Navigating the Social Conscience Side of Corporate Legal with Adobe GC Michael Dillon

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Justice Ecosystem: Workflow, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Q&A Interviews


General counsel are in a tough spot. They have to advocate for their companies while maintaining professional objectivity. As officers of the court, they are duty-bound to prevent wrongdoing when they see it, or walk away. Unlike private practice lawyers, walking away from a client for in-house counsel means resigning from the job.

Often too, general counsel have to either hide their own political and social beliefs, or else find a department and company that shares their values.

Michael Dillon of Adobe Systems has done the latter. As general counsel and executive vice-president of Adobe, he’s been able to take public stands on such issues as climate change, and he does it regularly in his engagingly written blog, simply titled, Mike’s Blog.

I tell people there’s no such thing as work/life balance. There’s just life. We’ve got the ability to integrate parts of our lives.

Dillon’s an affable guy and able to leap easily from talking about how he hires outside firms to how important it is to unplug every now and then. (Regarding outside firms, Adobe uses a handful of preferred firms in several regions around the world; and he seeks alternative fees as much as it can, not to merely eliminate costs, but to establish a closer rapport with fewer firms.)

Readers of Dillon’s blog will find a mashup of the professional and the personal, and it reads seamlessly. We asked him about work/life balance and how he does it. “I tell people there’s no such thing as work/life balance. There’s just life,” he says. “We’ve got the ability to integrate parts of our lives.” He recounts a story about a get-together he had with general counsel counterparts. The group was shooting the breeze about retirement, and, as Dillon remembers, “Some of them said, ‘What can I do? I don’t have any outside interests.’”

Dillon does. He says that he tries to get out one or two weeks each year to unplug, and he takes advantage of Adobe’s sabbatical policy. (The company permits one sabbatical every five years, in increasing increments from four to six weeks.) This summer, he took a month-long trip to the Arctic, a large part of it consisting of a kayak voyage to get as close as possible to the North Pole. With Chris Horvat, a Harvard climatologist, Dillon kayaked through the Nares Strait. The pair encountered large chunks of ice, which had broken off from the larger mass of sea ice. “The Arctic is warming at four-to-six times the rate of the rest of the world,” Dillon writes in his blog. “This is because the summer sea ice provides a shield that reflects 85% of the sun’s radiation.” Dillon is especially worried because as the ice melts, the sea absorbs more of the sun’s energy, leading to warmer, higher seas and climate anomalies.


Adobe Systems GC Michael Dillon

We asked Dillon about how it is to be out there as the chief lawyer of a big company while writing about what is a hot button issue in the U.S. (and settled science in most of the rest of the world). “I’m an advocate for getting on the radar with the government and other GCs about patent litigation reform, about climate change, about DACA (Deferred Action Over Childhood Arrivals, a program that gives leniency to young undocumented aliens who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents),” he says. “The impact of climate change is coming at us at a much faster pace than we thought. It has significant impact to our businesses, where you put a campus, where you locate employees, where you get your electricity.”

As for unplugging, Dillon admits that even his best efforts don’t always pan out. On one trip to the Arctic, he was checking into a hotel in a small town. He was coming off of a difficult year-long effort to take his former company public. All of a sudden he hears his boss’ voice. It was coming out of an old television set in the hotel lobby; the executive was being interviewed by Canadian television about the IPO.