If there is one character in American cinema to whom Don McGowan can most relate, it would easily be Forrest Gump.
Not because he shares Forrest’s mental limitations—Don has a BA in Philosophy, a graduate diploma in Environmental Science, and two law degrees from McGill—but more because both men seem to effortlessly stumble into really, really cool jobs.
Case in point: Right now, Don is Chief Legal Officer/Business Affairs for The Pokémon Company International—a company that recently launched an app called Pokémon GO. On the off chance you haven’t heard of it, the game is a global phenomenon—it currently has a higher install rate than Twitter and Tinder, and more minutes-a-day usage than Facebook. And it was only released in July.
In his role, Don is involved in virtually everything—from bringing Google’s spun-off company, Niantic, onboard to develop the game, to launching the promotional video to taking legal action to prevent hackers from ruining the fun. And that’s just GO. There’s a whole bulk of other responsibilities—involving the upcoming Pokémon movie and t-shirt licencing and toys and the Pokémon World Championships, among other things—that fall on the ten-person legal team’s plate.
“I would say, since Go launched, I haven’t done less than a 12-hour day, and that includes weekends. I believe in leading from the front, so I try to be the hardest working member of our team.”
Setting a strong foundation
Given that Don has a tough time defining precisely what type of law he practices—is it Intellectual Property? IT? Entertainment?—it makes sense that a clear-cut path to his line of work doesn’t exist. His career trajectory involved a few once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and an ability to adopt a wide variety of legal skillsets rather quickly.
“I joke about being Forrest Gump but, really, my career opportunities arose because people saw two things in me: a guy that knew what he was doing with experience that was useful. And if you want experience that is useful, there’s no better place to get it than by being a litigator in Canada.”
Don attributes a lot of his success and useful skillsets to the foundation he developed as an associate at Osler. He joined Osler’s Montreal office in 2002, after spending a few years practicing at Stikeman Elliott. As one of the Osler office’s first associates, and being bilingual, he was second and even first chair to a lot of cases—from bankruptcy, copyright and real estate to M&A, entertainment and everything in between—and his billable hours reflected the workload. During the three years he was with the firm, he clocked between 2,500 to 2,700 hours annually.
“I got a ton of experience really quickly at Osler—I essentially got seven years of experience in three,” he says. “And I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.”
He was also grateful for the support of two great partners—George Hendy and (now Madam Justice) Silvana Conte—who not only provided him with the heavy workload, but pushed him down the path that eventually allowed him to follow his passion.
In 2004, Don was invited to speak on a panel at the RSA conference—a renowned IT security event. Both George and Silvana believed it would be a good opportunity for him to improve his profile and that of the firm, and encouraged him to go. Once there, he got chatting with the other panelists—one of whom happened to work for Microsoft. He made an impact and, when a position opened up in Microsoft’s Encryption and Security Technology division, she gave him a call.
“The role was a head lawyer position for the international side of their Encryption Security Technology division, which covered everything from Xbox 360 to Windows Vista to portable devices. There was also a fair amount of policy work—like tax credits, and that sort of thing,” he explains.
“I could have made a home at Osler and stayed my entire life. But this was the kind of work you were never going to see at a law firm—and that you’d never see in Canada. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
But like many unique opportunities, it came with an extremely steep learning curve.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to represent a company as huge as Microsoft without being an expert, and my role entailed a lot of highly-technical issues,” he explains. “So I did a lot of reading. Surrounded myself with a lot of smart people. And hoped that, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man would be king.”
While Don successfully grew into the role, given the nature of the department—and how closely a large corporation like Microsoft works with clients like the U.S. government—there was a limit to how far he could go as a foreign national unable to acquire security clearance. And that’s when another Forrest Gump moment transpired.
“My friend was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit and he needed to leave, so I approached a lawyer in Microsoft’s Xbox division and asked her to alert me to any openings. She told me the head lawyer position for Microsoft Game Studios was available, and asked for my buddy’s resume. I said ‘sure’, told her his name, and she said ‘Wait, this is a real guy? I thought you were talking about a ‘friend’—you know, in quotation marks.’ I quickly let her know I’d also be interested in the position—and that’s how I ended up at Microsoft Game Studios.”
(Side note: Don eventually helped his friend find a position at a legal firm in Chicago, and that friend is now doing very well.)
A gaming pioneer
Don joined Microsoft Game Studios—the division of Microsoft that makes and distributes video games—at a time when gaming was just coming into its own.
“The resurgence of video games came with the Xbox 360, and I was at ground zero. It was an amazing time—we were buying studios, selling studios, closing them down and opening them up,” he recalls.
“We made things that revolutionized the industry. While I was there, video games moved from being the backwater of entertainment to earning a very firm position in the suite.”
Don worked on about 20 to 30 video games per year, handling everything from marketing to franchising. He negotiated the deal for one of the first movies based on a video game—Halo—and also did the first deal with eSports.
Eventually, however, Microsoft started to discuss rotating him out of the gaming division—something it does with all its lawyers to ensure balanced skillsets across the organization. He was resistant to the move, simply because the industry was growing so rapidly and it would be incredibly difficult for someone new to come in and hit the ground running. Also, he liked what he was doing. So, when he heard The Pokémon Company International was searching for a new General Counsel, he put his name in the ring and, like Forrest, got the job.
A hell of a ride
In addition to the launch of Pokémon Go, 2016 has been a busy one for the company—and for Don. The company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and embarking on a number of endeavours to mark the occasion.
First, there was the $5 million SuperBowl commercial which was among the highest-viewed commercials this year. The company is also preparing to launch two new games—Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon—as well as a movie with Legendary Pictures.
Don has a role to play in all of the above—and, because the company that developed Pokémon Go, Niantic, is a small start-up, Don had to essentially assume the General Counsel responsibilities of Go as well until they got a lawyer of their own. As a result, he’s putting in a lot of long hours—but he says they’re more than worth it when he sees how people are responding—particularly to Go.
“Pokémon has always been about socializing and getting out with friends. Go has succeeded in spades for that.”
The news has been filled with stories of deeply autistic children who are coming out of their shells to interact with other Go players at the park, or individuals suffering from depression who took up the game, started going outside and ended up meeting new Go-playing friends. Teenagers, who would normally be parked on the couch playing video games, are suddenly voluntarily heading outside to get exercise. And parents are using Go as a new way to connect with their kids.
“You never in a million years dream that you’re going to change somebody’s life. It’s absolutely humbling,” he says. “Yeah, there were times in the last few months where I put in a 21-hour day. But this is changing people’s lives. It makes it easy to say ‘okay, what do you need from me tomorrow?’ It’s been a hell of a ride.”
Thinking outside the box
In his spare time—which is limited these days—Don enjoys visiting wineries with his wife, who has her sommelier classification, as well as spending time with his 16-year-old stepdaughter. He also loves playing rugby, video games and Pokémon Go.
“I’m on level 19 of Go. I’m not as high as I could be because I spend so much time in my office working on the game.”
While he recognizes his career path is a unique one, he believes anyone can find equally enjoyable and fulfilling careers, provided they pursue their interests—and think outside the box.
“Law gives you a great opportunity to chase your passion, and your passion can lead anywhere,” he explains, adding that you shouldn’t be afraid to take a different route to achieve the same end result. “If you want to go into sports, go into real estate. You could be a lawyer for a player agency, but everyone wants a crack at that—and then you’re up against someone who’s willing to work for tickets. Go into real estate and do stadium leases—because every team needs a stadium.”
It’s that type of thinking—and that willingness to take a different path—that leads to Forrest Gump-like opportunities. And some really interesting stories.