Thrown in the deep end. Drinking from a fire hose. In over your head.
They’re all true – the prospect of your first role in a startup tech company as Senior Lawyer or General Counsel can be slightly terrifying.
Especially since those roles are extremely rare — either installed by a former-big-corporate CEO in the company’s early days (which makes things much easier in the long run, trust me!) or when the company has reached a certain size and the CFO/COO realises they’re in under their head with legal work that they really shouldn’t be doing – and call you in to take control of it!
In my case, before starting Biztech Lawyers, I was installed as General Counsel at Rokt — at rocket-ship marketing technology company when the company was in its early days (two markets and 30 staff) and helped grow the business to 8 markets and 150+ staff.
Becoming a Tech General Counsel teaches you a lot, and it truly is a role where you learn by doing. But for the benefit of others there’s a bunch I wish I’d known beforehand, that would have made things a lot easier.
So below I’ve set out the top ten things I wish I’d known before becoming a Startup General Counsel.
- Listening is your #1 job – ask a lot of questions to a broad range of people – starting from the top down. Listen intently. Take notes. Ask around. There are no stupid questions. Your job is to identify risks and manage them – how else are you going to find out? While doing the rounds is more important when you first start your role, you need to continue to do so. It’s just more likely you will have more time to do this when you first start, than when you’re stuck in back-to-backs in a few months’ time. But make sure you keep doing it. It’s also the reason why you need to make sure you and the legal team are visible at staff events and not just stuck behind the desk.
- Understand the culture – starting from the top down might not actually be the right way to look at things, particularly if your CEO subscribes to the ‘inverted pyramid’ model of organisational design. So you might have to do Tip #1 from the bottom-up. Or potentially from side to side, for flat structures. Confused yet? It’s ok. Working out the structure of the organisation, who holds power, who can make decisions and who you need to bring along the way on key decisions are all very important for you in your role as chief legal officer.
- Get face to face – Listening is much easier when you’re face to face. So go and visit your colleagues, wherever they are. You’ll not only get to understand the environment you’re working in (from warehouse to software development center to mine shaft), you’ll learn a lot more from the nonverbal cues that people give you more than you ever could over a hangout or zoom call.
- Most people in the business don’t think like you, are scared of you, or have no experience dealing with legal – I would say at least one of these are true for 98% of the workforce. This means there’s likely a significant difference between the way you perceive yourself and your team, and the way others in the organisation do. This impacts the way you should go about your role.
- Get immediately across corporate structure and delegations of authority, data protection and insurance – this is now happening on your watch and you’ll be the first one who is asked when it hits the fan. Create order from chaos.
- You can’t do everything – setting guidelines with your colleagues about your capacity and your remit is important. Things like – what matters do legal get involved in? What matters need not? How do they contact the legal team? Are there thresholds? Usefully, firms are increasingly introducing software to appraise ‘low risk’ matters while ‘freeing up’ lawyers for higher value work – hallelujah! (But But see point 10 below.)
- Be an enabler, not a blocker – You’ve likely heard it before, but the role of Tech General Counsel is to work out how to get things done. This doesn’t mean saying ‘yes’ to everything, but it does mean taking your colleagues on a journey in helping them balance legal risk and commercial reward. You will learn that, particularly in large organisations, some staff will try to get ‘cover’ for their actions by presenting the legal team with only contrived or limited information, hoping it will all just slip by. Or worse, they will circumvent legal altogether. Ultimately, these are the people who you will need to win over and bring into the fold. And while it’s better to have known unknowns than unknown unknowns, over time, you need to uncover all of it. The best way to do this is to make sure that legal is an enabler, and not a blocker.
- Enable through process, and reason – Being an enabler also impacts your contracting method. Get your templates in order. If the organisation doesn’t have one, work on a playbook as-you-go. And when you’re negotiating with other parties – don’t argue points just for the sake of it. Risks are often misunderstood by non-legal; but can be over-blown by lawyers. Take another look at that proposed markup you just wrote and think, is it really necessary?
- Get your tech right – an inherent part of the job of in-house counsel is to understand and be able to recommend the best tech platforms to deploy within the business to maximise everyone’s efficiency – e-signing software, contract authoring tools, automated contract review, contract management systems, matter management systems, and so on.
- Just don’t expect to have any budget to deploy the tech. It’s nice to dream though, right? Jokes aside – if you’re in a small legal team it’s likely that a founder or CEO has made a highly calculated decision around the cost of an additional staff member, how much of their time it frees up, and what benefits such a person will bring to the future business (see point 1 above). But part of the calculus that’s often missing is the technology piece. While pure legaltech is often hideously expensive (they need to price gouge if they have a narrow addressable market) you can repurpose other non-legal tools for legal purposes. Trello, jira, streak – they’re all great. Increasing competition and choice will only drive down the cost of technology in the medium term.And a final bonus point?Find help, fast – in my previous role, it turned out we needed to do a ‘reverse triangular merger’ between a Delaware company and a Singaporean company. Turns out the legal talent market is atomising and there are pockets of brilliance everywhere. You don’t need to pay $500K to a top tier firm to get things done well.
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