The Mill GC: Law FX
4 March 2013 | By Ruth Green
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As GC at visual effects company The Mill, Jamie Smith combines his two interests - law and computer science
When Jamie Smith became general counsel at The Mill in 2012, he barely had to move office and the role has since proved to be the perfect fit for his combined computer science and legal expertise.
Smith joined visual effects company The Mill after a three-year stint at Sony Computer Entertainment, located just over the road on London’s Great Marlborough Street. However, Smith’s interest in computers and technology dates back to long before he took either of these roles.
While studying for his A-levels and applying for university Smith was faced with weighing up the merits of doing a law degree or studying computer science. After much deliberation he decided to embark on a four-year incorporated masters in computer science at the University of Bristol, which he felt was the best way of combining his interests in the worlds of computer science and business.
“At that time the internet was just starting to take off, Google was in its infancy as the search engine of choice and, although I was interested in law, I was most attracted to the idea of doing a traditional computer science course,” Smith says. “The one I chose included business elements and a final-year project that involved building software and a business presentation, so it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.”
However, after graduating Smith returned to the idea of developing a legal career after turning down the offer of working at Accenture. Instead, he set about applying for vacation schemes. Of these, he was most impressed by his experience during a two-week stint at Ashurst.
“The firm had an expanding IT and IP team, and the vacation schemes showed I filled a gap in their technology and computer knowledge nicely so it was an obvious choice to go there,” he notes.
After completing his GDL and LPC, Smith continued at Ashurst but made the rather surprising decision to qualify into real estate.
“It may sound a bit strange but real estate gives you good client exposure and is one of the few departments where as a junior you can see a project through from inception to completion, which was something I was really interested in,” Smith stresses.
Yet once again he could not quite shrug off the craving to get back into the technology space.
“There was always a niggle in the back of my mind and when an opening came up at DLA Piper in the IT/outsourcing department, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for,” he continues. “It was low-level, but offered the opportunity to work on large-scale projects.”
Even then Smith admits he had always had his eye on the in-house market and subsequently joined Sony in 2009. Three years later, in a bid to broaden his role in the visual effects industry, he opted to jump ship to The Mill to become the company’s first general counsel.
While The Mill is perhaps best known for its award-winning visual effects on films and TV programmes, having scooped an Academy Award for its work on Gladiator and Bafta Craft gongs for the visual effects in Doctor Who and Merlin, Smith’s role encompasses a wide range of legal issues, including those faced by the company’s film and TV department and the larger commercial visual effects division.
And whether he’s handling legal issues for visual effects in films such as Les Misérables, advertisements for Guinness or Nike, or for Superbowl 2013, there’s always plenty to keep him and his one-lawyer team busy overseeing projects from start to finish.
“There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing these consumer products through from the point of pitching to dealing with copyright, service contracts and licensing right to broadcast,” he says. “I really enjoy getting to see the whole product evolving.”
Smith manages the company’s entire spectrum of legal issues, spanning its London headquarters, its offices in New York and Los Angeles and its joint venture in Singapore with advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He has also been involved in all the due diligence and other legal issues associated with setting up The Mill’s new office in Chicago and is working on a litigation filed by The Mill against a company in Montreal.
Although the latter is happening thousands of miles away, Smith has been heavily involved, including reviewing the case from London, engaging with local lawyers and helping brief the company’s managing director for an oral deposition. He is due to go over to Montreal later this year for the reverse deposition, so there’s no doubting he has his finger on the pulse of the business.
Although Smith has found the step up to general counsel challenging, he relishes the opportunities it has given him to get to the heart of the business.
“When you’re general counsel you have to take a view on certain matters and you need the ability to make on-the-fly decisions and stand by them,” he says. “What I like best about my role is that you’re not necessarily just addressing legal issues, but providing a commercial steer to your legal advice, testing laws and pushing boundaries.”
Jamie Smith, The Mill
Title: General counsel
Reporting to: Chief financial officer Michael Wolfson
Employees: 600 (or 800, including freelancers)
Annual turnover: £84m (2011)
Legal capability: Two
Legal spend: £225,000 (2012)
Main external law firms:
US: Berger Legal; Reed Smith (employment and litigation)
Andrew Southam, legal director and partner, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
I am primarily responsible for BBH’s UK business but regularly advise those of our overseas offices that have no in-house legal support.
The role of an in-house lawyer at a creative agency is changing and becoming more complex, with an increasingly operational focus to the work we undertake. We provide commercial and strategic advice to subsidiaries and other profit centres in the business as well as undertaking the more traditional workstreams such as negotiating client contracts and agreements with important suppliers.
We try to undertake legal work in-house where we can, not solely due to cost but also because we consider that we understand the business better than any external adviser and can identify issues that need additional scrutiny.
Marketing campaigns these days are more integrated than ever before and clients now use social media with as much enthusiasm as they once did TV. The priority for the legal team is to understand the creative vision and then identify the legal issues, whether advertising regulation, privacy, IP or something a bit more leftfield.
In the case of The Mill, it is one of BBH’s most trusted and longstanding partners, and has worked collaboratively with us on many award-winning campaigns - Jamie and I regularly discuss commercial terms and thorny copyright problems.
In 2011 BBH and The Mill created a joint venture company to provide post-production services to our Singapore office. Our businesses’ cultural alignment allows us to work well together to resolve legal issues.