Horseback Law (Puns to Follow)
You may not have heard of Horseback Law, but you’ve surely heard of Google.
Well, in 2014, two Google executives, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, wrote a book titled How Google Works. That’s where the non-Google masses were introduced to the concept of Horseback Law, the idea that it’s often better for business lawyers—startup lawyers, in particular—to ride up, make a quick assessment, and then mosey on, rather than dismounting and spending weeks accounting for every possible risk.
For more on this, let’s go straight to the text.
Lawyers can be smart creatives too…. 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.
So far so good. I agree that lawyers can, in spite of their training, be smart creatives, and there’s no doubt that the law develops at a glacial pace. But how in the world did Google manage to create the legal department in its own image?
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.
I can just imagine all the neighsayers in legal when this concept was pitched. Of course, it’s hard to argue with the results at Google. But it’s not just Google or companies like it that can use this approach. Any business can benefit from Horseback Law, provided that the mounted lawyer is deeply knowledgeable about the business, a fact that the book underscores.
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.
So, here’s the plug: we want to get to know your business well enough that when a legal issue comes up, we can ride up, make a quick assessment, and mosey on.
Leave a comment below if you have questions or thoughts on Horseback Law. Puns encouraged!