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Meet Chris Chin, Legal Director at Google

November 29, 2018 8 min read

Chris Chin is a Legal Director at Google and has been at the company for 16 years, since it was just a couple hundred employees spread across two buildings. When he started, the legal team tracked all of the company’s contracts on a single spreadsheet. Today, it is an industry leader, defining and setting the standards for how modern legal teams operate.

Much of this standard-setting is due to Chris, who was one of the first people in the legal industry to aggressively introduce technology as a critical building block of the modern legal department. At last year’s CLOC convention, everyone was talking about automating NDAs; Chris did this for Google’s legal team over ten years ago, in 2006. And two years before that, he spearheaded the development of Simba, Google’s first in-house contract management system. His experience contains many lessons for GCs and legal leaders at high-growth companies, especially when it comes to balancing short-term and long-term priorities during aggressive growth periods.

In this interview, Chris explains how legal technology has evolved during his time at Google and how high-growth companies can take advantage of new capabilities to minimize the amount of manual or repetitive work in their queue. Perhaps more importantly, Chris also talks candidly about the stress and workload that fast-growing software companies often face, and how compartmentalizing and prioritizing tasks can help your team keep pace with the rest of the company.

Keep reading to find out how:

  • Chris’s love of video games helped him land a job at Google
  • Google’s legal team survived the company’s incredible growth, and why hiring great team members is non-negotiable
  • Google has gone from managing agreements in a single spreadsheet to leading the industry in the development and adoption of legal technologies

You were at Oracle, Netscape, and AOL during the dot-com boom

how did you find your way to Google?

It was a combination of luck, timing, and experience. One of my colleagues from Ariba, a B2B software company that flourished during the late 1990s, joined Google as their second lawyer. About seven or eight months later, she started pinging her network, saying “Hey we’re growing really quickly. We need people.”

It was actually a hard job to get, but because I had experience in enterprise software from Oracle and Ariba, as well as internet experience from Netscape, I was able to successfully navigate the interview process. It helped that one of the senior VPs in sales, who was on the interview panel, was one of my main clients at Netscape.

It’s funny–I also credit my interest in video games for helping me in those interviews, since video games sparked my interest in technology. When my Google interviewers asked me about how I’d filter spam, I knew the answer because I knew that you could track people using their IP address. Now it seems very basic, but in 2002, there weren’t that many lawyers who knew what an IP address was.

What were the early days like at Google?

It was very much a startup. I was around employee number 390. We had one building in Mountain View and a small building in New York. That was it.

My first desk was a wooden door that was on two sawhorses. I shared an office with two other lawyers, and the General Counsel and CFO shared an office right next to my office. I was one of the last people to interview with Larry or Sergey directly before getting hired. It was crazy.

Shortly after I accepted the offer at Google and gave notice at Ariba, my new boss at Google called me and said “Hey, can I send you work tomorrow?” I was still at my other company at the time! That’s how short-handed they were.

What about the legal department—what was that like? 

When I started at Google, we were basically building the department from the ground up. The department had no forms. We basically had to write every new agreement from scratch.

That part of the job really appealed to me. When I was working for other companies, I always thought about how I might improve things or do things differently. At Google, I had an opportunity to take all those opinions and see if I could do better.

It can be hard for high-growth companies to put consistent processes in place, but it’s crucial for keeping up with the rest of the business in the long-term. The first quarter I joined, Google generated 12 million dollars in revenue. The next quarter, we generated 26 million. (Today, we generate 25 billion dollars each quarter!) The company was doubling and tripling in size every quarter. Planning for the future was vital.

Each day, we were trying to handle dozens of deals and interview dozens of candidates to grow the team. In our spare time, we were trying to build a team structure. The most important thing was balancing our short-term responsibilities with our long-term needs, even when it seemed like everything was on fire. It was tough, but it was totally worth it because you knew you were helping to build this great thing.

Aggressive growth like what you’re describing could not have been easy for the team. Any advice for getting through periods of hyper-aggressive growth?

The most important thing to always bear in mind is that no matter how desperate you get, don’t ever make the hire just because you’re desperate. Continue to hire people that you know will be great. Hiring people out of desperation ruins the team dynamic.

My first years at Google were difficult. I think one or two years, I had to work on Thanksgiving–you don’t ever figure you’re going to have to work on Thanksgiving or Christmas. But everyone else was doing it too, so we were in it together.

That’s why it’s important to make sure you get the right people on the team, because if you get the right people, it’s easier to stay motivated when you’re in the trenches. There’s no sugarcoating it–handling that much growth can be very rough at times.

That’s a great point. Growth is great, but it also comes with a lot of pressure. How did you handle that stress, personally?

You have to compartmentalize and prioritize. You’ll often have a mountain of work that seems like it’s too much to handle. You have to think, I’ll just do this one deal first. Then I’ll get to that deal. Then I’ll write this form. Basically, you can’t just look at the whole of your work. You have to break it down.

Sometimes prioritizing means saying no to other parts of the business. When we had 50 deals to do, we’d go to the VP of Sales and say, “Look, each deal takes us 10 hours to complete, so that’s 500 hours. We may not get to everything this quarter, so you need to tell us what you want us to work on first.”

For my first three years at Google, I would get in around 9:30 a.m., because most of our clients got in later. Our team would work until around 7:00 and then have a beer–Google used to keep beer in the fridge. Then I would go home, eat dinner, and work out–all of that took about two hours. Afterwards, I would come back to work from 9:00 at night until around 2:00 in the morning. All those stories you hear about the 80-100 hour work weeks at startups–that’s what it was like.

It was grueling, but what’s cool about being part of a high-growth company is that if you do something, it matters. I’m sure it’s the same at Ironclad. Everything you work on has a direct and material impact on the company’s trajectory. It’s a non-stop adrenaline rush.

Still, you need balance. On a more basic level, I’d recommend making time for exercise, keeping a social calendar–whatever it takes to keep some semblance of balance in your life, even when you’re working long hours. It’s a small thing, but early on at Google, I sat in my car before work each morning and listened to “Jump Around” by House of Pain to get myself in the right mindset. I had to psyche myself up every day to go to work, because once I got in, I had to be on.

Today, you guys set a gold standard for how legal teams should be run. How did you get here, and what did you learn along the way?

Basically, any new legal department should needs to have two things: legal tech and legal ops. You need tech to scale, and you need to hire smart legal ops people to build the infrastructure.

I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating: Even and maybe especially when you might have a lot of day-to-day work, you still have to plan for what your department is going to look like in one or two years. You can’t just keep throwing bodies at problems. You have to plan how you’re going to grow the team as the business grows.

During my first year or two at Google, our agreement tracker was an Excel spreadsheet. We used the spreadsheet to track all of our deals, which accounted for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. By the end, that spreadsheet took 15-20 minutes just to load! At that point, we realized we needed a tech solution.

In 2004, we launched Simba, our in-house contract management system. We realized we were never going to be able to manage everything if we continued to do it manually. For a few years, I continued to help develop our legal tech on the commercial side. Unfortunately, the rest of the department still didn’t have any tech initiatives.

In 2008, I went to our General Counsel and said, “We need to focus on legal tech as a means to leverage ourselves across the department–not just on the commercial side. That way, we won’t continue to just hire more and more people to do work manually.”

In the last ten years, our legal tech initiatives have really grown exponentially. We have baseline capabilities to build on top of, and now we can do cool stuff like machine learning, AI, advanced metrics.

The thing is, legal technology capabilities are much more widely available than they used to be. Now companies have this new generation of legal tech, and Ironclad’s really a leader in that. If you can leverage technologies like Ironclad, there’s no excuse to fall back on spreadsheets like we were doing fifteen years ago. They should build processes that incorporate legal tech and legal ops best practices.

Has your role changed as Google’s team has scaled with technology?

It has. My real passion is in automation and efficiency. I’m not really a typical lawyer for two reasons. One, I was always drawn to business and two, I’m kind of lazy. Part of the reason we built all these legal tech tools is that I just didn’t want to do all this work again!

For instance, we used to negotiate every NDA that came through to Google. In 2006, we built an automated NDA tool that was a simple form. We focused on making it as approachable as possible. The result was that we automated almost all of the NDA-related work we had to do. Now, we only negotiate about 10-15% of NDAs.

As I helped build our in-house contracts tool and our NDA tool, I realized that I was more interested in finding ways to streamline our legal work than actually practicing law and continuing to negotiate agreements.

That’s when I switched from managing one hundred people to building a very small team of five people to work on legal technology. My team has grown a bit larger since then, but our focus is still on building tools that all of our lawyers can use in all of their practice areas.

Today, Google has a lot of tech initiatives in areas like discovery, patents, litigation, and ethics and compliance. We work across the spectrum of legal practices now. It’s been great. I’m still engaged with Legal, but I’m really doing product work.

It’s similar to what Ironclad is working on. The reason I’m so excited about you guys is that you’re committed to changing the industry and have an amazing engineering team working on fixing billing and fixing contracting. And you’re small, so you’re still nimble. Jason (Ironclad’s CEO) really wants to change the industry. Sometimes I ping him randomly with ideas for your product. Most of the time, he’s thought of them already. It’s cool.

So the last piece of advice I’m hearing is to follow your interests.

I’ve always followed what I was really interested in, and it’s kind of worked out. I have ended up in the ideal spot for myself. That said, it’s also come down to timing and previous experience. The Google opportunity came along at the right time and was a good match for my experience, but I was only able to get the job because of my previous experience in technology.

It’s important to keep learning. No matter how bad your situation may be, you can always learn something from what you’re doing. At one of my previous jobs, the company was not well-run–it was too political and had a problem with bro culture. It wasn’t that fun to work there, but I still learned a lot about how I would create a different culture, about how I would work differently.

At Ironclad, we get to work with GCs and legal leaders who are revolutionizing how legal teams work with their businesses. Our Meet the GCs shines a light on their achievements and stories. Read more here.

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Stacey Wang is the Director of Product Marketing at Ironclad. Before Ironclad, she worked in Business Development at Palantir Technologies, and before that, she was a litigator at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. She is a California-licensed attorney and graduate of Harvard Law School.