What it means to be a McKinsey tech lawyer

Pulling back the curtain on our work as technology lawyers at McKinsey, by describing what it means to be a lawyer in emerging tech; how we work to stay in sync with the pace of innovation; what we do to promote knowledge-sharing, legal insights and continuous up-skilling; and how we design-think and ruthlessly collaborate to bring innovation forward, and counsel our internal clients with creativity and impact.

We’re privileged to live in a time where technology moves at the speed of sound and new use cases rapidly emerge across industries. The law, by its precedential nature, tends to trail the development of technology and deconstructs and derisks a path already charted by technology, rather than leading with prescriptive considerations.

Technology, like art, is a soaring exercise of the human imagination.

Daniel Bell (The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys, 1960)

As technology lawyers at McKinsey, our work is focused on looking around the corner: identifying a broader regulatory context, intuiting vectors of guidance, and shaping an early perspective around approaches to mitigate emerging risks. In the words of Spiderman, “With great strength comes great responsibility.” In working with highly complex, nuanced technologies that can do a substantial amount of good, there are also embedded risks that should be managed for effective and ethical performance.

Recent discussions around AI tend to prize the “human-centered” approach—the benefit of putting the interests of people first—and this principle aptly describes the lawyering style we’ve instituted across our tech legal team. To stay sharp on “technology law” and its orbit, we’re constantly learning, sharing, and upskilling ourselves on the current and future state and consistently iterating new ways to move the needle to sharpen our expertise and practice innovation. The year 2020 was unpredictable and challenging, but also a year that offered an opportunity to embrace change, practice agility, and lean into a shared space of openness. We saw each other’s homes, babies, and wall-mounted hobbies, and through this strange new way of working, we opted for cross-departmental intellectual openness, too—a method rooted in learning, collaboration, and building on the greatest asset we have: our individual and collective expertise.

Some of what our tech legal team introduced over the past 18 months spans:

  • Daily doses: summarized key news items around our broader industry that potentially impact our service lines. The key was to make them fun, easily digestible, and quick—each dose sourced and drafted entirely by us. We learned a lot and got to do something a bit different; a win-win!
  • Case learnings: brought “stories from the field” in working with our consultants, the risky scenarios we’ve seen, and key takeaways for spotting risks and framing future considerations. Our goal was to build up a body of referential precedent so that one lawyer’s experience is a teachable moment for the rest of the group.
  • Client alerts: created for our consultants, with one-slide summaries of legal updates that might impact their service lines, where they may benefit from the elevated insights.
  • Newsletters: for our legal and consultant colleagues, to highlight learnings, news they can use, and updates about our team, which included “pulling back the curtain” on how we do our best work.
  • Legal institute: developed for our fellow department-wide legal colleagues with monthly sessions that deep dive into nuanced tech-legal issues and teach practical approaches for review.
  • Design sprints: roughly once a quarter, we connected as a team to “design think,” problem solve, and innovate the next great legal-risk framework or tool. The magic that happens when you connect diverse global talent to freely collaborate is poignantly palpable and has been the secret sauce behind our impactful and innovative energy, work product, and flow.
  • Connecting as a group: supporting individual and collective wellness, goals, and celebrating each other earnestly, vocally, and impactfully. The human-centered approach carried through in a real way in 2020 and feels honest through today. We’re consistently connected for legal news updates—and occasional memes—in our internal messaging channel, and through the first months of 2020 shared virtual “morning coffee” daily: no work talk, just catch up—“How are you?”—across different corners of the globe, when we needed it most.

At the root of it all, we’ve operated and continue to operate on the core principle that leaning into the pace of innovation in our discipline means applying ingenuity in the way we practice. The work we do to craft, shape, and reframe our methodologies and approaches to practicing law and counseling our internal clients aims to both sharpen our expertise and deepen those client relationships. After all, being a thought partner and strategic advisor to our teams means intellectually investing in the space that we’re working in, intuiting its dynamic depth and breadth, and anticipating unchartered considerations.

Create; design think; cross-collaborate; knowledge share; stay human-centric, upskill; reframe; design sprint; and think around the corner. We do our best work when we establish, revisit, and iterate on first principles while ideating new vectors of tactical innovation in our field—because sometimes you need to fine tune the brakes to move faster, as the pointed lesson goes.