Featuring Insights From:

Jeanine Wright

COO and General Manager at Wondery

Louis Shansky

General Counsel for Upgrade Inc.

Key Takeaways: 

  • To be effective as in-house counsel, it is critical to know your business. Do a 360-degree audit of the business, company, and product, meeting with key stakeholders to learn about the business from each of their unique perspectives and establish a clear line of communication. 
  • Understand leadership’s top priorities and strategy so that you can incorporate these concepts as you build out your own list of primary legal issues for the company. 
  • Be a business person who sits in legal, not a legal person who sits in the business. Seek to understand how legal is perceived and utilized (or not) within the organization, and see where misalignment and risks may lie. 
  • Set up systems to facilitate open lines of communication and legal request intake across the organization. Look for easy wins in your first 100 days that will demonstrate your value and build trust, such as rolling out standard operating procedures and legal request intake processes.
  • Line up your bench of outside counsel before you need them — both boutique firms who can handle ordinary course matters and big firms who can guide you through major events. 

Insights derived from members of the TechGC Community

Explore Membership

Your first 100 days at any job is the time to prove that you’re an asset, but as the GC of a rapid growth startup, the stakes are high. In-house legal departments are a cost center for any business, and if you work at a startup, chances are budgets are lean. Legal is also often viewed as a bottleneck or blocker to getting deals done, which is a particular pain point for startups, where every deal can be the difference between the company’s failure or survival. 

In less than four months, you must understand the business, build trust with key stakeholders, demonstrate your value across the organization, investigate the most pressing risks, and prioritize your areas of focus to align with what your budget permits — all against a backdrop of a rapidly growing, constantly changing tech company. 

Having served as the GC of four high-growth startups, and now of an investment fund manager whose funds invest in startup tech companies, I’ve gathered some practical tips from my experience and advice from other TechGC colleagues about what to prioritize during those crucial early days.

Do a 360-Degree Audit of the Business

Jeanine Percival Wright, who currently serves as COO and General Manager at Wondery, suggests studying your new org like a newly discovered Amazonian tribe. “Let it all sink in,” she says. For me, that typically includes the following. 

Go on a Listening Tour

At each new company, my first step is to schedule a listening tour, meeting with each of the executives, department heads, and anyone else who might be working closely with legal or whose activities will require legal support or oversight. Listening tours are time-intensive, but well worth the effort. Meet with as many people across the organization as your schedule permits.

Key questions to ask include:

  • How would you describe the mission and vision of the company?
  • What are your team’s goals and priorities? 
  • What are you specifically focused on for the next 6-12 months?
  • What are the legal obstacles or risks that you’re facing? 
  • What are the other business obstacles that you’re facing?
  • What should I know about coming into the organization?

Specifically, I always ask each person I meet with to tell me about the mission of the company. This not only gives me a sense of how aligned the team is across the organization, but it also gives me insight into each individual — their priorities, their perspective, and how they communicate and operate. 

If there are wild differences in how people talk about the mission (which is more common than you’d think), this can be an opportunity to showcase your value in the company early-on. Highlighting where the disconnects are and working to address and resolve them shows that you’re a pragmatic thinker who thinks strategically about the business — not just a lawyer. 

Learn About the Product With a Beginner’s Mind 

Knowing the business and the company’s products and services is a key step in getting up and running. Ask to sit in on product demos or sales calls so you gain familiarity with how the product is presented to customers. Ask to sit in on R&D and engineering team meetings to learn about work that is in development or on the roadmap, so you have an understanding of where the tech is headed and are ready to support appropriately. For example, is there something promising in R&D that needs to be patented before anyone starts talking about it more broadly with third parties? 

Don’t be afraid to ask what might seem like dumb questions. As I’m getting up to speed on a product, I’ll often ask my sales team to “talk to me like I’m a customer” in explaining the product and how it works. Oftentimes at tech companies, you are surrounded by incredibly smart people who are already ten steps ahead, and asking the basic, fundamental questions can be helpful to the business teams to hear how the ordinary person might be digesting the product they are selling. Is it clear to a non-technical person? Is the sales team presenting what they are selling accurately? I often ask sales and engineering teams to walk me through the product like I’m someone who doesn’t understand tech, and this exercise has yielded a number of revelations around how the tech is being presented and marketed, in turn enabling the teams to be more effective. 

Identify Your Top Priorities 

As part of your initial 360 audit, in addition to the listening tour, dedicate as many hours as you can to digging through the company’s files to review key strategic documents, including:

  • Existing contract templates for commercial contracts, HR-related contracts, vendor and partner contracts, etc.
  • Current or past litigation documentation
  • Recent financial statements and projections
  • Company incorporation documents, organizational charts, and strategic and operating plans 
  • Projections, goals, and OKRs

In addition to giving you more insight into the company, a deep dive into documents will give you a closer look at the company’s most significant legal risks and whether they are being adequately mitigated. For example, do the company’s commercial contracts contain intellectual property clauses that sufficiently protect the tech? Do they contain appropriate limitations on liability? Do the employment contracts contain the correct state-by-state requirements around enforceable noncompetes?

As with the listening tour, trying to reach everyone and every document is both an overwhelming and impossible task, and you will need to prioritize and recognize that you can’t learn everything in 100 days. Identify which issues or areas of the company present a level of risk that warrants the time, energy, and cost necessary to address. 

Getting fully up to speed with the company’s products, customer base, and geographic reach will help you develop your list of priorities — for example, a company that sells direct to consumers will generally have a higher data privacy compliance risk than a B2B business. A company that sells to geographies like Latin America will have a higher FCPA compliance risk than a company that only sells to the US markets. 

And get comfortable knowing that there are lower-priority items that you may not get to for awhile. “Find a way to stay on top of what the business needs within reason while still giving yourself time to chase the things that you think are important,” says Shansky.

Be a Business Person who Sits in Legal

Understand How Legal is Perceived 

During your listening tour, it’s also helpful to seek to understand the team’s history of working with legal. What was your predecessor’s relationship with different leaders and teams? If there was no predecessor, how did the company obtain legal support, and how was that support received? How is legal generally perceived within the company — a great partner who helps get deals done or a bottleneck and deal killer? What approaches worked and what were the main sources of friction? Understanding these dynamics can help you plan how to meet or exceed expectations — or in worst case scenarios, how to reset the business teams’ perspective on the value of the legal department. 

If you have no predecessor, you have more freedom to deliberately set the stage for collaboration, but note that executives who haven’t experienced working closely with lawyers may not recognize the value of seeking your counsel early on (or even invite you into rooms where decisions are being made). In this case, it’s critical to understand how other executives view the legal function, including who will likely be allies and those who might hold you back. And if you feel you’re not being properly utilized, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Especially with early stage startups, business teams simply don’t know how to best leverage their in-house counsel, so education on how and where you can be a value-add is key. 

In demonstrating that legal should be perceived as a value-add across the organization, identify a handful of easy wins that can be achieved within the first 100 days: 

  • Are there top priorities the executive team has identified that they need your help getting done quickly? 
  • Is there better, more cost-effective outside counsel you can bring on to reduce costs and expedite workstreams? 
  • Are there deals that have been dragging that you can help bring to close quickly? 
  • Are there basic templates you can generate to improve contract cycles? 

Set up Recurring Touchpoints

Once the initial listening tour is over, you’ll also want to set up recurring meetings with department heads or other colleagues you expect to be working with closely. “Build those touch points where you can stay in the loop and have opportunities to weigh in or course correct when they might not be thinking that legal has anything to do with it,” says Louis Shansky, who has served as general counsel for Upgrade Inc. and X1, which was recently acquired by Robinhood.

Be intentional about making the meetings meaningful, asking in each meeting: 

  • What can we do better as a legal function?
  • What are your current pain points? 
  • What do you have coming up that legal should be ready for?

The cadence of the formal checkpoints will depend on your company’s needs and communication style. Try to balance the frequency and length of those meetings with the knowledge that people are probably swamped and already suffering from meeting fatigue. 

In addition to those formal checkpoints, seek out opportunities to join departmental standing meetings and find ways to create more frequent informal check-ins, so that you have your finger on the pulse. At my current company, I have standing weekly check-ins with a handful of executives and department heads, and standing monthly check-ins with others. Everything you hear in a formal year-end or biannual meeting should be information you are already aware of throughout the prior period because you are making an effort to stay plugged in. 

And, building trust and rapport with each of the business team members will help them understand that you’re there to help them meet their goals so that they are incentivized to bring you in sooner to their strategic and planning discussions.

Set Up Systems 

If you’re the company’s first legal hire, or if the existing legal function isn’t particularly efficient, you may be facing a deluge of requests in your first weeks on the job. If that’s the case, see if there are standard operating procedures you can quickly put into place for each team. 

Prioritize setting up an intake system, whether it’s a more comprehensive contract lifecycle management solution or a simple form that internal clients can submit when they have a legal question or request. Your system in the first 100 days may simply be setting up a triage process for what gets handled in-house versus what gets farmed out to outside counsel. The right answer for your company will depend on your size, work volume, budget, and specific company needs.

And while you want to be known as the “Department of Yes,” especially in your first 100 days, don’t be afraid to set out guidelines to help drive an efficient process. For example, sending an initial email to all employees explaining a simple NDA intake process — the email distribution list to submit it to, the background information to provide, and timing needs — can help expedite your NDA review process. Educating your business team on the efficiency and speed value of utilizing your own NDA templates versus accepting third party NDAs can also save you countless hours of time.

Line Up Outside Counsel 

By definition, as general counsel, you provide “general” counsel — it’s not feasible to be an expert in all legal matters that will arise at your company. (Although sometimes, particularly if you are the first-in legal hire, the business team expects you to be.) As a result, whether you’re the sole lawyer at the company or have a team under you, you’ll likely have to lean on outside counsel regularly.

If the company has existing relationships with outside counsel, you’ll want to meet with them to understand what matters they are working on, what their bench looks like in terms of areas of expertise, and what fee arrangements they have in place. Reviewing historical invoices can also be a helpful exercise to understand where legal dollars are being spent and if they are being spent effectively. 

If you need or prefer to shop around for other outside counsel options, early in your tenure is the time to do so. “It’s nice to line up those resources peacefully,” says Shansky, “so you’re not forced to pick counsel at the drop of a hat when an issue comes up. You want time to establish a rapport.”

For example, companies often wait to engage incident response/data privacy counsel until an incident occurs, at which point there is a clear urgency to get help in the door as soon as possible. Interviewing counsel to find the right fit and ensure they are sufficiently up to speed with the business takes time, so finding the right partner early on and having them teed up will make the process much faster and smoother if and when an incident occurs. (And having them on board in advance is a great risk mitigation measure — even if you don’t have the budget to engage them for a full risk audit, they will likely be able to provide some high-level recommendations on baseline security measures to avoid an incident from occurring.)

In lining up counsel, consider whether a full-service firm or a selection of discrete subject matter experts is a better fit for your company. Full-service firms are great for large complex transactions and for all the benefits that come with a one-stop-shop set up but are typically pricier than smaller boutique firms. Having a diverse list of potential partners can help you optimize your legal dollars, so you can plug in more cost-effective shops for ordinary course matters, and larger firms for guiding you through complex transactions, such as a fundraising round or M&A event. Ask peers for recommendations and prioritize meeting with them in your first few months on the job.

Related: A New GC’s Guide to Managing Outside Counsel and Spend

Get to Know Your Internal Team (or Team Needs)

If you’re stepping into a team, take the time to get to know each of them as people. What are their career goals and what drives them? What’s their work and communication style? To the extent they want to share, what’s going on in their personal life? Make the time to take them out to lunch or coffee and get to know them outside of the office. Investing in understanding each of the individuals on your team and building trust demonstrates to them that they are heard, seen and valued — factors that tend to produce higher-performing employees. 

In addition to getting to know your team, it’s important to recognize that being in-house legal has its unique challenges, and it’s common that legal team members will bear the brunt of other department’s stress points. In each new role, I try to create a “Legal Department Circle of Trust” to provide my team with a safe space to talk freely about anything that’s going on, both across the organization and personally. 

If you don’t have an internal team yet, you likely won’t be able to determine off the bat what in-house support you need to prioritize, but start paying attention to where the gaps are and how it might make sense to build out your team in the future. 

Related: When to Make Your Second Legal Hire

Connect With Your Peers

Being an in-house GC, particularly at a startup, can be an overwhelming and isolating experience, but you don’t have to navigate it alone. Even seasoned GCs turn to their peers regularly when facing new, complex, or sensitive issues — in fact, having a network of trusted attorneys can be a superpower. Chances are, if you have a question that needs answering, you’re not the only one with that question, and someone in your network has the answer.

TechGC is a trusted membership community exclusively for GCs and Chief Legal Officers at high-growth companies. If you’re looking to expand your knowledge, connect with peers, and access a wealth of collective wisdom, apply to become a TechGC member today. 

(Note: Most members have their dues reimbursed by their companies, but GCs who are on a shoestring budget can ask outside counsel to sponsor their membership.) 

About TechGC

Called “the gold standard for legal peer groups” and “one of the best professional growth investments an in-house attorney can make,” TechGC is an invitation-only community for general counsels and CLOs of high-growth technology companies and leading venture capital funds. Over 2,000 GC members have access to 300+ world-class events per year, a robust online platform where GCs ask and answer pressing questions and share exclusive resources, and industry- and location-based salary survey data.

For more information, visit techgc.co or techgc.co/deputygc

Explore Membership
Talia Jarvis, Chief Legal, Administrative and Compliance Officer, Closed Loop Partners
Website | + posts