Horseback Law (by Google)

While reading How Google Works I came across a section talking about “Horseback Law.”

According to the authors, lawyers using old school practice methods can’t keep up with fast-moving businesses because those practice methods simply can’t keep up with the way most modern businesses operate today.

Rather, lawyers should practice what Google lawyers calls “Horseback Law.”

Below is an excerpt from the book on the topic. But seriously, you should go buy the book because it is really good!

Lawyers are, by training, backward looking. This makes sense, since so much of the law is determined by precedent: What happened before dictates what is OK going forward. They are also highly risk-averse. This also makes sense, because so many business lawyers practice in law firms and the job of a corporate law firm is to keep its clients out of trouble. So when you ask most lawyers to access a situation, and if that situation is 99 percent good and 1 percent questionable, they will spend most of their time with you reviewing the questionable.

The backward-looking, risk averse approach to the law, which is so common in corporate America, doesn’t work in the Internet Century, when business evolves at a pace that is several orders of magnitude faster than the pace of legal change. A smart creative-fueled business that is trying to innovate will be lucky to be right 50 percent of the time, which can be a problem for a lawyer whose risk tolerance is in the single digits.

This is why, when they were building Google’s legal department, David Drummond and his colleagues Kulpreet Rana and Miriam Rivera set out to create an environment where lawyers approached their jobs differently. Our current general counsel, Kent Walker, likes to call this approach “horseback law.” Take a look at any old Western movie…. There is always the scene where a cowboy rides up on his horse and comes to a stop, surveying the situation and deciding what to do next. Kent advises his lawyers to do something similar: In certain situations, it’s often enough to ride up on a horse (figuratively speaking, usually), make a quick assessment, then mosey on. While many decisions (e.g., major acquisition, a legal compliance question) may call for a detailed analysis, don’t feel that you always have to dismount and spend weeks writing a fifty-page legal brief (ha!) of all the things that could possibly go wrong and what would happen if they did. In the early stages of a new project, the analysis won’t be 100 percent correct anyway. In those situations, it isn’t the lawyer’s job to cover every possible angle in detail; it’s his job to look into an unforeseeable future and provide educated, quick guidance to the business leaders making the decisions. Then saddle back up, pardner.

Horseback law works only if the lawyer is an integral part of the business and product teams, rather than just summoned occasionally. It works only with the right mixture of lawyers, which is why, in our early days, we tried to hire more generalists than specialists and spread our recruiting efforts across firms, businesses, and even nonprofits (but we rarely hired lawyers straight out of school). And since legal issues are bound to crop up when you are moving quickly and changing industries, it always helps to be doing the right thing by consumers and customers.

Your copy of the book is on the way, right? 🙂

(This article is general in nature and is not legal advice. Image: Flickr/pasukaru76)

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