Speaking the language of law as Rosetta Stone's GC

As head of the language software company's legal department, Michael Wu found his calling.

Michael Wu had what he describes as a “nomadic” upbringing. Throughout his childhood, he lived what many travel-lovers would consider the ideal life—spending time in New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Korea, Atlanta, Saudi Arabia and Austria. With two engineer parents whose jobs turned the family into true globetrotters, Wu embraced every minute of it. So it’s no surprise that his adult life would also head in that international direction.

For law school, however, Wu stayed stateside—attending the University of Virginia after spending a year post-undergrad working as a paralegal at Davis Polk. 

“I decided on the University of Virginia because it had a well-rounded group of students, and there was a very collegial atmosphere—not very competitive, but with a top academic atmosphere,” he says of his choice in law school.

Wu’s first years after law school were typical. He started out at Baker Botts in Houston, but due to the lack of social life the Bayou City had to offer him, he packed his bags and headed to Washington, D.C., practicing law with Bingham McCutchen. After a few years there, Wu—who always wanted to go in-house—found the opportunity of a lifetime when telecommunications company Global One wanted him for its legal department. But this wasn’t just any in-house gig. The company needed someone with an international background to help establish its Asia-Pacific region. 

Wu, with his new wife in tow, headed to Hong Kong. The expat position offered Wu invaluable experiences that would one day lead to the top legal spot of language-learning software company Rosetta Stone Inc.

 

Q: What was it about going in-house that was so attractive to you? 

A: I always knew the corporate environment would be quite interesting. When you’re at a law firm, you only get a certain piece of the puzzle. But as in-house counsel, you get to make business decisions. 

 

Q: What was the next stop in your career after Global One?

A: I had been there for three or four years when I took another in-house position at Teleglobe. While there, I was approached by an executive vice president who wanted to send me back out to Hong Kong to do back-office operations. My wife and I still didn’t have kids at the time, so we went. Then one day, I got a call from the GC that they needed me to move back in a week. The company was filing for bankruptcy. At that point, a private equity firm bought Teleglobe, and eventually I became GC. 

 

Q: So how did you end up at Rosetta Stone?  

A: I spent three years as GC of Teleglobe, and I received my golden parachute and ended up at Rosetta Stone simply through the power of networking. I ran into a guy I used to work out with during undergrad. He was a partner in a law firm, and through his firm, he knew Rosetta Stone needed a GC. I sent him a resumé, and one month later, I was at Rosetta Stone. 

Q: What’s a typical day in the life of Michael Wu?

A: There is no typical day. If there was, I would get another job. It’s very diverse. I come in and have a list of issues I need to work on. Priorities are always changing. We are a public company with international issues. So there is a very diverse group of issues I manage on a daily basis. 

 

Q: What do you find to be most rewarding about your work?

A: When I tell people I work at Rosetta Stone, it always generates a positive response. We have a mission to deliver technology-based solutions for learning languages. Our innovations will help improve people’s lives. Learning a foreign language makes it so much easier to connect with other people. It’s important work, and as GC, I get to support that in the legal department.     

 

Q: What is your biggest challenge? 

A: Of course, anti-piracy. People from around the world have found our pirated software. It’s everywhere. The pirates copy pages from our website. They advertise on search engines. You see so many authentic-looking versions of our products out there. We have this luxury that all of our stuff is produced here in the U.S.—so anything being shipped from overseas, we immediately know is pirated.

In the old days, the pirates would charge a few dollars for a knockoff. But now they are charging only 10 percent to 20 percent less, so to the consumer, it seems like the real thing. That has become a huge problem.

 

Q: Did you have a mentor as you were growing up in your legal career? 

A: At every stop, I had a mentor or mentors. They were all very helpful in my career whether at the firm or at the companies—often they were more senior attorneys who helped me navigate the uncharted waters.  

 

Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer wanting a successful career in-house?

A: To go in-house, you really need to understand the business and the drivers of the business. It helps you and other in-house attorneys succeed. Always have your business hat on. Advise on business matters as well as legal work. 

Understand that you don’t want to write 50-page memos to answer questions. You need to be succinct in your advice and use your communication skills. You need to find solutions and not just raise issues. 

A key part to any advice is the power of networking. I go back to the University of Virginia every year and speak to law students and tell them to network now. You never know who is going to be your boss in the future or who will tell you about job opportunities. 

 

Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: The day Rosetta Stone went public in 2009. It was a tough market, and I was part of the team for the bell-ringing ceremony. When I was brought in in 2006, the CEO had said he wanted to go public. A lot of hard work went into reaching that goal. 

 

Q: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would your dream job be?

A: Secretary general of the United Nations … or starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins if I were actually an athlete.

Editor

Cathleen Flahardy

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