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Business Strategy, IP and Risk Management: 5 In-House Counsel Institute Takeaways

Santa Clara University. Courtesy photo.

Santa Clara University. Courtesy photo.

Lawyers from Facebook, Oracle and other Silicon Valley companies shared their career advice at Santa Clara University’s In-House Counsel Institute Thursday and Friday.

The multiday institute brought together a room of inside and outside counsel from a variety of legal backgrounds, most hailing from tech companies. In a series of panels, lawyers discussed intellectual property, the risks they’re managing and how to form strong ties with business partners. Here’s a roundup of the institute’s first two days:

1. Have an IP strategy, but be flexible. Facebook assistant general counsel Tanya de la Fuente said in a panel Friday that in-house counsel should ensure their company has a strategy when it comes to IP, so they’re not racking up patents that don’t align with the business’s goals. But lawyers also shouldn’t be too closely tied to that plan. If the company’s strategy changes—for example, if the company wants to pursue a more aggressive, litigation-heavy strategy to protect IP—lawyers need to be able to meet that new challenge. “I … sort of caution against rigidity, following a strategy just because that is the strategy that has been declared,” de la Fuente said.

2. Remember reputational risks, too. Just because no laws were broken doesn’t mean the company won’t be damaged. Christopher Sundermeier, the general counsel, chief privacy officer and corporate secretary of Reputation.com, said part of his role is ensuring the company doesn’t face blowback online for mishandling interactions with clients and consumers. As more companies find themselves or their employees going notoriously viral, Sundermeier said he’s taking extra care to ensure consumers calling with concerns feel heard, with their issues resolved.

3. Meet with stakeholders. When Intuit general counsel and senior vice president Kerry McLean’s team was planning to create a new product, they made an effort to speak with the people it would impact, including regulators. “We wanted to make sure they knew our intentions … and we haven’t had regulator issues so far,” she said. McLean also looks for input from customers, employees and other stakeholders.

4. When it comes to business, be ready to learn. The general counsel role is one that requires lawyers to become businesspeople, too. In a panel Thursday, in-house counsel from Splunk and Maxim Integrated said it’s not uncommon for internal clients to approach them with nonlegal-related questions. When that happens, Maxim general counsel and senior vice president Ed Medlin said he reaches out to others who may have insight into the issue, and uses critical thinking skills to solve the business issue at hand. “Make sure it doesn’t sound like you’re afraid to make a decision,” he said.

5. Sometimes, say no. For much of Sundermeier’s keynote speech Friday, he discussed the importance of weighing risks and working with the business rather than shutting it down. But still, he said, sometimes the lawyer in the room has to say no. “Say no when you need to,” he said, and give that "no" credibility by only using it when there’s no other option.