For Lauren Dienes-Middlen, protecting fans from counterfeit product and removing unauthorized sharing of video content has proven no small feat. Challenging, yes. But, she says, a real impact can be made.
Seventeen years in to her stint with World Wrestling Entertainment, the now senior vice president and assistant general counsel, intellectual property, finds herself worlds away from her beginnings at boutique law firms. Her watchful eye helps protect more than 9,000 trademark applications and registrations worldwide as well as the content of globally-renowned entertainment programming that reaches more than 800 million homes worldwide.
With International Women’s Day on the horizon, we grabbed a few minutes with Lauren to learn more about her career and personal growth in the online protection sphere:
How has your brand protection plan evolved into the strategy that it is today?
When I started at WWE, we rounded out the IP prosecution department and took the work in-house. We were primarily responsible for trademark clearance, prosecution and maintenance, as well as copyright registration and domain name acquisitions. As we continued to partner with more consumer product licensees and created more and more video content, online enforcement became a focus for the company – how to protect our intellectual property from both the sale of counterfeit product online as well the unauthorized third-party sharing of our video content.
We first started to focus on counterfeit product in the early 2000s, and, by the mid-2000s, we had established a robust enforcement program to ensure our fans were getting authentic and quality products. Towards the later 2000s, online video piracy became an additional focus for us. It’s not an easy fix, and the technology seemingly changes daily.
Piracy of online video content is a significant issue for content owners and distributors and, beginning in 2009, we were working hard to establish an aggressive and strategic enforcement program. This focus remains a priority to this day. The IP group has morphed since its inception to now providing the company with a meaningful and broad IP program in all aspects.
How did you achieve buy-in on your strategy?
Our company is filled with visionaries, and it starts at the top. We’re not going to sacrifice spending a dollar so long as the dollar is wisely spent. We think ahead, prepare for the long-term and always remember the big picture.
In 2009, I had a meeting with our then-CFO. We discussed our overall IP budget as well as how the money was being spent. He then asked me what piece of the puzzle I would like to fill in for our overall program. Armed with the actual and real online video piracy problem facing us as well as the cost that it would take to establish an enforcement program, I presented the information to him, and he said, “Approved”.
Our company has always considered its intellectual property as one of its greatest assets and its protection is a key to our long-term success.
What inspired your career?
It began while I was in college. I had to take some semesters off from college due to medical issues but knew that, ultimately, I wanted to go to law school. During those semesters off, I sought temporary employment in a law firm and happened to find a wonderful position in an IP boutique firm, under the wings of a senior partner whose focus was trademark law.
I had always loved advertising, marketing, as well as the law, so intellectual property law was a natural fit. He taught me everything and was my mentor. From him, I learned a tremendous amount about trademark prosecution, from the ground up. He continues to be a friend and colleague (in addition to having attended my wedding many years later).
It was a lot more grunt work, and instructions weren’t available online. You conducted research in the physical books located in the firm’s law library. Trademark applications were typed on a typewriter and physically mailed to the Trademark Office with return postcards, as opposed to the online filings we do now. The online process that is available now makes filing a breeze, given the tools that are easily accessible to even the pro se applicant.
Later, I went to a larger IP firm, and that experience really helped me grow as a professional. It was at this firm that I gained experience with intellectual property litigation as well as IP enforcement.
What is the difference for you between working as outside counsel and an in-house counsel?
I had not realized that working in-house would give me such a breadth of understanding about the way a company works, its function and goals. I quickly realized that, only by immersing myself in the business of this company, could I understand its core, its beating heart and its personality. Only by learning about the company from the inside could I provide an even greater and more comprehensive analysis to the business units with respect to its adoption, use and protection of its intellectual property.
I am one of the lucky ones. I still love being a lawyer even after all these years because of the type of law that I practice – and the place where I practice it. WWE is one of the most dynamic companies. I touch things every day that go beyond the traditional IP world.
How would you define success?
There are many measures of success. On a personal level, it’s when my family is thriving and achieving, knowing that I love them and would do anything for them. On a professional level, it’s when I’m able to provide legal advice and resolution to matters of importance, when I’m asked to be involved in company-wide initiatives, and when I know that my contribution is important. It’s when an executive of the company instructs someone else to “clear it with Lauren” on a particular matter. That’s my success.
Describe some of your biggest challenges.
I am most challenged by working on issues that I haven’t touched before. Being in-house counsel means having to recognize issues and then solving them in a way that is in line with the company’s best interests. Not all issues are necessarily in your own “wheelhouse”, but you can’t, and shouldn’t, ignore them – rather, you need to be invested in understanding the issue and working to resolving the problem.
Sometimes this can be achieved simply by connecting the right people. And sometimes it means taking the work on yourself to figure out what needs to be done – what the law stipulates, what our logistics allow, etc. It is within these moments that you figure out the kind of attorney you are. If you’re not afraid to “step in”, then you’re right where you belong.
In today’s world, every department is lean, and everyone has to wear multiple hats. Whatever you think your plan is when you walk in the door is not going to be what you necessarily accomplish by the end of the day. Some might find that frustrating, but I welcome and cherish that kind of fast-paced, ever-changing work. This company is alive and exciting, so it follows that the work would be as well.
What does it take to be a great leader?
I care about my team. I examine their workload from their perspective to make sure they are being given work that is fair, substantive and goal-oriented. I want them to love working here as much as I do. I, myself, started as a paralegal in a law firm and therefore learned all aspects of this legal world. I don’t ask things of people that I wouldn’t or haven’t done myself.
I always try to be the first one in and the last one out. I want my team to understand – and this is one of the most important things to me – how much their contribution is valued and respected and how important they are to the team – and that everyone on the team is equally as important. You must think of yourself as part of the team, not just the leader of the team.
There’s this commonly used phrase that tells us to “lean in”. But you can’t just lean in. You need to lean in, stand up and be confident in your abilities. And make sure others are aware of your abilities in a confident way. Your voice is as strong and as important as anyone else’s in the room or you would not be there.
What’s life like outside of work? How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?
I absolutely love to travel and to read. They say when you get away is when you discover who you are, and that’s really true. In addition, when time permits, my other form of “getting away” is in the pages of a great novel, whether it’s the great classics or a magazine.
Fortunately, WWE is a place that recognizes you have a life outside the office, and, in fact, I find that the most successful people at WWE lead the most interesting personal lives because we bring our collective experiences and passions to WWE.
Lauren Dienes-Middlen, of World Wrestling Entertainment