Listen to this article
The stars of a technology company are usually those sitting at computers, crunching away at the code that creates the future. But at Google, general counsel Kent Walker and his team have received their fair share of the limelight, too.
When commending the team for the FT Innovative Lawyers’ In-house award in 2013, executive chairman Eric Schmidt said the lawyers were able to articulate the detail of the company’s new products as well as its product designers.
Others who had worked for many years in industry felt the in-house lawyers’ job at Google was particularly hard because they had to work in an environment of so-called “zero precedent”. “They touch things that the world has never seen before,” says one colleague.
The ability of Google’s lawyers to get their heads around the company’s latest innovations is essential to the performance of their role. Mr Walker says that not only do the lawyers have to think about developments such as the implications of driverless cars, Google Glass and machine learning, they have to anticipate what is coming. “It is like being in a perpetual law school exam, where you have to twist the hypothetical 10 degrees from centre,” he says.
He adds that the lawyers’ role is to further the company’s mission but says that, at the same time, they have to be counsellors to the business and ensure it steers a safe path through legislative and regulatory frameworks. He believes this is where his team of lawyers gives the company a competitive advantage.
However, Mr Walker agrees that the role is complicated by working in a “what if?” culture where possibilities are explored before either the law or society is ready for them. “In this era of rapid change you need to think about using your imagination as well as your ability to understand precedent,” he says. “We hope that our advice moves things in the right direction and on the side of our users.”
There are downsides to working in this environment. Lawyers find it hard to adapt their risk-averse approach to Google’s more experimental one, Mr Walker suggests, and there are fewer of the anchors and less of the tradition that an in-house lawyer might find in a more traditional company.
It is part of the reason that many members of the legal team are under 30 years old. It is essential for a Google lawyer to understand the products and those that are likely to be groundbreaking.
“Some of our team, for example, think about the legal and policy implications of machine learning in applications like Google Translate, image search and spam detection,” says Mr Walker. The rich philosophical debates that ensue are meat and drink for young lawyers.
One such project in which the lawyers were instrumental was Project Loon, Google’s idea to introduce internet connections to less developed countries via weather balloons with wireless transmitters. It was an ambitious idea from the founders but it was the lawyers who ran a test scenario with the New Zealand government and negotiated with governments to make sure it complied with regulations — now Project Loon is on its way.