As career highlights go, walking up the red carpet at a London film premiere surrounded by hundreds of screaming adolescent fans has to rate at the more unusual end of the scale.
Such is the life of Maya Abu Deeb, the first general counsel of Bloomsbury, the publisher behind the Harry Potter franchise.
Abu Deeb braved the cameras – and the pouring rain – at the global premiere of the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in July this year. It was Abu Deeb’s third opening-night event, and perhaps no more than she deserves given her leading role in the run-up to the publication of the novels.
Abu Deeb got her first taste of the publishing world in 2005, when she spent six months on secondment at Bloomsbury while an associate at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC). She was in charge of all legal aspects of the print and publication of the Harry Potter novels, including protecting the content from being revealed before the official release date (although JK Rowling’s own lawyers cover internet leaks).
“It was incredible. It was the most significant challenge of my career,” she recalls. “When you have a phenomenon as large as Harry Potter it does lend itself to some bizarre situations.”
One such situation emerged during her first stint at Bloomsbury, when a security guard stole a copy of an unreleased Harry Potter book and tried to sell it to The Sun and The Mirror. The man ended up being imprisoned after brandishing a gun at reporters and although both newspapers said they had no intention of revealing any of the book, Bloomsbury secured an unusually restrictive injunction banning publication anywhere in the world.
“With Harry Potter, everything happens in real time. You have to move swiftly,” says Abu Deeb.
After a second secondment at the publishing house in 2006, she was finally appointed as general counsel in February 2008. She has retained close links with RPC, which handles most of the company’s media work.
The company also uses Field Fisher Waterhouse for corporate matters, an increasingly important area given Bloomsbury’s expansive strategy. Corporate partner Nicholas Thompsell advised on its latest deal, the acquisition of Tottell Publishing in July, as well as the takeover of Wisden & Co, publisher of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
“Bloomsbury’s objective is to exploit opportunities in academic reference and professional publishing. It’s a dynamic time,” says Abu Deeb.
The company also uses Taylor Wessing for IT work, but since Abu Deeb joined much of the commercial work has been brought in-house.
As the sole in-house lawyer, there is plenty for her to do. Her average working day is as onerous as that of a private practice lawyer, running from 8am to between 8pm and midnight.
“It’s a challenge that I enjoy,” she maintains. “It’s great to be in this position and so closely involved in the business side of things.”
Abu Deeb seems destined for a role like this. She has always had an interest in the literary world, studying Arabic literature before converting to law. “For me, it’s great to be in an environment that is all about creativity and ideas,” she explains.
She had an opportunity to indulge her passion with the launch of the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation in October last year. The partnership was set up to encourage literary talent in the region, working alongside the Qatar government. It will also tap into a potential market of more than 200 million Arabic speakers.
In the meantime, the next instalment of the Harry Potter franchise is out next year. Do not be surprised to see Abu Deeb walking up the red carpet at the next premiere.
Name: Maya Abu Deeb
Organisation: Bloomsbury Publishing
Position: General counsel and company secretary
Reporting to: Chief executive Nigel Newton
Number of employees: 295
Legal capability: One
Main external law firms: Field Fisher Waterhouse, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, Taylor Wessing
Total legal spend: £100,000-£200,000
Maya Abu Deeb’s CV
1992-96: Arabic Literature, Oxford University
1996-97: CPE, College of Law
1998-99: LPC, College of Law
1999-2001: Trainee, Biddle
2001-03: Assistant, Pinsent Curtis
2003-08: Associate, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain
2008-present: General counsel and company secretary, Bloomsbury