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Viacom’s Shari Redstone on Why Everyone Needs a Good Lawyer

Variety logo Variety 4/18/2017 Brent Lang

From filing for divorce to challenging an eviction notice, there are plenty of times when Americans need a lawyer. But unlike in criminal cases, where people have the right to a public defender, in civil suits they need to pay for an attorney out of their own pocket.

“One of the things we take for granted in this country is that rule of law exists,” says Shari Redstone. “The entire legal system was built upon the assumption that people would have adequate representation. When they don’t, the system fails and the laws don’t matter.”

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That’s where Legal Services Corp. comes in. The group that Redstone supports provides funding to 134 legal-aid organizations, which, in turn, give counsel to close to 2 million people. Redstone is one of the most powerful voices in the entertainment business, overseeing her family’s controlling stakes in Viacom and CBS Corp., and running Advancit Capital, a new media investment fund. Before joining the global conglomerates, Redstone started her career as a defense attorney. It’s part of the reason she got involved as a member of Legal Services Corp.’s leaders council.

“I saw the legal system close up, and I understood that it was built by lawyers for lawyers, and unless you have an attorney to navigate it you’re not going to be successful,” says Redstone.

James Sandman, president of Legal Services Corp., praises Redstone for shining a spotlight on the justice gap.

“The biggest challenge we face is ignorance of the problem,” says Sandman. “Shari has access to platforms and audiences that most people in legal-aid circles don’t.”

When she’s not giving back, Redstone says she’s happiest spending time with her family, particularly her young grandchildren. A lot of bonding takes place in the kitchen.

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“I’m known for my desserts,” she says. “I do great monster cookies with the kids. They go into my cabinet and they get everything that they might want to put in a cookie and they put them all in cups so we’ve got the sprinkles and the chips and the chocolate.”

A chronic insomniac, Redstone has been getting advice from her friend Arianna Huffington about improving her sleeping habits. Advancit Capital is an investor in Huffington’s new startup, Thrive Global, a company that’s mission is to promote better a better work/life balance.

“I’m trying to make her proud,” said Redstone. “I need to figure out how to sleep better. Most of my binge watching is after midnight. Most of my baking is after ten. I’m really working on trying to sleep more. No devices in my bed, get into a routine. I’ve started doing yoga every night.”

There’s plenty to keep her occupied professionally. Redstone spent much of 2016 ousting Philippe Dauman from the chairman role at Viacom as the company’s share price plummeted. After prevailing in a legal battle, Viacom’s board tapped Bob Bakish, former head of the company’s international cable networks, to serve as CEO.

“Bob has a vision, he has a strategy, he creates a great culture, he builds great teams, and he works together with everyone,” said Redstone. “He listens and learns and makes decisions.”

Under Bakish, the company is trying to better integrate cable channels such as MTV and Comedy Central with Paramount, its film studio, so that the various divisions cross-pollinate to create fresh film franchises and TV series. As part of the shakeup, Viacom recently tapped Jim Gianopulos, the former head of 20th Century Fox’s film studio, to run Paramount.

“We’re really focused on creating great content on having a very strong financial results,” said Redstone. “I think Jim is going to be a great leader in working with the creative community and in working with Paramount to bring us back to where we deserve to be and will be.”

Redstone said she believes that the company is turning a corner.

“It’s a new day for Viacom,” said Redstone. “Businesses in order to be successful, it’s all about the culture. It’s all about the people. We lost that focus, but it’s back and I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity we have to be a leader in the industry.”

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