Features

Leslie Nettleford Freeman – AARP

Associate general counsel protects the AARP brand

In AARP’s Office of the General Counsel, Leslie Nettleford Freeman and her team scour the internet to make sure no one’s handing out fake AARP discounts. They also confirm whether companies that claim to be working with AARP are actually authorized to do so, and they send cease-and-desist letters to websites inappropriately using the AARP trademark.

“We were successful in taking down one bad actor who had registered over 50 domain names containing the trademark AARP,” Freeman says. “That win was a significant success; it serves as a deterrent when people see that you are working hard to enforce your trademark.”

Leslie Nettleford Freeman | Associate General Counsel | AARP

Leslie Nettleford Freeman | Associate General Counsel | AARP

Under Freeman’s guidance, AARP’s brand-protection team has grown, and now has representation from different wings of the organization: digital, marketing and IT.

Still, Freeman says there’s no shortage of bad actors trying to take advantage of seniors, and as the largest nonprofit dedicated to serving the 50-plus demographic, AARP has its work cut out. Hired 23 years ago to help expand AARP into all 50 states, Freeman says her long tenure with the organization demonstrates her fulfillment in her job.

“If I’m helping a department launch a program on a new website and reviewing that site’s terms and conditions, or if I’m looking at an article that’s about to go out, making sure that we don’t have any potential copyright or defamation claims—whatever it is, I know that I’m furthering a bigger purpose,” she says.

Training colleagues

In addition to protecting AARP’s brand, Freeman spends time giving counsel and providing training opportunities for her colleagues on real-estate law and intellectual property rights. With a lean staff of attorneys and a substantial commercial lease portfolio of over 170 properties, Freeman has trained selected staff to process simple one-page renewals and similar agreements that don’t require attorney review.

“Our recent training was very successful,” Freeman says, adding that she remains available if her colleagues have any questions. “Our business team has the skills and know-how to process low-risk agreements and we are able to handle a great deal of work, even with limited resources.”

Freeman also helped develop AARP’s IP training. She covers copyright and trademark issues with an emphasis on the importance of licensing. And she makes clear that just because something is “publicly available” doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain.

Leslie Nettleford Freeman | Associate General Counsel | AARP

While she’s serving as the teacher in this case, she’s also learned a lot herself.

“When I started out as a young corporate lawyer, I was giving IP training and using real-life examples,” Freeman says. “That was a huge mistake. No one wants to have attention called to their particular issues. I was like, ‘Who cares? We’re all one big happy family,’ and then I quickly read the room and said, ‘Never again.’”

Now, Freeman uses examples from other companies. That goes over better, as do her efforts to spare her colleagues from a deposition, where they’d be subject to grueling, repetitive questions from opposing counsel.

“When we do the training and they see how these things actually play out in real life, it helps them to accept my advice,” Freeman says. “They understand that while something might seem like a minor change, it actually has real-world significance and not catching some of these things could result in fines or costly lawsuits.”

Building the legal toolbox

Whether she’s leading high-level IP training, reviewing copy for America’s most read magazine, AARP The Magazine, or lining up contracts for huge member event initiatives like “AARP Celebrates You,” Freeman finds a sense of purpose making a difference in the lives of older Americans.

A graduate of Washington Adventist University and Georgetown University Law Center, Freeman also received a certificate of executive education from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in 2015. After law school, she worked as a clerk for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists before moving on to become an associate with a boutique real estate law firm in DC.

After joining AARP in 2000, she also worked as an adjunct professor at Georgetown from 2009 to 2015 and most recently at Georgetown University Law Center, teaching a Week One course on Brand Protection Strategy, in 2023.

Freeman is arguably a better lawyer now than she was when she joined AARP; two key turning points in her career happened during her time there. One was the expansion from real property attorney to intellectual property attorney.

Leslie Nettleford Freeman | Associate General Counsel | AARP

“That was major,” Freeman says. “I started thinking about ownership in broader terms. Property isn’t just brick and mortar to be bought, sold and rented. Property is also digital; it consists of copyright and trademark.  You can have so much value, not just in physical things but also in things you can’t see and touch—the brand, the reputation, the invention, the music that we make.”

The other was branching out into brand protection. Freeman says heading the cross-departmental brand protection team has advanced her leadership skills and taught her how one can get things done when one is able to clearly communicate the goal.

“Our brand protection team is truly amazing,” Freeman says. “There’s no reporting hierarchy; all members of the team volunteer their time and collaborate to develop brand protection strategies that are important to their individual departments but will also benefit the organization as a whole.”

And at the end of the day, empowering seniors to live good lives is a goal most people can get behind.

“I love that AARP continues to evolve rapidly to meet the changing needs of the 50-plus population and that I get to be a part of the process,” Freeman says. “I enjoy working with departments to navigate legal boundaries so that we can meet AARP’s goals.”

View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2023 Edition here.

Published on: March 13, 2023

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