Melissa Tidwell ’03 recounts her journey from NYU Law to Silicon Valley

When Melissa Tidwell ’03 was a student at NYU Law, one of her favorite courses was Current Constitutional Issues, taught by the late Professor Derrick Bell. One of the highlights of the class, she says, in addition to having the chance to “sit in conversation with the amazing Derrick Bell,” was the online discussion board, which allowed her to engage in in-depth, written debates about the cases with her classmates. Tidwell would not have predicted that, a little over a decade later, she would be working on the legal issues surrounding hundreds of thousands of discussion boards with more than 300 million visitors as the vice president and general counsel of Reddit.

Melissa Tidwell '03

Silicon Valley was far from Tidwell’s thoughts when she made the decision to go to law school—in fact, she did not have a set career path in mind. “My little brother’s godfather had said that the reason that he went to law school was that it taught him how to think,” Tidwell says, “and I really liked that idea.” The Law School courses that inspired Tidwell weren’t necessarily directly related to her future career—she cites Bell’s and the Juvenile Defender Clinic taught by Vice Dean Randy Hertz as particularly influencing her understanding of the broader landscape of justice.

Upon graduation, Tidwell initially worked in Big Law, first at Debevoise & Plimpton, then at Morrison & Foerster. While at Debevoise, Tidwell had the chance to work on a wide variety of legal issues including mergers and acquisitions, voting rights, and intellectual property cases. She also began advising a number of the firm’s clients in Latin America focusing on the area of technology, media, and telecommunications, and she found herself increasingly fascinated with the work that those companies were doing. “The internet was sort of this crazy world where anybody could do anything,” Tidwell says. “I gravitated more and more toward that type of environment.”

Tidwell made the jump from corporate law to in-house work when she joined Google. During the eight years she spent at Google, she helped to implement many of the company’s major initiatives, including Google Fiber, which provides customers with a TV service and broadband internet; Google Cloud Platform, a suite of cloud computing services that help companies scale their infrastructure; and Google Play, the company’s official app store for the Android operating system. “The amazing thing was that as a young lawyer, I was put in a position to be able to think on my feet and use my skills to help these products grow,” Tidwell says. “Just being able to be a critical piece of the team felt like a huge accomplishment.”

At Google, Tidwell also had the opportunity to build her management skills. “She’s inherently a leader, and she is especially good at mentoring those who come after her,” says Google Corporate Counsel Shana Simmons, one of Tidwell’s colleagues during her time at the company, adding, “Melissa also has an encyclopedic memory and knowledge of everything she’s ever touched… and when it comes to negotiations and client management, she’s a genius.”

Now, as  vice president and general counsel at Reddit, Tidwell oversees the company’s legal, policy and communications teams and explains that her day-to-day work can include an extremely varied set of issues, such as employment law, immigration, and intellectual property. In addition to these topics, which she might encounter as a general counsel of any large company, the nature of Reddit as wide-ranging platform for a vast number of online communities can generate an entirely new set of legal questions.

“Those communities can raise a ton of different issues, based on the essence of their content,” Tidwell says, noting that a key question the company often faces is how to comply with law enforcement requests for user information. “On the policy side, we engage with governing bodies on a domestic and international level as countries struggle with [policing] the internet.”

Tidwell credits the Socratic method of teaching, which she encountered as a law student, with helping her prepare for the daily experience of “being put on the spot, and being asked a really random question that I may or may not have had time to research, and still being able to respond in an intelligent way.” Although she was not an active Reddit user before she joined the company, it is perhaps unsurprising that now one of her favorite subreddits is called Explain Both Sides, a forum in which users raise questions and any responder must give both sides of any responding argument. Like the Socratic method—and the message boards she encountered in Bell’s class—Tidwell says, “I think it’s a really helpful conversational concept that ensures that people can speak with each other about what are ultimately hard issues.”

Posted September 18, 2017