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Google's Meghan Landrum on Why Innovation and Learning are More Crucial Than Perfection

Daniel Chapman

Although legal professionals can be slow on the uptake with new tech, at a company like Google, belated adoption just won’t fly. AI Visionary Meghan Landrum, a director in Google’s in-house legal department, emphasizes that learning from doing and “reasonableness” should take priority over perfection—even (and especially) in the risk-averse legal world.

The legal sector has a reputation for being slow to embrace new technologies but you stand out as an early explorer of AI. What are some of the structural barriers that keep these teams from adopting new technologies?

Adopting new technology is never easy. It's certainly not something that's terribly widespread within the legal industry. We are still very much practicing law as we did 10, 20, or 50 years ago with only incremental growth. That can lead to restrictions on innovation and stifle evolution and movement.

That's why we value our early adopters so much. The legal industry in particular is heavily traditional, and that just doesn't leave a lot of room for quick change. The legal industry, committees, judicial bodies, and rules groups often solicit helpful input from the legal community to try and foster change, but can't always capture the operational pain of what it is like to practice law in a digital age.

There is a community within the legal industry that really values innovation and experimentation and change, and they're doing what they can to encourage room for growth. But it is still a challenge due to the way the legal industry is set up.

Legal discovery specifically is where I think a lot of new tech ends up growing. Ultimately, discovery is a search for relevant information in an ocean of irrelevant data. We need new technology to survive. There's just no way to keep up with the way humans are communicating with each other without it.

Ultimately, discovery is a search for relevant information in an ocean of irrelevant data. We need new technology to survive. There's just no way to keep up with the way humans are communicating with each other without it.

For discovery to support litigation and investigations properly, we have to make room for reasonableness to allow for experimentation—and, most importantly, allow for mistakes. We can't make the consequences of reasonable experimentation so dire that no one's willing to try. Otherwise, it will completely prohibit growth. We really need to keep beating the drum on reasonableness, not perfection, and make sure that we're leaving room for keeping up with the clients and companies we’re trying to support.

Legal departments are often seen as cost centers. How can these teams prove their value?

I think data and metrics, both of which are very valuable here at Google and to a lot of other entities, are an important part of proving value or running any kind of function. Legal metrics have enjoyed a lot of growth and appreciation over the last few years, thankfully. There's so much to be learned from the information we have in front of us. But it's often a challenge to capture it accurately, assess it, and use it. We can get metrics on everything from spending budget, to resource management, operational efficiency, and risk management—and, more recently, even team culture and morale, which I think are      particularly challenging as an organization grows.

Identifying helpful data points, accurately measuring them, and creating a regular reporting cadence are very important first steps in proving the value of the investment that the company or the client may be putting into your team or department. But that is just a first step. The second step is analyzing that data and using it to identify gaps, other opportunities, and risks you may not have seen when you were looking at individual cases, projects, or people.

Then, the holy grail would be to use that backward-looking data to look forward and predict finances, staffing, and risks. That's where AI really is going to come into play in looking for patterns in a sea of data: trying to find, organize, and understand it all. I think we are definitely going to need to leverage AI to both understand the information we have in front of us and help predict where we may be going in ways that minimize churn and uncertainty as we move forward.

We've observed that legal professionals who have worked for or with technology companies in the past tend to be more willing to push the envelope a little bit. Do you agree, and have you experienced that yourself?

One of my favorite things about working at Google is working in a culture that values experimentation and data. Having a company, leadership team, and cultural history that puts a lot of value behind these practices is very helpful in figuring out our strategy and the direction we want to go.

One of our founders always told us we were supposed to be working on things that made us uncomfortably excited, and I think tech definitely falls in that area. Especially in a legal scenario, where there may be a lot on the line, the information you are able to leverage and produce or use could be life-changing for a large number of people. That makes it very stressful, but really important, to do it well.

We can't choose to not move forward with technology. That's not an option. We simply couldn't get our work done, which is certainly not acceptable given everything that's going on in the world. I think we'll always need new tech. We'll always need an adventurous leader, a flexible team, and a strong support structure. And like I mentioned earlier, having room to fail and be able to assess that and continue moving forward—to learn from doing—can be really hard within legal, but is paramount to advancement.

Working for a global company that's obviously very well known, how do you keep up with the nuances of the different legal, regulatory, and cultural structures affecting your operations?

I don't have an easy answer to this, but I do think the first part would be to give up on the idea of staying on top of everything. I don't think that's possible. We talk a lot both in our team and the larger industry about scaling whatever angle you may happen to be looking at. I don't think it's possible to scale a single person or a leader in that way. The only way you can do that would be to hire good people and give them helpful resources, and most importantly, the space to be awesome. Then, give them a structure that allows for helpful information sharing.

Better yet, build a place that allows for helpful information sharing, celebrates diversity, and just leaves space for growth so that you're operating as a unit, not as single people in the weeds. You can't be dependent on one person for staying on top of things; at some point, that person will need to stop working, and we don't want everything to fall apart.

Build a place that allows for helpful information sharing, celebrates diversity, and just leaves space for growth so that you're operating as a unit, not as single people in the weeds.

How would you summarize your time at Google so far? What have you learned, and is there anything you're particularly proud of?

To use a phrase mentioned above, I would summarize my time at Google as uncomfortably exciting. I came to Google from a law firm where my work-life felt very linear. I knew what it was I was expected to do, the process was the same on each project or case, and everything marched forward in a defined fashion.

Once I got to Google, it was certainly more organic, definitely more chaotic, and a lot more exciting. I quickly learned how to experiment, support, and coach. I was hired to start a new team, which I’d certainly never done before. But it was very exciting and rewarding. It was also a time of significant growth within Google’s legal department. They gave us the space to experiment and fail, which was great.

I'm proud to say a lot of what my colleagues and I came up with in those early years worked out great. And a lot of it failed miserably. We kept evaluating and evolving and moving forward. It's been a really collaborative 10 years at the company. I feel like I learned a lot about people—including how to support them and sometimes how not to support them.

In your view, what can legal departments do to foster more diversity?

A lot still needs to be done to increase appreciation for diversity, and to remove structural barriers in place.      

Google has been great about providing us with helpful and ever-evolving resources when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion - —at the team level, department level, and company level. We've been given a lot of tools to further our education on the subject and help confirm the message that diversity is a necessary component of human life. That means our regular lives and our work lives—and in the products we build and put out into the world.

What do you do when you're not working? How do you like to decompress?

My 200-year-old house is getting a big restoration and that’s taking a lot of time, if only because, even when we're not actually cleaning rooms or stripping paint or talking about how many windows we're actually going to take care of in the future—which is way too many—I am just fascinated by the history of it. So a lot of my free time is spent digging into newspaper archives and putting together the story of this house and the people who have lived here and the places they've been. I am definitely a historical stalker of anyone who's ever stepped in that house.

But my family, my husband, and my three kids provide more than enough distraction from work most of the time. And when I get a little time on my own, I usually spend it either reading, researching or playing video games.

What are you reading lately?

I'm reading Andy Weir’s, author of The Martian, recent book, Hail Mary, which came out last year. And then, I'm looking forward to Amor Towles’ new book, The Lincoln Highway. He wrote A Gentleman in Moscow a couple of years ago, which I really enjoyed.

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

Too many, to be honest. A top-of-mind example is flexibility. There are so many important behavioral skills—emotional maturity, humor, kindness and empathy, room for innovation, all of that. But I think the one thing that makes it all come together is one’s ability to adapt and be flexible. What you need now is not going to be what you need next week, and having to shift gears can be difficult. So I think that's a skill that everybody needs.

It can be really exhausting, reminding yourself that this is part of the journey and the change won't stop. There is no end to that. I have to keep reminding myself that adapting to it is a skill unto itself.


Daniel Chapman is a strategic account executive at Relativity.

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