I've been working in the blockchain space since before Ethereum started. Working on Ethereum itself was my first experience with watching an integrated team of lawyers and professionals at work, rapidly bringing forth a brand new technology product. That work began my exposure to working in interdisciplinary teams with many (much more) experienced lawyers. Even nearly ten years later, I'm rarely the most knowledgeable lawyer in the room for every issue. And that's what clients want. Teams of specialists are required for sophisticated businesses, but there also needs to be a tech-savvy lawyer at the centre of specialty counsel.
Lawyers often imagine that clients want them to be some sort of legal titan, reciting statutory excerpts and explaining dicta. There's a place for those lawyers, but what most companies need is product counsel.
What Is Product Counsel?
Product counsel is a title that's emerging in the United States but not yet popular in Canada. I think of it as the lawyer who helps spearhead a product and bring it to market. They need to be thoughtful and understand the technical details of the product. They need to flag issues and gather feedback from stakeholders. They need to be able to write up a memo on a particular issue and then seek expert help where required. Product counsel is a bit like a GC, but specific to a line of business. For most of my work, this is a new line of business, where a lawyer can be particularly helpful in shaping the product.
Blockchain products are especially in need of good product counsel because they're usually built quickly (or already underway) and there's often a lot of moving parts to coordinate. There may be risks that are known to the client that they want to mitigate, or new risks that product counsel points out. And then they go further. Pointing out problems isn't very useful to most businesses. They want solutions. How can the product be changed? Are there lower risk ways of doing it?
Product counsel needs to be able to locate specialists who have domain knowledge and then quickly bring them up to speed on the specific points they need to engage with. This cuts down on the client's bill and gets problems solved quickly. People who've been in the industry for a while can generally draw on a network of specialists that they've seen demonstrate the required industry and legal knowledge.
Product Counsel Reduce Risk
Mismanagement of product development at the legal level is setting a company up for losses later, either in the form of litigation, regulatory action, or an inability to do something under the contracts that were drafted up. Good product counsel help clients to dodge risks they don't know they have.
What Do Product Counsel Do?
In my experience, product counsel sits in the middle of complex blockchain issues, commercial drafting, and coordinating teams of lawyers.
The need for product counsel will only grow as law becomes more specialized, international, and complex. There's no sign that the cryptocurrency industry is disappearing, and every sign that it's getting more sophisticated, further justifying the product counsel position in companies throughout the world. This is a title I expect to see more often.