw that as an area where we were going to be able to do a lot of marketing. It would be an area that could be interesting to the company, but nobody was interested in the legal side, and looking into it, or exploring it. Everyone thought it was going to be a fad and it would be coming on and all those types of things.

To get promoted, find an area that is being underserved in the company. Click To Tweet

I embraced it and jumped in. I spent a lot of time with our marketing people understanding how they wanted to utilize those platforms and how they could utilize those platforms, and became the expert on social media at a time when nobody was looking at it. I did that again with virtual reality and NFTs and things like that. I’ve always tried to find an area that could be the future of things or might be the future of things and jump into it early on and establish myself as an expert on the legal side in the business partner for that. It doesn’t have to be the way with the future.

It’s finding that white space or as Gretzky’s comment, skate to where the puck is going.

There are always areas where if people had time, it would be the area they’d want to pick up and learn. That’s what I tell people. Find that niche and go for it because you’ll make yourself indispensable and a little bit unique. I think that matters.

We’re getting to the end of time here. I’m going to ask you what I ask all guests and maybe since you’re in licensing, you can help me get a clip license for the use on the show. What is your pump-up song?

My pump-up song all the way back to when I was studying for the bar was I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty. More currently, it’s probably Dance the Night from the Barbie soundtrack.

We love that. Both are great.

Maybe Ken is going to overtake it. I don’t know.

I cannot with I’m Just Ken. I also don’t like the Man I Am. I’m so mad. My daughter loves it because she thinks it’s ironic and whatever. Dana Lira, thank you so much. I had this perception that entertainment was sort of this thing that was distant from me and my industry, but there are so many commonalities between in-house lawyers.

Thank you so much.

 

Important Links

Share this blog: