This is CNN’s Lawyer
Louise Sams wears many hats at Turner Broadcasting System
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2008 magazine
on August 1, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Some 18 years ago, Louise Sams had a professional encounter that, in retrospect, probably qualifies as a defining moment. Sams was in her fifth year as an associate at the New York law firm White & Case, and headhunters had her in their sights. They used their standard pitch: she was running out of time to move on to a better job; if she stayed at White & Case much longer she’d find herself on the partnership track; if she didn’t watch out, nobody else would want to hire her because she was too senior. “I wasn’t really buying it,” she recalls, “but I thought: OK, I’ll look around just for the hell of it.” She went downtown for an interview with a representative from a New York investment bank, but from the moment she shook hands with him, she suspected the meeting would not go well. Her suspicions were confirmed when her interviewer leaned back in his chair and in portentous tones asked the obligatory question of standard-issue bosses everywhere:
“So, Louise,” he said, “where do you see yourself in 10 years?”
Knowing already that she had no interest in working for the gentleman sitting across from her, Sams refused to play along. “Of course, I’m supposed to say, ‘Well, I want your job,'” she recalls with obvious relish. “But instead I said, ‘I’ll be honest with you. What I want to be able to do in 10 years is to look back to this moment right now, and say: If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be here, I would have said you’re crazy.'”
Her answer did not go over well. “He looked at me like I had three heads,” Sams says. Needless to say, she did not get the job. But the answer she gave that day sums up what might well be her philosophy about the worthlessness of career plans. “I want it to be like, ‘Oh my God, how did I get here from there?'” she says. “I don’t like plans, because plans, as they relate to your life and your career, can cause you to not see all the opportunities that are out there. You get on this road and you’ve got blinders on to all the cool things that are out there that don’t necessarily fit into this plan that you made when you were a bonehead and didn’t even understand what the opportunities were. So I’ve never had a plan, really.”
Even if Sams had sat down and written out a trajectory for her career, it almost certainly would not have set her on a path toward the job she now holds: executive vice president and general counsel of Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) and president of TBS International. For a woman without a plan, she’s improvised quite nicely. “Yes,” she acknowledges, “10 years ago, if you had said to me, ‘You’re going to be general counsel of Turner Broadcasting and you’re going to be the president of TBS International,’ I’d be, ‘Get out of here—are you kidding?’ But that’s the way life should be.”
The unpredictable course that took Sams to her current position as one of the country’s top corporate attorneys and executives began, appropriately enough, in the same place she finds herself now. She grew up in Atlanta—one of four children—and attended the Westminster Schools in Buckhead, Ga. After graduation, she headed off to Princeton University, where she majored in English. Then she landed in New York, where she took a job with the wholesale division of Burberry’s on Sixth Avenue. The sales business didn’t suit her, though, and after three years of selling “raincoats and brollies” (umbrellas) she set off on a new adventure: law school at the University of Virginia. During her first few months there, she started to wonder whether she had made a mistake. “I thought: OK, I’m going to be reading these cases and be so inspired,” she recalls. “Achh! They were ghastly. It was dry. It was boring. It was long-winded. And I was like: Get to the point already! I thought, ‘Oh, God, am I going to hate this?'” But she didn’t hate it. After earning her degree, she returned to New York as an associate at White & Case.
The newly minted attorney earned her stripes at the New York firm, working on a wide variety of business transactions—many of them for international clients. Seven years later, she headed back to her hometown to accept a new position in the legal department at TBS.
The switch to in-house counsel was a little rough at first. As Sams quickly learned, TBS is not White & Case. “Obviously,” she says, “coming from a large New York law firm, you get used to having a 24-hour word-processing center, people who are at your beck and call, paralegals coming to do these big distributions and sending things out FedEx, and all you’ve got to do is the legal work. In-house, the world is very different. You’re basically on your hands and knees, begging your assistant to stay for an extra two hours to type something. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And all of a sudden I’m saying, ‘No, no, no. I’ll do the documents. No problem.’ It was a nightmare. But we did it. And in some respects I’m glad that we did because I sort of, as a consequence, had proven my worth to the company without any question.”
Sams rose swiftly through the ranks, playing prominent legal roles in TBS’s acquisitions of Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema and in its 1996 merger with Time Warner. Jack Dalton, who as an attorney with the Atlanta firm Troutman Sanders has served as a primary litigator for Turner, was immediately impressed by Sams’ energy, intelligence and coolness under pressure. “She’s unflappable,” he says. “I’ve never seen any lack of evenness or control in what can be testy stuff.” The Time Warner deal triggered a breakup of Turner’s legal staff, and in 1997, Sams was named general counsel of one of three new legal groups—a “strange little piece” that oversaw all legal needs that didn’t have to do with the company’s news or entertainment content. When that arrangement proved too cumbersome, TBS put its legal department back together. In 2000, it named Sams general counsel.
As general counsel, Sams oversees 80 attorneys and is responsible for a mind-bending array of legal matters—from business acquisitions to litigation to intellectual property to the reviewing of investigative reports on CNN, and, more recently, digital and new media. Whereas before she reveled in hands-on lawyering, now she had to become more of a delegator. “In the early stages I may be more involved,” she says. “When we’re looking at a term sheet or a memorandum of understanding, where we’re doing the broad strokes of how we’re going to structure a transaction, I may be much more involved in that. But when we ultimately get down to the negotiation of long-form documents that will reflect the agreements that are in this term sheet, that’s when a lot of the negotiation is turned over to my deputies.”
As Sams moved up TBS’s legal pecking order, she began to develop an interest in the business side of the company’s operations. In her position as in-house counsel, she was expected to sit in on board meetings, and those meetings were—to say the least—eye-opening. “We had an interesting board,” Sams says with a smile. “We had Ted [Turner], and that’s interesting right there. But we also had John Malone [of Liberty Media] and Gerry Levin [of Time Warner] and Brian Roberts [of Comcast]. And they would all talk about the future of cable. It was a very interesting introduction for me into this industry because in my private practice I had not been involved in media at all. So this was new for me.”
In the fall of 2003, Sams’ interest in the business side of TBS turned into something more. Chairman and CEO Philip Kent announced that the company had named Sams president of TBS International, the division responsible for the creation, production and distribution of all Turner entertainment and news networks aired outside North America. And what’s more, Kent announced, Sams would retain her job as the company’s general counsel. Suddenly TBS’s top corporate attorney was also a top corporate executive responsible for generating millions of dollars in revenue for the company.
Sams realized when she accepted the dual role that her two jobs could potentially create a conflict of interest. What would happen, for example, if in her zeal to close an international business deal she too easily downplayed the legal risks that might be involved? Who would step in to apply the brakes? Anticipating such questions, Sams handed over most of the responsibility for the company’s international legal matters to one of her deputies, Trish Jones, who is now general counsel for TBS International. But Jones insists no one should worry about Sams’ ability to balance the best interests of both the business and the legal side. “The best in-house lawyers have a lot of commercial acumen,” Jones says. “I think Louise, because she’s so bright, has an exceptional gift when it comes to understanding the business nuance and weighing the legal exposure to the company.”
But the question remains: how does she manage to perform what are essentially two full-time, high-level corporate jobs at the same time? That’s easy, say her colleagues. Focus.
“Louise has got a lot of energy,” says Dalton. “And she focuses it on the task.”
Jones agrees. “She’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever known.”
If Sams herself is ever overwhelmed by her responsibilities, she’s awfully good at hiding it. She acknowledges she doesn’t sleep much. She spends more time in meetings than she’d like. She admits her car is often the first one in the parking lot in the morning and the last one to leave at night. But she insists she’s not a slave to her job. (“Don’t portray me as pathetic, please.”) She reads every kind of book (even trashy ones), collects wine and works out daily. “I even try to take a vacation every once in a while,” she says. For the moment, TBS’s top lawyer-slash-executive gives every impression of being comfortable in her two hats. “It’s not as daunting as it seems,” she says before pausing for effect. “At least I keep telling myself that.”