The Lawyers Won’t Let Us

company culture 0 comments suggest edit

A finely honed bullshit detector is a benefit to everyone. Let’s try a hypothetical conversation to test yours!

“Hey, we should release that under a more permissive license for XYZ reasons.”

“We’d like to, but the lawyers won’t let us.”

If it’s not malfunctioning, you should feel your bullshit detector tingling right now.

bull Yep, it’s a bull. Photo by Graeme Law CC BY 2.0

A lot of folks think that a lawyer’s job is to protect the business at all costs – that their job is to say “no!” Unfortunately, many places do structure it that way. After all, if a lawyer says “go ahead” and you get sued, the lawyer loses. But if the lawyer says “don’t”, there’s no immediate downside for the lawyer. Eventually the business may collapse from inaction, but there’s always teaching at law school as a backup. So why would the lawyer ever say “yes” in such a situation?

One of the best lessons I learned while at Microsoft was from Scott Guthrie when I expressed concern that the legal team wouldn’t let us break new ground with how we shipped open source.

He reminded me that the lawyers work for us. We do not work for the lawyers. If the lawyers had their way, we wouldn’t do anything because that’s the safest option.

You can see why so many people love the red polo.

Many decisions where legal gets involved are business decisions, not legal decisions. Unless the decision is downright illegal, the lawyer’s job is to help figure out how to do what’s best for the business. Along the way, they should make sure we’re aware of the risks, but also find ways to minimize the risks. At least that’s what a good lawyer does and I’ve been fortunate to work with some.

At the end of the day, even if the lawyer is uneasy about a course of action, they do not get to make the business decisions. That’s someone else’s job (unless you happen to work at a law firm I guess). Perhaps it’s your job.

So when someone tells you that “legal won’t let us do XYZ”, unless they follow that with “because it’s illegal and will land us all in jail and that’s no fun”, you should recognize it as a copout.

Sometimes what they mean is “I don’t really know what’s in the best interest of our business (or I’m too busy to care) so I’ll play it safe and blame the lawyers.”

What you hope they mean is “we won’t do this because it is not in the best interest of our business.” Now that is a fair answer. You may disagree, but it serves as a starting point for a more interesting conversation.

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11 responses

  1. Avatar for remslave
    remslave July 9th, 2013

    Go Guthrie!

  2. Avatar for Vince
    Vince July 10th, 2013

    I must admit, my bulls hit detector was broken until I read this article. Thanks k's Phil!

  3. Avatar for Scott Koon
    Scott Koon July 10th, 2013

    Truly a gem in a great article:
    "He reminded me that the lawyers work for us. We do not work for the lawyers. If the lawyers had their way, we wouldn’t do anything because that’s the safest option."

    That being said, when will the GitHub for Windows source be available? ;)

  4. Avatar for Ian Patrick Hughes
    Ian Patrick Hughes July 10th, 2013

    As soon as it clears legal.... :P

  5. Avatar for Ed_Blackburn
    Ed_Blackburn July 11th, 2013

    I worked for a large corporate, a senior tech manager was concerned about the amount of OSS going into the products. We set up a meeting with the board's solicitor, who promptly okayed all the OSS as a load of hippy, ideological licencing and simply instructed us to avoid non-permissive licences.

    Lessons I learnt: (i) You get what you pay for in life, that includes legal advise. (ii) Don't let managers hide behind their BS interpretation, if you have access to legal, use it (iii) OSS licences are well written and clear to even none tech people.

  6. Avatar for Aldo Megabrain
    Aldo Megabrain July 11th, 2013

    This make me think of the IS department in our company. They are dictating IS policy to the business - however, they are so risk averse and feel the need to cover their backsides with so much red tape, that it is nearly impossible for change to happen (making our job as developers a lot harder than it needs to be). It really would be so much better if the company could say, "here's what we want to do...", and IS set about achieving it in the shortest time with minimal risk! (btw... the development team I'm on isn't part of IS :-) )

  7. Avatar for s9
    s9 July 11th, 2013

    They're getting smarter around here. Now they say, "That's a good idea. Submit this form to the lawyers and wait for them to answer you."

  8. Avatar for IDisposable
    IDisposable July 12th, 2013

    As soon as VS2013 is released

  9. Avatar for Vijay
    Vijay July 12th, 2013

    Can I sue the IS department in our company for blocking YouTube within the company premises?

  10. Avatar for Aldo Megabrain
    Aldo Megabrain July 12th, 2013

    Ha-ha-ha-ha... if only :-D.

    @Haacked... maybe you need a follow-up... "Our IS Department won't let us!"

  11. Avatar for Mike Milton
    Mike Milton July 23rd, 2013

    go Loweyer's go.. :-p