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10 Questions to a Media Lawyer: Judith Margolin

Judith Margolin is Vice President, Deputy General Counsel at Penske Media Corporation in New York.

1. How'd you get into media law? What was your first job?

My first job of any sort was as a waitress. I spent many years working for a caterer in high school, and that job taught me that I didn't want to be in food service!  Even at that age, my legs really hurt at the end of a shift. However, I am still very proud that I was earning money at a relatively young age. I still enjoy looking at my social security statement (which I think they've stopped sending annually), which shows that in the early 1980's, I was earning about $198/year.

I didn't start my legal career in media. I was at Cleary Gottlieb in Washington D.C. and New York, and spent most of my time there as a commercial litigator doing product liability defense and other big corporate litigation. I then switched to the corporate side and was looking for a fantastic in-house opportunity when Alex Gigante hired me to join the legal department at what was then Penguin Putnam Inc. I was very fortunate. Alex told me that he was open to hiring a former litigator. He believed that litigators had the skill set and flexibility to learn about new areas of the law. He was a litigator himself (and indeed, still is). And I was also a graduate of NYU Law School, which was true of everyone else on the Penguin Putnam legal team at the time.

2. What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?

I love the breadth of my role. I am involved in so many different elements of our business, I wear many hats, and I have a hand in a million different legal issues. I'm a counselor, a litigator, a negotiator and deal-maker. My day may start by working with an editor on an investigative piece, and then I'll jump into a potential acquisition, and then an HR question, and then a landlord/tenant issue, and then a consumer marketing question and so on.

What I like least is on the flip side of what I like best: because I'm involved in so many matters, sometimes it's hard to manage and keep track of my overflowing in-box and documents. I think I do an excellent job of responding to my clients, but only an adequate job of controlling my files. I wish I had an extra hour every day to get more organized.

Also, although I appreciate all of the advances in technology, I really don't enjoy the fact that I can never fully disengage from the office. I remember in the early 2000's, when I was closing Time magazine on Friday nights and Saturdays, and Sports Illustrated on Sundays, I would have to stay home to watch my fax machine just in case a story came through. Now I can check my email from Fairway, or the gym or my kids' school play, which is great, but it's also hard to relax.

I sometimes think about how Abraham Lincoln practiced law. Was that better? I'm not sure. He certainly had more time to think deep thoughts.

3. What's the biggest blunder you've committed on the job?

I'd say that as a younger lawyer, especially in the law firm setting, I wasn't always adept at managing office politics. I think if I went back to a firm now, I'd approach it very differently.

4. Highest court you've argued in or most high-profile case?

I haven't been a litigator in many years, and I rarely go to court, much less argue motions. I do oversee litigation involving my clients and have done so on a few big defamation and publicity rights lawsuits. I wouldn't want to re-live them, however. My role is always behind the scenes, thankfully.

5. What's a surprising object in your office?

I have two artifacts from the transfer of editorial power at Time Inc. from Norm Pearlstine (in his first stint as Editor in Chief) to John Huey. One is two very (very) stale cookies with their images on it. The other is a coffee mug with Norm's face on it, and on the other side, a black square where John's face appears when you place hot liquids inside the cup. Strange, but true.

6. What's the first website you check in the morning?

The New York Times. And then I usually check in on my clients, which at the moment include Variety, IndieWire, Deadline Hollywood and Rolling Stone.

I'm also addicted to WWD's daily email, the Essentialist. WWD is another one of our publications at Penske Media, and they do some terrific reporting on the media industry, as well as fashion.

7. It's almost a cliché for lawyers to tell those contemplating law school: "Don't go." What do you think?

It's complicated. I loved law school, and I'm very happy as a lawyer. But of course it depends on the person, the law school they're likely to attend, and what they expect to do when they graduate.

A lot of people feel alienated by big law firm practice – for good reason. I wish more young lawyers started their careers differently, because I think they'd be happier. When I was in my third year of law school, I did a clinic at the Manhattan DA's office, and I can't imagine a more energetic and engaging place to work for young lawyers. That would be an amazing place to start a career.

I personally feel very fortunate to have found an area of the law that I enjoy so much. And I really appreciate working in-house, where I can help my clients solve their problems constructively rather than parachuting in only after the fact to deal with a crisis.

8. One piece of advice for someone looking to get into media law?

I'm often approached for advice by young lawyers who are working in large law firms, in areas that have nothing to do with media law. For those people, I often encourage them to get involved with a bar committee focused on media law or one that has some adjacency to media law, such as copyright. Even if you can't officially join, most bar committees don't object to observers, and some allow law student representatives. I think this is a fantastic opportunity to meet people, network and learn.

9. What issue keeps you up at night?

Probably the same issue as many in-house lawyers: keeping up with the rapidly evolving privacy and data security laws in the US and around the world.

10. What would you have done if you hadn't been a lawyer?

Earlier in my life I thought about becoming a psychologist. I don't think I would have had the patience for it, and ultimately law was a better choice. But having strong EQ skills has been a great asset, especially when you're in-house.

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