Media lawyer enjoying being a Director of Legal Affairs

James Watson trained at Withers before moving to McGrigors to specialise in media law.  After secondments to KPMG and O2 whetted his appetite for in-house work, he moved to be European Director of Legal Affairs at Ascent Media at about 6 yrs PQE.  He talked to us about why he prefers working in-house work to private practice. 


mtl: Hi James, please can you start by telling us about your career in private practice. 


James: I trained at Withers and qualified into the private client department.  However I realised fairly early on in my career that, given the hours that lawyers work, you really have to do something you enjoy doing rather than something you think would be the “right” thing to do.  I therefore made a jump at around 2 yrs PQE to media law by moving to McGrigors, where I stayed for four years. 


While I was there, I was fortunate to go on secondment to KPMG and O2 and found that moving in-house really appealed because of the greater responsibility and exposure to major deals. Within a few months of coming back to the firm, I started to look for a dynamic, media-focussed role in a media company. 


mtl: So what do you do now?    


James:  I work for Ascent Media which, although not a household name, is part of John Malone’s media empire (with its HQ in Santa Monica) and in fact the world’s leading provider of media services for the film and television industry.  We work on many well known productions including, recently, the Harry Potter and Bond films as well as television shows such as Shameless and Have I Got News For You in the UK and Sweeney Todd, the Bourne Ultimatum, 24, CSI, Entourage, the Sopranos and My Name is Earl in the US.  Our work on these productions has won a number of Oscars, Emmys, BAFTAs and other awards.  We employ 1000 staff in the UK in a dozen or so facilities and 4000 worldwide across the group. 




Career timeline



Law, Oxford University



LPC, College of Law



Training contract, Withers



Private Client assistant, Withers



Media assistant, McGrigors



Director of Legal Aggairs, Ascent Media


In broad terms, the company handles everything in film and TV from “glass to glass” ie from when it comes out of camera until it appears on screen.  We process film, create rushes for the director, do all the post-production work including sound and picture editing and any necessary special effects. We are also involved in the media management and distribution side too, a growing market with technology convergence, and also transmit channels to air.  The work is varied, cutting edge and fun and I particularly enjoy going into the facilities to see the productions being worked on, often collaboratively with the director and producer in attendance, in the run up to release.  . 


I enjoyed my role as Director of Legal Affairs from the start as I was thrown in the deep end.  I have a broad spread of work and clients, a lot of them creative and not wishing to be constrained by legal requirements.  I also have a lot of freedom as to how I deliver to them, while being part of a worldwide legal team of seven. I instruct outside counsel when needed, particularly on corporate, litigation or overseas matters and handle contracts, employment and property work in the UK myself. 


Play out deals are probably the most intensive matters that I work on as well as some of the cutting edge distribution deals that require plenty of blue sky thinking.  Though relatively straightforward, contracts can often become more complicated when a famous name assumes that we will agree to whatever they ask for just because they are who they are!  Seeing how a film deal is put together is also very interesting, particularly if you have a financial stake in the production.    


Part of me would like to expand the team but then there would perhaps be pressure to outsource less.  The downside is that I am fairly tied to the role, so always have my Blackberry with me, and sometimes have to work West Coast hours.  On the plus side, trips to Santa Monica are enjoyable. As for my own future within the company, the diversity of the job, the fast moving pace of convergence within the industry as well as the likelihood of further acquisitions in the future mean that I am not expecting to get bored any time soon! 


mtl: Any tips for our readers? 


James: To the extent that you have the ability while in private practice, spend some time in-house on a secondment to test it out and get some useful experience.  I think that even if you are pursuing partnership at the firm you are at, it is a useful string to your bow and is valued by clients. 


The market is much more fluid these days.  In the past it would perhaps have been more difficult to move back into private practice after working in-house, but now I certainly could and I strongly believe my experience would be an asset, so you aren’t burning any bridges by making a move.  My experience also shows that you can change your discipline after qualification as I was approaching 2 yrs PQE when I moved from private client to media work.  So if you aren’t enjoying the area that you are working in, then see if a move could help you enjoy your job more.


mtl:  Thanks for talking to us James. 


Click here to see the Ascent Media website. 


If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.





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