"A good general counsel will figure out the key points where business and legal issues intersect and doing their job should propel the business forward," Whitaker said. At Tesla, that included coming up with a plan to sell cars in the 27 states where manufacturers are not allowed to sell directly to the public and instead must use separate dealers.
At SanDisk, which Whitaker said has one of the top five patent portfolios in the world, his operational focus is centered on monetizing that through licensing, enforcement and other means.
"Aspirationally, this has always been a goal," said Whitaker, referring to the business roles of attorneys. "But in recent years, internal legal departments have been much more successful in achieving that."
And the technology world, including Silicon Valley, has been much more adept at bringing the two sides together, he said. "It's no longer sufficient to serve a purely old-school, risk-management function."