Networking With Facebook's In-House Legal Team

Ten years since Facebook's birth, its legal department still faces novel issues every day. And users don't always hit the "like" button.

, Corporate Counsel

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There's a quote scribbled on a chalkboard wall in the legal offices of the Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters of Facebook: "If you have a good tool, build a shed over it." It's signed "Ron H, circa 2013," and whoever Ron is, he's got a point. From the time the world's most famous social network was launched in CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room in February 2004, Facebook—which boasts some 1.2 billion monthly active users—has dominated headlines and mindshare. But it's easy to forget that the shed that Facebook Inc. has built over its social networking tool—its high-powered in-house legal team—is pretty formidable, too.

The law department has grown over the company's first decade to approximately 90 in-house professionals in the United States and around 10 abroad, still lean for a company with a user base bigger than the population of all but two countries on earth. Its lawyers have to deal with the huge variety of legal issues that come from operating in the digital sphere, which is often short on law and precedent, and long on gray areas.

"I'm very fortunate," says Richard Nessary, the director and associate general counsel at Facebook who's charged with IP matters. "I get to work with extremely bright and very passionate people, and that makes it a lot of fun to come into work every day."

That Facebook's lawyers are smart is a given. But they have more than top pedigrees. When they talk, there's a fervor about the work that's palpable. Maybe that's crucial in order to represent a company where the work moves at the speed of light, and public scrutiny over such major issues as privacy is intense and passionate.

Take Mike Johnson. The energetic and boyish head of the mergers and acquisitions team (formal title: director and associate general counsel, corporate, securities and M&A) joined the company in 2010. In a typical Facebook way, Johnson jokes that he "stalked" Facebook to get his job, tracking down leads through friends until he got his resume to the top of the pile.

The company has been in constant motion since its birth. And the pace has only accelerated since the company went public two years ago. For Johnson, that meant preparing—with help from outside counsel at Fenwick & West and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett—for the largest tech and third-largest overall IPO in U.S. history. In the meantime, he kept a little side project percolating—the $1 billion acquisition of photo app Instagram. Johnson, gushing just a bit, called life at Facebook around that time "the most amazing experience I've ever been a part of by far."

"I've never been more tired and more energized at the same time," he recalls. "To come to work seven days a week—especially 16-, 17-hour days—and wake up the next morning going: 'I want to get back in there.'"

Perhaps life at Facebook wouldn't have been so intense if the company also didn't have to usher in one of the biggest changes in its strategy—having to shift from the desktop to mobile, hence the Instagram acquisition. Though sometimes the need to evolve works in Facebook's favor—the Instagram deal is widely considered to be a success—this is not always the case. Its IPO, for one, was seen as a flop out of the gate. Technology ironically failed the company when a Nasdaq glitch delayed trading on opening day, and the stock's value, at least initially, didn't live up the hype.

Following the IPO, a spate of suits were filed against the company by investors who believe Facebook and major banks didn't properly disclose to investors the challenges the company was facing at the time with its transition to a "mobile-first" business model. Johnson says he can't comment on ongoing suits, but he believes the company did a great job with IPO disclosures. "If you look back now, we went out when mobile was a real question mark, and we told people, mobile was a real question mark," he says. And, Johnson says, Facebook has caught up to the technological challenge—49 percent of the company's advertising revenue in the third quarter of 2013 came from mobile.

If Facebook's attorneys seem assured of the company's continuing success, they aren't alone. The company's massive campus exudes self-confidence. Maybe it's the ubiquitous posters on the walls that exhort employees to "Get in Over Your Head" and ask them: "What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?"

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