We asked Oliver Bethell, head of EMEA competition at Google Inc and the winner of the Competition Individual of the Year award at the 2018 Global Counsel Awards, his opinion on what it takes to be a successful in-house counsel, the best way to advise senior leadership and what winning the award meant to him.
Describe your current role (responsibilities, size of team, structure).
I lead Google's EMEA competition team. There are currently 10 of us. The team is experienced and doesn’t require much supervision. My role generally involves thinking about the strategic direction of our cases, how we modify course when circumstances change, and how our strategy needs to respond to and inform Google’s product development goals. I work with people across the company, including our general counsel and CEO.
What led you to a career in-house?
Luck, mainly. I worked for one of Google’s law firms and came across as a secondee in 2008.
In your current role, what is the most challenging situation that you have faced? What are the most significant challenges that in-house lawyers are likely to face over the next few years?
I can’t make predictions for all in-house lawyers. In our practice, one of the biggest challenges has been to identify what we know and don’t know about our cases and use that to focus on the moments when we can make a difference. How we organise and run matters – managing meetings, sharing docs, communicating – all takes time. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss opportunities. I think that exercising this kind of discretion is going to become more important for our team.
Are there particular types of legal issues that you routinely refer to outside counsel? And what kind of matters do you tend to handle in-house?
We don’t tend to categorise the work. As matters come up, we’ll build whatever team makes sense. Once we have a team, I like to think that we’re allocating tasks according to people’s expertise and capacity, not because of whether they’re in-house or external.
What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?
Embrace the idea that one or all of you may be wrong. Put yourself in the shoes of people who don’t work for the company. Holding that perspective and the company’s goals in your mind at the same time is a good way to come at a problem.
What’s important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?
Try not to hedge. Give a non-legal framework for the decision that needs to be taken. Take a position and let people react. Be clear when you don’t think that a counter opinion has legs.
How does the legal department contribute to your company’s growth?
My team advises on what it means to compete on the merits. I’d like to think that our work informs how we, as a company, think about innovation and product development, which is at the core of Google’s growth.
With regard to your industry, are there any significant developments worth highlighting?
Technology companies are being asked to think carefully about how their products affect people. That’s necessary and something that we’re taking seriously. I expect more debate and intend to listen and advocate for change where that’s needed.
If not a lawyer, what would you be?
I come from a military family, so perhaps that.
What did winning a Global Counsel Award mean to you?
I’m very grateful to those who took the time to give a view and forgave my flaws.
The purpose of the Global Counsel Awards is to identify those in-house counsel, both teams and individuals that excel in their specific roles. The primary aim is to reward lawyers for demonstrable achievements across the full spectrum of in-house responsibility, not simply those who have acted on high-profile transactions.