Product Counsel: Origin Story

This post is co-authored by Nicole Wong and I.

One of the best jobs either of us have ever had, didn’t exist before we had it.

We both started as lawyers in Silicon Valley firms. Alexander joined Google in May of 2003 as an IP Counsel. Less than a year later, Nicole joined as Senior Compliance Counsel. For both of us, the pitch was some combination of a bunch of our favorite areas of law, including privacy, content, consumer protection, copyright, open source, and jurisdictional issues as the company’s product ambitions and international footprint grew. As in many start ups, our actual jobs were to do whatever needed to get done.

Gmail launched in April 2004 (on April Fools Day -- don’t do that) and that marked the beginning of Google’s explosion in terms of number of products, including Book Search, Maps, Chat, and the acquisitions of DoubleClick and YouTube. Google grew not only in terms of its product offerings, but in number of users, revenue, the number of countries it was in, and its impact in the world. The stakes got MUCH higher while product, operational and, of course, legal complexity exploded.

We both set to work trying to figure out how to help Googlers launch successful products that were legal (at least in the countries where we operated). We each had some experience with this as outside counsel, and we were both pretty unsatisfied with the typical model of legal review for products.

That model was taken from big companies which historically treated legal review like part of an assembly line (towards the end). The product teams would develop products and then check in with a line of legal subject matter experts for sign-off before launch. For example, a product that matched people to their perfect pet might get designed, written, tested, and be ready to launch when it was then taken for review by a commercial lawyer for the terms of service, an intellectual property lawyer for trademark and copyright clearance, a patent lawyer in case anything new had been invented, a regulatory attorney for regulatory compliance (sometimes including privacy), and maybe an export control lawyer and a similar set of experts in the countries where the product was launching. Law firms are typically departmentalized in similar ways, aligning along legal subject matter specialization, and consequently smaller companies who don’t have in-house counsel often need to hire multiple specialized lawyers.

There are four major problems with this process:
  1. legal approval in each area is binary and too late: by the time the product is built, there is a large amount of pressure to launch with little ability to make more than cosmetic changes to the product;
  2. legal approval is too fragmented: a product might need several different legal approvals (or rounds of consultation and then approval) from in-house and/or outside counsel. That would take too long and be very inefficient for a product team, which would have to explain the product to each new counsel. On top of that, no counsel would be able to weigh risks across domains to come up with more holistic tradeoffs.
  3. legal would understand the law but not necessarily the product: dividing up legal counsel by area of legal specialization means that each lawyer has a depth in law and a breadth in products.
  4. legal becomes “them” versus the product team’s “us”: last minute binary review by people who don’t know the product or the product team unnecessarily forces misalignment between the team trying to get something done for the users and the business, and the lawyers. That misalignment can result in all sorts of bad, from simple misunderstandings to adversarial behavior.
Taking our lead from Google’s first lawyer Kulpreet Rana and the way many commercial legal teams already functioned, we started working at the beginning of the product process rather than the end. We joined product teams and tried to get deep understanding of the product goals early, so that we could help them meet those goals with the right legal considerations. That meant going to a lot of meetings where product teams struggled to define and execute on new product and feature designs, raising legal issues, and working through alternatives. We tried to help our teams remove obstacles to their launches and refine launch processes so that the teams could deliver more easily and understand legal constraints that would result in us later blocking launch. We consolidated legal review so that the team could get answers from fewer lawyers and feel that those lawyers could properly balance risks and benefits in a holistic way. That meant that each of us would be responsible for a set of products on the core legal issues those products would face at launch.

This approach is not without downsides. Perhaps the biggest is that product depth can come at the expense of legal depth, which meant that we sometimes incurred costs working with outside counsel and experts in legal areas and countries outside of our expertise or missed legal issues. However, we remain convinced that the vast majority of significant mistakes in-house departments make in our industry are the result of not understanding the product rather than not understanding the law. Another downside is that while being part of the “us” of a team is satisfying, can result in a much better understanding of a product, and better teamwork in identifying and fixing problems, it can also mean you are in the team “groupthink” as opposed to removed from it. Careful attention must be paid to all of the ways to reduce groupthink and it is imperative that you actively seek input from folks outside the bubble if you are going to effectively understand the various impacts your product decisions are likely to have in the world. We found it really helpful to discuss product features with advocacy organizations and they frequently improved the products. But, there were also definitely times we screwed up.

The actual role of “product counsel” grew out of the fact that our previous job descriptions didn’t make much sense given how we were doing our jobs. So we started thinking through names. Originally, we liked “launch counsel” because it was active, aligned with what our teams were trying to do, and could describe a bunch of different areas of law. Eventually we settled on “product counsel” because it was even more descriptive of the alignment we hoped for, and was tied to the whole lifecycle of a product from idea generation through maintenance and refinement, not just launch.

Our first job posting was in February 2004. It read:

Google is looking for experienced and entrepreneurial attorneys to develop and implement legal policies and approaches for new and existing products. The Product Counsel will be responsible for a portfolio of Google products across many legal subject areas including privacy, security, content regulation, consumer protection and intellectual property. Indeed, the only product legal matters with which this position will not be deeply involved are those that are strictly patent or transactional in nature, which are handled by other existing Google lawyers.

Passion for and deep understanding of internet.
Very strong academic credentials.
Solid understanding of Internet architecture and operation.
Ability to respond to questions/issues spontaneously.
Demonstrated ability to manage multiple matters in a time-sensitive environment.
Strong interpersonal and team skills.
Excellent interpersonal skills, dynamic and highly team-oriented.
Flexibility and willingness to work on a broad variety of legal matters.
Superior English language writing and oral communication skills.
Sense of humor and commitment to professionalism and collegiality are required.
California Bar

Note the many mistakes in that posting. For example, the Internet is referred to with both lower-case and upper-case capitalization (back then I was incorrectly not capitalizing it). Ug.

Even so, we were very fortunate to recruit an amazing set of folks at Google to become the first Product Counsel. Some of the originals who defined the role were: Glenn Brown, Trevor Callaghan, Halimah DeLaine, Brian Downing, Gitanjli Duggal, William Farris, Mia Garlick, Milana Homsi, Susan Infantino, Daphne Keller, Lance Kavanaugh, Courtney Power, Nikhil Shanbhag, Tu Tsao, and Mike Yang (in alphabetical order). The team was eventually about forty-strong by the time we left and worked across many countries. The idea of it spread relatively quickly in the industry and now LinkedIN lists thousands of product counsel.

Product Counsel, particularly when we were still doing it and not just managing people doing it, was one of the best jobs we have ever had.

COVID-19 Donation List

This list is designed to help people give money in a time of COVID-19. There are many many many great projects out there helping people. Sometimes they need people to help with specific skills or equipment but all also need money. For each category listed below, there are some recommended charitable organizations. There are also some writeups, many of which were sources of recommendations. Please give generously.

This list is somewhat long so to help you find something that resonates with you. BUT, if you don’t have the time or inclination to look through the whole list, you can donate to the World Health Organization fund or Feeding America easily (just click & donate) or choose a local community foundation fund from this map. If you have an extra second, please tweet or otherwise share that you donated (feel free to tag me and I’ll retweet). Being vocal about donating will encourage others to do the same and increase the value of your donation.

One other note specifically for those of you (like me) who are privileged to have a Donor Advised Fund (DAF). You may have funded that DAF a while ago with the intention of figuring out how to give away the money over time. You may not have given much away because: life. Now is a very good time to use your DAF to help. You put money in to give it away, not to watch it grow. Your money NOW can make a big difference. Please consider choosing a goal that meets the urgency of this crisis and pushing yourself to give that goal away. Each recommendation below includes the organizations’ EIN so that you can easily give from your DAF (I generally give unrestricted funds, but you can also specify programs when you submit). I have also included recommendations from some DAFs and community foundations at the end. [If you don’t know what a Donor Advised Fund is, don’t worry, you are normal! You don’t have to know about them but if you’d like to, here are some resources: explainer from Wikipedia, explainer from Fidelity (a provider of them), and a critical take from the NYT.]

Finally, this is an evolving draft. If you have suggestions or questions, shoot me a note. I’m @amac on Twitter.


Hospitals, Doctors, Nurses & the Front Line
This is a large fund (>$100M so far) that is run through the UN Foundation.
EIN: 58-2368165 (UN Foundation)

EIN: 58-2106707

Developing country care & testing.
EIN: 04-3567502

Supplies to medical professionals to help them protect themselves.
EIN: 95-1831116

Logistics and shipping for front line supplies.

EIN: 13-3433452

EIN: 56-2273242

Resources for health systems focusing on resolving inequity.
EIN: 45-0484533

Meals from local restaurants to health workers.
EIN: 27-3521132  (through World Central Kitchen)

Food & Other Relief For Economically Disadvantaged
Community Foundations have a history of local giving and the staff to review potential grantees and get the money quickly in times of crisis. Consider giving to your local one (found via the map above) and/or one in a community that you care about. For example, for me that’s the Maine Community Foundation (donate EIN: 01-0391479), they have already given a wave of money to good local institutions.

They also run the very good Find Your Local Food Bank resource, which allows you to give locally.
EIN: 36-3673599

Many seniors use this program.
EIN: 23-7447812

Keeping children fed.
EIN: 06-0726487

EIN: 52-1367538

They also fund Frontline Foods (see above).
EIN: 27-3521132

Gives cash to people who need it.
EIN: 27-1661997

“Emergency financial relief for students, immigrants, and workers left out”
EIN: 20-8993652

Update: @mredshirtshaw has a good thread on a number of South Dakota Tribes' COVID-19 funds. She points to South Dakota because of the lack of a shelter-in-place order there.

Refugees and Displaced People
Consider directing your donation to the Matamoros Project.
EIN: 81-5163032

Sidewalk School [donate]
EIN: 80-3405530

Update: A friend who knows more than I do about refugee issues points to the following two orgs:
International Rescue Committee, Signpost Project [donate]
EIN: 13-5660870
Signpost is designed to help refugees get good information during the crisis which the IRC's president says is one of the most pressing problems.

Refugee Advocacy Lab at Refugees International + International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)[donate: Refugees International or IRAP]
EINs: 52-1224516 (Refugees International) or 82-2167556 (IRAP)
Matching refugees with healthcare experiences with states that need healthcare workers and the certifications they need to practice, thereby helping both.

I have a friend who works specifically with communities on the El Paso / Juarez border. There they recommend:
The ACLU also has a good article about donating in this category.

I don't have a perfect recommendation to directly help those in prisons and jails but Civil Rights Corps [donate] and Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection [donate] are fighting some of the legal battles around this. Please ping me if you have others.
Update: The Reform Alliance has a special COVID-19 action page to attempt to get governmental attention to this problem. Thanks @rklau.

Domestic Abuse
RAINN runs the US National Sexual Assault Hotline.
EIN: 52-1886511

EIN: 91-1081344

EIN: 77-0155782

EIN: 13-1760110

Keeping children fed (also in Food above).
EIN: 06-0726487

Also in Food above.
EIN: 52-1367538

EIN: 13-3468427

US Focus on learning.
EIN: 52-1779606

Miscellaneous and Support
Creative Commons provides the licensing infrastructure for a lot of the open content being relied on in this crisis and was part of creating the Open COVID Pledge to help ensure that people fighting COVID can worry less about patent lawsuits. Disclaimer: I am a Board Member.
EIN: 04-3585301

Tech is becoming even more important now. Data & Society studies and critically unpacks the social implications of data-centric technologies & automation so that their impact is less harmful / more beneficial. Disclaimer: I am a Board Member.
EIN: 46-2904827

Good information is critical to combating COVID and journalists are risking their lives to get it to us. 
EIN: 13-3081500

Support their just launched fund to give legal support to local and regional reporters.
EIN: 52-0972043

Other Good Writeups & Resources
Community Foundations have expertise to help get money to local charities in times of crisis. This map will help you find one in an area that you care about.

Amelia Nierenberg, Don’t Need That $1,200 Stimulus Check? Here Are Places to Donate It, New York Times, March 27, 2020 but updated as well.
Great round up and source of a bunch of the above.

Before COVID-19 was the focus but still very relevant.

Denise Hearn, COVID-19 — where to give money now, April 2, 2020.
Bloomberg Beta, Schmidt Futures, and The Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society put this together.

Update: Isaac Chotiner, The Danger of COVID-19 for Refugees, April 10, 2020.
Q&A with David Miliband, the president and C.E.O. of the International Rescue Committee about the specific issues raised by COVID-19 in refugee communities where he highlights disinformation as an important issue.

Disaster Philanthropy, COVID-19 Coronavirus, April 13, 2020.

Fidelity Charitable, How to help: Novel Coronavirus.