Karen Mayer: General Counsel of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
by Charisse Dengler
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Mayer, who is a member of Penguin's fully-staffed, five-attorney legal team, has worked for a number of other publishing companies in the past, including Simon & Schuster, Random House, and The Putnam Berkley Group. However, when Putnam Berkley merged with Penguin in 1996—a merger that Mayer said was one of the most gratifying things she's ever worked on—she became the general counsel for the combined companies.
This merger was "very labor intensive but also very rewarding," she said. Mayer was a key player in helping the acquisition move ahead because she "was able to answer questions that people had about the way the company was being run and the legal issues it faced," she said. "In the end, it was satisfying to see all the pieces fall into place."
Penguin Group is currently "the second-largest English-language trade book publisher in the world," boasting well-known authors such as Nick Hornby, Tom Clancy, Joyce Carol Oates, Nora Roberts, John Steinbeck, and Arthur Miller. As if that isn't impressive enough, the company is also a leader in the realm of children's publishing and has an author list that includes Judy Blume, Ludwig Bemelmans, Tomie DePaola, and Don Freeman.
Mayer said that it is important for young lawyers to "first, get as much knowledge as they can, preferably in an outside legal position, to get as broad a base of training and preparation as they can, [and] to try and focus in on the industries that they're interested in."
She also recommended that students "build their skills at the best law firms that they can possibly find." Mayer said her experience working in private practice has contributed to her success as a general counsel. "Working in a firm has made me a better lawyer, and understanding how a firm functions has helped me to work with our outside counsel," she said.
Mayer, who studied philosophy as an undergrad, wasn't sure what type of graduate degree she wanted to pursue. She had never imagined she would want to become a lawyer. In fact, she came upon her interest in a somewhat unusual way.
"I asked a friend, who was a lawyer and who seemed to have interests that were similar to mine, if he would please loan me his most boring casebook," she said.
When he loaned her his casebook on agency, she found that instead of being bored, she was fascinated. She decided to go to New York University School of Law, and upon graduation from law school, she went to work as an associate in the litigation department of Proskauer Rose, LLP. However, with three young children at home, Mayer decided to transition to an in-house position.
"I wanted a more manageable lifestyle, and I wanted something that was more concrete and practical," she said. "At the time, I had three children, and I felt rather strongly that the life of a litigation associate or partner was simply too difficult to combine with that of being a suburban mother."
Mayer enjoys her job immensely, and she especially loves the fact that every day is different and challenging. She said she likes that she gets to work on a variety of issues on a daily basis. In addition, she said her job is made even better by the talented colleagues and authors she interacts with daily.
She said the most challenging aspect of her job is "simplifying complex legal issues so that people can actually act on some of the complex things that we face as lawyers in the intellectual property area."
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. Ballroom dancing, sailing, and reading
Q. What CD was most recently in your CD player?
A. Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin
Q. What is the last book you read?
A. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Q. What is your favorite TV show?
A. Ugly Betty
Q. Who are your role models?
A. Gerald Hollingsworth, who was GC for another publisher. When I was young, it was Brenda Starr, an old comic book character.
When asked if she had any advice for law students who have their sights set on general counsel positions, Mayer advised students to "build their skills at the best law firms they can find because most in-house positions require a good deal of outside experience in related fields." She said her experience working for Proskauer Rose has helped her tremendously in her current position.
"Working in a firm and understanding how a firm functions has helped me to work with our outside counsel and to be a much better lawyer," she said.
She also encouraged students to gather as much information and experience as possible and to build a solid foundation in the areas of law in which they are interested, both on the job and through volunteer work.