GC Fireside

TechGC chats with Damien Atkins, Chief Legal Officer & Secretary of Aura Group, Inc.

Damien Atkins
February 17, 2022

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

I am currently the General Counsel and Secretary of Aura (www.aura.com), a digital security company backed by a group of blue chip venture capital and private equity firms.   Our mission is to create a safer internet.

Before I joined Aura, I knew that I wanted to return to the technology sector. This is largely because it’s a strategic imperative for technology companies to be 100% focused on creating the future. This singular focus on innovation, creation and disruption has always resonated with me personally.  

I chose Aura specifically because I was looking for something that had four key attributes:  strong secular tailwinds, pre-IPO, senior leadership with a track record of value creation and an enterprise focused on a category that is ripe for disruption. Aura met each of these attributes.

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

The most unique aspect of the space as it intersects with legal is that it forces General Counsels to not only play the traditional role of leader, advisor, risk manager and service provider, but also play a hybrid role of lawyer and technologist. To be effective in this field, an effective general counsel must be very familiar and comfortable with the fundamentals of modern technology. What’s considered “table stakes” to be impactful has changed.  In the past, it was sufficient to be fluent in business law, accounting and valuation, etc. Now, it's especially critical to be fluent in the language of IT, AI and blockchain to be effective. As a result, I’ve been in “deep learning mode”  in modern IT, AI and blockchain. I expect law schools and bar associations will be requiring this expertise in the near future. Future lawyers, particularly GCs will need to be as familiar with software code as they are with legal code.

The core challenge the industry faces is that cybercrime and cyberthreats are typically viewed primarily as an enterprise matter, not as a consumer issue. Frankly, consumers, real people, are almost an afterthought. That challenge then creates the opportunity for Aura to provide intelligent internet safety for ordinary people.

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

My role is unique in that I must both be fully part of the business operationally and strategically, but also detached from the business. What I mean is that in certain situations, you are simply another business executive trying to solve business problems. For example, in one part of the day you are weighing in on whether not a particular go to market model makes sense or if a particular product feature would resonate. In another part of the day you are bringing a more detached perspective. For example, there are instances where a particular financial opportunity may be huge in the short or long-term, but it’s ultimately inconsistent with our purpose and values.

As for impact on business growth, legal’s role plays an outsized role in increasing execution and decision velocity and expanding the range of acceptable risk, among other things.

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

Personal and professional growth are critically important. I would never want to be the same person or the same professional I am today at this time next year. Stagnation is the ultimate enemy.

I try to reset my purpose once or twice a year and, after some reflection, course correct if necessary. Additionally, I pick one or two non-legal topics a year that I focus on intensely for at least 6 months. Last year it was marketing and brand building. This year my focus has been on modern IT systems and technology. I need to be able to understand precisely what the CTO, CISO and Chief Product Officer are talking about so I can better spot opportunities and risks.

I have worked in non-legal roles previously and enjoyed them. It helps you understand and think through issues from multiple dimensions and gives you an appreciation for the second and third order effects of business decisions. I can’t predict the future, but I do think I will continue to enjoy taking on big challenges, learning and having an impact.

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

There are a few things I would suggest. The first would be to focus on a way to offer differentiated value. Figure out what you can do more efficiently or better than others. Or figure out what you can do that compensates for a weakness of your supervisor.  The second would be for people to be intentional about creating and developing a wide range of relationships across legal, business, technology, banking, etc. Particularly early in a career it’s important to begin to develop a network. You do this by being as helpful to as many people as possible without expectation of any immediate return. Over time that network will grow exponentially in value and put you in the path of valuable opportunities. And you will be in a position to put others, including senior executives,  in the path of opportunities. I’ll take a B+ player with a valuable network over an A+ soloist any day. Lastly, I would suggest that people learn how to communicate effectively across all mediums, whether it's email, text, presentations or formal memoranda. High EQ and the ability to communicate effectively are more valuable than IQ over time."

Damien Atkins
I am a diplomat brat and originally from Oakland, CA, My family has lived in a lot of places around the world because my father was in the foreign service. I attended Stanford for undergrad and NYU School of Law for law school. I am a diehard Raider fan, sci-fi fanatic and hip hop junkie. I dislike cauliflower.