Ex-City lawyer goes to Google
Trevor Callaghan studied and trained in Scotland, before moving to Slaughter and May on qualification. Having moved internally from straight corporate work to IP/IT, he then left at 6 years’ pqe to work as “Product Counsel” at Google. Describing it as the best career decision he could have made, we asked him about side-stepping the lure of partnership and what it’s like working in-house.
mtl: Hi Trevor, tell us about your career pre-Google.
Trevor: My experience of studying law was unremarkable, apart from studying legal anthropology, traditional Chinese law and legal thought and criminology in my final year, which I really enjoyed. I applied for various jobs when I graduated as I wasn’t convinced that law was the best option. However my Scottish Protestant roots got the better of me, and in the end I opted for going off to get a “good job” in law. I trained at a medium-sized Glasgow firm, which included six months in their London office.
While I was in London, I saw the attraction of working as a lawyer in the City. Generally, it seemed that people were very well paid and enjoyed an expensive lifestyle, which seemed attractive to me at that time. I turned down the offer of a qualification job at my firm in Glasgow and jumped ship to Slaughter and May. It would have been great from a lifestyle perspective to return to Scotland, but the prestige and allure of high profile work at Slaughter and May was too tempting. Later, I came to realise that I didn’t value the lifestyle enough over time to make the sacrifices worth it.
I joined the core M&A group, where I did mainly international work for two hard years. I gained experience in many different areas that I wouldn’t have known existed if I had stayed in Scotland. However I realised that if I didn’t like the work and lifestyle enough at this point, then I really should move on to do something else. This coincided with me attending an internal training course on IT issues.
I had always had a personal interest in IT and technology and, following the training session, I managed to negotiate a 6 month internal secondment to the IP/IT team. After 3 or 4 months, the move was working so well that I stayed - in the end for nearly 5 years. As an IP/IT assistant I dealt mainly with IT outsourcing, IP licensing and corporate support work. I loved it and the people in that team were great to work with.
mtl: So at 6 years’ pqe you must have been thinking about partnership?
Law, University of Aberdeen
Training contract at McClure Naismith, Glasgow (including a seat in London)
Corporate assistant, Slaughter and May
IP/IT assistant, Slaughter and May
Senior Product Counsel - EMEA, Google
Trevor: I actually brought up the issue with the partners before it was brokered by them, as I had decided in advance that I had no interest in partnership. I wanted to be honest about my career goals, and ask whether there was anything which they could offer me as an assistant. To their credit they put forwards a pretty compelling senior assistant role with some involvement in practice development, fee earning work and practice support. At the time, I did have reservations about become an “institutionalised assistant”. However I remember thinking that it was wrong to simply rule that out as an option as a consequence of looking at it within the established order of private practice career development.
What I realise in retrospect is that I had still been very blinkered with respect to my options. I hadn’t thought to look outside the confines of Slaughter and May for other things, let alone outside private practice, or the law generally. Around this time I saw an advert for Google while thumbing through Legal Week (having read that week’s important gossip). I did a double-take, initially forgot about it and then realised that I owed it to myself to apply for the job, as it was such a close match for my own personal interests.
I decided that I wanted to go and speak to them, regardless of whether they would hire me, so I knocked up a CV, went to the interviews and it all worked out. I was surprised that they hired me given that my experience wasn’t completely right for the job. However I had been absolutely honest about my enthusiasm for the internet and technology and hope that this came through. It was the first time in my life where I had been totally open about my personality and interests, and – in addition to feeling great – it seemed to have a positive effect on my candidacy.
mtl: So how is life at Google?
Trevor: Moving there was the best decision I ever made. Actually, apart form marrying my wife. And having a kid! The main difference is that I feel good about what I do. I find that there are more of the good things that matter in this job, i.e. there is ethical debate, people take principled stands, they care about and enjoy what they do, and it’s fun. Coming from a traditional city firm with a culture driven predominantly by money and fear, this was all a great relief.
The downside is that life here is very fast-paced compared to private practice. Working at Google is a bit like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. Generally, you have to be more personally responsible for your working practices, by managing yourself to get the right level of commitment. If you can get that right then the job is extremely rewarding.
My role is as Product Counsel, which means that I shepherd the development of product features and new products. We take them from established internal projects to the externally available products and services that our users see on the Google search page , our "more" page and on Google Labs. My team looks after Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Very often it involves making products available in these markets following a successful launch in the US.
As you would expect, there are a huge number of issues surrounding our products - You Tube and Google Video, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Talk, Google Checkout and Google News and or course our advertising and business products such as AdWords, AdSense and Google Apps for Your Domain – and this is only what is currently available. There is a lot more that we are working on that’s on the way! There is a real mixed bag of things to deal with, including compliance around advertising, privacy of communications, confidentiality, data protection, telecommunications, financial services, trade mark and copyright issues.
We work in a slightly unconventional way in that the issues are not packaged up in nice little legal questions. An example would be a colleague ringing me to say that we are launching product X in Hungary in 2 days and I would have to be prepared to say whether this was OK or not, and if not, why not. The other person only cares about the product, not about the legal issues, so we hardly ever just discuss what the law is – although you always need to be prepared to justify a recommendation with hard law. More often than not we will discuss how to implement a feature or launch a product in a way which still confers the maximum benefit to the user, and incurs an acceptable level of risk for the company.
As the company has grown, and still is growing fast, there are a lot of challenges, on the political, legal and ethical fronts. The aim is still to produce services that are useful and attractive and that fulfil Google’s mission. The mission itself is probably the main reason why I work at Google. I think that free access to information is a key factor in social change and can be very empowering for individuals and groups alike. I think it’s important that there is a company which is prepared to put that principle at the heart of its strategy.
"There is a lot of opportunity out there for lawyers and it is very easy to narrow your horizons by focusing on your peer group and the place where you currently work."
To be honest, as a lawyer, if you are interested in IP or technology then I can’t imagine a better company to work for. On the purely academic side, we have some of the most important and difficult challenges around at the moment on this intersection, so there’s plenty of brain food. Added to that, Google takes the view that it is important to develop outside of your specific job and tries to encourage folks to do this. This is partly because the hours are more flexible, but it’s mainly due to the fact that there is generally a very entrepreneurial environment here and a mutual understanding that people are not automatons designed only to do one thing within specific, rigid, confines.
mtl: So, any tips for figuring out what career moves to make?
Trevor: It’s different for everyone – but based on my experience I’d say that you need to understand what makes you happy before you put your CV out, otherwise you will be in the same situation further down the line. Take the time to figure out what you want from life. You need to be able to understand when an opportunity is too good to pass up and be able to spot a good match for your personality and mindset. Once you have the courage to trust your own judgement and strike out in the direction that works for you, the rest is relatively straightforward.
There is a lot of opportunity out there for lawyers and it is very easy to narrow your horizons by focusing on your peer group and the place where you currently work. Take some time out to think more broadly and to realise that there is not just a single track road going only in one direction. I know though that it is hard to think of anything else if you are locked in an office all day long for 6 or 7 days a week.
Above all, I think it is really dangerous to compartmentalise your life and think of your job as “work” and everything else as “life”. I don’t agree with the work/life balance. In fact, I think it’s a myth. It’s all “life”. The happiest people are the ones that are living all the time, and not just biding their time “working”.
mtl: What are your plans for the future?
Trevor: To watch my son grow up! Career-wise, to keep doing what I’m doing and to build the Product Counsel team up further. Maybe have another baby. Did I really just say that?
mtl: Thanks Trevor.
Google are looking for lawyers who are passionate about the internet and technology. Click here to see the list of jobs that they are advertising at the moment.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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