Canonical - Information Technology
Katherine Ollerhead is General Counsel and Company Secretary for the Canonical group of companies. She heads a global team of lawyers responsible for legal matters across multiple jurisdictions. Katherine qualified as a solicitor nearly 20 years ago and worked in private practice as an IT and outsourcing lawyer before joining Canonical. Canonical is the publisher of the Ubuntu open-source operating system.
Katherine, please tell us about what your career progression has been like over the 11 years you have worked for Canonical leading up to your role now as General Counsel and Company Secretary. Is there a key skill or strategy you have developed as the size of your team grew?
I joined Canonical in 2012 to run the legal team, building on my experience as a senior private practice IT/outsourcing lawyer. Canonical had an existing legal function, but my initial focus was to develop the documents and support required for the commercial team whilst retaining oversight of the other legal functions. I have overseen the growth of commercial support to the sales team and also responded, as required, to changes in the business and the law. I have developed and implemented clear processes and procedures for all aspects of the legal and regulatory compliance required for the expanding business and have grown a competent legal team, worldwide, to support the commercial business. My role also includes managing all outsourced work (primarily relating to personnel, real estate and compliance matters) and working with external lawyers, as required for the regulatory and corporate functions of a successful company.
As the legal team has grown, I have implemented processes, developed documentation and provided support and training, so that the team can operate as required to support the commercial business. Everyone is clear as to the decisions that they can take and when a matter requires escalation, and I am confident that they are providing the service required, without seeking to micro manage. I also encourage my team to develop their own relationships with the commercial business so that Canonical can work efficiently without layers of management and authority. As a team, we regularly review and interrogate our processes to find areas of improvement and efficiency, both within the legal team and in the services we provide to support the business.
What changes and advances have you witnessed within the technology industry and what impact have these had on the legal aspect of the business?
I’m a problem solver and am always working out ways to do things better and to help us work more efficiently with the resources we have. We use a wide range of resources for the more administrative tasks, freeing up lawyers’ time to concentrate on the more complex issues.
Fortunately, I have access to experts in seeking to assess and implement third-party technology to support the legal function.
Canonical is at the forefront of new technology and as lawyers supporting the business, we have to ensure that we have good knowledge of the company’s technology offerings. We, as lawyers, have to assess the risks and opportunities to the business arising from the fast-changing technology sector and how they may impact our existing documentation and procedures.
What would you say are some of the most challenging legal issues that arise in the technology industry and how do you stay up-to-date with the evolving landscape with such rapid advancements happening?
Our customers are in nearly every country and industry in the world. As a legal team we have to be cognizant of local differences, whether legal or otherwise. We use a wide range of online resources but have also built a network of external counsel across many jurisdictions, and they provide up-to-date information about changes in their jurisdiction and the potential impact of those changes on Canonical’s business in those territories. Building a network and developing and maintaining those relationships is critical to Canonical’s success at the forefront of global advancements.
Can you tell us what you believe to be the biggest misconception people have about working as general counsel, in particular for a woman within the technology field? Was there anything that surprised you when you began working in law yourself?
As a newly qualified solicitor, I thought that I would have to know ‘everything about everything’ to be a general counsel, particularly in a technology company. That’s absolutely not the case. It’s about being alive and aware of the issues, both within the industry sector and in all aspects of the law. Whilst my career has specialized in commercial contracts, I still have to use my wider legal knowledge when required.
On technology matters, I ask the questions; I have to understand the business and its products to advise and assess the issues and to do that, I need to ask the experts. It’s the same with legal issues; I am not an expert on the whole range of issues that arise in the business, and my role is to know when and who to call, if and when required, and then to manage their input and apply it within the business. And it’s always about keeping a calm head, whatever comes up!
A good general counsel cannot work in isolation.
I rely on the input and support of my legal team to deliver the legal services required by the business. I work with other senior management as a team to implement and support our business aims within Canonical.
And fortunately, in my experience, the technology sector is more ‘gender blind’ than some other industry sectors.
Could you tell us about a professional achievement that you are most proud of and if there is anything you are currently working on that you are excited about?
My proudest achievement is the Canonical legal team, which I have built up to support the Canonical business. They are a dedicated, devoted set of individuals who work incredibly hard and well together. We often receive positive feedback from internal personnel and external customers. I am proud to work alongside them and I thank them for their hard work. As Canonical continues to grow, my next challenge is to continue to grow the team, whilst retaining our positive attitude and team spirit. And to ensure that we continue to deliver the quality of legal services required by Canonical.
Lastly, do you believe your experiences in the legal profession can serve as motivation for individuals just beginning their careers, and what guidance would you offer them?
When I first wanted to be a lawyer, I was advised (by a more senior lawyer) to take it one step at a time. I started with a law degree, which indicated the type of training contract that I wanted. During my training contract, I identified my interest in commercial contracts, which led me to my first role as a solicitor. I did not see myself as general counsel of an open-source software technology company, but that is where the ‘one step at a time’ approach has taken me. In my experience, you have to love what you do. If you do, you will want to work hard and seek to develop and improve, and you will enjoy it!
I love being a lawyer, working in the field I enjoy and my career path has taken me to a role as General Counsel of Canonical, a role which I also love!View in Winners Edition >