Brooke Mallette didn’t set out for a career in media. But through a combination of good timing, networking, and perseverance, she’s become vice president and associate general counsel at AT&T.
With a bachelor’s degree in economics and international affairs and a JD from the University of Colorado–Boulder, Mallette worked in the resort development industry for two years at the law firm of Jacobs Chase Frick Kleinkopf & Kelley. But the resort industry collapsed, and she found herself jobless.
“It actually was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she recalls. “I really disliked being a lawyer in a firm, and this enabled me to change my direction.”
A friend directed her to Dish Network, where she served as corporate counsel, handling mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance, annual reports, and similar natters. A few years later, she moved to the content side of the business, where distribution, licensing, and other complex agreements are hammered out.
“It was a sink-or-swim situation for me,” she says. “The hours were long, and the work was intense, but I found that I was up to it.”
In 2013, she was recruited by DirecTV as its assistant general counsel and just two years later, the company was acquired by AT&T.
Although AT&T had no history of laying off legal department staff, it did demote most of the DirecTV crew while offering a “stay or go” package. Seventy-five percent chose to leave.
Just returning from maternity leave, Mallette found that only one person remained on her team, and she was the last content lawyer. “I had to handle a major content deal by myself,” she says, “and that process can occupy a full team for weeks on end.”
To illustrate, documentation for a recent deal with the Walt Disney Company ran two thousand pages long. Why are content deals so complex? For each provider—Disney, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, broadcast networks, independent channels—AT&T must meticulously negotiate the terms and conditions of carriage deals, video-on-demand, retransmission rights, pay-per-view, copyrights, local channel carriage, and international coverage.
The next eighteen months were intense. Mallette quickly learned to navigate a drastically changed corporate culture, a more hierarchical structure, and even greater pressure to perform than she’d experienced earlier.
Even her communications changed. “My hiring manager at AT&T is a content specialist, and he understands the risks and benefits of the process. We could talk to each other in a kind of shorthand,” she says. “But the general counsel has about three hundred lawyers under him, so I had to learn to select the most relevant information and then summarize it clearly.”
Mallette survived the merger chiefly because of her specialized knowledge. But with only three of her original six DirecTV staff left, rebuilding was essential. Mallett did a lot of the initial vetting and interviewing, then had to train new hires in the intricacies of role.
Some adopted the new knowledge quickly. Others had to be integrated gradually via working with more experienced members on relatively small deals. Mallette says it took two years of training before everyone was up to speed, and her team of fifteen supports content officers and product and marketing clients throughout the company.
“Brooke’s understanding of content distribution matters is second only to her decency and leadership. AT&T is very lucky to have her,” says Thomas Baxter, partner at Venable.
While some executives come by their leadership skills naturally, Mallette had to work at hers. “I’m pretty much an introvert, and in my early days of law school, friends and classmates often claimed I was ‘too quiet’ or ‘too nice’ to be an effective attorney,” she explains. “So, I began building an ‘executive presence’ by taking management classes.
“And I discovered that ‘being nice’ is a good leadership trait,” she continues. “In order to follow you, people must trust you. And I’ve built that trust with my staff, because people will work harder if you develop good relationships.”
Her toolkit includes listening and reacting properly. “When you truly listen, you’re able to really understand their concerns. And you also learn to apply different techniques in different situations. It’s hard to lead without being able to do that,” Mallette says.
At DirecTV, Mallette had her hands in practically every content package. At AT&T, she had to develop a more hands-off attitude. The company’s perception of a leader is someone who supervises and advises as necessary, but lets the team do the heavy lifting. “It was tough to learn to give up that control,” Mallette says, “but I finally did it. The scope of my job compelled me to.”
A business adage claims that women wait to get into a new role until they’re 110 percent ready; men jump in when they’re 70 percent ready. But that’s not the way at AT&T. “If they think you’re ready to do the job, you do it!” Mallette says. “That’s why I got promoted—my boss believed I had the necessary skills, even though I didn’t.”
And that aversion to risk-taking may be the reason there are relatively few women in high-level positions. “Many times, I’m the only woman in the room,” she says. “It can be intimidating, and it forces me out of my comfort zone.”
But she concedes that one can’t change that environment in just a year or two. It’s a key reason she supports efforts such as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which advocates for the equal depiction of women in mass media, especially in positions of authority.
“The Institute’s motto is ‘if she can see it, she can be it.’ It’s important for young girls to understand that they can be anything they want to be,” Mallette says. “Their options aren’t necessarily limited to marriage and kids.”