Google employs 600 people in its legal department. Once it swallows Motorola Mobility, that number will jump to 800, General Counsel Kent Walker told an audience gathered Wednesday for his keynote address at Corporate Counsel’s 9th Annual GC Conference West Coast in San Francisco.
And while he waxed eloquent about the role lawyers have played in the information revolution that Google helped set in motion, he said his sizable legal staff faces serious challenges. “We’re the heat shield and the diplomats trying to pave the way for the next new technology,” Walker said.
For example, just about every country defines privacy differently, and Google’s lawyers have to understand and navigate all their rules and restrictions. And then there’s the inevitable legal wrangling that results when Google introduces a new product, with Google Books being a prime example.
It was no surprise when Walker complained about the U.S. patent system, pointing out that there are about 250,000 patents covering various functions and features on most smartphones these days.
“That’s a sign of a broken system,” he said.
But the legal team’s most important job is supporting the work of Google’s engineers, and that means learning how to be more than gatekeepers who just say what is and isn’t legal. It means offering insight, too. “Lawyers can and should be innovation facilitators,” Walker said.