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Chris Handman General counsel Snapchat
Based in Venice Beach, California, with offices steps from the sand, Snapchat has established a beachhead for the tech community in Southern California. We spoke to Snapchat general counsel Chris Handman about the challenges of gearing up a legal team for this innovative company.
The legal team is as old as my 16-month tenure at the company – there was only one other lawyer when I joined. We now have ten lawyers and two legal managers.
I tend to keep an active hand in all matters – some much more active than others. But for virtually any issue, I can turn to the impossibly talented and deep bench we have. Our deputy GC, Dom Perella, has a similarly expansive purview, but tends to focus principally on litigation, compliance, copyright issues, and Snapchat’s ‘Live Stories’ – our user-generated news and feature coverage.
The team is divided into six groups: IP, litigation, employment, M&A, advertising, and original content. The lawyers on these teams are all whip-smart and bring impeccable legal judgment to the questions they’re hit with. But—and this is important—they also are savvy about the business, the product, and the philosophy that informs so much of what Snapchat does. That makes a real difference in how we’re able to truly partner with the business; not just play the part of passive legal arbiter.
We have a wealth of experience on the team in every area. Some came from Silicon Valley or from other industries. As for me, I took a slightly more unorthodox path to Snapchat’s beachside office: I spent 14 years in Washington, DC in a major firm doing Supreme Court and appellate litigation.
Working in legal at Snapchat is an incredibly rewarding experience if you like thinking creatively about the law. Given the company’s culture of restless innovation, we have no playbook. We often have to go back to first principles, since there is no blueprint for what Snapchat is doing. We’re often called upon to figure out the ways in which anachronistic laws apply to these modern technologies. Suffice it to say we work very closely with the designers, engineers, and business folks to ensure that Snapchat maintains its innovative edge without crossing legal lines.
So that’s why the common denominator uniting the lawyers here is creativity. For me what makes a great legal team—especially at a company like Snapchat—is finding people who are intellectually curious about the law and how the law and business affect each other. And that often means finding people who share a healthy skepticism for the way things have always been.
Right now, I still have the luxury of being able to personally interview every single candidate for the legal team who comes through the door. I recognize I’ll need to surrender that oversight at some point, but for now it’s worked (in my immodest opinion). Of course, I’m just one voice. It’s important—essential, in fact—that every legal candidate meet with the business people they would work with on a daily basis. We start with a lot of phone interviews to screen candidates so by the time we bring people in we have made sure those people have the intellectual chops to do the job. The interview then becomes more of an opportunity for good conversation, considering not just the substance of the job but the way technology exists in our culture.
The culture is crucial here. We’re a group who thinks and works hard but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We’re very close-knit and regularly go out together, to everything from charity events to concerts to happy hour.
There are a number of achievements I can point to that have been huge wins for us in the 16 months the team has been together. We’ve developed a comprehensive privacy-by-design program to carefully protect users’ information. The whole legal team has been part of this privacy program, with full buy-in from our designers.
A few months ago we issued our first transparency report to let users know exactly what sorts of requests—and how many of them—we were receiving from law enforcement seeking user data. It was a matter of pride—both personally and for the company—to issue that report as early in our company’s lifespan as we did. Snapchat has long believed that it’s important to be forthcoming with its users. Our transparency report was an emphatic way to make good on that pledge.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation produces an annual report called “Who Has Your Back” which includes a ranking system – five potential stars for different categories of privacy and data use. Snapchat is eligible for four of those stars. This year, with the developments implemented by legal, we won three stars out of those four, up from just one star last year before we had a legal team.
The biggest challenges we face as a legal team are the same that the whole company faces: novelty, speed, and volume. Snapchat has developed new products at an astounding rate and has a velocity that’s hard to comprehend. Mix into that the company’s quick growth – we went from 20 to 600 employees in two years – and you can see the legal department doesn’t have much time to rest.
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