INTERVIEW: JEFFREY RICH
LEGAL DIRECTOR FOR EUROPE,
MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA, TWITTER
Twitter’s Jeffrey Rich tells GC about his journey from Silicon Valley to Dublin’s tech community, life
as a regional counsel for a US-headquartered company, and the challenges of compliance in the
world of social media.
G C I N T E R V I E W
THE LEGAL 500
GC: Is being a lawyer something that you always wanted to do?
Jeffrey Rich (JR): I never planned on being a lawyer, and despite having an uncle who worked in-house it’s not like I come from a family of lawyers. Actually many of my family work in banking in the US. I gravitated towards the law without really planning to; I started at a liberal arts college in California where we didn’t choose a major until after our second year. I ended up majoring in English (due to its universality) with a minor in political science and graduated with no idea of what I wanted to do.
I did a bit of copyediting and proofreading for a technical publishing company, which was my first experience working in Silicon Valley in and around the technology community. This definitely sparked an interest in technology, but being a proofreader, my options were somewhat limited. I eventually settled on law school as I was a bit more interested in that side of things. I got out of law school and, like most people in US law schools, the focus was on private practice work rather than in-house roles. This was mostly due to in-house roles not being open to junior lawyers but also because the perception was that you’re not a big lawyer unless you work at a firm with a big mahogany office. I ended up being a litigator in San Francisco for five years after graduating.
GC: What made you go in-house?
JR: As a litigator in private practice, I very much enjoyed the substance of the work. I was able to take depositions, prepare motions and the like, and I loved going to court every day. However, I really hated billable hours. I found it very (and intentionally) inefficient and ultimately unfair to clients because writing time-consuming letters would be preferred over phone calls.
Also, in California at that time, I was surrounded by the dotcom boom. I had many friends who had left university and were hired by small tech companies and they all had a much better work-life balance and were making a lot more money than I was. The biggest benefit of working and living in Silicon Valley is being dialled into the tech industry and I wasn’t at all. I spent the best part of a year knocking on doors trying to get hired, but the problem was that being a junior litigator wasn’t conducive to many of those in-house roles, as they seemed to be more commercial contract-focused; litigation work was not often tended in-house.
I ended up getting my break with a small software company in Mountain View, California, which in itself was a huge challenge. In many ways it was like learning a different language as the work was so different to anything I was exposed to before. It was a very steep learning curve and also culturally much different from a law firm: I was doing everything on a laptop in a cubicle without a secretary, which was quite a change, but a refreshing one. I was much more satisfied with my ability to make an impact and help create efficiencies, with a better work-life balance and the loss of billable hours.
I was sent to Europe – first in London and then Brussels – in my first two in-house roles and, via California again, three and a half years ago I moved to Ireland with Facebook. I’ve been with Twitter for two and a half years.
GC: You were Twitter's first ever regional legal counsel and built the team up from scratch. What were the biggest challenges in successfully establishing the department?
JR: To give some background first, the role at Twitter is the first regional role of its kind. Headquarters wanted to establish regional outposts and every other back office function was already running when I got here. There was a need to localise a legal support function, which is what brought me here. Many of these technology or internet companies set up in California arrange their legal functions according to subject matter expertise, but with a regional remit we weren’t going to be able to replicate that.
The biggest challenge was working closely with the subject matter experts to establish trust so that I could manage and essentially triage issues that would arise in the region. I think the key reason to establish that trust was to be able to get autonomy. Having worked internationally for a few US companies, I understand that the main value of regional counsel is with respect to accessibility and responsiveness. Without us, people would have to wait until US time to come online; local expertise was lacking and the company would rely on law firms in the region; which all combine to be inefficient, expensive and cause delays.
At Twitter, when I was hired, I said to the GC that I wanted to localise and be as autonomous as possible so that I could work as independently as warranted, but still be close with subject matter experts in the US as needed (including local external counsel). Some areas of the business lend themselves better to that model than others – for example, commercial contracts are negotiated and signed here locally so it’s best to have the lawyers involved here, while some of Twitter’s litigation is much more blended – as some decisions we take here can have far-reaching repercussions on the overall Twitter brand. When this occurs there will be more coordination and collaboration with headquarters. The challenge lies in figuring out where those lines are: where do I take on work and where is there a hand-off to someone else?
GC: How would you describe the culture of the EMEA operation?
JR: The broad remit is the most challenging, but it is also my most favourite part of the role as every day is different than the one before it. I get pulled into new issues, new areas and aspects of law, and I have the opportunity to learn so much from the local expertise I’m surrounded by.
The EMEA operation is much more resource-constrained than headquarters – we have to fulfil the same functions with fewer resources. Like every other international company we have issues communicating with headquarters about things; we sometimes have to act late in the game and I’m often pulled in and asked to make a recommendation with incomplete information due to tight timeframes across different countries. This proves challenging, but is true for all functions here, and I definitely feel like we collaborate as a team very closely.
Additionally, a big benefit of being in Dublin is that we have so many nationalities and cultures represented here. This isn’t necessarily just in legal but across the operation, where we have people from different countries that help bring a local perspective to questions and are available to participate (even outside their job description) when things come up, which is great.
GC: What do you see as being the main legal and compliance challenges for GCs operating in Ireland?
JR: For all of the technology and internet companies with international headquarters in Dublin, two things spring to mind: the international tax framework plus the data protection framework across Europe. These companies (and Twitter is no different) have spent lots of time analysing where to set up outside the US to make inroads into Europe. Ireland in particular emerged as such a strong tech community because it really lends itself well to new companies when they are expanding, or even start-ups getting going in Europe. You have an educated, English-speaking workforce which is similar culturally in terms of doing business in the US, and that adds comfort.
I do think that we’re seeing challenges to the legal and compliance reasons that made Ireland attractive. Tax structures across the world are undergoing scrutiny and will likely see changes – probably not such monumental changes that the international tax regime will get turned on its head – but enough for us to monitor closely.
Companies keep coming to Ireland as they feel it is a good, fair and transparent place to do business. The other area is data protection, which has implications for most companies, especially in the internet space. Business thrives on certainty and doesn’t deal well with uncertainty. In the same way that tax data protection rules throughout Europe are being chipped away, so the landscape has changed towards transfer of data between Europe and the US. This will need constant review, but not knowing what’s going to happen with regards to enforcement, including the future of ‘safe harbour’ [an agreement that allowed the transfer of data between the EU and the US], makes it very difficult for the industry to plan ahead and be ready for when change occurs. Tax and data protection will remain on everyone’s radar in Ireland for a long time to come.
GC: From your experience at two giants (Twitter and Facebook), what would you say are the biggest legal issues of the social media age?
JR: Data protection will remain an area of focus, and the reason is that both Twitter and Facebook – if not all internet and social media companies – tend to encourage rapid product changes and evolution. These often come from the acquisition of companies to fill gaps in our product features. That is difficult even for the business to keep up with, and we need to have information about what products do and what they don’t do in order to understand how the products comply with data protection requirements and so on. The majority of lawyers are not tech experts, even in these companies. Product teams need to educate lawyers about what the products are and vice versa. ‘Privacy by design’ is a term I often hear now, with lawyers educating product teams to develop things that keep privacy central.
Externally, social media continues to face difficulties with government and regulators in terms of privacy and internet safety. This is primarily the role of our public policy team, but of course elements of it will involve legal, and as such I give them my input. A lot of the regulators haven’t grown up with social media and some have even grown up without the internet, and it’s not always well understood by them about how things work. I think we need to help educate those that regulate us about what the products are, why they appeal and what they can and can’t do. This isn’t always easy, as negative stories about social media capture attention more than success stories, and a lot of that galls us in the industry. We need to educate about benefits of social media. This is ongoing and probably will be for a generation.
GC: Has there been one particular highlight of your career so far?
JR: This role at Twitter is my favourite in-house role. The diversity of issues and the people I work with are excellent, and I don’t want to underestimate the great support I get from headquarters – I feel like the trust element makes a huge difference on the ground.
As part of my role I sit on the EMEA leadership team (with the heads of sales, finance, HR and so on) for the region, and we are essentially charged with helping to run the operation. This isn’t a legal role and it’s mainly focused on things like promoting the Dublin office as a place for internal transfers to come, employee satisfaction in the region, recruitment efforts and social events for the team, among other things. It’s great and it also breaks up the day from the legal work. Unlike headquarters, we’re smaller and more constrained resource-wise so we work together in building the business, which is a lot of fun.
GC: Are you much of a ‘Twitterer’ yourself? Do you have any favourite accounts we should all be following?
JR: I don’t tweet out a lot. If something comes up that is related to Twitter or the legal realm in which I work I’ll usually retweet or share an article. I spend much of my day on Twitter in some form and it’s mostly consuming information. I love the real-time aspect of Twitter and I follow news and current events in both Europe and the United States. I find it’s the best way to keep up with goings-on. I follow all the major law firms and legal handles to stay on top of the industry and I do the same in following politics both here and in the US too.
I do also enjoy Waterford Whispers [@WhispersNewsLTD] and other funny Irish and Europe-based accounts, as being an outsider here I really enjoy the humour and content posted in that manner.
GC: In terms of your free time, what do you enjoy doing?
JR: I spend time with my family as much as I can and enjoy socialising with friends. The diverse group of people I work with is great, as I get to see them outside work. We have a few Americans but most of the operation is drawn from countries around Europe, and it’s extremely interesting to talk about our expat experiences. I’m also lucky enough to get to travel a bit – I love travelling and try to do that as much as I can.
GC: If you weren’t a lawyer any more for some reason, is there an alternative career that appeals to you?
JR: I still have an interest in politics and government, and drawing on my experience at Facebook and Twitter with respect to government regulators, I think I could see a career there. It would consist of working on educating and informing people on technology and how social media works.
One of the other things I really enjoy about working in-house is that I’m seen as someone who can help. I like that aspect of it a lot. If I could find a career outside the law where people could come to me and I could gain satisfaction by helping them and providing solutions for them, I would do so. Perhaps I’d be suited to being a counsellor, or psychiatrist, or something in that vein!