Product counsel have become more prevalent in recent years as companies have sought additional in-house legal guidance about bringing new technologies and services to the market.
Lawyers with experience in product counsel roles said the keys to success in those positions include remembering it’s their job to help drive business growth and not just say “no” all the time.
Harvey Kaye, a senior counsel at WeWork, said product counsel must understand the business objectives and strategy — and be lawyers who say, “Yes, do this, but think about X,Y and Z.”
Jon Vermandel, product counsel at Google, struck a similar tone.
“I think specifically your job as product counsel is to understand the product and the goals of the business and their direction better than any other attorney at your company and also outside of it,” he said.
The lawyers spoke during a Lawtrades webinar that also featured Matt Samuels, senior product counsel at Twitch. The event was moderated by Matt Margolis, Lawtrades’ head of legal and community.
The issues product counsel bring to business colleagues’ attention for consideration often center around risk, particularly risk mitigation.
Samuels of Twitch said it can be helpful to quantify the risks associated with certain product plans.
“Your job is to let the business know, ‘Here’s the risk, [and] here is the magnitude and the likelihood of the risk,’” he said.
Kaye said he finds it helpful to share any available precedent in the market about the risks the company is considering taking.
Additionally, he said product counsel should remember that thoughtfully taking some risks can be beneficial.
“It’s good to take on risk, especially if you’re a company who’s looking to scale,” Kaye said.
The panelists highlighted that privacy has been a growing area of risk in recent years amid the European Union rolling out GDPR and states in the U.S. such as California enacting their own data privacy laws.
These developments and others in the tech realm have resulted in product counsel not just advising on product launches, but getting more involved with the product life cycle, Vermandel said.
Companies with a business-to-consumer model also must be mindful of various consumer protection laws, according to Kaye.
Samuels said a common challenge for product counsel is the business will not want to undertake a lot of the risk mitigation steps presented to them.
He said one way to counteract such resistance is to highlight that there can be a competitive advantage to compliance, particularly in the areas of privacy and consumer protection.
“I think you need to be a kind of creative problem solver to let the business know, ‘Hey, here’s some interesting ways we can think about managing these new laws,’” Samuels said.
Margolis vouched for that type of approach, noting it could help legal departments be seen as value-adds rather than just cost centers.
Meanwhile, Kaye said product counsel must be adept at serving as a quarterback of sorts to help connect the dots between all the different stakeholders involved with product development, including the in-house legal team, outside counsel and business colleagues.
Additionally, Vermandel said it’s important for product counsel to remember that it will likely take several conversations to get all sides to agree to a risk mitigation approach for a product that will best position the business for success.
“I’m going to help my team navigate it and get them to a point that also aligns with their business goals, even though it’s going to be pretty hard to do that sometimes,” he said.