Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Barbara Cohen, the new VP, Legal and Business Affairs, North America for International Literary Properties to discuss her career and her new position. Cohen joined ILP in early January. She will lead the business affairs and contractual process for the company’s North American acquisition activity, bringing her decades of publishing, legal and business affairs expertise. Cohen has more than 30 years of experience as a media lawyer, including as a litigator in two pre-eminent New York law firms and in her senior in-house roles at book and newspaper publishing companies. Prior to establishing her own firm, Cohen was Vice President and General Counsel, Academic, at Oxford University Press, the largest university press in the world.
AALM: What are you most excited about in your new role with ILP?
BC: From the first time I heard about ILP’s business, I’ve been intrigued, and that interest has only grown the more I’ve learned. If I had to name one thing I’m most excited about now that I’m a part of ILP, it would be being part of a team of smart, committed people from whom I’m already learning a lot as we work together on ILP’s expanding portfolio of wonderful literary properties.
AALM: Tell us what first drew you to the legal industry.
BC: The first thing that drew me to the legal industry is not what’s kept me in it. I had a general sense that I wanted to go to graduate school, and I landed on law school through a process of elimination. But what’s kept me endlessly interested in my work was my chance discovery of media law – particularly supporting authors, journalists, and publishers and their collaborative work.
AALM: How did you find your way to working in the book/writing industry?
BC: Looking back on my career, it might appear that I followed a path. But for the most part I just followed my gut as opportunities came up – and I have been very lucky. After my first year of law school, I felt unsure about whether being a lawyer was for me, but I was sure about my love of books, so I moved to New York City and, through a help wanted ad, got a job in the publicity department at Viking Penguin. A few months in, a legal issue came up and, with one year of law school under my belt, I was asked to speak with the company’s outside lawyer (Martin Garbus, then of Frankfurt, Garbus, Kurnit, Klein & Selz). I was struck by how much he seemed to love the work he was doing, and that propelled me back to law school, energized by the goal of becoming a media attorney.
AALM: Tell us about your early career as a litigator in private practice. What prompted you to transition to an in-house role?
BC: Many lawyers complain about life as a first-year associate but, long hours aside, I had a wonderful experience at Cahill Gordon & Reindel. I benefitted from great training, both formal and on-the-job, and made friends for life, as I did when an opportunity came up to join what was then Lankenau Kovner Kurtz & Outten (now Davis Wright Tremaine). I gained substantial experience being part of a small firm helmed by the media bar’s preeminent lawyers and, were it not for the demands of life as a litigator, I would likely still be there today.
What prompted me to transition to an in-house role was a friend noticing that I looked a bit tired and then connecting me to a friend of hers who was looking to split her own in-house role upon returning from maternity leave. (This is the kind of good luck I’ve had!)
AALM: Tell us about your time with Oxford University Press and your other in-house roles.
BC: One of the best things about being in-house is the never-ending variety of issues that come up. The job is never boring! At OUP, no two days were alike and could include any variety of matters, from advising on copyright, trademark, and other intellectual property issues to negotiating and drafting publishing, eBook distribution, licensing, and other contracts to working with editors and authors on pre-publication review of manuscripts and multimedia content to supervising litigation matters to working on corporate acquisitions and beyond. All of this in a rapidly changing publishing environment, with a shift from print to digital and big tech becoming a key player. And what an honor it was to have been part of Oxford University Press. The flip side of a never-boring job is that it can be draining, so after 14 years I was ready for a change.
AALM: Tell us a bit about your experience running your own firm.
BC: Ahead of leaving Oxford University Press, I planned on giving myself a bit of breathing space to figure out what my next act would be. I ended up running my own firm not by plan but by chance. Before I left OUP, a friend who worked in-house at a media company asked if I could help cover for one of her colleagues, who would be away for much of the first month after I’d be leaving OUP. I jumped at the chance and started by doing pre-publication legal review of magazine articles – work that I had done earlier in my career. Doing the work, I was reminded of how much I love that sort of work so I just kept doing it, long past the planned-for month or two. And, energized by the work, I began doing work for other clients, including book publishers and authors.
AALM: Tell us about some of your mentors and the best lessons they taught you.
BC: I come from a big family and my first and most important mentors were and continue to be my siblings. I have also benefitted from my professional mentors, from whom I’ve learned not just about the law, but about being a lawyer and a professional balancing of work and family. When new opportunities have come along or challenges come up, I know that I can always count on these wise counselors. More than anything in particular that any of them has said, I’ve learned a lot just by watching them in action.
AALM: Looking back on your professional career to date, is there anything you’d change if you could?
BC: Looking back, the only thing I would change would be prioritizing using my vacation and spending even more time traveling with my family, exploring new places and experiencing other cultures together with them.
AALM: What are some of your hobbies outside of the office? How do you unwind?
BC: One of my hobbies outside of the office is what’s at the heart of my work: reading! I am also a novice gardener and, in the spring and summer, I spend as much time in the garden as I can.
AALM: Who are some of your favorite authors? Have you had a chance to meet any of them or work on any projects involving their work?
BC: I have had the honor of working with many wonderful authors. I won’t name any of them because I couldn’t name them all!
Beyond the authors I’ve worked with, it also feels impossible to name my favorites, but I’ll try. The list would include favorites from my childhood, including Maurice Sendak (In the Night Kitchen, Where the Wild Things Are, and the books in the Nutshell Library), Randall Jarrell (The Animal Family and The Bat-Poet, both illustrated by Maurice Sendak), Natalie Babbit (The Search for Delicious), Joan Aiken (Black Hearts at Battersea and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase), Roald Dahl (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) … through school favorites, including Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Stories of John Cheever … and up to the present, including just about anything by Jim Harrison (Warlock and Legends of the Fall are particular favorites), Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Tinkers by Paul Harding, Waterland by Graham Swift, and Blindness by Jose Saramago (the best book I wish I’d never read – it’s so dark!).