Tips from a legal adviser

Apr 19 2013

During the past semester, three of my law school classmates and I have served as unofficial legal advisers to the Reese News Lab. We’re participating in a new class at the UNC School of Law called Media Law Practicum, under the direction of Professor David Ardia, who also serves as a co-director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy. The class is designed to prepare us for careers as media attorneys, and is especially geared toward serving as general counsel for media organizations. It is with that role in mind that we were assigned to work with Reese for the semester.

As legal advisers, we have assisted Reese in several ways. We have conducted two legal training sessions with the entire Reese staff, one focused on copyright law and another on defamation. We have drafted a FOIA request to the federal government that will hopefully produce documents for future law students and Reese staffers to sort through and analyze. Finally, throughout the semester we have answered many of the myriad minor (and not-so-minor) legal questions that arise constantly during the course of business for media entities.

During our work with Reese, we’ve learned several lessons that we think may be instructive for both journalists and legal professionals who find themselves in a client/counsel relationship in the workplace. Here are three of the most salient.

1. Relationships are crucial
When we began working with Reese, it was important that we get to know our new “clients” very quickly. Lawyers can’t help journalists (and vice versa) if no one in the newsroom knows them well enough to feel comfortable bringing them any questions. So, our first goal was to get to know the people we were working with, and to learn how they do things. It wasn’t always easy – unlike broadcast or print media organizations, an online news provider like Reese has no set publication times, and as a result the students working with the Lab aren’t consistently in the newsroom together. So, we made sure to attend Reese’s weekly managers’ meetings and staff meetings so the staff members would learn to recognize (and hopefully trust) us. We also set up a listserv for our legal team that staff members could email questions to, since we weren’t always around in person.

Progress was probably slower than we would have liked in this regard. That’s probably mostly due to the unique situation of both us and the Reese staffers being students – we didn’t have as much of a chance to get to know each other as we would if we were all working full-time. However, by the end of the semester we noticed a clear difference in how comfortable our “clients” were talking and interacting with us, and we hope they felt the same. So whenever entering a new client/counsel relationship in a newsroom, don’t neglect the “get-to-know-you” phase; everyone will be busy, and it won’t be easy, but the entire team will work better, together, if everyone knows and trusts each other.

2. Learn the nuts and bolts
Along the same lines, it’s tough to be effective as legal counsel for media clients if you don’t know how they operate. Knowing when to get involved with a project is just as important as being able to advise your client effectively. Every media client has a different organizational structure and workflow, and you have to get a feel for both before you can be fully integrated as part of the team. Working with Reese, we learned from their managers’ meetings how their stories are conceptualized, written and edited. As journalists, you should also get familiar with any attorneys your company may work with – learn their chain of authority, figure out how long it takes them to make decisions, and talk to them about potential stories so they know when they might need to be involved. Learning these details will help both sides be proactive and address any potential issues before substantial resources have already been invested on a problematic story or one that will need to be changed.

3. Legal issues are serious, but they shouldn’t be scary
Part of our challenge when conducting legal training for Reese was to figure out how to make the staffers aware of the seriousness of potential legal issues without making them worried that they were defaming potential plaintiffs or infringing copyrights every other minute. It’s crucial for journalists to be able to spot potential legal issues in the course of their normal activities, but they won’t be as effective if they’re too tentative because they’re constantly worried about potential legal liability. There are plenty of cautionary tales demonstrating how reckless reporting or writing can lead to big judgments against media entities, but when you know the law and follow best journalism practices you can proceed confidently. If you know when you need consent to record or film, research your stories thoroughly and accurately, and write precisely and with support without needlessly referencing non-essential persons, then you have nothing to worry about. But don’t forget: Always pay attention to media lawyers doing legal training!

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