The In-House Department That Relationships Built

How the Abercrombie & Fitch legal department came into its own as a partner of the business

Abercrombie & Fitch is a brand-centric company; its name is central to its product. Logic follows that it needs a robust defense team protecting its intellectual property, but that team didn’t always exist in-house. Reid Wilson, the company’s associate GC of global intellectual property for the last decade, helped A&F’s first general counsel build the in-house legal department from the ground up. That department’s success, he insists, hinged on collaboration.

Wilson’s involvement with A&F goes back to 2001, when he joined Vorys, an Ohio-based law firm acting as outside counsel for A&F at the time. What started with a few urgent clearance matters led to a full-time job when A&F decided to create its first ever in-house legal department. “I found the A&F work to be fun and exciting and imagined what it might be like to practice trademark law on the inside,” Wilson says. “I was especially drawn to the idea of being part of the team, rather than an outside advisor, and came to believe that the corporate counsel role might just be my calling.”

In-house legal departments require a sophisticated level of finesse with interdepartmental collaboration—a skill not always taught in law schools, but one at which Wilson excels.

To succeed in his role as IP counsel, he quickly realized the need to convince his business partners of two facts: first, that he was genuinely on their team and fighting for the same causes; and second, that incorporating his advice into their decisions would benefit them individually and to the corporation in the long run.

A&F’s design, merchandising, and marketing units, for example, needed to be confident that Wilson and his team are fighting for every inch of content that can be cleared.

Wilson invested time working through various issues and brainstorming creative strategies to overcome obstacles and reduce risk and saw real returns: not only were potential liabilities preemptively resolved, but strong partnerships were forged between the fledgling legal department and the rest of the company in the process.

“The heart and soul of a corporate legal team is the network of internal relationships developed over time and built on trust,” says Wilson. In the beginning, he was the only member of the IP group, allowing him plenty of opportunity for one-on-one collaboration with key staff members, which cemented relationships that continue to bear fruit.

As an example, Wilson put in place a mechanism for A&F’s real estate team, which regularly updates a document identifying their evolving plans for brick-and-mortar stores within a five-year horizon. “If you have a close relationship with real estate,” he says, “you are more likely to learn of the surprising, off-calendar addition to the chart through a courtesy phone call. As we know, the only constant is change, particularly in retail.”

These internal relationships keep the IP team’s information as current and comprehensive as possible, making it easier to adapt to unforeseen changes when they occur. Wilson is grateful he had the opportunity to cultivate those relationships early on, but he says the opportunity to handpick and develop his own IP team was equally, if not more, gratifying. “I performed most of the functions myself that I would later ask others to take over,” he says, “which provided an incredibly valuable perspective that I try to utilize daily in delegating, managing, and leading the team.”

Wilson spent his first two years at A&F as the only IP attorney on staff, which required heavy reliance on outside counsel and “a lot of time in the weeds while trying to develop and maintain a big-picture strategy.” He says that phase wasn’t cost-effective, which made a compelling case for creating an internal team. Senior management eventually endorsed having an in-house IP team.

In Wilson’s mind, the key to selecting staff was to find not only people who would excel individually, but those who would “blow the roof off as a synergistic team.” The A&F IP group is a team of nine internal staff: five attorneys, three paralegals, and an intern. Wilson says it is, “in my humble view, the best IP group anywhere.” He adds that it’s the best team to carry the IP load for A&F as the company continues to evolve and enters the next chapter of its storied history.