The Washington Post is the leading daily newspaper in the nation’s capital and a wholly owned subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. The company posted revenues of $648 million from its newspaper publishing division in 2011; the Post employs approximately 2,200 people.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
General counsel Eric Lieberman heads a team of three lawyers; the subsidiary that ran the Post‘s website employed two lawyers, but when site management was merged with the print division in January 2010 the overall attorney headcount was cut by one position. In a new hire, Lieberman looks for candidates who can excel at identifying the legal and reputational risks to the company. “In addition to spotting issues, a Post lawyer has to be able to provide clear, sensible and practical advice to commercial departments and to the newsroom, frequently on deadline,” he said.
Lieberman counts on outside counsel for most litigation. He listed Kevin Baine at Williams & Connolly as the paper’s main outside media lawyer. In addition, Willis Goldsmith, Trish Dunn and Jackie Holmes at Jones Day help vice president for labor Jay Kennedy with union negotiations and employment litigation.
Lieberman has used alternative billing, but stressed the importance of a fair exchange of value. The Post has a “longstanding commitment” to diversity through its hiring practices, human resource policies and selection of outside contractors, he said. The paper has not signed the Pro Bono Institute’s Pro Bono Challenge or the Diversity Call to Action.
In addition to the Post, Lieberman’s group provides legal services for The Slate Group LLC (which publishes Slate, Foreign Policy and The Root), WaPo Labs (a unit of The Washington Post Co. that is developing digital products) and Social Code LLC (an advertising agency that helps companies design and execute social media advertising campaigns).
Asked about his daily routine, Lieberman replied: “My grandmother used to say that man plans and God laughs. That’s a pretty good description of a typical day for me and our legal team.”
With the Post website a 24-hour-per-day operation, the legal department may need to review copy at any time. Additionally, a reporter might call from a courthouse to complain that he or she has been kicked out of a hearing or denied access to a court record. Lieberman might face an urgent retraction demand, or a contract or controversial advertisement that needs to be reviewed right away.
He described his team as close-knit. “We bounce things off each other all the time, which is critical to giving sound legal advice.” He described himself as a “generalist with a specialty in media law.” But, occasionally, Lieberman needs to become expert at short notice. One such matter involved the U.S. Postal Service.
“The postal service is trying to get approval to enter into contracts with a large direct-mail advertiser that gives deep discounts to offer reduced rates for retailers to deliver ads through the mail — and it is a direct attack on our Sunday package of printed ads and a vital source of revenue,” Lieberman said. “We, along with the Newspaper Association of America, are trying to get the Postal Regulatory Commission to reject this deal.” Reforms passed by Congress in 2006 give the Postal Service the flexibility to enter into deals with customers, but only if they can show that it would not cause unreasonable harm in the marketplace. The matter is pending before the commission and, if it goes through, the newspapers may challenge it in court, he said.
Lieberman is the paper’s representative on a number of boards; he is secretary of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association and chairman of its government affairs committee, and secretary of the Virginia Press Association. He served on the executive committee of D.C.’s Council for Court Excellence and is co-chairman of its bench-bar-media dialogue project. He represents the Post on the board of the Media Law Resource Center and is chairman of its membership and development committee.
He counts as a career highlight the newsroom announcement that the Post‘s Katherine Boo had won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2000 for her series about the mistreatment and deaths of mentally retarded citizens living in group homes run by the District of Columbia. “I was standing in the newsroom listening to her remarks, and she unexpectedly thanked me for helping get records from the district government that she needed to substantiate her reporting,” he said. “That moment stands out for me, because I was really proud to have made a small contribution to the kind of journalism that distinguishes the Post and that makes a difference in people’s lives.”
During the Valerie Plame leak investigation, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald demanded that three Post reporters identify sources to whom they had guaranteed anonymity. Lieberman helped to decide how to respond. “Ultimately, our reporters were able to provide limited deposition testimony after being released by their sources to do so,” Lieberman said. “We stayed true to our core principles — we kept our word to our sources and we avoided a legal battle where the outcome was uncertain.” He reports to publisher Katharine Weymouth.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Lieberman graduated from Harvard University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in social studies and earned his J.D. at Duke Law School in 1991. His Washington career began in 1986, as a legislative aide to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Committee on Labor and Human Resources. After law school, he clerked for Chief Judge James Oakes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In 1992, Lieberman joined Williams & Connolly as an associate. He became associate counsel at the Post in 1998 and deputy counsel and director of government affairs in 2006. He’s been in his current job since 2007.
His advice for someone about to take the general counsel’s reins? “Know your business. Trust your judgment. Speak up. Value and support the members of your team. Work with your clients to get to smart solutions that help them do what they want to do in a way that mitigates legal and reputational risk.” And one piece of advice about communications: “Make sure that your clients get in a room together before making important decisions, rather than relying on email. There’s no substitute for face-to-face conversations about important subjects.”
Lieberman grew up in Durham, N.C., where his father was a physiology professor. Accordingly, he’s a “huge Duke basketball fan.” He also enjoys tennis, jogging and reading fiction.
His wife, Lauren, is an administrator for a Washington preschool. They have two children, Sarah (14) and Josh (10). Outside of work, he is a mentor in Everybody Wins! D.C. reading program. The family are active members of Washington Hebrew Congregation.
LAST BOOK AND MOVIE
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo; Men In Black 3.
This article originally appeared in The National Law Journal.