If you see Robin Smith carrying a Lego-branded bag through the airport, send your kids over to say hello. She’ll give them a small set of Lego blocks to play with and keep. Smith, general counsel of Lego Systems Inc., the American subsidiary of Denmark’s The Lego Group, said her job is as much fun as kids and even adults think it is. During meetings at company headquarters in Enfield, Conn., employees are encouraged to dip into bowls of Lego blocks on the tables and build to their hearts’ content.
The company dates back to 1932, when Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen began making wooden toys. Lego’s name is derived from the Danish words "leg godt" ("play well"), and in Latin "Lego" means "I put together." Lego produces approximately 19 billion colorful, interlocking bricks per year, each endowed with a feature its employees call "clutch," which enables the blocks to snap securely together. The privately held company reported $1.32 billion in U.S. sales last year, an increase of 26 percent from 2011. The Lego Group has 10,000 employees, about 2,200 of whom work in the United States.
Smith oversees Lego’s legal matters in Australia, Canada, Central America, Mexico, New Zealand and the United States. She regularly advises co-­workers about copyright and trademark matters and provides counsel regarding the company’s many contracts. Lego’s legal team has 33 people, all but eight based at global headquarters in Billund, Denmark. Smith and two Danes comprise the company’s corporate legal affairs leadership. She reports to Poul Hartvig Nielsen, senior vice president for corporate legal affairs. They’re in touch regularly but not daily, she said; the company’s culture encourages executives to be autonomous, which Smith said appeals to her.
The company last year hired an attorney in Monterrey, Mexico, home of the world’s largest Lego manufacturing site. He reports to Smith, as do a general corporate legal affairs attorney, an intellectual property attorney, two paralegals, an assistant risk manager and a legal assistant.
Fross Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu in New York handles Lego’s general intellectual property matters, and Smith turns to the attorneys in Jackson Lewis’ Hartford, Conn., office for guidance on employment law. Paul Hastings’ Costa Mesa, Calif., office oversees employment issues in that state. Hartford-based Shipman & Goodwin screens websites and online content for infringement. ("Lego" should always be used as an adjective, never as a noun, Smith said. In other words, it’s correct to say "Lego bricks" or "Lego play sets" but not "My son built a rocket out of Legos.")
Smith travels internationally twice per month and makes quarterly trips to Denmark. She plans to visit Australia, Brazil, Dallas, Mexico and Toronto within the next few months. She understands Danish, she said, but she struggles to speak it.
Smith handles employment matters affecting the company’s U.S.-based workers, including those at Lego stores. She reviews and negotiates licensing agreements; Lego’s Harry Potter collection, for example, needed Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc.’s blessing. She administers vendor agreements with retailers including Target Corp. and Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. and promotional agreements for in-store events, website contests and commercials.
Dispensing advice on antitrust matters, compliance issues and environmental questions keeps her busy as well. She provides training and guidance about intellectual property to the company’s consumer services workers. They answer calls from consumers, who frequently offer unsolicited product ideas or have questions about knockoff Lego products. Employees are trained to instruct callers that the company does not accept unsolicited product ideas.
The legal department’s offices are located amid the marketing and human resources departments, which Smith hopes encourages those workers to connect with her lawyers. The legal department periodically gives a presentation dubbed "Contracts 101" to new marketing employees and salespeople.
Lego cannot sue competitors for infringement because the patents on its bricks and other products expired long ago, Smith said. However, the company is pursuing a copyright infringement suit against competitor Best-Lock Construction Toys Inc. Lego claims Best-Lock’s 1 1/2-inch plastic people (called "mini-figures") are too similar to the plastic characters that Lego has been producing since 1978. Lego’s 2011 suit in the U.S. Court for the District of Connecticut seeks to halt Best-Lock, which Lego alleges has sold more than 18 million mini-figures in more than 50,000 stores.
Michele Totonis, Lego’s intellectual property attorney, is handling the case along with outside counsel Day Pitney. It is in discovery.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
A native of West Hartford, Conn., Smith received her undergraduate degree in 1989 from Wesleyan University, where she studied theater and psychology. She received her law degree from Syracuse University College of Law in 1993.
She worked as a summer associate at Day, Berry & Howard (now Day Pitney) while in law school and joined the firm as a general commercial litigator after graduation. Her duties included probate litigation, insurance defense, products liability and intellectual property work, which she discovered she enjoyed.
When she met Lego’s then-general counsel, Peter Arakas, at a lawyers’ panel in 1995, she asked about employment opportunities, but he wasn’t hiring at that time. Four years later, she heard about an opening for an intellectual property attorney, applied and was chosen for the job.
The company was in the thick of a growth spurt, opening LegoLand amusement park in Carlsbad, Calif., introducing new products and aggressively developing an online presence. Smith became deputy general counsel in 2007 and was named general counsel in mid-2008, replacing Arakas, who had been Lego’s general counsel since 1991. Smith credits her in-depth understanding of intellectual property law with giving her "an innate understanding of the value of the brand."
Her favorite aspect of in-house counsel work is its variety. "I never know what will come in the door next," she said. "It keeps my mind fresh. I’m never bored."
Smith has a 14-year-old son, nicknamed "L.J.," and a Great Dane, Boomer. She once won an employee Lego block-building contest by creating a model of Arakas wearing a green University of Connecticut baseball cap. She is an avid reader, traveler and theatergoer.
LAST BOOKS AND MOVIE
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, and The Bloodletter’s Daughter, by Linda Lafferty; Zero Dark Thirty.