The Emerging Role of Product Counsel
By Axiom Law
The guidance of product counsel is critical for businesses bringing new technology products to market. A role that blends commercial contract, regulatory, privacy, intellectual property, and consumer protection practice areas, this strategic position is seeing a growing need in Silicon Valley and beyond. In response to the growth in this field, Axiom and Above the Law brought together product counsel leaders from PayPal, Facebook/WhatsApp, and Amazon Alexa for a webinar to discuss what companies can look for in, and how lawyers can build a career as, product counsel.
The webinar featured panelists:
- Tina Hwang, Legal Director and Associate General Counsel, WhatsApp
- Ben Adams, Vice President of Legal, PayPal
- Mark Schneider, Axiom lawyer engaged at Amazon Alexa
Overall, product counsel work to understand a company’s products, priorities, plans, and process. They review external communications about a product, and they also help represent a company both externally and during regulatory engagements.
Below we highlight the key points from the one-hour discussion, which enabled participants to develop a deeper understanding of the essential role product counsel play for innovative businesses, and how lawyers with experience in many different practice areas and legal specialties can build robust careers as product counsel. You can also watch a full replay of the webinar on demand.
What does it mean to be a product counsel in the technology industry?
“When someone asks me what it means to be a product counsel, I say I'm the strategic counsel for the business, or I am the business counsel,” explained Tina Hwang of WhatsApp.
Product counsel often are driven by three strategic goals, which illustrate the major responsibilities that comes with their role:
1. Advance the business
Product counsel must understand business goals, objectives, timing, and process, and then work with a cross-functional team throughout the business to deliver on those goals.
2. Protect the company
Identify risks, find the subject matter experts, and develop a risk mitigation plan to protect the business.
3. Connect the dots
Coordinate across legal and subject matter experts to build a product launch plan, as well as to include functional teams like policy, marketing and communications, product, and engineering to mitigate risk.
What are the qualities of a great product counsel?
“Effectively, you're a mini-general counsel for the team that you're supporting, so it’s key to think about how to create trust and becoming a trusted business partner,” said Ben Adams of PayPal.
Building trust, and emphasizing collaboration and communication, are qualities that enable product counsel to excel at their jobs. Successful product counselors serve as important connectors between business and legal, educating their business partners on regulatory issues, and educating legal partners on business issues so legal can more effectively drive toward business goals.
Product counsel becomes an invaluable business partner by getting to know their clients and the multitude of challenges they face, as well as what drives them both professionally and personally. When product counsel deeply understands the individuals they work with, they can more effectively collaborate in order to reach the right outcome for their clients.
To be truly collaborative, lawyers serving as product counsel must welcome feedback. As their major role is to support overall business objectives, they must respond to and carefully consider questions around product reception and communication, and find the right balance between the legal perspective and the product perspective.
In addition, effective product counsel needs to develop an end-to-end understanding of the product management process, so they can effectively issue-spot. In doing so, they can identify a broader range of potential issues beyond regulatory alone.
How can product counsel help bridge business and legal stakeholders?
Ben Adams emphasized that facilitating the process of bringing a product experience to life means being execution focused. “A bias toward action and trying to constantly move things forward is also going to set you up from a position of trust with your business partners, when they appreciate and understand that their strategic priorities are your strategic priorities,” he noted.
For the business units they work with, product counsel can be the single window into legal. Because of this, they must be strong project managers, seeing an entire issue through, while bringing in additional experts, such as privacy or regulatory specialists, when necessary.
Overall, a great product counsel is a true connector who can facilitate across multiple stakeholders, influence decisions, and help drive teams toward consensus.
What is the necessary background and skillset that product counsel should possess?
“There is no magic skillset for product counsel,” said Ben Adams, but the key is people who are, overall, “intellectually hungry, constant learners, who are clear communicators, with a strong collaborative approach.” He also noted that product counsel is not necessarily a unique role, but one that in-house lawyers have been doing for a long time.
Successful product counsel hail from a variety of legal backgrounds, including litigation, M&A, startups, regulatory, consumer protection, and privacy. Many have experience working in highly regulated industries like financial services or healthcare, and often find those experiences migrate easily to a product counsel role.
Other key skills for product counsel include an ability to create simplicity out of complexity, comfort working closely with engineering teams and product managers, creative thinking, and empathy.
Overall, for those looking to move into a product counsel role, Ben advised, “Find your way into a company through an angle like M&A, commercial, or litigation, and then there are tons of lateral opportunities. So it may not be based on your background today that you're necessarily a right to walk into the product counsel role, but that doesn't mean that you can't walk into another role and find your way over. That’s a very common path at a lot of the big tech companies.”
What are common issues product counsel encounter, and how do they address them?
Common issues for product counsel often surround privacy regulation, contracts, intellectual property, and mergers and acquisitions. Overall, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the regulatory environment around your product area is critical, as is tailoring commercial contracts to specific customers. In addition, data privacy is at the forefront of the regulatory minefield, and product counsel must understand access, data protection, and compliance, and educate internal teams about data privacy, as well as audit ongoing compliance mechanisms.
The panel also advised that many product counsels focus squarely on the development and launch of the product, and not enough on the methods of distribution post-launch. But post-launch planning is a mission-critical function.
Overall, panelist Mark Schneider recommended the following steps for best practices for addressing common issues product counsel face:
- Work as a team. A well-rounded team can spot issues and mitigate before they become problems.
- Plan for scale, fail, and repeatability. Avoid the habit of selling something and then building it to meet what you sold.
- Practice a beginner’s mindset. Be learning-oriented, rather than acting as a team of "experts"’ who assume they know all the answers.
- Cross-train and rotate your teams to build well-rounded and diverse knowledge around internal functions.
- Settle. Set a high bar and debate vigorously whether a product advances your company’s mission and builds long-term value.
- Think small. Adopt a growth mindset.
- Be certain. Maintain a healthy skepticism and revisit previously-held beliefs.
Product counsel is a growing field, and one that can enable lawyers to utilize skills honed in many different practice areas and industries. You can watch the full webinar on demand, and to join or connect with our bench of product counsel lawyers, get in touch with us at Axiom.
My perspective on Axiom’s 2019 Diversity Report.
How Axiom Lawyer Chad Woodford draws on his background as a software engineer to build a robust career in the tech industry, while pursuing passions for yoga and writing.