Professional Profile: Law on the cutting edge

As general counsel for software provider SAP Canada, Barry Fisher has to remain at the frontier of technology and privacy law. In sharp contrast, he says his background in philosophy gives him the breadth of perspective he needs to avoid becoming a two-handed lawyer.

It was a dramatic set of instructions Barry Fisher received when he began his first gig as an in-house lawyer. “I’ll never forget it,” he recalls. “The president came in and said, ‘There’s something you need to know about me. I hate two-handed lawyers.’”

What he meant by this, explains Fisher, is that he never wanted to hear what lawyers often say: “On the one hand . . . but on the other hand.” The president was head of a mining company facing a hostile takeover, and he wasn’t interested in debating legal issues. He needed to know what to do.

“Often the answer isn’t clear,” says Fisher, vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at SAP Canada. “But you have to provide concrete advice. People often look at law like medicine — you’re a doctor, what’s the answer to this? They want the doctor to fix what’s wrong. They don’t want a 40-page treatise on all the current theories about the ailment.”

Avoiding the two-handed lawyer trap has been “great advice,” Fisher says, and distilling legal issues and giving decisive business counsel to business people is a role he has relished ever since. For the past 12 years, Fisher has been in-house at SAP Canada, a business software provider. The fact that the company is on the frontier of technology only adds further mystery to what he does. “When you’re on the cutting edge of technology,” he notes, “the law too is on the cutting edge.”

That means he often must deal with unconventional legal problems, not traditional law as it has existed for hundreds of years. “Many of the legal constructs in technology have not been tested,” he says. “It’s novel. We can’t go look it up in a book. We can’t turn to a statute or a Supreme Court decision.”

Take privacy law, for instance. Issues in this area can become murky when you’re in the business of software and information technology. There are questions to which there is no clear answer.

For example, companies often “export” their data, such as payroll information and hospital records. As Fisher explains, if such personal information is transmitted, say, from Canada to computers in the United States, it suddenly comes under the purview of the Patriot Act, a post-9/11 anti-terrorism regime that allows American investigators to secretly sift through the data. But there is privacy legislation in Canada forbidding non-Canadians to access our citizens’ personal information. What do you do? “Sometimes you’re just using your judgment,” says Fisher.

Looking at the big picture, synthesizing diverse legal concepts, and coming up with bottom-line business advice has turned out to be his forté. It’s partly due to his background in philosophy. When he started his master’s degree, he remembers the dean saying: “I hope you are all here for your love of the discipline, because the odds of finding a remunerative career in philosophy are low.”

Fortunately he diverted into law school. “It was one of those paths in the woods,” he recalls. “I think I made the right choice. Plus, my wife said she would have left me if I went into philosophy.”

But a philosophy education gave him a breadth of perspective invaluable to an in-house lawyer. “I understood a little bit about a lot,” he explains. “I realized what I was best at was grasping details of a large number of areas of law. And that’s
fundamentally necessary for someone in a corporate counsel position.”

Despite jumping ship to law, he has maintained an interest in philosophy, and has been known to read the likes of Heidegger, Husserl, and Sartre late at night, pondering questions such as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
“The best definition I’ve ever heard of philosophy,” he laughs, “is incomprehensible answers to insoluble problems.”

But his deep thinking doesn’t spill into his day-to-day practice. “My office has two nice picture windows to look out of,” he notes. “But you’ll notice I’m faced away from them for a reason. I’ll allow you to do the deep thinking.”

Fisher thrives in the tech industry because of the people who work in it.

“They add a real edge to what I do in the law,” he says. “Being in-house at SAP affords me the opportunity to work with very bright, cutting-edge kinds of people who use technology as second nature. That’s what’s fun about it. And that’s where the novelty comes from.”

But, of course, he still has to sift through all that novelty and provide legal navigation in uncertain waters. And that means sparing his boss from legal debate.

“I’ve never had a president I’ve worked for ask me for a case citation for any advice I’m giving,” he says. “They want to know what to do, and if you’re a two-handed lawyer, it’s because you don’t have a perfect grasp of your trade.”

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