Plaid People: Ben Lee
Before joining Plaid in January 2018, Ben Lee served as counsel at some of the biggest names in tech, but he got his start as a public defender in one of the toughest legal jurisdictions in the country. In our latest installment of Plaid People, Ben talks about the dramatic transitions that have defined his career and the importance of carving out time for family, even in the face of a demanding work schedule.
As general counsel of a fintech startup, what is your day-to-day like?
There’s a long list of legal issues that I strategize about and that I rely heavily on my team to come up with thoughtful, reasonable ways of addressing. Much of my job is making certain that they’re aware, and all the teams at Plaid are aware, of the very audacious, challenging technological and regulatory issues that we have to wade our way through.
What makes Plaid’s challenges audacious?
In essence, Plaid is serving a developer community. In order to create a developer ecosystem that is successful, that ecosystem has to have the freedom to innovate. It has to have the freedom to make mistakes and to create things that haven’t been created before. But Plaid also acts at the intersection of the financial space, which is extremely heavily regulated. Plaid has this very unique position and deep responsibility of intermediating between these two worlds. That simply fascinated me, in terms of both the opportunity as well as the challenge it presents. It is a big part of the reason I took this position.
How did your previous positions at AirBnB, Google, and Twitter prepare you for your role at Plaid?
They gave me a deep, deep affection for products that allow developers to create amazing things. It’s pretty awe inspiring when you see a developer create something that you could never have thought of with regards to a data set. That, to me, is the promise of our current generation of internet technologies. There’s so much we can build on top of data. But with building on top of data comes some of the thorniest legal questions. And that’s where my role comes in—pondering those tough legal questions regarding things like privacy and cybersecurity. These are the issues that I find the most professionally interesting.
That’s a far cry from physics, one of your undergraduate fields of study at Yale. How did you make the leap to law and technology?
I can blame it somewhat on externalities in the sense that it stemmed from hanging around too much with physics grad students. We were all passionate about physics, but we weren’t as passionate about our job prospects coming out of school. Many of us were looking at alternative career tracks. I remember very vividly one telling me that he was headed to law school, and me thinking, who goes to law school? What’s that all about? He spent some time explaining to me his rationale, and it stuck in my head enough for me to actually consider it.
What was the rationale?
That so much of technology policy is driven by lawyers and people in the legal profession who don’t have the strongest grasp of the technological details. It was just that feeling that there should be more people who understood the actual underlying technology making the laws that affect technology.
So, that was the main driver in your decision to pursue law?
Yes and no. Physics is about understanding the natural universe through the structuring of laws, and I saw the legal profession as establishing similar rules and boundaries between human beings. So, much of what was driving me at the time was a certain amount of a passion regarding social justice issues. I had this feeling that the theoretical physics I studied were too disconnected from the real problems that people face. I was studying something that felt so esoteric, it made everything else seem so relevant. When I read the newspaper, I would see things that just mattered so much more than the particular bizarre field theory I was working on at that moment. In some sense, the legal profession gave me a way to make a living while being more relevant to the problems around me—the social problems, in particular.
One of your first jobs practicing law was as a public defender for Legal Aid in New York. That seems very socially relevant. Tell us about that experience.
I absolutely loved working at Legal Aid. It’s a hard job working in the criminal justice system. There’s so much that is broken. But everything you’re doing when you’re working for a client is just the complete opposite of that feeling of detachment. You have a person in front of you, and his or her freedom to experience life like a normal human is in jeopardy.
You made the leap from public defense to corporate law when you and your wife had children.
At the point that I met my wife, Katherin, we were both public interest lawyers, so we were both pretty passionate about our jobs. After we had our first child, we looked at each other and said, oh my gosh, one of us has to get another job. That person was me. I took a position as a litigator at White & Case in New York. After that, I had the privilege of going to AT&T in their IP department for five years. Then I worked sort of as general counsel for a small research lab in Princeton and then went to Google.
That’s a big move, Princeton to California.
I have to admit, the choice was a pretty momentous one. My wife and three kids, we felt it was important that we all voted on whether to go, because it was such a big deal. We took a family vote, and, to my surprise, the entire family voted yes. Suddenly, we all found ourselves in California.
You’ve been at Plaid now for almost a year. What do you look forward to about going to work every day?
Being surprised by something. There’s a certain jadedness that you can have in the Valley, regarding having seen it all, so to speak. What I love about Plaid is I never feel that. Whether it’s something new and fascinating that a developer created within our own ecosystem or some fascinating regulatory issue that I’m noodling on, there’s just such a multiplicity of interesting issues.
What one word would you use to describe Plaid?
Scrappy. I think a company three times or 10 times our size would be nervous about jumping into the things we wrestle with, but we’re pretty fearless about these sorts of things.
What do you do to reset and recharge when you’re not dealing with work stuff?
Definitely time with the family. To me, one of the most important things about having a family and being a parent is balancing it with what can be a pretty demanding work schedule. Once I exit work, when I am with my wife, when I am with my kids, I’m with them. And it’s not my agenda, where they happen to tag along. It’s their agenda, their time, and I’m committed to them and the things they care about and worry about. That’s when I’m feeling happy—when I’m committing to the others in my family.