Tell us about your background as a General Counsel and current career status…

Currently, I am the Chief Legal Officer at ACV Auctions, Inc., the leading digital online marketplace for automotive dealers.  ACV provides a wide range of offerings and services for its dealership partners, based upon its core online marketplace, a 20- minute digital live auction which facilitates transaction of automobiles.  In connection with its core offering ACV’s also offers transportation, financing, and assurance services to accelerate the entire lifecycle of the auction.  ACV is also engaging in a range of data driven services to offer insights into the condition and value of used automobiles for our partners and marketplace users.

My career has been spent public technology companies, and prior to ACV, I was the General Counsel at Cerence a supplier of AI solutions to automotive OEMS, so it was a logical progression to join ACV.

How does your industry help define your role as General Counsel?

The used vehicle market is both complex and fascinating in that it is a combination of the old and the new.  Dealers have participated in physical auctions for many years, and there is a fair amount of regulation regarding the activities of dealers and other participants in the used vehicle market.  Now, increasingly technology and AI is disrupting those markets, and the legal environment is continuously having to either catch up or adjust itself to the new technologies.  There is a whole world of traditional legal requirements such as, for example, dealer licensing and the federal odometer act now intersecting or even conflicting with technology driven legal issues such as data privacy, IP and other online regulations.   The changes in the industry have been at speeds not previously seen, partially because of the pandemic in addition to technology, but these changes drive the need for informed business-savvy solutions to the legal and related business issues that inevitably rise at a dynamic high-growth company.

How do you feel the General Counsel should act as a business partner?

ACV has had an impressive trajectory and only went public in 2021, so the role of legal has very rapidly evolved with the company from start-up to private-funded to public in an exceedingly short period.  The legal team’s role has had to also rapidly progress consistent with this, and be situated to not just handle matters associated with being public, but aligning and scaling legal support while retaining the already existing great partnership with the business, but do it in a way that permits the team to focus on the most important issues to serve the business and be integral its growth strategy.

Legal must be tightly integrated to the business to accomplish this, to both aid the company in its strategy and assess what is acceptable (not no) risk in most situations.  Its is so hard to do this if not tightly connected.

How do you see the professional growth trajectory as a General Counsel?

My original dream was to be a history professor, but I always found business to be very interesting and think some of it stemmed from reading history, such as the break-up of Standard Oil, or ironically the changes in the auto industry as conveyed by David Halberstam in The Reckoning.  And once I started working in the business world, this interest continued to grow- I always wanted to understand the technology, how manufacturing and logistics worked, go-to-market arrangements, understanding tax structures etc.  It hasn’t gone away, still read the WSJ every day, and really enjoy engaging with all parts of the business and continuously learning.  And I do believe, especially for in-house lawyers, it is an asset to learn and like the business.  Our role fundamentally is to advise the company on risk, seek solutions to help growth and hopefully be able to truly offer thoughts on a range of topics.  You need to understand the business to do these things well.

At one time I did think about transitioning to a non-legal role and moving into product management and eventually maybe being a GM, which I still think, at least in technology companies, are hard roles blending technology, sales, finance and marketing.  However, once I had the opportunity to expand my legal responsibilities beyond IP (which is where I started) to other areas such as commercial, litigation, and eventually M&A and corporate, I was able to have the deep involvement in the business while continuing the legal path.

What is the best advice you can give for In-House Counsel?

Speaking from an in-house perspective, believe something a little different in one’s background is always helpful, whether that is a degree in something directly related to business, such as engineering, accounting or the like since they provide a foundation for understanding what a company does.  In a similar vein, believe working before law school has its benefits for similar reasons.  Plus, it helps you to figure out if the corporate world is right for you.

In terms of advancing your career, there are a several principles I have found to be helpful.  First, really learn at least one area of the law deeply.  A manager I had early in my career always maintained once you went through the effort to learn something well, it made it easier to learn the next thing and the next thing after that.  Second, don’t be shy or think any work is beneath you. You learn by doing, and you also can have exposure to different types of people, who are all needed to make a business successful, and it never hurts for your management to hear from the business you help them in what is important to them.

Lastly, the same manager provided a piece of advice I never forgot, and I think is really valuable to lawyers- “every level you go up, take out a paragraph.”  It is so true.  Effective communication is always valuable, especially in fast paced environments where the reader usually just wants a view whether to proceed or a recommendation how to proceed.

About Leanne Fitzgerald

Public company executive, chief legal officer and board secretary experienced in developing and managing legal, governance, compliance, intellectual property, risk management, privacy and commercial functions on a globally for technology companies. Specialties: General corporate law, governance, compliance, intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, corporate development, SEC reporting, commercial and strategic transactions, privacy and litigation.