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Hot Startups Tap Google's Legal TalentMembers of the search firm's legal alumni network are turning up in-house and in government.
2013-07-26 06:06:11 PM
The attorneys atop six hot tech ventures have at least one thing in common: They've Googled it.
The general counsel at Pinterest, Twitter, Square and Dropbox are all alumni of Google's massive legal department. So too is the first head of the PTO's new Silicon Valley branch and the White House pick to oversee privacy issues.
Google's status as a tech law incubator isn't surprising. Its try-anything culture has been a draw for lawyers eager to tackle first-of-a-kind legal issues at a fast-growing, profitable company. Now, almost a decade after its IPO, Google is no longer the lean upstart many of them first joined.
"Google drew an enormous collection of legal talent through the past decade," said Stanford Law professor and Durie Tangri partner Mark Lemley. "As the company has gotten bigger, a number of those people naturally sought more entrepreneurial opportunities."
Among them was Twitter GC Alex Macgillivray, who said lawyers at Google were steeped in business concerns from the start.
"Kulpreet Rana, Google's first in-house lawyer, set a really wonderful culture there in terms of the lawyers' relationship with the company, and David Drummond built a big world-class team," Macgillivray wrote in an e-mail. "That's the type of department Twitter's founders and the founders of other companies want. Add to that the intense experience that Google provides, and that team continues to be really, really good."
From the early days, Google's legal department was daring and game to experiment, say current and former attorneys. It attracted -- and sought out -- a certain kind of lawyer. "You had to be somebody who's kind of interested in seeking out the new and coming up with innovative solutions," said Michael Kwun, who worked at Google from 2004 to 2008 and is now of counsel at Keker & Van Nest. "If you're unwilling to live with a certain amount of uncertainty, or more of the mindset of 'that's just not done,' you didn't get hired."
Macgillivray, Dropbox GC Ramsey Homsany and Michelle Lee, who is opening the Valley's PTO branch, all joined Google in 2003. Nicole Wong, the White House deputy chief technology officer -- once dubbed "the decider" for her work at Google on censorship issues -- joined the team a year later. Pinterest GC Michael Yang came on in 2005, and Square GC Dana Wagner, who had the briefest Google stint among them, was hired in 2007.
Part of the excitement was helping the company scale. As Google's first deputy general counsel and head of patents and patent strategy, Lee oversaw the development of the patent portfolio from just a handful to more than 10,500 -- greater than a 1,000-fold increase. Likewise, Google has continued to expand its reach from search into social networking, maps, ads and even self-driving cars.
It pioneered the position of product counsel, who work closely with engineers and product managers. In that way and others, it brought its lawyers into its innovations and business decisions at the front-end. The interplay created a class of attorneys with the skills to consider both legal implications and revenue imperatives.
And until the past few years, Google's lawyers tended to stick around. Its share price rose seven-fold through 2007. Opportunities came and went: Yelp hired a former Xoom guy as its GC in 2007. Facebook hired its GC from the Beltway in 2008. Then, beginning with Macgillivray's departure in 2009, the scales started to tip.
Google GC Kent Walker noted that the company takes pride when attorneys move on to new ventures.
"We aspire to be a place where our lawyers get to wrestle with the most exciting questions in information law and go on to do great things, whether at Google or elsewhere," Walker wrote in an e-mail.
It's a fact of Valley life that maturing or mature tech companies often provide the talent for Bay Area startups.
PJ Harari, an in-house recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, said she often sees smaller companies taking an interest in people with backgrounds at places like Google. "It makes sense in that the candidates have more 'big company' training and exposure to navigating internal politics and the decision-making process across functions, but are nimble enough -- because the industry calls for it -- to manage a less mature organization."
At Hewlett-Packard Co., four lawyers recently left to take GC spots in the span of less than a year. While that might be due in part to HP's recent struggles, the diaspora was also partly by design.
The idea that departures can actually be healthy -- so the company can promote from within -- was a cornerstone of the strategy at HP under former general counsel Michael Holston, whose goal was to groom general counsel among his deputies.
"He wanted his senior leaders to be business partners, essentially to be mini-GCs, to raise their stature," said DataDirect Networks GC Edward Rockwell, who was at HP from 2001 until last year. "It was good news for the department -- you didn't want it to get calcified, where there's no upward movement."
Retention is a challenge for any company as it expands. "People just get to the point where they maybe already have quite a bit of money and they're looking for the next challenge," said Jay Monahan, a veteran of eBay and Zynga's legal departments, who added that Google's continued success has probably encouraged some lawyers to stick around. "It hasn't really plateaued," he said.
As Google grows, it's committed to preserving a "small-company feel," according to a current job description. "The overriding sense, no matter how many layers are between you and Kent, is that it's essentially really flat," said litigation counsel Renny Hwang, who joined in 2010. "Folks here get a lot of responsibility -- sometimes it's scary how much responsibility you get."
Google won't say how many lawyers it employs, but in interviews with The Recorder, former Googlers commented that the department was "a lot smaller" when they joined than it is now. In 2011, Walker said in a public speech that Google employs 600 people in its legal department -- and that he expected to add 200 more.
In a large organization, not everyone can be promoted, and some who are may be frustrated managing teams of 100-plus people. But Wagner, the Square GC, said Google is good about rewarding its people in other ways. Maybe it can't offer a promotion, for example, but it recognizes the value in handing out a really interesting case.
"Google probably has less trouble [with retention] than other companies," he noted, "because it's continuously launching new and innovative products."
THE NEW NEW THING
Many of the former Googlers now staking out new territory insist they weren't mapping out an exit.
Pinterest's Yang says he felt "spoiled" to have been at Google. "The issues were awesome, the culture was awesome, the people were awesome, the compensation was great," Yang said. "I wouldn't have left just because Pinterest was 'hot' -- it had to be more than that."
Homsany has said he wasn't looking to leave when he was approached by a VC firm about meeting with Dropbox in 2011. Macgillivray thought he was going to lunch with an old friend and former colleague, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, when halfway through the meal he got his next job offer.
"There aren't many companies like Twitter," Macgillivray said.
In short, they weren't immune to the charms of a startup that had a narrower suite of products and offered an opportunity to build out the legal strategy from the ground-up.
Maybe the suitors even looked a bit like what Google had been in their early years with the company.
"If you go to a smaller company earlier in its life span, you get areas of responsibility that you might not have had," said Wagner, who leads Square's legal, compliance and government relations teams. "No one's going to let me run all those at Google."
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