Create Corporate Infrastructure to Deal With Uncertainty

A conversation with Su-Jin Lee, POPSUGAR Inc.

With an extensive background in technology, Su-Jin Lee has addressed a variety of legal issues in her role as vice president and general counsel for media and digital publishing company POPSUGAR. She shares some of her insights on how in-house counsel need to prepare for the evolving priorities.

What are the main legal issues you have to address in a business model that includes digital publishing, e-commerce platforms, and a subscription box service?

While POPSUGAR may have started out as a media publisher, it has evolved into a global lifestyle brand for millennial women. Focusing on both content and commerce, the company has ventured into multiple business lines, including a cosmetics line, Beauty by POPSUGAR, and a festival event called POPSUGAR Play/Ground, a summer weekend event in New York City with 15,000-plus attendees. And POPSUGAR just reached its first anniversary of launching a women’s apparel collection with our partner at Kohl’s. Consumers who have come to love and trust our online content now rely on us for more and so do our advertiser partners.

With such evolution, the legal issues my team and I advise on today are more varied than they were when I joined the company five years ago. Of course, intellectual property is a priority, as well as data privacy and FTC compliance related to advertising, endorsements, and affiliate marketing. But as our services and the technology or methods of distribution evolve, our legal issues list has expanded. For example, a feature of our subscription box service POPSUGAR Must Have is called Must Have It where subscribers can purchase certain products via mobile text message — so now we are also on top of TCPA.

We also must address legal issues related to how we market and distribute the products and services of our advertising partners, and that could take us into laws relevant to the pharmaceutical, alcohol and beverage, financial services, or cannabis/CBD industries. When our legal issues, which were primarily focused toward an online business, have now come offline, we’ve had to adjust our legal analysis toolkit. At the core of it, though, is making sure we protect our brand and maintain the trust of our users and our advertiser partners.

What are the most challenging compliance areas faced by your organization?

General counsel sound like a broken record these days when talking about compliance challenges, but we are in unprecedented times navigating through data privacy and security compliance. As a global media and technology company and digital publisher, we just wrestled with the EU Generalized Data Protection Regulation (and arguably still are). And barely out of that fatigue, we are now looking down the barrel of the California Consumer Privacy Act for 2020.

It seems like every other week we hear about another state enacting new data privacy and securities laws, with legislators demanding more transparency and consumers demanding more choices. So companies like POPSUGAR have to create the infrastructure to deal with the uncertainty of what lies ahead so that we are able to pivot efficiently and effectively to build our businesses as our compliance obligations evolve.

Because of the practical challenges we face as a publisher in the digital advertising ecosystem, we must have consistent collaboration amongst legal, product, and engineering teams, both internally and industrywide, to develop solutions that balance compliance and consumer choice mechanisms. When I hear of one of our engineers voluntarily participating in an Internet Advertising Bureau task force on these matters, I know we’re moving in the right direction.

As our compliance challenges get more complicated, the composition of teams deep-diving into data privacy issues no longer consists primarily of lawyers, and that is a great thing. There’s truly an all-hands-on-deck mentality as we work together to solve these problems for the benefit of our businesses and customers.

With your extensive background in the technology sector, how would you advise other in-house counsel in the matter of adopting the legal tech tools that increasingly are becoming available?

As in-house counsel we are often being asked to do more with less under tighter budgets without compromising quality, service, or speed. Fortunately, given the increase in user-friendly technology for legal professionals over the past 20 years, we have more options to choose from and can better tailor the suite of solutions that work for our particular legal departments, no matter what size or industry. In-house legal and legal operations teams can optimize productivity and delivery of service to our internal business clients and manage their operations more efficiently than ever. So embrace it!

As legal and business advisers, when we are constantly and strategically identifying and prioritizing problems to solve, our ability to easily organize, extract, and leverage useful data is key. That could mean advanced technology solutions like artificial intelligence and analytics, e-discovery, contracts administration, and e-billing.

Even if you do not need or have the budget for all the bells and whistles, utilizing many of the free or low-cost solutions like collaboration software, matter management platforms, or training tools available today can mean delivering your work product or closing transactions in a fraction of the time it took a few years ago. And in the tech companies I’ve worked for, no one ever said ‘take all the time you need.’

When I see the level of technology development in our profession, and I hear of law firms now having chief technology and innovation officers, I get pretty excited about what is on the horizon. So, continue to experiment and adopt new solutions as your legal department grows and your business needs change. And the first solutions may not be the right ones, so be open to adjustments on this front. Eventually you’ll hit that sweet spot where you think, ‘how did we ever do our jobs without this?’

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