The role of GC is one of ruthless prioritization. As the team looks upon the in house counsel to balance strategic decision-making, structure important deals, and manage legal resources in the most effective way, the successful GC must be exceptional in prioritizing their action items and mapping out their playbook. This ruthless prioritization may be more important than ever as the pandemic changes business roadmaps and intertwines the personal life and work life much more closely.
Today we are speaking with Cathleen Hartge, Head of Legal at Branch Metrics to get her views on running legal for a high-growth tech business, how her career and motherhood balance each other, and what she looks for in talent for her own team.
Before joining Branch in 2018, I was an antitrust litigator. Unsurprisingly, when I started as the first and only lawyer for a 140-person company, the legal portfolio was not brimming with antitrust litigation. I knew there were many “unknown unknowns” about my new role. I needed to identify them as soon as possible.
I pounded the pavement to talk to other startup GCs, asking: what are the first 5 things I need to wrap my head around once I get in the door? By my start date, I had gotten invaluable advice from 5 to 10 fellow GCs (if any of you are reading this, THANK YOU!) on topics ranging from substantive (what’s our IP strategy?), to logistical (am I covered under our D&O policy?), to practical (have 1:1s with all fellow executives in the first 90 days). I had gone from flying blind when I accepted my offer, to actually having a prioritized roadmap upon joining.
The start of the pandemic was one of the greatest professional challenges I’ve faced. In addition to learning how to execute a worldwide reduction in force, I was getting up to speed on new federal legislation being churned out weekly, all the while trying to figure out how to maintain my own team’s morale. Unsurprisingly, our nice, shiny roadmap went out the window.
The silver lining was that Branch Legal learned to focus as never before. We identified three core priorities, and asked ourselves, for every project taken on, every dollar spent: does this push one of those priorities forward? Could I explain to a fellow manager who had to let people go that Branch needed to spend that thousand dollars on outside counsel time?
Now, with more data about the pandemic, the economy, and our own business outlook, we are settling into our “new normal.” As part of that, Branch is starting to hire for certain mission-critical roles. If you know a stellar commercial attorney looking to make a move, make sure to read all the way to the end!
I have so much to say on this topic! I’ve published an extended version here as to how Branch and I have worked together to support my success during the pandemic, but I include a few thoughts below. In short, my keys to success have been (a) setting boundaries; and (b) ruthlessly prioritizing in light of those boundaries.
On boundaries: I remember when a law school professor observed that parents have been among her most successful students. I did not have children at the time and, struggling to get through my nightly reading, thought her conclusion strained credulity. Now, I get it. As a parent, I have no choice but to set boundaries, and know when it’s time to call it quits and give myself a break. As soon as I joined Branch, I made it known that I had to leave at 5:30 to be home for dinner with my toddler, and that I’d be offline until his 8:00 bedtime. Yes, this means regularly catching up on emails in the evening. But by the time I log on, I will have spent 2.5 hours thinking about not work. I am refreshed, ready to go.
None of this to say this is easy. It isn’t. When things don’t go perfectly (e.g., if my kid is sick, or my husband is traveling), my carefully orchestrated routine falls apart and sometimes I do, too. But it works most of the time. That takes me to the second key to success: this only works because I ruthlessly prioritize.
There is always going to be more to do when you’re a GC. With fewer hours to work with each day, how can I make the greatest impact? What has to get done that day? What can I delegate? Where, in low-risk situations, can we reduce Legal involvement? My boundaries give me the freedom to engage in this ruthless prioritization, minimizing the temptation to “do it all” (which is not an effective use of company resources in any event). This approach also aligns with a recent Stanford study:
productivity per hour decline[s] sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week . . . And, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who [work] 55 hours.
Parenthood is a forcing function for these time limits.
During trial preparation, no matter how many firm lawyers we’d throw at a case, we simply could never do it all. My favorite lawyers to work with were the ones with the good judgment to know when it was time to exit a rabbit hole, accept the theoretical existence of a loose end, and focus on known priorities.
And so it is at Branch. All activity carries some degree of risk. We GCs would be promptly shown the door if we tried to stamp out all risk in all facets of the business. The question is: what types of risk do you actively work to manage?
Day-to-day, this comes up most often in deal work. Having spent years seeing up close what happens when business relationships go wrong, I understand (a) what actually leads to such disputes and (b) what actually happens when they arise. Instead of instilling fear, this context gives me the confidence to focus on the most critical legal risk we can control. Is the customer insisting on “substantial” vs. “material” compliance with a particular provision? Is there some quirky provision that is highly unlikely to ever be triggered? If the limitation of liability is (a) favorable and (b) airtight: let’s just close the deal.
We are fortunate that sales have remained healthy -- keeping our legal team busy. So busy, in fact, that it was not difficult to make the business case that, even given current constraints, it’s time to add a Commercial Counsel. We are, ideally, looking for someone with experience as a commercial lawyer -- but as I am personally well aware, lack thereof is not a barrier to success. What matters most are adaptability, creativity, and above all, sound business judgment -- qualities we vet for heavily in our hiring process.