Startups naturally run mean and lean - which means startup GC’s have to work creatively to scale their legal operations. This, however, is counterintuitive to a law-firm trained lawyer who has been taught to make all their work to perfection. GC’s need efficient ways to manage and execute contracts while accepting the reality that perfection will not be achieved. This week we speak with Liz Benegas, GC of NetDocuments to share her experience in transitioning to a fast-paced GC role and her ways of hacking together unique legal operations systems.
I moved to NetDocuments from another SaaS company, DealerSocket, which was my first foray into tech. Prior to that, my practice was corporate litigation, so both early stage ventures and transactional commercial work were relatively new to me.
NetDocuments brought me on in 2018 as its first ever in-house counsel. The company thought I would primarily handle contracts, but that was really the tip of the iceberg and the role pretty quickly evolved into much more.
I was especially excited to join NetDocuments because the software it creates is for lawyers. I use the NetDocuments service every day, all day, so I understand the products really well, and even more important, I understand our customers and their use cases. That has made it easier for me to bridge the gap between lawyer and business person.
When I started practicing in 2003, “legal tech” wasn’t really a thing. We used document management systems, of course, but they weren’t there to make our jobs or lives easier. I can remember a lot of late nights trying to connect to the firm VPN remotely so I could open a pleading or a brief without having to drive into the office, which in the end usually would have been quicker. A lot has changed in the intervening years and much of that is thanks to NetDocuments, which has been at the forefront of creating innovative tools that help lawyers work better and faster, from anywhere. It is fun to be part of a company that is helping to change something that is very personal to me.
Managing contracts is a very common challenge for TechGC’s. What is your current tool-kit for managing contracts efficiently? How are they implemented? Any challenges with them?
I’m lucky to have a robust document management system at my disposal, so once contracts are executed I’m set! Getting to execution can be difficult, though. When I started at NetDocuments, very little of the contracting process was automated. I did most customer contracts manually, in the order they landed in my inbox. It was hectic and inefficient, to say the least.
The low hanging fruit for me in my first year and a half was revising NetDocuments’ form contracts and creating some guidelines for contract negotiations. Standardization was a big step forward for me because it enabled me to bring some order to the contracting process. For example, I was able to develop review and approval thresholds that were consistent with the company’s risk tolerance, and playbooks of fallback positions I can invoke without having to search in a dozen places for sample language.
We made big strides toward automating customer contracts in 2020, mostly thanks to NetDocuments’ exceptional associate general counsel. We have a pretty large sales team, so using Salesforce and CPQ to help them create and finalize contracts without legal’s involvement was a huge win for us, and them.
Next up is formalizing our workflow process by implementing software that will finally get our to-do list out of Outlook and Excel and give the business visibility into our priorities. Once that is done I feel we will have the major pieces in place to allow the company to scale.
We still have challenges, for sure. Two big ones for us are adoption and change management. A common response to proposed changes is “this is the way we’ve always done it!” As a result, we are very deliberate about introducing new technologies and processes and we spend a lot of time asking and answering questions before rolling anything out, which can be frustrating because it feels like it slows us down but typically makes our launches more successful.
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Whether you are a legal team of 1 or 100, perfection isn’t possible. I’m very open with my team and stakeholders in the company about that, and I am open to suggestions about what imperfections we fix and which ones we live with, for now. Some processes are cumbersome and inefficient, but if they are not putting the company at risk in the short term, we may wait to fix them until we can roll out a proper solution instead of a “band-aid” that will serve as a short term fix but will require more work later. I also keep a running list of inefficiencies or imperfections and examples of how they affect the business, so when the opportunity presents itself I am ready to advocate for changes that will help us get better.
Part of my job is to calculate and standardize risk across the business, and that can be hard because risks can be a moving target! There are lots of things that can affect a company’s risk appetite, such as the size or timing of a deal. Compliance, security, and regulatory risks are always a non-starter. But some level of financial and operational risk is necessary in growing a business, and a big part of in house counselling is becoming comfortable assessing and sometimes accepting these “strategic risks”. As general counsel, I have to be ready to spot the risk and make a recommendation about how to mitigate or decrease it, but in the end it’s typically the business teams who decide whether any risk is acceptable. I view my role in that process as making sure the company is fully informed about the potential upsides and downsides of any decision.
I look for people with a good sense of humor, an eagerness to learn and take ownership of stuff, and a willingness to ask for help. Some of what we are asked to do is outside our comfort zone or area of expertise and I look for people who want that experience and aren’t afraid to own it. I try to foster an environment where questions are not only welcome but encouraged; my team is here to counsel the business, but also to grow their skills and advance their careers, so I encourage them to be active participants in anything and everything legal touches so they will be ready to move into their own GC role with confidence. I’m very candid with candidates that the department isn’t perfect and the job won’t always be predictable. That’s why it’s so important they have a healthy sense of humor--otherwise, this career could make you crazy! For me, it is as much about personality as it is about skills: what you did at a previous company may not help you here as much as a great attitude and a willingness to jump in with both feet.