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Adapting in Adversity: Tech Product Lawyering While Blind

Dec 18, 2023
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Jack Chen, an associate general counsel at Meta (formerly Facebook), is a product lawyer. With his focus on online advertising, Jack uses a holistic understanding of Meta's ad business, product roadmaps, and the law to anticipate and address legal issues -- from data contracts to privacy regulations in a global context. Jack does what's already a complicated, difficult job in a world where digital accessibility has a long way to go. While he was born low-vision, he lost his eyesight entirely in high school, testing his resilience but ultimately providing a number of advantages he's grateful for and leverages daily. Jack is a graduate of Fordham Law School.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Katya Valasek interviews a product lawyer for Meta, formerly known as Facebook, who also happens to be completely blind.

Katya Valasek:

We're joined today by Jack Chen, a 2005 graduate of Fordham Law School and associate general counsel at Meta, formerly known as Facebook. You were a product lawyer for Google and now you're a product lawyer for Meta. What exactly is a product lawyer?

Jack Chen:

I tend to think of product lawyering as being a mini general counsel related to a particular product. So if a company is releasing a product, whether it's in my case an online product or it's a product such as a hardware product or even consumer product, that lawyer is responsible for identifying and working through all the legal issues that relate to that particular product. Any issues, whether it be privacy related or IP or contractual, that person is the go-to person for that product.

Katya Valasek:

So what is your product at Meta?

Jack Chen:

I have supported all flavors of the online advertising business. Currently, I am focused on the intake of data for the ad system.

Katya Valasek:

Is the advertising the product? Is the platform the product? What's the actual product you're representing?

Jack Chen:

Advertising as a whole is a whole range of various different products with a whole range of different actors. When somebody comes to Facebook or Instagram and opens up the app or opens up the web, they will see ads. Advertisers pay for the ability to show their ads on Facebook and Instagram. And I help to manage the portion of the ads products that relate to how we take in data, so that we can improve our ad system and deliver better ads for our advertisers. My specific area relates to taking in the data that's provided. So if you make a purchase on a particular website, that data is sent by the advertiser to us to help us better deliver ads to that type of customer and to better inform the ranking algorithms for all advertisers. Most of our work relates to the ingestion of data and the ways that we satisfy our both obligations and our duty to users, as well as to advertisers and businesses as well.

There are many different legal regimes around the world related to privacy, and many of them slice and dice the pie, if you will, very differently. So we manage and thread all of those needles because our products are global. We figure out how to structure the data that we're getting, how we use it, so that we're making sure we help the business comply with all those laws and do the best for our users and advertisers.

Katya Valasek:

Did it take some time to start to think differently at Meta or was the different focus the reason you wanted to make the move?

Jack Chen:

My work at Google wasn't related to online ads. So I was more working on operating systems and consumer products. So I supported at Google the Chrome family of products that includes Chromebooks and the Chrome OS operating system running on the Chromebooks, Chrome browser, the Chrome web store. A lot of it was privacy, but there are many other issues such as consumer protection, intellectual property, accessibility. As someone who supported a consumer product, there were a wider range of issues I was dealing with on a day-to-day basis. I found that the skills that transferred over pretty easily were the technical skills. There was a lot to learn for me in terms of the different types of data privacy. There's many different types, right? There's youth privacy, data privacy, there's other kinds of privacy.

Having graduated with a graduate degree in computer science and an undergraduate degree – that's where I found that I could add the most value right away was understanding the technology, being able to talk to engineers and product managers, which is what I do pretty much on a day-to-day basis, trying to understand what the products are trying to do, trying to issue spot different legal issues and helping them navigate those issues.

Katya Valasek:

So at Meta, who are the business partners you're working with each day?

Jack Chen:

In my previous role, I managed a team that cut across a wide range of different teams. In my current role, I'm much more focused on a particular area, but our clients run the gamut from the day-to-day product manager and day-to-day engineering all the way up to the VPs and SVPs.

Katya Valasek:

So it sounds like to be successful at this, you must understand both the technology and how the business works.

Jack Chen:

Right, right. That and obviously the law as well. What I do as a product lawyer is to find ways to maximize our position on all fronts to protect ourselves with defensible, sustainable legal positions, but also be able to support the business understanding what their goals are. And from a technical perspective, obviously you need to know how the products work in order to be able to understand how to pull out the legal issues and anticipate the legal issues that might be coming down the pike.

Katya Valasek:

How would you explain to someone what the main tasks are that you do day to day?

Jack Chen:

A product lawyer has a number of jobs and it varies from company to company, depending on the structure. Our particular role right now is very focused on understanding the products, what their roadmaps are, what features they're trying to launch. And being able to issue spot the legal issues related to those launches. Product lawyers also wear a number of other hats in many other companies. So for me in the past, I've also done a lot of regulatory responses. I have represented products at the federal trade commission. I have drafted different types of briefs for litigation, worked on contracts, worked on IP. It really varies depending on what the particular role is.

Our particular focus right now has a lot to do with working with the product and engineering teams to help them to spot the legal issues, but also to serve as a product expert for the other cross-functional legal teams, like the regulatory team, litigation team, and the contracts teams. Because of this multifaceted understanding that you have,

Katya Valasek:

Are you often brought in at the ideation stage of the process for new products or do they bring you in after the fact?

Jack Chen:

We actually encourage our product teams to bring us in at the ideation stage so that we can help to anticipate any legal issues that might be coming up as they're designing various different strategies for the products. That's what we prefer to do – begin our relationship with the various different features. That doesn't always happen, but it is helpful to be able to identify those issues early on so that we can save a lot of churn in the process.

Katya Valasek:

It must be very frustrating if you're brought in too late and they're excited about a product and you are able to identify some issue or concern that could come down the line. So I can see why it's important to have you and your colleagues in the process early.

Jack Chen:

Right. particularly how I like to structure my practice. And I've always done that with all the different products I've worked at, not just the online ads products at Facebook, but also with my work at Google as well.

Katya Valasek:

I want to pivot slightly and talk a bit about adversity. You went completely blind in high school more than 30 years ago. What happened?

Jack Chen:

When I was born, I had very limited eyesight, so I was low-vision. I would describe my eyesight as being able to see large shapes and colors, but maybe not being able to see definition. So if I was standing at the foot of my driveway looking at the house, I might see a white splotch next to a red splotch next to a silver splotch. But I wouldn't be able to tell you what those things were, or I wouldn't be able to tell you that what I was looking at was a house. If I had to identify it just by looking at it, but being the person that I was, I tried to maximize my vision as best I could.

So I would do things like ride a bike down the street just by following the difference in the color of the street and the curb. I would play video games. I remember when Nintendo came out in 1987 – highly addicted to it – and I would just get really close to the TV and be able to see the different colors and the different objects. Again, not necessarily being able to identify what they were, but really just by using colors and shapes, being able to maximize what I was able to do and accomplish.

I went totally blind in high school through a botched eye operation. I had been born with some misshapen corneas and they were going to try to fix it with a cornea transplant. The previous cornea transplants that I had, the four or six of previous ones, didn't go particularly well in large part because of tissue rejection. So we're gonna do DNA matching, which is a new thing at the time for tissue for corneas and went for the operation. And when I went in for the operation and came out, they brought me to the room to give me an examination. And they had been saying things like, “you'll be able to read a newspaper or be able to go shopping and read the price on a box of cereal.” And so I was super excited being 16 and wondering how life was going to be very different.

When I got into the examination room, they removed one set of bandages. And I just waited. I couldn't see anything yet. So my thought was, “hey, there's still some more bandages and let's remove them.” Nobody wanted to do anything. And so when I lifted my hand to touch the skin of my eye, and when I touched it, I knew there was no bandage. Still couldn't see anything. And so I knew at that moment that I had lost all the rest of my eyesight. And it felt like somebody took a cold bucket of ice and just poured it into your soul. I had no idea what the future was going to hold.

Katya Valasek:

I'm curious when that determination that you had previously to live your life anyway came back. The kid who was riding his bike down the street, how did you start getting back into that mentality?

Jack Chen:

Certainly was a journey and a process for sure. But immediately after the operation, you know, the things that were going on in my mind were there's no way that I'm going to be able to continue what I was doing. I had no idea what the future was going to be. This was summer after sophomore year, just before junior year in high school, SATs were coming up. And I didn't have any other plan in mind after the operation, except I was going to just continue what I was doing. I was going to continue studying. Now, mind you, I had, as a visually-impaired student, very early on, learned a little bit of braille. Didn't really know it particularly well. I had survived most of my elementary and junior and high school years with a combination of just listening in class, having some of the assignments read, and using what's called a closed circuit television, or a video magnifier.

Now Braille was something foreign to me, but I knew that if I was going to take the SAT, there's no way that I was going to be able to take it with someone reading it to me. And I had to sort of figure out how I was going to bring back that Braille skill, start using it. So that summer, I focused on two things. The only two things I could do was, number one, take that 3,500-word Barron's SAT book where you had this 3,500 words, memorize all of them and then learn to read Braille. Those are the two things I did. I didn't really have any other prospects. I didn't really want to see my friends. I kind of just wanted to be by myself and just focus on something I knew I could control. And the amazing result of that, and it really is a God gift, is my scores were much, much higher than I expected them to be. And I thought for the first time, I wonder what the next year is going to hold.

And at the same time, I had to learn how to get around in high school. Now without sight, I'd had to learn how to interact with friends again, without sight and do all those normal things, all the schoolwork and all of that. It was again, incredibly surprising to me that my grades started improving that year. By the time that I got to my senior year, I knew I really wanted to do what my brother did, which was to go to Harvard. I applied early action and December of that year I found out I got in. And that was the first thing that really set me on this notion and this idea that maybe life would really be okay. It's not all about getting into college, but it was the realization that 18 months before my whole life had changed. And yet at the same time, I was headed for a future that maybe had some hope in it. I was really the beginning of starting to feel like, hey, maybe I'll take a real run at this and we'll just see where it takes us.

Katya Valasek:

That story you told does such a wonderful job of illustrating why you prefer the label of adversity. Can you talk a little bit more, give some more detail about why you prefer the use of adversity when you describe your life to others?

Jack Chen:

I wrote a book recently, and in the beginning of the book, I bring up the story of Frodo Baggins and the Lord of the Rings. One thing you'll notice about Frodo, he gets into this battle and he's wounded. The result of that wound is some pretty debilitating conditions. He loses the ability to walk. He starts losing his eyesight. He has mental terrors. Any number of other debilitating conditions. And you wonder whether JR Tolkien ever said that Frodo had a disability. Same goes for Harry Potter. If anyone knows those stories, he also goes through some pretty debilitating conditions, but no one says Harry Potter has a disability. And you wonder why. Well, as I started thinking about it, those conditions were experienced by Frodo and by Harry, but they don't call it a disability. The thing that brings us together is we all experience adversity. Adversities of many different kinds. They could be traditionally what people label as disabilities. That could be a cancer diagnosis. It could be losing a job or losing a love to one and the difficulties and the challenges that come with that.

So there are a range of adversities and in writing this book, the thing I realized is that when we turn away from these labels like disability and we talk about adversity, then we can have the open discussion or open up the discussion more to, “well, what does that really mean to have an adversity?” Do we say, “I want to overcome my adversity.” “Do I want to try to minimize my adversities?” And most people probably say the answer is yes. And in writing this book and thinking about my own life, I realized that the answer to that question is really that my success has not come in spite of the fact that I have had adversities, but it really comes because of the fact that I have adversities.

You mentioned earlier the question of when did I come back to have this sort of mentality that I was going to maximize my life after the eye operation. Well, the thing that has been helpful for me in terms of that aspect of resilience has been the fact that I've had to do that all the previous 16 years of my life. I've always had to find a way to work through the challenges that I had. I wanted to do something and was limited because I could only see large shapes and colors. And so finding a way to do that, it gives you confidence, right? It gives you confidence to know that, hey, look, if I am facing a problem, I probably can find a way to work around it. And that confidence is what really came out of the adversity, right?

It wasn't avoiding the adversity. It was working through it that brings out this aspect of confidence that might not have come out otherwise. And so when you talk about whether adversity is something to be avoided, my answer to that is no, we need to embrace our adversities because they bring out characteristics in us that otherwise might not be there. And those are the things I know in my own life that have really helped me to be successful.

Katya Valasek:

I imagine that digital accessibility is one of the biggest challenges you face.

Jack Chen:

So broadly and generally, when we talk about law, the main thing that you do is read. In order to do that, I have to use what's called a screen reader. It captures what's coming out on the screen, and it presents it in a way that I can read it. So I don't use a mouse. I use the keyboard. And most programs, if they're designed well, do have keyboard navigation so that you can use the keyboard to accomplish the functions that you can with a mouse. Now, the thing that's challenging when you mention digital accessibility is that computer programs, websites, which are computer programs, all need to be designed in order to interact with screen readers. Not all of them are. The challenge becomes what sites, what programs are you going to need to use and have they been designed to be able to be used by someone who's visually impaired using a screen reader? And if they're not accessible, you've got to find a way to get around it. And that oftentimes takes a lot of creativity.

I've realized that one of the greatest things that helped me be successful is support from people around me, advocates. I was able to acquire the help of an assistant who can do things for me like if there's a flow chart that is just simply difficult to explain, she may either get on the phone with me and tell me what it says or write it out, do things like that.

Katya Valasek:

A lot of your job, you mentioned earlier, is contract review. What happens if you get a document that is poorly structured or not accessible?

Jack Chen:

The difficulties just not very quickly, especially if you're reviewing contracts with a lot of different red lines in them. The way that the screen beater will typically read out those changes is it will say something like step one, two, three insert step 3.5 delete step 3.7. Four or five, six. So it will read every single insertion and every single deletion in series. When you're looking at it, as someone who's sighted, I presume, you can sort of skim and find the things that you're interested in knowing about. For someone who's reading it with a screen reader, it's pretty much a linear representation of the entire document. So if there are a lot of insertions, deletions, especially insertions and deletions on top of one another, it gets very, very unwieldy to be able to figure out what this thing actually is saying.

And so there are a couple of techniques you can do to work through that. So for example, you can start accepting or rejecting various different changes to see what the intent was, and then to see the sort of the next layer of insertions and deletions. I find that one of the most difficult parts of doing the contract review.

But one of the things that's also very advantageous is that being someone who communicates virtually, exclusively through audio, you also get to know people their voices really well. So one of the things that you also realize is that a visual person is pretty good at making their visual appearance the way they want to be portrayed. So what I mean is you'll be able to make your face look like what you want it to look like. The thing that people don't really focus on as much is does your voice sound like you want it to sound like? So do you, for example, divulge information about your comfort level or particular legal provisions if you're negotiating a contract? Do people pay attention to how they're speaking? I think not as much. Being someone who picks up on all those audio cues very readily, I find it gives me a bit of an advantage in negotiating deals because people just don't pay attention to that side of it.

Katya Valasek:

How far were you into your career when you made that realization?

Jack Chen:

I think it was just right away. It's not that it's a realization, it was just second nature. Just being on a phone call with someone and realizing that I could sometimes discern where they wanted to go, what was important to them and what wasn't important to them. So when we talk about sort of skills that come out of adversity, we're talking about these kinds of skills. They're completely unrelated potentially to the adversity itself. But they come out of it and we would have never discovered them had we not had those adversities.

Katya Valasek:

So you said that this comes naturally to you. Have you found that it's something you can teach to people on your team or people you're mentoring?

Jack Chen:

I don't think I've ever really thought about it, that particular skill. I've thought about other skills but not that particular one.

Katya Valasek:

My father was a speech professor for many, many years and so over time I got a lot of subliminal coaching in public speaking skills. I am just wondering if there's a similar way to help mentor young attorneys, especially ones who are nervous about what will become everyday tasks down the line, to mentor them and to understand that, as you said, those cues that you give through your speech are important.

Jack Chen:

Absolutely. That gives me some good ideas.

Katya Valasek:

So you mentioned that you recently wrote a book and you're working on it. You're working at Meta. You've come from Google. I'm curious about what is next on your professional bucket list?

Jack Chen:

There's certainly a lot of room in the sort of current iterations of fun things that I'd love to do. I have so many. I think that I am particularly excited at the moment with the book and the movie, which we haven't really talked about. In 2022, we finished the production of a movie called Surpassing Sight. And the movie details the historic cycling race from San Diego to Annapolis, Maryland, which I was privileged enough to take part in. That was the first all visually impaired cycling team to do this race. And it's a real race called Race Across America. So 2,100 mile cycling race covering 13 states with 175,000 feet of elevation gain. And you had to finish the race in nine days. So we as a team finished the race in seven and a half days.

Every blind cyclist on the team was a professional. So CEO, lawyer, you name it. We wanted people to get to know us as people, because we had seen that the unemployment rate in the blind community was 70% and it had not changed in decades. And so we wanted to tackle that and find a way to drive that number down to 7% and lower is what we say. And getting to know people who are blind, and visually impaired and successful people is the best way.

And humor me with this story, but I went to my 25th college reunion in 2022, at Harvard, and I met a friend of mine, his name is Edwin. He saw me go through challenges and work through them. And I hadn't talked to him in probably 10, 15 years. And when we met, he said that he had the opportunity as an executive at Citigroup to interview someone who was blind for his group and wanted to hire this person. He went to talk to the other partners in his group and they all say, “well, that's awesome. And that's great. But Citigroup is a pretty intense place. Maybe this is not the right place for someone like that?” And Edwin said to them, “no, I'm going to do it anyway because I've seen it done before.” And the movie is taking that same approach with the four people who did this cycling race, the four people who are professionals.

And you get to know us as people in this group because we want people to walk away with that feeling like, I'm going to do it, whatever it is. Hopefully it's hiring someone who's a visually impaired because I've seen it done before and really tackling this problem. There are hundreds of organizations that are working on this, doing great stuff. But for whatever reason, there isn't this spark that has really shifted this unemployment number from 70%.

Katya Valasek:

I love that there's this full circle moment in that movie because it just connects you back to that same determination you had as a kid riding your bike down the street. That is a way that you, to your point, make yourself seen and make others understand the potential of people around them.

Jack Chen:

Absolutely. There's so much that adversity has given to me. And while it's difficult, even on a day-to-day basis still, that I now have the perspective that this is actually good medicine, not bad.

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