Microsoft Product Counsel Successful Leading Strategy

Sigalle Barness | August 3, 2022

On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Victor Morales, Corporate Counsel at Microsoft and former board member and treasurer of the Association of Corporate Counsel's Colorado Chapter. Victor discusses his journey straight into the in-house world and how thinking in strategic steps has helped him achieve his professional goals. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.

 

Interview with Victor Morales 

 

On His Favorite Moment Today

Morning Games with His Son

 

My favorite moment today, you know, was just finding my son this morning. We're still trying to sleep train him. He's almost three and he's just very precocious and mischievous. So last night he was turning on the light at three in the morning and declaring that the day had started. So despite being so tired, just walking into the room and seeing him in a different part of his room. Cause sometimes he's under this giant plush elephant he has. Other times he's at the foot of his bed. So you never quite know where to find him. And so for me, it turns into a little game. 

 

On How His Interest in Law Began

Interned with Northeastern University Counsel

 

Yeah. So I'm originally from the Bronx, NY. My family all came from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. I grew up around a lot of family and it was nice because it teaches you early on that it's not so much about self, it's about serving your community and the good of the community. I didn't appreciate that growing up. And I really wanted to just be independent and strike out on my own. 

Eventually I decided to go out to Northeastern in Boston. And that's relevant because if you don't know this, Northeastern has this co-op program, where half the year you would have an internship and then the other half you're in classes.

So my first internship was with the university counsel. I did commercial transactions with her and it was just enlightening for me because I didn't quite know what she was doing. I just knew I wanted to do it. And it was really fun. I got to work with different musicians and different service providers and some famous speakers bringing them onto campus and just getting all those details aligned contractually.

 

On the Unique Way He Began Working with the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC)
Switching Interviews with His Wife

 

When I graduated, I found the Association of Corporate Counsel, ACC. It was sort of an accident. I actually applied for a job with the DC bar and my wife, she applied for a job with ACC. After realizing what it entailed, we convinced the individuals that were going to be interviewing us that we're like, Hey, like we actually know someone that will be much better for this role. And we just pointed them at each other. 

They were awesome because they certainly looked at our resumes and made the decision on their own. But I think maybe they trusted us enough to say that, since we're interested in you, if you find someone more interesting for us and you're willing to say that, then that must mean something. So we both ended up getting the jobs that we recommended each other for. 

I spent almost a decade at ACC and about halfway in, I decided to go to George Mason University School of Law and because I had already spent four years as a non-attorney in the legal department, I sorta knew that I wanted to continue.

 

On the Strategy He Used to Become a Lawyer

Picked An Ideal Role on LinkedIn and Used Job Description to Create Short and Long Term Plans for Electives, Internships, and Experience

 

I sorta knew that I wanted to continue doing commercial transactions and I wanted to do it in the tech space. It's one of the most innovative areas. And so I went through law school with a particular goal in mind. I wanted to be exposed to certain areas, certain conversations. 

Before I even went to law school, I went to LinkedIn and I pretended as if I had all the qualifications to get any job I wanted. I ended up picking out this commercial transactions role with Square Enix cause I'm a huge fan of Square and it just seemed like my dream job, right. 

I actually took the time to turn that into a short-term and long-term goal plan before I started law school. And then that was my north star. That's what I used to guide my decisions when it came to taking electives, to doing internships, and the types of experience I really needed to acquire so that I could go directly in-house. 

And others will tell you, like you should research the companies or you should think about what sort of practice areas generally. But I was always just super focused on trying to stay in-house if I could, because I love the community. It's one of the most collaborative communities that you'll find out there. And I didn't want to lose that. 

I also appreciated that at that point in my life, it's not quite as black and white as they teach you growing up. The world is so much more nuanced. If you like video games, guess what? Video game companies have lawyers. If you like golf, the PGA has in-house counsel. The examples just go on and on. So, yeah, that was sort of the inflection point for me there. 

 

On Why He Wanted to Go Into Tech Industry

Tech is Creativity, Using Your Imagination, and Exploring Different Use Cases

 

Tech is creativity. Being in a space that requires you to use your imagination is just, I'm drawn to. Maybe it's because I spent way too much time as kid playing games, but if you think about it, it forces you to get outside of some of the more rigid things that we're accustomed to in our profession.

Just because the use cases have never been heard of before or seen and you're trying to fit something that's new into an existing model without trying to break anything too much. 

 

On His Move In-House at Dish Network

Incredible Experience with Plenty of Responsibility 

 

When I graduated from law school, I had to open up my geographic area because I was just looking for any in-house job that would meet that specific criteria. That's where I found Dish network out in Colorado. So moving out here was such an amazing experience because working at Dish, they give you a lot of responsibility very quickly, and they also just expect a lot from you. So from a learning perspective, you have to do it right, because you have your supervisors that are working with you, but you're in the thick of things.

So I started supporting the IT organization around a year. Around that time too, that's when they announced that they were going to expand to the 5G telecom space. That was a wild ride, which is fascinating to me on its own. 

It was just an awesome experience because like I mentioned before, a lot of responsibility, very quickly, a lot of changes that you have to mitigate. I mean, gosh, there was a pandemic. And so working with the IT organization, we had to quickly pivot to accommodate a lot of individuals who didn't feel comfortable coming into the office. Then there was just like a slew of other infrastructure to implement as well. While we continued to try to figure out how to build out the new technology needed for the network. 

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On Why He Never Ended Up on the Law Firm Track

A Law Firm Interview Turned Mentoring Session Made Him Realign With His Desire for In-House Work

 

As much as I want to pretend that I was super confident of taking the path to go directly in-house, there was a period in time during the interviewing stage where I started getting a little worried. I was scared to see that through because it's not an easy thing to do. 

I did apply to various clerkships and I interviewed with a couple of law firms. I once sat down with the partner who was at Mintz Levin at the time, and he saw right through me, right away. I think like about 10 minutes into the conversation, he was just like, you don't want to do this do you? And I don't know what it was at that moment. Maybe I was just so tired of interviewing when my heart wasn't in it. And I said, no. And then it turned into this mentorship session where he asked me, well, what do you want to do? Be honest. I said I want to be a general counsel to a tech company. And I love video games. 

He didn't try to convince me that the right way to do it was to go through a law firm. He took his time and explained to me what the path is to becoming a general counsel. And he drew out all these statistics. I don't remember a majority of them, but he was getting into that detail of most general counsel having M&A experience in their background. So if you want to be general counsel, think about how to get M&A experience eventually in your career. 

He was engaging in this exercise that I had engaged in prior to law school. And for me, it was a little bit of a wake up call because he was like, if you want to do something then why are you going down this path? You don't want to do it, right? So think about it this way. And when you talk to others, try to frame it this way. Having that level of practical advice was just so meaningful to me. And it's clearly stuck with me all these years. 

I think I should reach out and just tell him what sort of impact he had on me in my career. Because after that conversation, I dropped out of all the other applications to law firms or clerkships. And I just focused on trying to go in-house again. And it took a while, even with the network that I had, all the resources and knowledge as a non-attorney, it was difficult, but then Dish came along and uh the rest is sort of history. 

 

On Being a Working Parent and Approaching Work-Life Balance

Important to Establish Boundaries, Recognize the Duty to Yourself and Your Client to Keep Balanced, and Be Transparent

 

About two weeks after coming out here [to Dish Network in Colorado], I was prepared to work a hundred hours a week and just be the best lawyer that I would know how, and that's when my wife called to say that she was expecting our first. And so what made that such an interesting time in my life, is uh I had to figure out how to be a dad in addition to how to be a lawyer. And it was a lot to balance in a good way.

I talk about this a lot right now with others, where I say that even if you're starting out. And you don't have any familial obligations. It's important to have boundaries with your employer. So I've never been good at that and I think with our son arriving, it really forced me to reassess how I go about my work and how I interact with my employer. It forced that conversation a lot sooner than I think I would've been able to have. 

When it came to the actual balancing, one coworker put it this way, which was brilliant to me, is if you're trying to go about your day doing your work as if you know nothing is going on at home, there's ethics that you have to consider. You owe it to yourself and your client to be upfront and real. To tell them, Hey, I only got three hours of sleep last night, so I might not be able to give you the best advice right now. Or I know this contract is due tomorrow. I'm going to ask for help from another colleague in the legal department so that I just don't bungle it, right? So just asking for support and being upfront about your situation. 

It also helped that a lot of the others in the legal department had young children. And I got lucky in that regard, they're incredibly supportive. 

 

On Ways How He Reduces Distractions to Ensure He is Being Present

Having an Older Phone and Putting It in Hard to Access Places

 

It's funny. I have a phone that is way too old. It's at least 10 years old. And I think I do that intentionally because I'm okay with letting it be in some corner of the living room and forgetting about it or letting it go under a cushion to the couch. And then I just don't look at it again until I'm ready to dive back into work.

It's a lot about just knowing what triggers, maybe some of your bad habits, and then trying to remove as much of those as possible.

 

On His Favorite Stories He Reads to His Son

Story That Connects Great Imaginations with Accompanying Thoughts

 

Right now, he's really into Thomas. Thomas, the tank engine. And he's like weirdly into scary stories. And so there's like a Halloween story and this like an anthology book that we've gotten him and it talks about the monster under the shed. 

Um, and there's this line that one of the characters says that sticks with me, which is, great imaginations can sometimes have bad thoughts. Isn't that interesting? Yeah. And I think for me, it just highlights how Thomas was feeling very anxious because he has such a great imagination and he was letting it run off. And he was accounting for all the bad things that could have happened, where in reality, it was just a hedgehog hunter under his shed. 

 

On How to Level Up Your Own Expertise

Teach and Being a Resource to Others 

 

Um, a game that I used to play a lot with my cousins growing up was Hero Quest. That's kind of like D&D or Dungeons & Dragons for those of you who don't know. And the thing about life is that you don't have a checklist of things that you have to do in order to level up, but the best way to know whether you've truly leveled up or not is to challenge yourself. And to try to teach others, to see how much you've learned.

And so I've always thought about it that way, right? For the things that are intangible in our lives, what sort of concrete steps could we boil it down to? Try to do it on a day-to-day basis in order to get ourselves to where we want to be. 

And granted, it's difficult to do when you're just starting out, but especially when you're networking, you can hold yourself out as a resource to others. And whether it's just sharing your experience to help more senior leaders think through the best way to address a particular issue, or it could just be, if you're a little bit further along in your career, reach out to a junior attorney and helping them think through a particular issue or a goal that they're trying to achieve. I think those are the uptrains where you could exercise that part of your brain a little bit to say, all right, this is what I've learned through my experience, through the process, through the things I've worked on and what do you think about that? It gives you an opportunity to, if you're talking with someone more senior to get some feedback and maybe course correct on some of your understandings.

I think that's a unique experience that maybe the ACC gave me. I was a non-attorney interacting with a lot of volunteer attorneys who maybe were going through a particular substantive issue at their job. And they were just reaching out, asking like, Hey, do you have any resources? Or could you connect me with anyone that actually could help me with this? And just try to do your best to help them in that regard. So that's where I've gotten the thought from.

 

On How He Approaches Strategic Thinking

Break Things Down Into What You Can Control, What You Can Influence, and What You Can’t Control at All

 

I like project planning. I just try to think about what I can control, what I can't control. And then for the things I can control, just breaking it down to some more tangible steps, things that I could do to help mitigate a particular issue or risk for the client. 

For the things that you can't control, really just thinking about the opportunities that you have to maybe influence the outcome that would be best for your client. Sometimes there's nothing you can do. Sometimes it's things that you could have done in hindsight. It's just something that you have to think about going forward so that when it does come up again, you'd be able to work through the issue a little bit better.

 

On the Importance of Listening When Giving Advice

Tailor Advice Based on the Person Asking Not Just as a Generalized Information to a Mass Audience

 

He really listened. Recently on LinkedIn, I saw some advice that someone gave and it was very standard. I could just imagine being the person on the other side, where it was clear that they didn't really listen. And then they gave the canned response of you need to stick on the traditional path in order to find the success that you're looking for.

And it angers me thinking that people are getting advice like that. Because you contrast it to the [attorney at Mintz] who again just saw right through me. He took the time to really listen to what I was looking for and he tried to tailor his advice to meet that need versus imposing the path that he followed or the precedent that's been established by so many lawyers in our field that have been successful.

And I think that's the danger of giving advice over social media. You're trying to be concise. You're trying to be helpful. But at the same time, you have to realize that you're giving generalized information to a mass audience and you have no idea what sort of circumstances someone is living through when they read through that. 

And this is something that I think people need to realize is there are plenty of examples of people who have gone directly in-house.

One of my mentors and great friends is Veta Richardson. She's a CEO of the ACC. She went directly in-house in the eighties. She started at Sunoco and her story is just inspiring and she talks about it too in, um, a book that she recently published. It's called Take Six: Essential Habits to Own Your Destiny, Overcome Challenges, and Unlock Opportunities. She talks about what she did to get there. And again, you know, put that frame of reference in the eighties, it's truly remarkable. 

And there's so many more examples like that. If you take the time to do the research and see who you should be connecting with in order to motivate you and give you ideas on how to get to where you want to be.

 

On His Move and Experiences at Microsoft 

Enjoying the Role and Responsibilities of Being Product Counsel

 

So what initially drew me to Microsoft was they posted this position as a product counseling. And for those of you who might be listening and aren't familiar with the term, think of it this way. It's like you're the mini GC to a particular product or service on behalf of your company. 

So any legal issues that might come about, whether it be transactional, regulatory compliance, you are going to be responsible for that, or at least the point person. This is something that's been in the tech industry for quite a while.

And I'm just coming into it and thinking well, if I want to continue moving up on the ladder, how would I best diversify my skill sets? But without having to jump around jobs, right? Maybe into a compliance or a regulatory role, how could I do that? And that's where I came across, like this whole concept of product counseling. And I love it because you get to focus on one particular thing and then you just like facilitate everything for it. 

And at the same time we're doing compliance you're doing that regulatory work. If you're coming into it with a commercial transactions background, like I am, then it's a little bit more of a safe space to play in those areas. 

 

On His Admiration of Microsoft’s Commitment to DEI and Community

Focus on Fiscal, Disability, Age, and Neural Diversity in Addition to Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation

 

It's been about a month [as of the time of this recording] and the thing about Microsoft is that they really care about diversity, inclusivity, and giving back to your communities. And coming from the Bronx, like you're always a little skeptical of just altruism in general. But I think they really walk the walk and that to me has been the most exciting and unexpected thing that I've learned about Microsoft since joining. 

There's a lot of discussion about using technology to propel inclusivity and Satya, in particular, who's the CEO, it's near and dear to his heart to try to include individuals with fiscal diversity. And if you take a look at some of the ways that they're looking to use AI, for example, there's technology that they developed, that if a person has, is a hard of seeing or blind, they can hold the camera up to a menu, for example and through AI technology, read the menu to that person so that they could go on about their lives like anyone else? That to me is inspirational, inclusive activities that we need to think about as a society. 

The other interesting thing about that too is, I'm paraphrasing a quote that Satya said, it's the only area where everyone's going to eventually join it. Because we're all going to get older and with old age, we're all going to experience some form of disability. So there's no better way to try to facilitate, you know, through technology as much as possible.

There's training and I can't, I should look up the author's name, but it talks about covering. And the author I think he's a professor at NYU and the director of their diversity center. He talks about this concept of individuals try to deemphasize something about themselves and try to emphasize others in order to fit the mainstream, whether it's your company culture or just societal expectations. And he uses the scope very broadly to include individuals with neural diversity.

So when you think about diversity in general, your mind might immediately go to racial, sexual orientation, gender, how you identify yourself perhaps. But that area is interesting to me because you might be a straight white male, but neurally diverse. And so it tries to make everyone feel included in the overall idea that there's not really one standard, right? And we're just all unique individuals that are trying to work our way through various situations. 

 

On What Leadership in the Law Means

Doing the Right Thing Even When No One is Watching

 

I think it's about having integrity and just doing the right thing. Even when you think that someone isn't watching. And I say that because so often now I find myself in situations where I think I'm by myself and then I look over and my three-year-old is looking at me. And he's ready to imitate the exact thing that I did. So that would be my answer.

 

On One Thing He Would Improve About The Legal Industry

Need to Update How We Talk About the Lawyer Pipeline

 

We really need to think about how we talk about the pipeline. How to get to where you want to be. I think it's outdated. A lot of the advice that's out there and actually harmful to the younger generations in our profession. And so without turning it into a very long answer, we really need to think about how we source younger attorneys and what we're doing to build them up, to feel successful and confident in what they're doing.

And if anyone out there is listening and trying to figure out how to get to that next step, try to find someone who's about five to seven years ahead of you, because the process that they've gone through or the steps that they've taken will most likely be repeatable by you. Whereas if you talk with someone who's further out in their careers, not to say that they don't provide value in terms of advice, but you might not be able to replicate exactly what they did in order to get where they are. 

 

On Practical Advice to Leaders in Law

Identify Your North Star and Find Your Tribe

 

I think that being true to yourself is very important. To identify your north star, trying your best to stay on your path and trying to find your tribe to help you get there. I think those are really important things and that's exactly what I did to get to where I am today.

 

On His Tribe and Cultivating Those Relationships

Your Tribe is Your Chosen Family You Help and Look to for Specific Advice

 

As for my tribe. There's all sorts of different types of advice that one could seek out there, right? Advice on how to be a parent, to maintain your finances, your career. I think growing up with a minority background, you have to look a little bit more outside of your family. Because they might not know, having come to the country and trying to figure things out for themselves, what to do.

 And so for me, it's almost like a chosen family, right? There are definitely certain kinds of advisors that I would seek for specific issues, whereas I would go to others for other types of issues. If that makes sense. 

You have to be willing to put yourself in a place of vulnerability, right? When you're creating a relationship with someone you're trying to form connections, you have to be direct about what you're looking for. And it's okay if you don't have a set agenda, maybe it could just be like trying to get to know someone. 

You're also evaluating the sorts of responses that they're giving you and you're feeling out what they feel comfortable talking about, what they don't feel comfortable talking about, what they tend to emphasize their time speaking on. And then that will help you figure out just what sorts of questions that they could help you with. 

 

On Something He Came Close To Doing Earlier In Life

Be a Chef in a Chinese Restaurant

 

I really wanted to work at a Chinese food restaurant. And my parents said no, but I really wanted to get in there because I wanted to learn how to cook. So I think that maybe I would, I don't know, maybe like to be a chef or something. And just like, yeah I like the idea of making things with your hands, for others to enjoy and just creating a community around your table. 

 

On Self-Care 

Video Games with Son

 

I play video games when I can, and sometimes you have to get a little creative. Like I convinced my wife to let me play games while my son was awake, because there's like this mini game within the game. And it was like a cooking competition. He just loved it. He got a kick out of it. There wasn't any blood or guts flying on the screen. It was just like these little pixelated characters. 

 

On The Most Influential Book He’s Ever Read

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

 

I would say The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I remember reading it, I was on the flight going to Spain. When I first picked it up, I was like, oh this will be cool. I'm going to be reading about the areas that I plan on visiting. And it ended up being so much more than that, because it's essentially about a young boy who goes through this journey that eventually takes him back to where he was and helps him understand that the metaphorical treasure that he was seeking was in himself all along. 

But I think another way to look at it too, is it's really about the journey that you take and not so much the end result. That's what really defines a person is what they're doing along their journey, how they're treating others, how they're treating themselves, that really at the end helps you determine whether you found that treasure or not.

 

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Let's celebrate and continue to build a community of leaders in law together.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.

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