Features

Jennifer Chung – AccuWeather

Diversity in the forecast

For nearly 60 years, AccuWeather has belied one of Bob Dylan’s most iconic lyrics: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

What began as a service in central Pennsylvania disseminating localized weather forecasts has blown up like an all-encompassing low-pressure front. Today, AccuWeather forecasts are found online, in print, over the airwaves, and by asking Alexa.

As the pioneer in commercial weather forecasting, AccuWeather is big enough to be ubiquitous in the industry, but it’s not a status taken lightly by the company—or Jennifer Chung, its general counsel.

“We always want to be on the forefront in terms of technology,” says Chung, who joined the company in 2019 following a three-year stint at Time Inc. “Our apps need to be efficient, attractive and user friendly. They are fantastic and my job is to protect them.”

Winds of change

Dr. Joel N. Myers founded AccuWeather in 1962 and remains its CEO. He first forecasted the weather for a utility company in Pennsylvania. Within a year, he’d added a ski area, but the company provided only winter forecasts initially as the skiing industry, construction companies and local highway departments became customers.

In the early 1970s, AccuWeather entered the media spaces: first through radio, followed by TV and print.

Still headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania, AccuWeather’s forecasts are now accessed by more than 1.5 billion people globally, featured on 180,000 websites, and receive more than 35 billion data requests daily.

But it’s not just weather worries that bring people to AccuWeather, Chung says. It’s the long-range accuracy, detail, specificity and accessibility that make the difference.

“At the very least, you can rely on the AccuWeather forecast to tell you whether you need an umbrella for a specific neighborhood, even in a large city like New York,” she says.

Diminishing the paper storm

Since arriving at the company, Chung has made automation a big piece of the company’s legal climate change. In 2020, that focus will fall specifically on the contracting processes, integrating everything from intake to storage to a Microsoft Dynamics customer-relationship management platform.

According to Chung, the cloud-based program will allow her team to review thousands of contracts for vendors and customers alike, helping them streamline how those documents are developed, reviewed and approved. The labor time saved can then be applied to projects such as trademark and IP protection, which are currently handled by outside counsel.

Because AccuWeather’s legal staff works globally, having a cloud-based tool that allows Chung to set the policies on accessing files was of paramount importance.

“While the choice in the operating system and who’s managing it remains with IT,” she says. “I get to choose who in my department handles what.”

Contract management is the second labor-saving step she’s led. The first step: sorting out and improving workflow from outside counsel billing. AccuWeather typically works with a dozen outside firms and vendors, and when Chung arrived, those invoices were sorted through by hand.

Not only did the process take more than 40 hours per month; it also made it more likely that a discrepancy or agreed-upon rate would get missed in paper piles that can often resemble a snowbank.

So Chung raised the flag—Brightflag, that is—a matter management and automated billing review platform that can be programmed to catch discrepancies in billing hours and rates.

The platform reduced the legal staff’s hours to about five per month, while generating close to 30 percent in savings in outside counsel payments by catching the errors that used to slip by. It also allows greater visibility into how time was being spent in different areas, Chung says.

Batten the IP hatches

“I’m lucky that AccuWeather is such as known brand,” Chung says. “But what’s hard is people will take the data from us or someone else and say it is AccuWeather data. But if it’s not right and it’s not ours, people will think we’re the ones who got it wrong.”

IP and brand protection would consume her entire workday, if Chung allowed it. Fake apps are a particular problem, but she and the outside counsel she manages for trademark protection must target their efforts on where there are the most users or revenue generated.

She has not worked alone in protecting IP. Attorney Matthew D. Asbell has known Chung for nearly a decade and pitched in when needed as an outside counsel.

“Our professional relationship spawned a true friendship, founded on candor and transparency, mutual respect and a real desire to help each other and to help our respective employers,” he says.

Both Chung and Asbell keep an eye on the bottom line, but what has also blossomed are networks they have opened to each other for development and support.

“We have served as each other’s supports in times of doubt, transition or concern about our respective careers, Asbell says. “I am deeply proud to have the continued opportunity to work with Jennifer and to be her friend.”

Leading for tomorrow

Just as she aims to nurture long-term outside counsel partnerships, Chung wants to help develop sustainable, diverse leadership for her company—and her profession.

A native New Yorker who recalls being unsure of her aspirations because there were so few Asian-American women in fields that interested her, Chung sought out her own advisers while informally building networks with her peers to help younger attorneys.

“I feel like I’ve been lucky to have amazing mentors,” Chung says. “But I’ve also had the flip side—people who viewed me as fungible, just a commodity. I want to make sure no one goes through that ever, so I’m always ready for catching up over drinks and dinner and professional advice.”

Chung earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and Asian studies from Cornell University in 1998 and remains part of its Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network to foster diversity and inclusion in admissions.

“True diversity happens when you don’t have to question everything just because it’s different,” she says.

Following her graduation from Albany Law School in 2001, she became an assistant district attorney in New York County (Manhattan), where she handled appeals on criminal cases.

After three years, she shifted to private practices, litigating for almost a decade before returning to the public sector as assistant counsel for the New York State Department of Economic Development.

In 2014, she came in-house with Time Inc., where she oversaw trademark protection and developed an appreciation for the generalist’s role.

That appreciation endures, Chung says the commitment to serving others is much clearer as an in-house attorney.

“This profession tends to skew going into big law, but that world can be artificial and lonely if you don’t understand why you’re there or how to be a part of that team,” Chung says. “My role is to understand and support the business. The rules here are better delineated and it’s cool to be part of a something that is impacting people all over the world.”

Published on: April 17, 2020

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