Naomi Zener recalls being on an Air Canada flight departing from Toronto to a vacation destination when, already in relaxation mode, the entertainment lawyer and author casually picked up the in-flight magazine in front of her and scanning the ads spotted a problem.
She found herself staring at an ad she hadn’t been given the chance to review for a now former client. Zener immediately knew it would trigger a publicity rights complaint.
That “always-on” mentality has served her well in her career and is proving to be even more important in-house. These days, Zener has just one client as vice president, business and legal affairs for Vice Media. As the company’s first in-house counsel on this side of the border, her task when she took on the job a year ago was to build a legal department from scratch, creating new templates and structures along the way.
“The company very much expanded explosively in the course of 2015, and operations grew exponentially as it happened; so it became clear within a short time that this level of growth and volume of work required more personnel on the ground,” Zener says, adding her legal team has grown to three people since she joined Vice last year.
Creating a new legal department meant deciding which issues fall within the purview of her office, and training staff to recognize when they should knock on her door with questions. “The most challenging part really comes from working with people who may never have worked with legal one-on-one before. It’s not so much there’s any problem with it — it’s just that it’s new,” Zener says. “Any kind of new process, new experience, new working relationships will always have that lack of pre-existing, historical experience to draw from.”
It’s hard to sum up a typical day at work, Zener says, because no day looks exactly like the previous one. “It’s never routine. Outside of scheduled meetings, nothing is ever predictable,” she says, adding she goes from dealing with an employment law matter one day to a marketing matter the next. She also provides television production advice and is consulted on deals or business issues that require a legal perspective.
Anyone who’s seen the headlines lately would know a thing or two about what’s keeping Zener busy these days. Vice Canada’s employees are on the cusp of unionization by the Canadian Media Guild, which announced “a strong majority” of workers have signed a union card. In a case that’s drawing a lot of attention, Vice is also challenging a court order to hand over its reporting materials to the RCMP in a matter involving a suspected Canadian terrorist. Earlier this year, the news outlet launched a television channel, Viceland. Zener says she tries to keep as much of her work in-house as possible instead of outsourcing it to external counsel.
The Vice brand evokes avant-gardism, a sense of adventure, and risk. Its office in a low-rise building in Toronto’s Liberty Village sports a brick exterior, open concept working spaces, a bar, and a lounge called the Bear Room.
For Zener’s department, being on-brand means being nimble and fast. “We’re embracing the fact that there’s a fast-paced turnaround that may not exist in other companies because of the nature of the content and the diverse initiatives we undertake,” she says. “We have to then think outside the box from a legal perspective to address how these initiatives need to be papered or structured.”
Her company is also at the cutting-edge of content production by using emerging technologies, Zener says. “We place content first but we’re doing so in a way to always be a front-runner, a leader with how the landscape is evolving around us,” Zener also says, adding that, in that regard, the legal department, too, “practises in concert with the company.”
Canadian Lawyer In-House asked Zener if being a lawyer for a company known for unorthodox ways of doing things means she has to say “No” a lot?
“Every lawyer struggles with risk because as a lawyer, and especially an in-house one, your role is to identify risk, determine the factors that mitigate the risk, and then resolve the risk. And so, in so doing, it can be perceived that legal is an obstacle or is saying ‘No’ a lot,” she says. “In this role especially, I am always trying to find a way to say ‘Yes,’ with ‘No’ being the option of last resort.”
WRITING, HUMOUR, AND THE LAW
Zener was called to the bar in Ontario and California. She figured out early on she’d have an edge in entertainment law if she were conversant in the language of the law of the Golden State and home of Hollywood.
“Doing a lot of work with California-based companies, it seemed to make a lot of sense to do that,” she says.
Before joining Vice, Zener worked for production companies, broadcasters, and distribution companies. She also had her own private practice. But perhaps more interestingly, Zener is a published novelist with a dark sense of humour. Her debut novel, Deathbed Dimes, follows a young lawyer and the daughter of a Hollywood film royal as she discovers “the reality that if you can outlive your relatives, friends, and sometimes even strangers, your odds of hitting the inheritance jackpot are better than playing the lottery,” according to the book’s Amazon description.
Terry Fallis, the author of Best Laid Plans, called the book “A funny, acerbic, and raucous read.” Zener says she initially imagined the story in the book as one of her ideas for TV shows. But the ideas “never went anywhere,” she says, adding she later decided to turn them into fodder for a book.
As a child, Zener always acted in plays and went to auditions for commercials. “Working in the entertainment industry, it’s not an accident for me,” she says. “I’ve always had creative interest.”
A mother to two young children, Zener is currently working on her sophomore novel, and also keeps a short stories and poetry blog called Satirical Mama. Her stories are quirky, funny, and sometimes outlandish. One of them, for example, takes place in a packed-room collective agreement meeting for toddlers.
Using the same moniker on Twitter, @SatiricalMama pokes fun at the drudgery of parenthood.
To juggle lawyering, parenthood, and writing, Zener says she relies on skillful time management, carefully chosen priorities, and a supportive husband. “If I didn’t write, it would be like not breathing, but the next part of it is totally about entertaining people,” she says.
Zener admits being a busy lawyer, mother, and writer means some missed school outings and rain checks taken on lunch with friends. “But I make my friendships work, I make my family work, I made my career work, I make my personal hobbies work,” she says. “And at the end of the day, I truly believe that having it all means whatever you choose ‘all’ to mean for you and not letting anybody else tell you it has to mean something else.”