It’s hard not to drink the Kool-Aid when you visit Google’s Mountain View campus, with its colorful beachcomber bikes, walking meetings, rock-climbing walls, driverless cars and incredibly friendly people. (When I took a wrong turn, a Googler graciously pointed me in the right direction…after consulting Google Maps, of course.) Still, it was not lost on me that everyone there works tirelessly despite, or perhaps because of, these distractions. Even the bathroom stalls had Google notices posted on them.
Catherine Lacavera leads what is arguably the most successful and innovative legal team in tech. Brilliant, hardworking and single, she was quick to point out that working mothers aren’t the only ones who struggle with work/life balance. Google attracts overachievers — the sort of people who need to be told to take a vacation, who go into “standby” mode rather than turning off at night, who defend answering email at 4 a.m. But what does it really take to excel there? In Catherine’s view, it’s not a matter of glass ceilings and maternity leave, it’s how you figure out how to be your best self. What’s that phrase Oprah would use? Hang on, let me Google it…
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Catherine Lacavera: I’ve been here for a long time, almost 10 years. The culture shock when I first arrived is still very memorable. Coming from a Big Law firm, I was the type of person to go into my office, close the door and sit down at my desk to think. The onslaught of emails, mixed with dogs running in the hallways and people playing volleyball, was definitely a huge shift. The openness of the environment is designed to have people collaborate, ask each other questions, bounce ideas off each other. I have to admit, I was one of the skeptics, but I think it works wonderfully. It results in a team that’s very supportive of each other. When you need to sit down and think you find a room and focus.
I really have nothing but positives to say about it. There’s also the difference between being at a law firm versus being in-house. You’re not sitting down writing a research memo; you’re context switching much more often. There’s the speed with which you’re making decisions, the number of different issues that you’re working on each day, along with the support system to do it — knowing that, “Yes, I’m confronting all these things, but people have dealt with them before and there are people I can ask for help.”
That’s interesting. I’ve had that question before. I won’t “out” the person, but a managing partner at a law firm came to visit the space and said, “Look, we’re thinking of redesigning our space. We want to do something more open office. What do you think of that?” I think it works. I also think it requires leading by example. For instance, when we moved into this building, there were some offices available. I took a space that doesn’t have a door. I had my managers take space outside that area. We’re very accessible. No one sits in an office with their manager. It was important to me that everybody felt like they had some space to think without somebody looking over their shoulder.
I’m not sure what you read about me, but I’m actually pretty relaxed. It’s different than a law firm. There are pauses during the day. There are a lot more meetings. There’s less sit-at-your-desk time. Whenever I get a chance, I do walking meetings with my team, which is awesome. If the weather’s great, you can go outside.
There’s no concept of face time. There’s no, “You need to be here 9 to 5.” My team travels a lot, and their commute is terrible, so many of them work remotely. There’s autonomy. This is important to me, so the environment that I’ve created is, “Here’s your work. Get it done. I don’t care when you do it.” We negotiate some rules of the road, and then there’s no issue.
It’s not that people are not working hard, but they’re working really smart and they’re helping each other. We’re getting better because we’ve done a lot to optimize the work we’re doing. We have the advantage of scale. We’ve handled over 500 patent litigations. We’ve done it in a way that, anything we do, if we see it again, we know how to handle it. I think there’s a lot to be said for that kind of optimizing, sharing, collaborating, where, at least to me, it doesn’t feel like we’re under water. For instance, when we acquired Motorola, we inherited their docket of 60 cases. My team did not blink. I’ve never had that treading water, scrambling, drowning feeling, and I don’t think our team has either. Everybody knows what to do.
I think it’s wonderful for him. I would love to be able to retire at 50. I understand his reasoning.
What does retirement mean? I would do something different. If I’m honest about this, I was ready to retire after kindergarten, but something compelled me to go to first grade.
I think work-life balance is about doing what’s right for you. This is the thing I try to get right with my team. People are different. Some people need to work from home on Fridays. Some people need to shut off on weekends. I happen to wake up incredibly early in the morning, so I send emails at 4 or 5 a.m. I’m not expecting my team to respond at 5 a.m., but that’s my quiet time, when I can focus and get to things. It’s about being open about expectations and not trying to impose what works for me on my team.
Somewhere between 9 and 10, usually, but it varies. Sometimes I’ll be up later. But when I’m tired, I go to sleep. I also manage global litigation, so I do get emails all the time. I suppose I have a habit of getting up incredibly early, and I find it to be a very peaceful time. I find that when I respond to emails at that time, it creates a different speed of communication, whereas email, otherwise, is an instantaneous loop. You send one, you get five back. But if you send it at that hour, then there’s no immediate response, and I think people have more time to think about what it is you’re saying, and I have more time to think about what I’m sending.
I guess it’s a bit of both. There are certain choices that I make. If there’s something that’s interesting that I want to be working on, or if there’s something that I think is really important, I’m going to spend more time on it. I feel that is my choice. I don’t feel it’s something that’s not in my control, or not in my team’s control. I think there’s certainly an expectation. My experience is that most people I hire go way beyond it. That’s not something I’m telling them to do, it’s just that they’re overachievers.
There were probably years in the past when I was guiltier of that. I think it’s important for me to show people that it’s okay to take vacation, so that means that I need to follow that rule myself. I’ve definitely been taking more time off. I think that going to Germany for four and a half months — even though I was still working — created a space of autonomy and responsibility where it’s okay for me to be out of the office, and the team can make the decisions.
No. I really don’t feel that way. I’ve had a great time.
Both at work and in my personal life. I’m very close to my family. I visit them very regularly. I haven’t felt like I had to choose. Well, maybe that’s the wrong way to put it. I think what I’ve been saying all along is that I’ve had the right to choose, and I’ve exercised it.
Sure. There are folks on my team who are working moms and dads. We’ve had a lot of kids born into the team in the last couple of years.
I would be interested in that feedback from my team. I’ve never had that feedback. We do all these surveys on work-life balance. We even do anonymous surveys. In fact, we just got what we call Googlegeist results today, upward management surveys to get feedback. We try a lot of different ways to get that feedback and address it.
So far, I’ve gotten such positive feedback that I haven’t seen a concern like the one you’re talking about. There are a lot of parents of really young children on my team, so I do think they have a support group, but I can imagine someone having that concern managing aging parents. There are all sorts of reasons why people have demands on their time outside of work. I think my own self-criticism would be that I need to be more forceful in telling people, “Go take the time.” I have these incredibly motivated people — it’s hard to get them to shut off.
I have a really diverse team. I haven’t counted the women in a while, but I think, at one point, we were almost 50/50. The reason that’s significant is because, in addition to being lawyers, I often hire people with tech backgrounds, so you have the double whammy. There aren’t that many women in tech who also have a law degree. When I first became the manager, my first couple hires were men, and one of the men on my team actually said to me, “Are you going to hire any women?” It hadn’t even occurred to me because we were hiring the candidates who were the most qualified. So we actively went out and looked for qualified women who met the criteria. We actually had to go out and do a more directed search. That’s no longer true. I would say we’re getting diversity in applicants.
I don’t know the numbers for Google. I also don’t know the numbers for my team at the moment. We’ve certainly had, what I view as, an incredibly, both ethnically and gender-diverse team. It wasn’t always that way. But there has certainly always been an objective and I think we’ve achieved it. Now, I guess I should go do a count. I can’t do it off the top of my head. Last time I counted there were 10 women in my team of 27. I don’t know what it currently is.
It’s always been an important issue to me. I’m involved at the University of Toronto, trying to encourage women in engineering. I’ve seen the really disappointing statistics about the downward trend in the number of women, especially in computer science. I was a computer engineer at my undergrad. There were two or three other women in the class with me, so I certainly understand that problem.
I’d say job opportunities. It opens so many doors. That’s actually what the talk I frequently give is about — that you don’t know where this career will take you, but it will create opportunities that other careers may not. It opens up all these doors. One thing that a lot of young women say is, “I don’t want to sit in front of a computer and write code. That doesn’t interest me.” That’s not the only career path of computer engineering. My message is that it leaves you with so many choices in terms of where you end up.
People ask, “Why did you go into engineering?” I think because I could. I thought it was interesting. I liked math and science. It seemed like an important skill to have, and so I chose engineering. But I was always headed for law school, and I was always headed for patent law.
I had a choice between a Master’s of Engineering, and an MBA. It’s just the one extra year on your law degree. I chose the MBA just because it seemed to round out the education.
I think it adds a level of credibility on the business side that you might not otherwise have.
To some degree, I think that’s right. It’s knowing what is interesting to you, what makes you happy, and aiming toward that — not necessarily a career plan. I knew that I really enjoyed technology. I knew that I was not likely to like sitting and coding, and I wanted a much more interactive job. I knew that law was interesting to me because I enjoyed debates over the dinner table with my dad, who was a trial lawyer and is now a judge. I guess it’s aiming more at what you like.
I was fortunate in that I landed in a really great peer group that was doing really interesting work, and I got to work on some challenging cases pretty early. Even as a junior associate, I got to have a role on cases because I had a tech background — like managing experts and drafting things. That team, which I still work with regularly, is really wonderful, and a lot of them are still together.
The honest answer is, I wasn’t looking. A colleague was applying at Google and suggested it to me. At the time, and still, the practice on the East Coast was a lot of pharmaceutical and genetics work. I was doing a lot of that and enjoying it, but it wasn’t really my core background of computers. Somebody said to me, “Well, you know, there’s this opening at Google.” I wasn’t looking for a job. I applied online. They interviewed me for a really long period of time. Over the IPO, they had a hiring freeze. They interviewed me for almost a year before they gave me the offer. I knew the people who were interviewing me. I had met with them multiple times. They took me out for dinner in New York. They had become friends. When I finally got the offer, I felt like, “Wow, at this point, I feel like I have to take it.” I loved my firm, so I really was very sad to leave. In fact, I joke that I said to the managing partner that I was going on sabbatical to California. Sometimes he jokes back, “When’s that sabbatical ending?” It was a hard decision to leave. It was also a non-obvious choice, quite frankly.
Right, and they didn’t have any patent litigation at the time. I was coming in to work on different types of patent work when I really enjoyed litigation at the time. I was moving across the country. I didn’t want to leave New York. I love New York. I knew one person out here.
Well, I guess I decided to leave because I made the decision that I could always go back to the law firm if I decided that’s where I really wanted to be and this opportunity was a rare chance to do something new.
I loved it. It was not easy. You’re probably the only person that’s ever fully appreciated that. All these people think, of course, go in-house, go running. There used to be a perception that in-house was the promised land. I don’t think there’s a material difference in workload. I think the work in-house is equally challenging, or it’s as challenging as you make it. It’s different. I think I worked on 10 cases total in the four years I was at White & Case, whereas I’ve worked on probably close to 1,000 here. When you add in all the patent cases, plus all the other stuff around the world, probably more. I think I’ve handled more than 1,000 defamation cases in Brazil. But anyway, it’s a very different workload.
I worked very hard at White & Case, but I still think I had autonomy in setting my schedule. This is what I tell junior lawyers all the time, especially in litigation. You have a schedule. You get to set depositions. You know when summary judgment is. You know when trial is. You know when you’re going to be working hard, and you know two years in advance. I think you can control a lot of that if you look ahead and take control of the calendar. As I always say to junior lawyers, “The partners aren’t giving you an assignment on Friday afternoon to try to ruin your weekend, it’s just that they haven’t gotten around to thinking of it until Friday afternoon. Go to them on Monday, say, ‘Hey, what do you need this week?’ and get that assignment on Monday.” Take control of your schedule. Some weekends will get ruined, but I think that shouldn’t be the norm.
You’re right. I’m more of a spectator. I don’t get to stand up and argue. The few opportunities I had to do that before I came in-house, I enjoyed. On the other hand, I would say I see a lot more, just in sheer volume, so I think that the piece that I’m missing on being on the front line I get to make up for in the behind-the-scenes strategy on so many cases. It’s a trade-off.
Well, I manage an amazing team. People ask, “How do you manage lawyers?” I say, “I don’t even try.” Really, they’re so terrific that I don’t feel like they’re a management job. Most of my job is enabling. If there are roadblocks to decisions, if there’s high-level reporting that needs to go on, that’s my primary function. On the strategy side, because we’ve seen so many cases and I see all of them, I feel like I’m sort of the center point for information sharing and best practices. Then, obviously, on big cases I’ll be involved.
The secret sauce? Amazing people. They really are great.
It’s consensus-driven. It’s not just my decision. Multiple people, including cross-functional people, meet them. It’s not me saying, “I like this person,” and everyone’s like, “Oh yeah, me too.” I think that’s one piece. The types of questions we ask also draw from an amazing wealth of hypotheticals from our actual cases. You wouldn’t believe some of the things that we’ve had to deal with. Watching how the candidates think through issues that they’ve not seen before is really interesting and informative.
Often, the questions we’re asking don’t have an answer. It requires the ability to see the landscape and the upsides and downsides of each option, when presented with a problem that nobody has answered before. What are the paths forward to making a decision, and what are the repercussions? It’s somebody who thinks four or five steps ahead.
How everyone works together is really important to me. When I say it’s a flat organization, I really mean it. I constantly ask my team, “What am I doing wrong?” That’s a real question and I want a real answer. I tell outside counsel the same thing, “Don’t tell me I’m right. I’m not paying you to tell me I’m right. If I’m right, I don’t need you. Tell me when I’m wrong.” I think that is putting everyone’s brain to work rather than just mine. I guess the third part is the collaborative resources we’ve built over time. We’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and we have built a repository of forms and ways of addressing problems, so we have the best practices of every firm we’ve worked with across all these cases. More importantly, it’s the company, the witnesses and the reputation of Google that we bring into a courtroom. It is a huge advantage.
People like us, and they like our products. That has a tailwind that is not to be underestimated. Our engineers are so brilliant and well-spoken on the stand. Even their first time, they’re fantastic witnesses about their products. I also have the privilege of working with amazing outside counsel. It’s a whole bunch of factors that make the magic you talked about possible, including the company’s commitment to litigating cases. I always say, “You can’t win if you’re not willing to go to trial. You don’t win if you don’t play.” You can have a winning track record if you have the company commitment to take the risk.
Thank you for saying I’m young, by the way. In one instance, a firm didn’t address me. They addressed somebody on my team, and they sort of misunderstood my role. But it’s not something that I think impacted my ability to function. I’ve not seen it impact the work. I’ve not seen it impact the interactions I’ve had with the firms. Given the level of professionalism in the people that I’m privileged to deal with, I’ve not faced that.
Well, I think the law profession is not the tech sector. My own experience in being a computer engineer and applying for jobs in the tech sector was vastly different. There was definitely a bias in favor of, “Oh, you’re the woman, so you can be the product manager, not the technical person.” Just to be clear, that was not at Google. That was my experience before I joined Google, before I was a lawyer.
In the tech field, my background in computer engineering was treated with, I would say, incredulity. The response is completely different in the legal field. It’s, “Oh, you’re a computer engineer. Well, then, you know this stuff.” But that’s among non-engineers.
Ha, yes. Engineers generally view lawyers as having no tech knowledge, so I think they’re pleasantly surprised to find someone who has an engineering background.
There is a women’s initiative, and there certainly is a need for one. But it’s not just this company. It’s an industry-wide imperative to increase the number of women represented in management roles and on boards. I think that is just a statistical truism. We have a huge women’s initiative. In fact, I just went to Women at Google, a global off-site for all women directors to talk about these issues, talk about work-life balance. So, it’s certainly at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Even more so given the abysmal statistics, about the decline, quite frankly, in the number of women entering this sector.
Yeah. It’s not tech-specific. But it’s dealing with the advancement of women, mentorship, across the board. It’s been wonderful for me too, because at these organizations, whatever you put into it, you get back tenfold. I’ve met amazing women across sectors. All of us are struggling with this issue and how to approach it in a sort of positive way of development. I think that network of support is wonderful.
I had no experience at all. It was super fun. This is what I meant about choosing how you spend your time and doing it efficiently. I came to a decision. At that time, around 2010, I did feel like I was spending all of my energy and time on work, and I wanted another project. It sounds crazy, but my solution to exhaustion at work was another work project, but a totally different one.
It was really rewarding, refreshing and unexpected in a lot of ways. It not only made me really, really appreciate my job, but it also exposed me to how to run a small business, all the challenges related to that and the legal practice areas like tax law, corporate law and employment law. It was fascinating. I set it up and then sold it because, while the setup was fascinating, the continuing management of a hair salon was not.
I think that’s true. There will be times when you’re working super hard, at a law firm, in-house, at a small business. There will be weekends that get ruined. When it happens, I view it as overtime. There were certainly weeks when things were crazy. One time, I remember describing it as, “Standing in front of the Hoover Dam with my finger in a crack, and the crack was growing.” There have been challenging times throughout my career. But I’ve never had a consistent “I’m drowning” feeling. If that’s the case in any job, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t think any job really needs to be that way. You need to manage it differently if that’s the case.
The three pieces of advice that I tend to give people are, aim for what you love. Carve out your space and your specialty, whatever that is to you. Certainly don’t try to do what I did. Do what is good for you. Junior lawyers have this opportunity — especially at big firms, but even at big in-house groups — to look at all the different areas of practice. How do you want to spend your day? Maybe the way I spend my day is not the way you want to spend your day. Also, don’t be afraid to make a change. This is so much easier to say than to do. Willingness to take a little leap, like you said, lawyers are adverse to that. The way I approached that decision ultimately was, this is not an irreversible decision. The irreversible part would be to not do it.
Yeah, and I’m sympathetic to that. I felt that when I was stepping off the partnership trail. But on the other hand, it’s a big, wide world. There’s lots of opportunity. There are lots of different paths. Partnership is not the only path. So, do what you love, make changes, and my last piece of advice is try something that’s totally off-the-wall crazy, like a hair salon. I think that if you think you’re too busy and can’t do something else, that’s the time to do something else.
I guess I would say my hair salon was my child. I get it. It’s very demanding. People have all sorts of versions of their hair salon. The demands of their parents, of volunteer work. I don’t mean to say that parenting is anything less. I guess I see it, again, as all about autonomy of schedule and choice. If I were a parent, I would think it was wonderful to spend time with my children. At least, I hope that would be how I felt about it.
I’m open to it. I haven’t foreclosed the possibility.
I guess I don’t look at people and say, “Oh, this part of your life is easier than mine, or this part of your life is harder because of this, that and the other thing.” I think everybody has their own true challenges, choices, autonomy and also, quite frankly, accountability.
How to make them work for you.
I think that’s the part about not being afraid to make a change. I say this having been in this job for nine and a half years, so maybe I need to start taking my own advice. In all seriousness, I really do believe that it frees you from the fear. The notion that, well, if you don’t like it, you can do something else.
Isn’t that interesting. Some of the gender issues are ingrained in us. That’s an example of it. That is so true. You asked me the question earlier about whether it had impacted me. I haven’t necessarily had it impact me, but I’m probably guilty of this. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t get past it or that it held me back, but I think the way I approach it and the way I see women on my team approach it, which I try to talk them out of, is that problem there. They’re the humblest, yet so accomplished and capable. Stop apologizing.