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The LinkedIn Legal Department - pushing the boundaries

‘Every individual is now an entrepreneur, whether they recognise it or not.’ So said Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn. In such a culture of innovation, what does the ideal legal department and in-house lawyer look like? GC caught up with Mike Callahan, LinkedIn’s GC, to discuss the risks and rewards of working at the law’s new frontiers and how to find lawyers who are up to that challenge.


Technology, innovation, law

CATHERINE McGREGOR

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
E-mail Catherine

GC: Some of the issues faced by a company such as yours are literally untested – how do you begin to tackle questions where there might be no (or very little) legal blueprint?

MC: In-house legal teams at companies such as LinkedIn, and the law firms working for them, will struggle with the challenges brought by pushing the boundaries with technology and innovation. One approach companies can be successful with in handling these challenges is evaluating analogous situations in the non-digital world. There are ways to approach a new issue under the existing legal regimes and use that to shape future law and policy.

In terms of practical strategies, I enjoy working at innovative companies that are facing uncharted regulatory or legal issues, and developing relationships with those who are responsible for regulating before there is a controversial dialogue about a new area. It improves the discussion if legal advisors and the company take steps to build proactive relationships with regulators or other lawmakers regarding the direction they are taking and the probable outcomes. Building a foundation of understanding with the regulators and policymakers helps establish our reputation as a reasonable actor in the landscape which, for innovative companies like LinkedIn, has real benefit.

In regards to how we actually do this, it’s a joint effort of the legal team and the public policy team. We focus on utilising inside expertise and outside resources in working proactively with key regulators. Of course, the legal team’s technical expertise is a key aspect of this dialogue as well.

GC: Are there particular types of lawyers who are attracted to working for LinkedIn where, as mentioned, often what you are considering is uncharted?

MC: We are advising creative technologists who want to move fast to make innovative products that resonate with our members, often into unchartered territories. We need people who are attracted to creative problem-solving in an environment that is very fast-paced. Many lawyers may prefer to see things in black and white; lawyers who work for us and with us need to be comfortable with the grey. We’re looking for lawyers who are entrepreneurial. One of the things that attracted me to LinkedIn was the strength of the legal and public policy team here and the alignment of groups across the company to create an environment where we support great product initiatives due to our teams working together. The ideal lawyer here is someone who is creative, who is athletic (in that they have some sort of expertise in the sector but can also be flexible), who shows good judgement where there might not be certainty, and who wants to be part of creating something new and compelling.

GC: How challenging is it to find these types of lawyers?

MC: We’re fortunate in that the positions we have open are widely sought after, so finding candidates in general is not challenging! But finding people who we think will be a good cultural fit for us is challenging.

You may come across wonderful technical lawyers who may not be successful in-house in an environment like LinkedIn. There are additional skills aside from legal expertise that we are looking for. We need people who can build relationships with the business and who can not only identify issues to the business, but who will provide creative solutions while keeping the business strategy in mind. As I’ve said before, someone with a ‘black and white’ mindset would not fit in well at LinkedIn. A mixture of risk management and business perspective is fundamental, as are communication skills. Our lawyers need to be able to explain to the business person why we’re having a conversation, as any time the business is spending with legal is time they’re not spending with the customer or working on new products and innovations.

One way we are able to determine that candidates are a cultural fit is to make sure they interview with enough people, not only in the legal team but also in the business, so we can make sure they are a good teammate and a good partner with the business, too.

‘Someone with a “black and white” mindset would not fit in well at LinkedIn.’

GC: Given your unique challenges, how much do you try to keep work in-house versus instructing external counsel?

MC: When we are advising on legal matters that are of greater risk to the business and have a potentially significant impact on our strategic advantage, then my preference is to have those driven in-house, since that advice is business-critical and tied to the company’s strategic objectives; we want to make sure that we are working closely with the business. Outside counsel might not have the same exposure to our clients that we do or appreciate the nuances in regards to our long- and short- term objectives. For lower-risk and lower-impact matters, we’re actively finding ways to eliminate the need for legal to be involved or to outsource and use technology to handle these more efficiently. For matters which are highly specialised and of greater risk, but would not hurt our competitive advantage, we will often look to partner with an outside specialist.

For me, as for every GC, the pressure is on for greater leverage and efficiency. Our team is always thinking about how we can be more efficient and do more for clients.

GC: A question many of our readers constantly face is how to add value to the business and how to make sure they are aligned with the business. How much is this a challenge for you and your team, or does the fact that tech companies are often pushing the frontiers of what is possible mean those lawyers are more integrated into the company’s DNA from the start?

MC: One thing which struck me when I joined LinkedIn was the incredible expertise shared by, and the client partnership between, the legal team and clients here. All credit for this goes to the legal and policy team that was here – and is still here – as the LinkedIn legal department is built on a close partnership with the business clients.

It’s a real advantage for any legal department to be involved early in the development of new strategies, product development and new geographies, so we can spot things before they become an issue. The legal department has a big responsibility to see ahead and needs to be part of the decision-making process. We have an advantage with our strong public policy department, which can see emerging trends from the regulatory and policy side, which means that we are able to sit at the table with our clients and shape things with the bigger picture in mind. But the only way to get involved early is to demonstrate to the business clients, by performance and value-add, that legal is critical to achieving the goal and shares in both the success and the risk. As we continue to grow as a company, the notion of lawyers not just as advisers but as part of the team is critical for the incredible things we want to accomplish here at LinkedIn.

 

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