In this fireside chat, Janis Foo, General Counsel at Collective[i], talks about transitioning from Big Law to in-house, helping the company innovate in an AI-first world, and getting a seat at the leadership table as GC.

How would you describe your current role with Collective[i]?

When I joined Collective five years ago, I was the first legal hire and focused on both legal and operations, and now serve as the GC. I currently run the legal and compliance function with the help of outside counsel and oversee our people operations team as well. As an AI company, Collective[i] has seen tremendous growth and is in a great position with the market’s movement toward AI over the past year.

Right now, I’m on the executive team and my role is very much of a generalist. I help sales, client success, people ops, security, and all the other teams scale and grow.

Two of the founders, Heidi Messer and Stephen Messer, have law degrees. They are also super smart, innovative and driven entrepreneurs. Their first company, Linkshare, which was sold to Rakuten, essentially created affiliate marketing. While I report directly to the CEO Tad Martin, Heidi and Stephen are great sounding boards for legal issues.

What’s it like working with founders who have a legal background?

Because of their legal backgrounds, Heidi and Stephen understand the legal function a lot more than most founders, and I’m really grateful for that. Heidi practiced for a few years as an M&A lawyer, and she’s a great legal drafter and writer. Although Stephen never practiced law, he is one of the best dealmakers I’ve worked with and I have learned so much about negotiation from him.

A lot of founders, especially those with primarily engineering backgrounds, can sometimes see legal as a back-of-the-house function—like part of office admin support rather than as a strategic part of the company. What’s great about having founders with a legal background is that they really see the importance of my function and also how it can be used to further the growth of the company.

For example, we’re in a space that’s fairly new. We were the first foundation model focused on B2B commerce, and when we went to market years ago with our first product, we were one of the only true AI companies out there. And so part of my role on the legal side is actually selling the product to the lawyers on the other side who are evaluating us, because we’re not a traditional SaaS product and our licensing terms are going to be different from a traditional SaaS product.

Heidi has been great about saying, and I’m paraphrasing here here, “Let’s have you moderate this panel for this event, or promote you this way so that you become a leader in this space. Let’s not only have the most innovative sales application out there, let’s also have a lawyer who’s thinking ahead and educating others.”

One exciting project that I’m currently working on with support from the rest of the executive team is our Responsible AI Initiative, which is two-pronged. First, like many AI companies, we are putting in place thoughtful controls and processes to ensure that ethics and our shared values and principles remain a focus as we develop and adopt exciting new applications.

In addition to this, we also believe that part of “responsible AI” or “ethical AI” is helping to create the infrastructure needed to support, encourage, and accelerate the responsible development and growth of AI. To that end, we’ve written an Open Letter that we hope will galvanize industry and government to focus on AI advancement as a matter of the U.S.’s global standing and national security instead of focusing solely on regulation.

What was your motivation to transition to in-house?

When I was in law school at Yale, I started a vintage clothing company called Cut Cloth that eventually transitioned into a sort of pop-up real estate company. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, and I’ve always wanted to create something. I wanted to join an established startup with seasoned entrepreneurs who knew what they were doing. After having conversations with Collective[i]’s leadership, it was clear to me that we were a great fit and spoke the same language.

When you’re a lawyer at a large firm, you’re essentially client services, so all the projects—no matter how invested you are or how many hours you spend on it—are not your projects. You want the client to succeed, but you don’t necessarily feel the sense of ownership that you might have at a high-growth company. I love the creativity of my job at Collective[i] and feeling like I have a real impact on the business.

What are some of the key in-house lawyer skills you had to learn when you transitioned?

During my time at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, I had the opportunity to collaborate with brilliant legal professionals who were at the top of their game. The experience and legal training were invaluable, but one notable aspect of working at a firm is the lack of exposure to non-lawyers. Being able to communicate effectively with non-lawyers, like engineers, is a crucial skill for success as a GC in a tech company. This was definitely a learning curve for me because lawyers and engineers for instance employ entirely distinct languages.

How has TechGC helped you in your career?

I think the most useful resource has really been the Braintrust. Every time I’ve asked a question, I’ve gotten a response or have been able to learn so much just from what other GCs are talking about. It’s also helpful to have people who have their ears to the ground and know what the trends are.

Because of my experience at Collective[i], I’ve been able to share ethical AI guidelines with the community and collaborate with others who are in the AI space. Being able to pull legal expertise from peers has been a huge asset, and I think having this resource will enable us to become a multi-billion dollar company with a very small legal team.

How can GC’s build their leadership skills and be seen as a member of the C-suite?

The most pivotal asset for any GC is deep knowledge of the business. You have to understand the ins and outs of your company extremely well, and you need to be able to harness that knowledge of the business to serve as a business partner rather than be seen as just an obstacle to growth. Nobody wants a GC to come in and say “we can’t do that” and your job shouldn’t be reduced to issue spotting.

If you can build your in-house lawyer skills and present the legal risks to the executive team in the context of the business, your team will be able to weigh the options and move forward. Every business decision involves some legal risk, and if you’re in a developing space like AI, you need to learn how to navigate those while simultaneously innovating in an environment with ambiguous regulations. In my current role, I am involved in every major decision because I am able to understand the big picture outside of my function.

Do you want access to the best resources and network for building your legal career and tackling the unique challenges of being a GC? Apply for membership at TechGC today.

Janis Foo is an accomplished operations leader and general counsel, bringing to the table a solid experience in a variety of fields such as corporate finance, data privacy, security, and global transactions. Since 2018, she has been making impactful contributions to Collective[i] where she exercises her innovative leadership to scale the business from conception to execution.

Before joining Collective[i], Janis served as a corporate lawyer at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. Here, she showcased her exceptional legal acumen by representing a broad spectrum of clients, including public and private tech companies, banks, and private equity firms, both in the United States and internationally.

Throughout her career, Janis has been instrumental in many milestone accomplishments. She has expertly navigated commercial transactions and managed corporate governance while also ensuring data privacy and security. Her broad knowledge base extends to real estate, HR, and employment matters, making her a comprehensive legal professional.

Janis holds degrees from Brown University and Yale University Law School.