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Spotlight on Katherine Tsai (NY/MP, ’10)

Katherine Tsai
Legal, Head of Product, Privacy and Intellectual Property at Watershed

We recently caught up with Katherine Tsai (NY/MP, ’10), Legal, Head of Product, Privacy and Intellectual Property at Watershed, an enterprise sustainability platform that helps companies measure, report and reduce their carbon emissions. Katherine began her career as an associate in Davis Polk’s New York office before transferring to the firm’s Northern California office.

Read on to learn about how Katherine has combined her legal expertise with her passion for environmental law and supporting environmentally oriented nonprofits.

Tell us about how you came to work in the NorCal office and what it was like working there.

It was awesome! But let me start from the beginning:

During my 1L summer, I was part of a cohort of foreign summer associates at a Tokyo law firm, Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu. It was a marvelous program. Throughout the summer, several U.S. law firms in Tokyo hosted events for us, the most notable of which for me was Davis Polk. The attorneys at Davis Polk Tokyo represented the pinnacle of what I thought lawyers should be: witty, classy and erudite.

So, the Tokyo office inspired me to interview with the firm for an associate position post-law school graduation. Because of my longer-term career goals, I eventually decided to start as an associate in New York rather than Tokyo. I cut my legal teeth in New York and have so much gratitude for our partners, associates and staff in both the Tokyo and New York offices.

While I was in New York, there was a whispered rumor that lawyers in Menlo Park got to wear jeans to the office. When I visited Menlo Park on a recruiting trip, I had lunch al fresco under the beautiful oak tree in the courtyard, while two partners swapped stories about Woodstock. Menlo Park immediately felt like my tribe, and that’s why I eventually requested to move to the Menlo Park office.

More seriously, I grew up in the Bay Area, and working with technology and biotechnology companies felt natural to me. But I will always wonder what it would have been like to continue working in Tokyo or New York.

You are currently Legal, Head of Product, Privacy and Intellectual Property at Watershed. That seems like a lot of hats to wear! Tell us about Watershed and the issues you deal with day-to-day.

Ha! The unofficial title that better captures what I do day-to-day is “Legal #2.” I work on product counseling (i.e., thinking about product design from a legal perspective), privacy, corporate, intellectual property, open source, security, employment matters (rarely) and, frankly, anything else that might pop up during the day.

Watershed’s mission is to accelerate the climate economy. Our 2030 goal is to work with our customers to reduce or remove 500 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent – approximately 1% of annual global emissions. Everyone is learning about new climate disclosure regulations in real time. Our brilliant policy, climate science, product and engineering teams are swiftly applying new science and new laws to our product so we can best help our customers succeed and, more importantly, collectively reduce global emissions by 2030. We also help our customers support early-stage carbon removal technology companies and participate in virtual power purchasing agreements. I’m thrilled every day to be at Watershed contributing to the critical work we have ahead of us.

What advice have you received in the past that has served you well in your career?

It’s okay not to have a dream job. It’s okay to take jobs that you don’t think are your dream job. You won’t know what you love until you try it, and the lessons you learn in each experience will serve you in your next role.

My current job (which is my current dream job) didn’t exist when I was in law school or at Davis Polk. When I was a law student, the only career path consistent with my environmental passions seemed to be as a litigator for the Natural Resources Defense Council or EarthJustice. Because Iitigation was not my cup of tea, I instead worked as a derivatives lawyer, corporate lawyer, law clerk, product counsel, privacy counsel, and marketing and advertising counsel. I went in-house at an e-commerce company, then a social media company, and now I’m at a B2B SaaS company. Throughout this time, I’ve also volunteered with environmentally focused nonprofits. With my work at Watershed and at the nonprofits, I can be now an environmental lawyer and a corporate and product lawyer. All of my past experiences led me to where I am today, and I feel inordinately lucky.

Was there an individual (or individuals) at Davis Polk who played an especially important mentoring role for you during your time at the firm? How has your experience at Davis Polk assisted you in your in-house roles?

May I name the entire capital markets team, circa 2010-2012? I feel so grateful that I spent a formative period in my career with Mark Mendez, Warren Motley, Marcel Fausten, Derek Dostal, Jonathan Armstrong (now a Davis Polk alum), and Jim Chenard (now a Davis Polk alum) and many more. They were brilliant, intimidating, kind, and hilarious, and they – obviously – inspired my ongoing respect and loyalty.

But then again, the lawyers who made an impact on me are too many to list. I’d like to list half of the Davis Polk firm directory!

At Davis Polk, I learned how to be curious. I learned the importance of being fanatically detail-oriented, but also strategic. I learned that the best managers set high expectations but are also kind. And I learned the importance of collegiality. The lessons I learned from Davis Polk have been invaluable to me.

You serve on the board at a number of nonprofit organizations. Tell us about your work with those organizations.

Absolutely. I most recently joined the board of Peninsula Open Space Trust, which is a nonprofit land trust local to the Bay Area in California. Its mission is to protect open space in the Peninsula and South Bay for the benefit of all.

I also chair the board of Outdoor Alliance, which is a nonprofit that unites outdoor enthusiasts to protect the human-powered outdoor recreation experience and conserve America’s public lands.

Finally, my longest board tenure is with Sustainable Learning, Inc., which is a nonprofit that runs environmental leadership programs for high school students and is a past beneficiary of the Davis Polk pro bono program (thank you!). Its mission is to cultivate the next generation of environmental leaders through transformative summer experiences.

I feel privileged to serve on the board of all of these nonprofits, which approach the complex issues of conservation and climate resilience in different ways. As a board director of each nonprofit, I serve its respective staff and mission by helping decide the high-level direction of the nonprofit’s programs, develop its strategic plan and vision, cultivate organizational resiliency through strong board governance, and serve as an ambassador for its mission.