Benjamin C. Johnson, The Toy Lawyer

Why Benjamin C. Johnson of MGA Entertainment thinks ethics and teamwork are indispensable keys to survival in the cutthroat toy business

Benjamin C. Johnson, VP and Head of Litigation, MGA Entertainment Photo by Heather DelHoyo

“IP is the lifeblood of the company, especially in the fast-moving toy industry, where competition is cutthroat and a ‘take-no-prisoners’ attitude is common,” says MGA Entertainment Vice President and Head of Litigation Benjamin C. Johnson. Playing aggressive toy defense at the largest privately owned toy company in the United States, Johnson always wants to win. But it’s only worth it to him if he can win fairly.

“Any success you have that’s based on unethical or immoral practices is so temporary,” Johnson says. “You might win a motion today, but what’s the cost? Not only professionally, not only ethically, but morally. I know that win or lose, I can go home, and I can sleep well. There’s no client that’s more important to me than my own integrity.”

That’s not to say his client isn’t hugely important to him. At MGA Entertainment, Johnson and his modest team have impressively brought most of the company’s huge case load in-house. They vigorously protect MGA Entertainment’s intellectual property and have gone head-to-head with some of the largest law firms in the world, protecting standout brands such as Little Tikes, Bratz, and LOL Surprise! in high-stakes litigation.

“Without a solid plan to register and protect new ideas and innovations, anybody can come in, knock off your product, and steal market share,” he explains. “We take that protection very seriously. Our job really is to protect what the amazing designers at MGA create, and we’re really unapologetic about that.”

Benjamin C. Johnson, VP and Head of Litigation, MGA Entertainment Photo by Heather DelHoyo

Johnson believes MGA Entertainment provides its client with representation as solid as any it could receive from a top law firm. “We don’t use our size as an excuse. We treat it as one of our advantages. For example, we’re a lot more efficient with our time. And that often leads to far better outcomes for the client from an ROI perspective—something that law firms billing hourly often lose sight of.”

An emphasis on smooth and consistent teamwork—and finding lawyers who fit well with the culture—is another of his team’s advantages, and Johnson is passionate about assembling the right team. “I have a philosophy that we win as a team and we lose as a team,” he says. “I’ll take as many arrows as I can for the losses—and they’re few and far between, but you always lose a motion here and there—and when there are wins, we share the credit as a team. Ultimately, that leads to far better outcomes for the client.”

Along with sharing the credit for good outcomes, Johnson believes the team—and by extension the company—is successful because of his insistence on always doing things the right way. “I’m not interested in the type of a practice where I have to look over my shoulder because of unethical practices. It’s going to come out at one point during the long slog of litigation.

“Even if it doesn’t, you’re still at a disadvantage because there’s an intangible moral disadvantage that comes with that type of behavior,” he continues. “No one can be at their best when their morals are compromised. But when you play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, you don’t have to worry about covering up any unethical behavior. And if you run into somebody who is not playing by the rules, it doesn’t put you at a disadvantage forever—it only means a little more work, a few more late nights, because eventually they’ll be exposed.”

Photo by Heather DelHoyo

Johnson admits that his competitive nature also sparks an interest in meeting less ethical opposing counsel in the courtroom. “Winning fairly motivates me even more,” he says. “The victory is always better when you can outlawyer somebody who’s not playing by the rules. That’s when it’s really fun to win.”

While Johnson is certainly motivated by winning, he also appreciates an attorney’s almost magical ability to impact someone else’s life when they are struggling with the legal system. While growing up, he experienced this firsthand when his single mother encountered a legal issue and needed help but was unable to afford a lawyer. Though too young to fully grasp the situation, he still vividly recalls the grim atmosphere and uncertainty about the future they experienced until someone stepped in and provided counsel.

“I could see that it was stressing my mother out beyond all belief. As a single mother, she barely had money to put clothes on our backs, so a lawyer was out of the question. This was the source of great distress,” Johnson recalls. After she secured legal representation, “I remember the feeling in the house, like this weight was lifted and things were going to be all right. It always stuck with me that lawyers can still do that, even at a high level of representation.”

Johnson also stresses that beyond being a meaningful profession, the practice of law is highly enjoyable. “Sure, some days you’re here until midnight working on a motion, but overall, the legacy I want to pass on is that when you’re operating with integrity and treating your team with respect, this profession can be a lot of fun, even if you do have some late nights.”