Since 1996, Doug Gaston has worked as one of the lawyers assisting Comcast’s team at Comcast’s base in Philadelphia. In that almost 18 years, Gaston has advanced to Comcast Cable’s senior vice president and general counsel, working closely with head corporate attorney Art Block, Esq.
Gaston provides day-to-day support to the company’s operating departments at headquarters, and in each of the three divisions. His cable law department provides legal support across a wide range of subjects, including, among others, commercial contracts, content acquisition, customer service, litigation, marketing and advertising, patent prosecution, and privacy.
Because the role of a telecom entity’s top legal officer is of such importance – yet one that is so underestimated and in normal trade journals, so rarely told – “Mixed Signals” chooses to present this 4-part series, focusing segment spokespeople who both understand the importance of law and regulation within the industry, but also convey some of their thinking, strategy, and passion for the job. Prior submissions have covered Dish Network’s Stanton Dodge, Esq. and TiVo’s Matt Zinn, Esq. An additional snapshot in the coming week will focus on Viacom’s general counsel, as well.
Here below first is a quick biographical look at Doug Gaston, followed by a slightly-edited/slightly-corrected set of questions and answers, conducted earlier this month. Questions were developed with an idea toward taking a look at the person behind the job, and his thinking, motivations, and goals, both on behalf of his company and on behalf of his profession. Also, because long ago I, too, worked as a lawyer for a big telecom’s legal department, I thought I might be able to add a few unique perspectives and clarifications, where necessary and/or optimal.
Doug Gaston, A Brief Biography:
Doug Gaston serves Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), the largest pay TV provider in the United States today, with approximately 22 million subscribers nationwide.
Before joining Comcast, Doug was an associate in the business and finance department at the law firm of Morgan Lewis in Philadelphia, PA, where he worked on mergers and acquisitions, municipal finance, and other corporate transactions. He began his legal career as a judicial clerk for the Honorable Jan E. Dubois, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Prior to law school, Doug worked at what was then Suburban Cable Television in Delaware County, Penn., where he was responsible for local origination programming and production. Doug held a similar position for Harron Cable in Malvern, Penn., prior to joining WPHL-TV, Philadelphia, as a producer/director.
Doug also serves as an adjunct professor of law at Villanova University School of Law and is a member of the school’s board of consultors. He serves on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group, an organization committed to fostering participation of a more diverse group of lawyers in the Greater Philadelphia Region. In 2008, Mr. Gaston was inducted into the Temple University School of Communications Hall of Fame.
Mixed Signals’ Q & A:
Mixed Signals: Tell “Mixed Signals” about your schooling?
Doug Gaston: I hold a B.A. in Radio, Television and Film, from Temple University, in Philadelphia. I worked as a television producer/director for a number of years before deciding to go to law school. I earned my J.D. from Villanova University Law School, where I served as a staff member on the Villanova Law Review.
MS: What is your staff size?
DG: I think it is important to start with an overview of how our organization is structured. Art Block is our parent company general counsel. That includes the entire family of Comcast companies, including Comcast Corporation and NBCUniversal, the cable division, and Comcast Ventures, and Comcast-Spectator. Within the cable unit I lead, we have a full-time staff of about 57, with 40 attorneys. We're organized into five working groups, each led by a senior attorney. Over the years, we’ve tried to specialize and provide more depth of expertise, in areas such as litigation, content acquisition, tech licensing, marketing, general operations, and advertising sales among others. I’ve tried to make sure our people are aligned with the businesses we support. My philosophy is to handle as much legal work internally as we can with attorneys who understand the business, the culture, and our products and services.
MS: How much time is spent on the road versus in the office?
DG: I spend about 90% of my time at HQ, because the majority of our group is located in Philadelphia. We also have a few attorneys in North Jersey, Chicago, and Denver.
MS: To where to you make typical visits to?
DG: When I do travel, it’s usually to one of our division or regional offices.
MS: Why is a general counsel important to a big telecom?
DG: I don't really consider myself a “telecom” lawyer, nor Comcast a “telecom” company, in the true sense of the word. Rather, we've evolved into a media and technology company. That's a more fitting description of who we are. With video, broadband and voice services, millions of customers, operations in 39 states, over 100,000 employees, and relationships with hundreds of vendors, we have a lot of moving parts. A major reason my role is importaint is that all those moving parts create legal issues and concerns that need attention, coordination, and focus. A big part of my job is to build and coach the team, get the right people with the right skills to help our business colleagues move the business forward.
MS: What are the core things you do?
DG: I provide strategic direction and tactical advice on many of the issues that come up through my group, from contract negotiations, issues related to our products and services, dispute resolution, selection of outside resources, and implementation of company policies. I work closely with the Comcast Cable senior management team to solve problems and make sure they have the legal support and input they need. Part is making sure we understand what we're trying to accomplish and have the facts we need to provide good advice.
MS: What are your personal legal favorites?
DG: Over the years, I've found the most interesting work comes from being involved in the development and launch of a new product. It's a big part of what we do and we've had a lot of success in that area. Our business team is more focused than ever on innovation and staying relevant to customers and that's exciting. It's a challenging and dynamic process that requires us to understand how the product works, how it will impact our customers, and how the legal landscape will affect our options and choices.
MS: What duties are not so pleasant?
DG: In a perfect world, it would be great if there were no litigation, but a company our size is going to have disputes, so we try to resolve them in the best way we can. Litigation is costly, time consuming, and it can be a distraction from our main focus of managing the business. At the same time, it can be instructive in terms of practices and procedures we can implement to reduce our risks.
MS: What duties are the most important?
DG: I’d say proactively identifying risks and helping our business colleagues avoid them. I tend to take a business-centric approach to many issues. It's all about finding smart, practical solutions, ones that help us execute the business game plan. Equally important is trying to make sure we create and maintain a culture where ethics and intrgrity are always top proiorities.
MS: What are big legal controversies or issues ahead? FCC? Copyright? Etc?
DG: Obviously, a lot of people are looking at the Aereo case and similar cases, because of the issues those services raise. It will be interesting to see what direction the new FCC chairman takes. Obviously, technology and innovation are changing the way consumers access information and entertainment. Keeping up with consumer behavior and patterns, finding ways to stay relevant with subscribers, and responding to competition will create interesting issues.
MS: Can you talk about some current legal trends? E.g. settlement? Fast tracking of cases?
DG: Over the last couple of years, the trend in the courts regarding the enforceability of arbitration clauses is something we've been closely involved with and it's a trend we hope will continue. It's important for a company like ours with lots of relationships. Courts of appeals and the Supreme Court, where we won our first ever appeal to that body, have looked at the issue carefully and conclued that arbitration can be an effective dispute resolution mechanism.
MS: Can you identify a couple of current legal challenges?
DG: I’d say first keeping up with the technology, which is rapidly changing how we do things, and how we need to respond from a competitive point of view. The second thing is that the focus on technology has a number of implications as far as intellectual property is concerned. Making sure we're obtaining the distribution rights we need now and in the future is extremely important. The patent side is a significant focus for us too -- from both the litigation and the prosecution side -- where we continue to grow our portfolio. We've also been keeping our eye on recent legislative activity relating to patents.
MS: What are a couple of the current opportunities?
DG: Given our size and scope, there are always opportunities to improve how we do things that will help us meet our legal obligations. Training and awareness are areas we're focused on, as well as streamlining our customer communications to make them easier to understand. Also, there’s always the challenge of trying to get in front of issues before they turn into problems. We're continuing to look at relationships with our outside counsel to find ways to work more effectively and efficiently together.
MS: What has been the best event or occurrence in your legal life that taught or impressed a lesson on you?
DG: When I was an associate at Morgan Lewis, l worked on an IPO for a partner named Steve Goodman. It was a difficult deal to work on for a number of reasons and I became the lead attorney when a more senior associate who had been working on it left the firm. I was in my third year of practice at that point. The deal eventually closed and that was a moment in my career where I thought “hey, I could be pretty good at this.” I learned a lot from Steve who is someone I consider a mentor and who I respect very much. Another that comes to mind is a franchise negotiation early in my career with Comcast. I think I won every point in the negotiations, but when the municipal authority declined to ratify the contract, I had to rethink what winning really meant.
MS: Who else in your background legally impressed you?
DG: The judge I worked for, Jan DuBois. He had a sharp legal mind and was an excellent writer, who taught me a lot about drafting and how to think through and dissect a legal issue.
MS: Who in your background non-legally impressed you?
DG: That is a long list. It's hard to single out one particular person, but my biggest role model has always been my grandfather. He had sixth grade education, but he was one of the smartest people I've ever known. He had great integrity, common sense, and compassion.
MS: If you could do the legal experience over again, what would you change?
DG: Not much -- maybe make the decision to go to law school earlier in my career. This is a second career for me. Or, pursue a joint law/MBA program. I really do like the business aspects of practicing law and being part of a business.
MS: What is an example of what you can think of some unique humor in the job?
DG: One of the things I have always loved about Comcast is that while we are serious about the work, trying to be the best and competing fairly, we have a group of people who don't take themselves too seriously, keep their cool under pressure, and realize a little humor keeps things loose and fun.
Jimmy Schaeffler is a telecom author and chairman and CSO of the Carmel-by-the-Sea-based streaming, broadcast and pay TV/video consultancy, The Carmel Group (www.carmelgroup.com).