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There's been a lot of talk about general counsel becoming a more integral part of the corporate leadership team. But nothing pushes in-house counsel into a position of influence like a significant legal crisis.
Case in point: Heather Dietrick, Gawker Media's president and general counsel. After joining the company three years ago, Dietrick has shepherded the online blog network through a series of legal defeats, as best as one can, and has found herself in a leadership position that's fairly unique among general counsel.
Out of Obscurity and in Control
If you're not familiar with Gawker's current legal troubles, here's a quick refresher. Gawker, who helped pioneer blogging and now has a network of websites covering everything from sports to feminism to video games, published, in 2012, a brief sex tape featuring retired professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Hogan sued, secretly supported by conservative tech billionaire Peter Thiel, whom Gawker had outed in 2007. Last March, a jury awarded Hogan $140 million, leading Gawker to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week.
And while Nick Denton, Gawker's founder, has been the public face of the company during its recent legal difficulties, Dietrick was playing an increasingly central role behind the scenes. According to a recent profile in The New York Times, she has moved out of the "obscurity" in which many G.C.'s work and has taken over many day-to-day tasks:
Throughout the Hulk Hogan case, she has been the bridge between the newsroom and Gawker's legal proceedings. She manages much of the company's editorial operations and has a formal role in editorial decision-making. And though Mr. Denton is still arguably the public face of Gawker, she has been called on repeatedly to represent the company during periods of turmoil.
"The place would not run without Heather," Mr. Denton said in a recent interview. "She's the person that holds everything together."
Part of the Team
Of course, Dietrick doesn't do it all on her own. She's brought "a sense of professionalism and diplomacy" to the company, the Times reports, but has done so with a team of supporting attorneys and employees. Dietrick and four lawyers handle the company's legal matters, from licensing deals to those pesky Thiel lawsuits.
Meanwhile, she's reached across company boundaries, to gain "the trust of editorial staff members, who view her more as a partner than an adversary."
That success could be in part because of Dietrick's openness to the rest of the company. Instead of being cloistered away like many in-house attorneys, Dietrick works from a couch in the company lounge and invites employees over to her house for pizza and beer.
Of course, not everyone envies Dietrick's greater role. "She actually has more jobs than one human should probably have," longtime Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan told the Times.