March 31, 2021 Feature

From Criminal Prosecutor to IP Specialist to General Counsel

©2021. Published in Landslide, Vol. 13, No. 4, March/April 2021, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Jennifer Chung is the general counsel and chief legal officer at AccuWeather. She is also secretary to the AccuWeather board of directors. She manages all aspects of the company’s legal department and provides legal support across all lines of the business. Her portfolio includes the company’s global intellectual property, data privacy, brand management, contracts, employment, and other related issues impacting the company.

Getting to general counsel is so many of our dream jobs. Is that where you saw yourself when you started your legal career?

Far from it. In law school, my interests were tracking heavily toward government and public interest positions, as well as trial and oral advocacy roles. That led me right to starting my legal career as a criminal prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. It was the era of NBC’s Law & Order. That was my dream job at the time and where I planned to focus my career. I’m not sure if being in-house or managing a legal team registered at all back then. But after only a few years, as much as I respected the DA’s Office and enjoyed the work, I realized I needed to make more money. I had a six-figure college and law school loan debt that I wasn’t even making a dent in paying off. Also, after a few years in this position, I found my interests around the legal profession starting to change as well.

What did the next chapter of your career look like after the Manhattan DA’s Office?

At that time, Hatch-Waxman patent litigation was hot. I had a chemistry degree, so it made natural sense for me to go there. This is what I focused on for the next nine years, both on the generic and brand sides, in addition to other kinds of IP matters. I liked the IP work very much, but to be completely forthright, it took me those nine years to realize I wasn’t very good at being at a law firm. Much to my own frustration, and despite what I thought were my best efforts, none of the firms I joined worked out.

What lessons did you learn from that experience?

To say it plainly, getting fired or laid off is not great, but it doesn’t define you or your professional background. It is one part of the cycle that includes getting hired. The important lesson you have to learn is why this is happening. What is the bigger message? It took me a long time to see that, for me, it was because a law firm was just not my right fit. This can be hard to recognize. The American legal education system and legal profession tell us that we should be aiming for being partners at a law firm eventually, and that the measure of success is being a partner at the biggest law firm you can get hired by, so when I started at my first law firm, that was naturally the early goal. Plus, I was so committed to my job, so committed to being at a law firm and to my team, being the best patent litigation counsel I could be, it was hard to walk away after I knew the ropes. I had no idea what life outside a very large legal team would be like. The unknown can be a scary place.

So what did you do next?

After a very hard look at what I had been doing, what I wanted to do, and what my options were at the moment, I completely changed course and took a position at the New York State Department of Economic Development. I was hired to work on New York State IP issues, but when I got there, it turned out that there wasn’t a lot of big New York–centric IP projects, except for the “I Love New York” tourism, marketing, and licensing campaign, which was so much fun and what I worked on for almost two years. I also became deeply interested in the mechanics of how organizations—regardless of whether for-profit or not—make money, develop, grow, survive, expand, and support other parts of the community through jobs and spending.

I was then contacted by my former boss at the Department of Economic Development, who had left to head the newly spun-off Time Inc. legal department. Time Inc.’s trademark counsel had just given notice, and I was asked if I was interested in the opportunity. I jumped on it.

What did that teach you about the importance of networking?

That networking is critically important! A comment here about that, because the word “networking” can feel so daunting, and for some people, feel artificial or terrifying. So, let’s call my style of networking: make friends, meet people, show up to events, share your stories, listen to other people tell their stories, connect online, invite someone for coffee, accept an invitation for coffee, like a post, write a post, say hello, organize a small get-together (via video for now, but maybe dinner one day soon) and ask your friends to invite someone new, stay in touch with people you already know, reconnect with a classmate, send an email. This is all networking. Networking is easier for some people than for others, and I recognize everyone has their tolerance levels and this might be more challenging for the introverts out there. Networking isn’t one-size-fits-all, but it’s about doing something, anything to connect with another person. Then another person. And on and on. And then one day, you’ll start to see you have a “network,” and it will be real and authentic, because you were making those connections all along. It doesn’t always have to be about work or the law, and in fact, you should be meeting people who share similar interests just because it can be nice to learn from other people and their experiences. I’m also a believer in not treating these interactions as transactional, and I try to make others comfortable with this process by offering my time as freely as I can. It’s my way of showing with my own actions and words that this kind of networking is possible.

Did you enjoy working at Time Inc.?

I loved it there. I had the opportunity to take over an entire trademark portfolio and learned a ton really fast. I also was able to work closely with the boss who recruited me, whom I learned so much from. It was the first time in my career that I had a real sponsor—someone who really put himself out on the line to help pull me up and succeed. That makes a huge difference. I also really respected my team—everyone was a true professional with welcoming hearts. This was another lesson I learned: the importance of a strong, skilled team willing and wanting to help everyone be their best.

Why did you make the move to AccuWeather?

Eventually, Time Inc. was acquired, and the department was closed. I was hired by AccuWeather, where I already knew a couple of executives from our time at Time Inc., and for the first time my career became more of a generalist than a specialized lawyer. I was hired as an associate general counsel, and although IP was part of my responsibility, it was not all of it. I was dealing with a portfolio that included commercial contracts, data privacy, and labor and employment issues. Over a year ago, I was promoted to general counsel, and that requires me to be even more of a generalist and think more strategically about how legal guidance can advance the bigger company goals, not just react to issues as they come up.

What advice do you have for those looking to make the move to a more generalist position?

Take those meetings with outside counsel and legal tech services vendors who want to pitch their business to you. It’s important to know who is doing what, who are the experts, what is trending, what issues are getting attention. Being a generalist in this role means knowing what might turn into something, so being surrounded by people who want to give you updates on the law and your industry is hugely important. I also take advantage of the CLEs offered by these law firms and vendors, because they are presenting on topics they are seeing in real time, and I read the blogs and articles they circulate. I also read about the issues—especially the truly outrageous ones—that get to court or trigger investigations, mostly to get a sense of what the real pain thresholds are and how far people are willing to take things, if pushed.

Was it hard making the shift to general counsel?

I wouldn’t say hard like brain-surgery hard, but there are certainly challenges. It’s not what I expected. This is the first time in my 20-year career where I’m not reporting to a lawyer, which was both a weird and hard transition. When you report to other lawyers, there is always, even if it’s implicit, an acknowledgment of risk management. That is not the same for the business side—the business wants to focus on the deal and for the lawyers to quietly manage the legal risks so they can get the deal done. These are clients without any filters, and there is no one to step in the middle to help you. No one wants to hear, “Well, these are the things to think about.” They want to hear, “Yes, this is what we will do.” It is taking a lot of work for me to get this right. There is also vocabulary to learn—lawyers speak in a very specific kind of language, and it’s not always the same as what the business speaks. One thing that helped was getting an executive coach, which is something I had heard about from my executive colleagues and through a women GC network I’m a part of, and the advice I got was invaluable. My coach had me think about what I really wanted from this role, from this profession, and to visualize what it is I want to accomplish. I’m still working on this part of me, but knowing there are resources helps a lot.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I love my team and developing them as professionals who will one day do bigger things than I will ever get to do. I love taking existing legal operations, figuring out what has to be done and where the bottlenecks are, and evolving it to align with the digital company we have become and moving faster toward automation and tech as a way to measurably increase efficiencies. I love knowing I still have so much more to learn about my company, this industry, and the legal issues that pop up unexpectedly. I joke that my days are like putting out little fires all day long, but I love that part of it too because no day is ever the same, and I get to experiment constantly with better ways to do things.

What advice do you have for other lawyers looking to chart their own course through what can be rocky career developments?

You have to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. For instance, if you are an IP specialist and you know this isn’t the right fit, acknowledge it and move on. How will you know? It gets boring, or maybe you’re objectively not great at it—you make mistakes and maybe you don’t know why those are mistakes, or maybe you’re not getting the reactions you’re expecting from the very thoughtful and well-reasoned advice you give. This happens; this is real, and it’s okay to pause and take note, maybe talk to other lawyers to get that gut check. But also watch out for the cognitive biases that can interfere with this assessment, especially survivorship bias and confirmation bias. Jump on other opportunities, even if you are not sure if you can do it. None of what we do is rocket science, but it is a craft that can be honed and developed and turned into something that you can call your own one small step at a time. The hard work pays off.

Extracurricular activities can also go a long way to build up your credentials. For instance, and this goes again to my networking point, I joined my community board, my college and law school alumni groups, and other groups to meet people. It’s a great way to grow your community, but also a great way to just learn from other people. You can also get involved in bar associations to meet people and learn more about a particular area. There is a lot you can do, and sometimes you have to create your own opportunities to test what you can do or what you want to do.