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Stephanie Abrutyn

Defending Quality Programs for HBO

By Susan Josephs

When law students ask Stephanie Abrutyn for career advice, she tells them “to find something else you’re interested in and match that up with being a lawyer. So many lawyers wind up hating what they do,” she says. “I love what I do.”

As vice president and senior counsel of litigation for HBO, Abrutyn has successfully married her expertise in communications law with her passion for high-quality entertainment and political television programs. “What I do is often not all that different from a lawyer working in banking or any other field,” she says. “I just happen to be genuinely interested in the business I represent and believe in the products I’m defending.”

Abrutyn, 41, spends her days as a watchdog for the storied cable network’s intellectual property and its vulnerability to lawsuits. This might involve writing cease-and-desist letters, negotiating with people who threaten to sue or vetting pages of political jokes for the talk show Real Time with Bill Maher for any legally problematic material. Satisfaction on the job happens “when I figure out a solution to a problem with a show pre-broadcast. Then I can help get the show on the air without the risk of a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars,” she says.

Raised in Potomac, Md., Abrutyn grew up fascinated by television and politics and says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a lawyer. Her father was also an attorney, and “my personality is similar to his,” she says. “I’m very capable of being rational in any given situation.”

Abrutyn credits her mother, a tireless volunteer in a number of Jewish organizations, for imprinting her “with feeling a responsibility to the Jewish community. This definitely shaped the adult I turned into,” she says, adding that she still attends her childhood synagogue in Rockville, Md., for High Holiday services. “I’m still very much connected to the Jewish community I grew up with.”

After completing a double major in political science and economics at Colgate University, Abrutyn attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania. She first worked at a Washington, D.C.-based law firm specializing in First Amendment cases before moving to New York City and onto various in-house counsel positions at several high-profile media outlets, including ABC and the Tribune Company. Her professional success, she observes, stems from a mixture of luck, great mentors, a refusal to be intimidated in high-pressure situations and “not taking things personally.”

“I’ve always been able to separate my emotions in the workplace, but I have seen other women suffer,” she says of corporate environments where men still inhabit the majority of senior management positions. “And as an attorney, I will say there are certain behaviors of my job where men are perceived as go-getters and women as overly aggressive.”

Making it a priority to “have a life outside the office,” Abrutyn has served in a variety of leadership roles, which have included co-chairing the Women in Communications Law division of the American Bar Association’s Communications Law Forum. She’s also a marathon runner, an amateur photographer and an intrepid traveler who has visited every continent except Antarctica. “I’ve had the opportunity to do amazing things in my life,” she says. “My colleagues and I like to joke that we’re among the luckiest people in the world, working in this area of the law where it’s possible to be on the right side of it and still get paid well.”

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