Building a Legal Team from Scratch

When John McFarland joined Silicon Valley tech company Synaptics, he became a team of one. Since then, he’s developed a strong legal team and helped build revenue from about $600 million to $1.7 billion.

“A lot of successful people don’t acknowledge the role of luck in their success,” John McFarland says with a laugh. “I freely and fully acknowledge the role of plain, dumb luck.”

Sure, he’s being a little modest, but there’s some truth to what he’s saying. Several of the moments that changed the course of McFarland’s life came about serendipitously. During his time in the Army, he made the knee-jerk decision to take a post in Korea, where he met his wife and spent a good portion of his career. And then there’s the story of how an unsuccessful project bid helped him secure a job at MagnaChip—the semiconductor manufacturer that shaped his skill set and gave him the tools to succeed at technology company Synaptics, based in San Jose, California.

At Synaptics, McFarland serves as the senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary, and since 2013, he has helped lead the company’s legal team as the company’s revenue increased from $664 million to $1.67 billion. Growth like that isn’t just luck, though. “We have grown so much because this company fully understands the technology trends in the industry and, in many cases, leads the technology inflection points in the industry,” McFarland says.

Synaptics made its everlasting mark back in the 1990s, when it invented the touchpad that’s found on just about every modern laptop. Currently, the company still owns more than 60 percent of the market share. Although its product portfolio is vast and wide-ranging, Synaptics’s biggest revenue drivers currently are the touch and display driver integration and fingerprint authentication solutions for smartphones and notebook PCs. “We’ve been driving these industry transitions,” McFarland says. “Synaptics is, by every measure, the technology leader in our field. We’re the ones people copy.”

“It’s very important to me, personally and to my profession, that we have a diverse legal team.”

But McFarland isn’t tinkering with touch screens. When he came to Synaptics, he was met with an entirely different set of challenges. First and foremost, there was no legal team. “I had to create the legal team and legal processes from scratch,” he says. Luckily, this wasn’t his first rodeo. When recruited from the Korean law firm Bae, Kim & Lee by MagnaChip in 2004, McFarland was faced with a similar challenge. He was given a team at MagnaChip, but it was composed partly of what McFarland calls “the less than stellar performers” from SK hynix, the South Korean semiconductor juggernaut from which MagnaChip was born.

“They spun off who they didn’t really want around anymore, some of whom were diamonds in the rough,” he says. “But I had to go in and restructure the legal team and hire some new people.” Given McFarland’s relative youth and the fact that MagnaChip filed for Chapter 11 within a few years, the entire experience turned out to be a trial by fire for McFarland.

“It was terrifying,” he says. “I was only a seventh-year attorney at the time, and I became the general counsel of a billion-dollar, multinational company.” Together, he and his team pulled through the Chapter 11 intact. McFarland says the company emerged stronger than before and ultimately went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.

After nearly a decade at MagnaChip, McFarland was ready to move on with the knowledge that he had built a strong, sustainable legal system. “I put all these processes in place,” he says. “I had hired a great head of IP. I had hired a great head of corporate. I thought that the legal function could succeed without me.”

John McFarland

McFarland says having to build Synaptics’s legal team from the ground up was a difficult but fun task. He began by figuring out if the company had any risks. He then tailored processes to eliminate high risks, to mitigate mixed risks, and to monitor low-impact, low-probability risks.

Next came standardization. He quickly realized the company had no real legal processes in place. That led McFarland and his initial team to standardizing a series of legal processes and forms to avoid any compliance issues. “Then, we started on the stuff to make our lives easier,” he says. That included building a contract repository and taking a hard look at the company’s legal fees. By bringing all of these processes in-house, he’s managed to cut base spending on outside counsel, despite the company doubling its revenue and employees since 2013.

McFarland finds another benefit in building his own legal team: creating a diverse workplace. In fact, all three of his assistant general counsels are women of color.

“It’s very important to me, personally and to my profession, that we have a diverse legal team and that we are able to bring up attorneys—good attorneys that have not had the opportunity or wouldn’t have had the opportunities as I did,” he says. “Diversity is such a core part of this legal team, who we are, what we do, and how we look at the world.”

Although both McFarland’s team and Synaptics itself are in a great place, there are still some intense challenges that come with a young department and a rapidly growing company. “From my standpoint and the legal standpoint, it’s been scary as hell,” McFarland says. “This company was a $600 million start-up with effectively no legal department, and now we have grown to be a $1.7 billion, global company with a legal department, so a lot of the compliance processes weren’t fully formed. That’s been the biggest challenge: getting those compliance processes in place so we don’t get ahead of ourselves in terms of how we’re dealing with these compliance issues as we grow.”

There’s more on the docket, too, including implementing a new FTO program and new e-billing solutions. McFarland is also struggling with monetizing Synaptics’s intellectual property portfolio: “It’s always a little tough when you’re the leader in a particular space,” he says. “When you’re out licensing your IP, you’re facilitating your competitors.”

It’s going to take more than dumb luck to navigate these issues, but the good news is that, though luck might have kick-started McFarland’s career, it certainly hasn’t dictated it.