Michael Ray is a Boston boy at heart. He grew up with his four siblings just outside of The Hub in Braintree—famous for being the birthplace of US President John Adams and his son, US President John Quincy Adams. Ray’s father, a teacher who eventually became a principal in the Boston public school system, instilled a respect for education in his children. So after working hard and excelling academically throughout grade school and high school, Ray sought out the best college education he could find while staying close to home.
Ray landed at Harvard College, where he thrived as a Classics major. It was during his time as an undergrad in the late ’80s that the Cold War began to end. He watched the Berlin wall fall and communism crumble throughout Eastern Europe. He took note of the importance of individual rights—and the need for laws to protect those rights and set the rules of engagement for a civil society.
“We were living through a hinge point in history. We could see a system collapsing—one that, at its core, didn’t respect the individual,” Ray says. “It made me reflect on our own system, which is built around individual rights protected by laws and a constitution. I wanted to play a role in sustaining that system.”
Ray decided then he would go to law school. After deferring his acceptance for a year to work on a few political campaigns, he went back to Harvard for law school. “Even though it was 30 minutes away from my hometown, Harvard was a different world for me,” he says. “The university is a meeting place for incredibly talented students and scholars from all over the world. It’s genuinely global. Every day brought a new sense of possibility because you were surrounded by people who would challenge and enlighten you. I loved that environment, so when the opportunity arose to go to law school there, I was all in.”
After law school, Ray decided to take a break from Boston and experience another part of the country—sunny California—with the intention of returning after a few years to settle down in the Northeast. But nearly three decades later, Ray—now the chief legal officer of computer hardware and digital storage behemoth Western Digital—still calls The Golden State home.
What brought you to California after law school?
I worked at the Orange County office of a large law firm, O’Melveny & Myers. I enjoyed Harvard Law School, but it’s not really focused on helping students understand the actual practice of law. It’s fairly conceptual, so when I graduated, I didn’t understand what a lawyer really does. I had no lawyers in the family, so I graduated not appreciating the difference between studying law and practicing law. I went to a large law firm thinking that would ground me in the basics of the profession.
I was at O’Melveny for about three years. I practiced labor and employment law, and I learned important fundamentals: what does good work product and good client service look like. The firm provided me with a critical foundation, but I didn’t enjoy private practice. I continue to believe the billable hour does not encourage the best thinking or produce the best results for clients. So for me, private practice wasn’t a good fit.
Then you clerked after your stint at O’Melveny?
Yes. I had wanted to clerk immediately after I graduated from law school, but I just couldn’t afford it with my student debt. But the great thing about practicing and then clerking—at least at the time—was the government was willing to pay a high percentage of your previous salary when you clerked. After I worked at O’Melveny, clerking was much more affordable.
I clerked for Judge Linda McLaughlin—my first true mentor—in the Central District of California, in Santa Ana in Orange County. My time with Judge McLaughlin remains the most rewarding 12 months I’ve spent in the law. I learned lessons in her chambers that I still use today as a lawyer and as the leader of our department.
After your clerkship, you went immediately in-house?
I did. In 1998, I had a friend who was working at Wynn’s International, an industrial company that made precision-engineered sealing media for the automotive market and other industries. He was leaving and asked if I was interested in interviewing for his job. The company was looking for someone to manage their litigation because they had a lot of contract disputes and transactions with smaller parties that they litigated throughout the country. I interviewed and got the job.
At Wynn’s, I found my second great mentor: General Counsel Gregg Gibbons. Gregg’s philosophy was straightforward: If you were interested, hungry and willing to put in the time, he would give you as many opportunities as you could handle. I learned a ton working for him at Wynn’s. I negotiated customer contracts, drafted securities filings, managed the Company’s labor and employment cases, helped file patent and trademark applications and oversaw litigation. I took any project that introduced me to a new area of the law, and kept adding to my experience.
I worked for two years at Wynn’s before the Company was acquired by a company headquartered in Cleveland. I worked on that deal and when it closed, many of us were offered jobs with the acquirer, but I opted to look for another job in Orange County.
Is that how you ended up at Western Digital?
Yes. In September 2000, I landed at Western Digital, which at that time made hard disk drives for desktop computers. I was hired as senior counsel, and at the time, I was one of four lawyers at the company. I was brought in to focus on litigation, labor and employment work, and customer contracts, but I tried to get as much other work as I could to keep learning.
When I started, the company was struggling. The hard drive industry has always been intensely competitive and in 2000, it was going through a period of rapid consolidation. In addition, at that time, most people who worked in technology wanted to be in software and the internet, not hardware, so it was difficult to attract and retain talent.
When I joined, the Company had appointed a new CEO and leadership team, and they set about stabilizing the Company and focusing on product quality and execution. I did anything I could do to support that focus, including a lot of procurement and sales contracts, financings, and corporate transactions in addition to managing litigation and labor and employment matters. It was a great variety of issues to work on, and so I kept learning and adding to my experience.
As the company’s performance stabilized and then improved, my responsibilities grew and we were able to begin adding additional resources. From 2000-2010, I managed lawyers and legal professionals who joined the department as the scope of my role increased. In 2010, my boss announced he was retiring and the then CEO, and the board, chose me as his successor. I’m now coming up on 10 years as the head of the department—the past five years as chief legal officer.
Today we have about 100 lawyers spread throughout 10 countries. We also have another 75 professionals in those countries that work in our sustainability, risk management, contract management, stock plans, and ethics and compliance groups. It’s a truly global team.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is driving more value to our business every day. With a team as large as ours, we have scale which allows us to get a lot done and get deeply embedded with our clients throughout the business. But we have to stay laser focused on producing results. In a big organization, there is a risk of engaging in a lot of activity without accomplishing anything. We have to constantly ask ourselves: Is our work closely linked to helping the business achieve its goals? Did our work help the Company grow or materially reduce its risk of loss? That’s how we need to measure ourselves every day.
Another key challenge is attracting the best talent available and creating an environment where that talent can flourish and keep improving. Our work is challenging and it gets more complex each year. We need to make sure that the best people want to work for our department. We need to then make sure that once they land here, they keep getting better.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
My job is one of the best jobs there is in the law. The range of issues that I get to work on in any given week is stunning. The intellectual challenge that comes from framing an issue, diagnosing a problem, figuring out the most important inputs we need, and then developing a solution that works for our clients is stimulating and rewarding.
I also like being a member of a team. When you’re a member of an executive team, you bring a perspective that is unique and complements the perspective of your colleagues. My lens is legal, regulatory and analytical. My other team members come from engineering, sales, finance, marketing, IT, and all of them are brilliant and bring their own expertise and unique perspective to the team. I love being part of the process of bringing our inputs and perspectives together to create results and build something great.
On top of that, I have the privilege of leading our department. It’s a humbling and rewarding thing to be given the opportunity to recruit, engage, lead, grow and encourage a team of truly talented people.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
Judge Linda McLaughlin, for whom I clerked, was my first great mentor. The arc of my professional life changed when I worked for her. She was an outstanding judge, a truly wonderful human being, and a genuinely wise and perceptive leader of people. She helped me understand the possibilities of a life in the law. She also showed me how a leader inspires others to work hard and deliver results. Judge McLaughlin was very invested in the growth and development of her clerks. It made a huge impact on me that as accomplished as she was, she took the time to teach me, encourage me, and challenge me. She always treated me and my fellow clerks like peers, which was really empowering.
Gregg Gibbons, General Counsel at Wynn’s when I worked there, taught me how to be a counselor to business people and helped me understand that you don’t just ask for or demand respect, you earn it. He taught me that you have to put in the time and be deeply invested in solving clients’ problems to earn the right the be viewed as a trusted advisor.
Matt Massengill, the chairman of Western Digital’s board of directors and the Company’s CEO when I joined in 2000, taught me how to create an environment where people can thrive. He did this for the entire company by creating a sense of optimism and energy while keeping people focused on the most important things.
Tell me about your life outside of work. What are some of your hobbies?
I love to read—a little bit of everything, but I really love fiction and biographies.
I also love the theater. I serve on the board of trustees of South Coast Repertory Theater in Orange County, which is one of the great regional theaters in the U.S. that specializes in showcasing new playwrights and diverse voices. I chair the audience development committee which is focused on identifying people who may have never seen a play or musical before and introducing them to the magic of live theater.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?
1. Keep your learning curve as steep as possible throughout your career. Never accept the idea that you are done learning. Keep challenging yourself. Seek out new and difficult projects, and make it your goal to learn something new every day.
2. Love the process of learning. Every day, you can encounter an issue that is a little different or a lot different from anything you’ve seen before. Embrace the challenge of engaging with something new. Just about anybody can advise a client on an issue or set of facts that has been seen multiple times before. But real value is derived from figuring out something that is novel and difficult and requires great rigor in analyzing the risks and opportunities that flow from it. That process of figuring out something really hard —learn to love it.
3. Read and write as much as you can. As lawyers, those are the two great skills we have. Reading and writing will make you a much more organized thinker and a more effective speaker. Reading and writing skills are like muscles – they get stronger the more they are exercised.