Google's legal department: innovate or die

By Sharon Golec on Tuesday, June 7th 2011
Management des Directions Juridiques

Are "legal departments" and "innovation" mutually exclusive? Not according to Corporate Counsel magazine, which in its May 19th issue designated Google’s legal department as the "Best Legal Department 2011" ("Best Legal Department 2011 Winner: Google", by David Hechler).

Indeed, innovation seems to be part of Google’s DNA. According to David Hechler, the company as a whole prides itself on its "disruptive" nature. The legal department is no exception.

It demonstrates innovative behavior in numerous ways, most notably, pushing the limits of existing laws with new arguments. Sometimes they win big, but not always. Some losses are accepted as the price of testing how far laws that do not always seem to apply to the company’s products can be stretched. Lawyers are empowered to make decisions and are supported by a "no blame" culture. Working in teams within and across business groups fosters innovation. The ability to thrive in this non-traditional environment, to collaborate across functions and business lines and to take risks are key factors in recruiting lawyers as well as in selecting outside counsel.

The Google legal department’s approach challenges General Counsel to evaluate how and to what extent innovation could be encouraged in their departments, while remaining coherent with each company’s culture and risk management policies. While a high level of innovation in finding solutions to legal issues may not always be possible or desirable, innovation in many areas, such as team management, knowledge sharing and individual career development may be fostered by hiring in-house lawyers who "think outside the box" and by creating an environment in which initiatives are encouraged.

Easier said than done? Undoubtedly, but this is the challenge if lawyers want to be fully integrated in their companies’ businesses, which in many cases must "innovate or die."

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