When Microsoft offered Brad Smith its top legal job in Europe in 1993, he turned it down.* “In the late 80s, early 90s,” he told me, “People did not want to leave law firms to go in-house like they do today.” He assumed the job would be more of the same compliance-driven advice-dispensing that he was already doing as the company’s outside counsel.
But the firm convinced him that they wanted him to come onboard to think more broadly and proactively. So he joined, and his work since has indeed been a demonstration of this expansive mandate; for example, he has led the implementation of a new human-rights policy, which means instituting improved processes to better protect free expression and privacy across Microsoft’s products and services. He has also overseen the development of programs in financial management and other life skills for factory workers in China who build Microsoft's tablets and Xboxes. Perhaps most importantly, he has become a sort of ambassador from the tech world to Washington, D.C., and beyond, educating lawmakers and others about technology and bringing outside concerns back into the company.
Smith is unusual. For those who want to push sustainability or other positive innovations in their companies, the rap on the lawyer is that he or she might as well be called the Chief Roadblocker. As Bob Langert, a former vice president of sustainability for McDonald’s, recently wrote for GreenBiz.com: “In my travels and discussions with peers, the topic of working with lawyers draws some sighs and exasperation. I hear: They block me. They’re barriers. It’s us versus them.”