Legal Executive Institute recently caught up with Michelle Paulson, the interim general counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s the only organization Paulson has worked for since leaving law school some nine years ago. But it’s been far from a one-task job, as the foundation’s main product, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, has been involved in nearly every online issue since its birth. Even so, for Paulson, it’s nearly time to go, so we talked to her about what she’s accomplished and what she hopes to do in the future.
Paulson’s career path has been unusual from the start. After interning at a boutique intellectual property firm in law school, she decided that she wanted to work in-house after she graduated. Most in-house attorneys put in their time in private practice first, but Paulson decided that she wanted to skip that step. Why? “I like getting to know one client deeply, with all their issues,” she says. “I like that you get to interact with every department. You get to do everything. You’re the de facto COO.”
She’s worn a few hats in-house at Wikimedia, and as a natural first step, worked for then-GC Mike Godwin, who is now a senior fellow at the think tank R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. (Godwin may be best known as the author of “Godwin’s Law”, which states that any heated online debate will inevitably escalate to someone making a comparison to Hitler.) After two internships, the Foundation hired Paulson as an associate, and she worked her way up to legal director. In 2011, the Foundation hired Geoff Brigham as general counsel in more of what Paulson calls a visionary role. “I basically ran the show,” she says. “While the GC did a lot of C-suite planning.” (Brigham left the Foundation in July 2016, leaving Paulson as interim GC.)
A lot of that day-to-day work involved litigating abroad, as well as with the National Security Agency back home, Paulson notes. Wikipedia has 284 sites around the world, and the subjects of Wikipedia’s online, crowd-sourced posts don’t always like what the site says about them. “They’ll use whatever cause of action is available to them: defamation, invasion of privacy, postmortem rights. Whatever is available,” Paulson says.
To defend these lawsuits, Paulson and her colleagues (it’s a small department of seven attorneys currently) tap into a network of more than a dozen outside law firms. The U.S. firms either do the work pro bono or heavily discount their bills because of the Foundation’s nonprofit status; law firms in Europe don’t usually do pro bono work, but, also will give the Foundation a discount.
Wikimedia’s latest battle involves Turkey. The country’s increasingly authoritarian government blocked access to Wikipedia, in every language, on April 29. Paulson says that because it’s a current matter, and a delicate one, she can’t say much, except to add: “We’re committed to ensure that Wikipedia remains available.” As of press time, her legal team most recently had filed an objection on May 2.
Where does Paulson go from here? She isn’t sure, and plans on taking six months off to relax, travel and think. “I haven’t had a nonworking vacation in 8½ years,” she says. But she doesn’t want to stray too far from what she’s been doing. “Access to information, and freedom of information are things that I care deeply about, and that I’ve been privileged to dedicate the past nine years of my life,” she explains. “I hope that wherever I end up, I can continue to work on these issues because they’re so far from being solved.”