As corporate law stretches and changes under the weight of new business structures, so too has the role of the General Counsel. Tasked with overseeing the legal footprint of their companies, General Counsels are playing a decisive role in the way companies grow and change within their industries. We’re sitting down with General Counsels around the country to learn more about their roles, how they balance their in-house resources with outside counsel, and what’s coming in legal in 2016.
A Little Background about Katie
Katie Biber joined Thumbtack as general counsel in August 2015. Founded in 2009 and backed by Sequoia and Google Capital (among others), Thumbtack is an online service that connects consumers with skilled professionals to get things done across more than 1,000 categories. As the company’s first lawyer, Katie has developed some interesting hacks for making sure she’s part of every legal conversation at Thumbtack.
Like many lawyers, you started your career at a law firm. What brought you in-house?
It’s quite cliche, but spending time at a good law firm is an important foundation to your career. At a law firm, I learned how to gather information, write persuasively, and provide detail-oriented research that was precisely accurate. What I did not learn until years later was how to take all of those data points, synthesize them, and be comfortable making a decision. I left the law firm in part to seek out the growth that would come with making hard decisions.
I was also looking for the opportunity to be part of a smart team of non-lawyers. I do love working with excellent lawyers (and thankfully get the opportunity to do so with outside counsel), but I also enjoy thinking through problems with people who have very different skillsets and experiences. At Thumbtack, I work with a lot of incredibly smart people who have backgrounds very different than my own, and I am forced to think in new and different ways about the advice I’m giving.
I imagine it hasn’t all been smooth sailing during your time as GC. What lessons have you learned during your time as a General Counsel that you would share with someone who is starting out in your position?
I have learned you must relentlessly prioritize your time and focus on important strategic issues that will actually impact the company's growth. Recognizing the difference between important and not important is a key skill, as opposed to just starting at the top of your inbox and working your way down.
I’ve learned not to be paralyzed from fear of making a mistake. No lawyer is perfect, and our worth comes from being calm in a crisis and addressing problems with aplomb. Once you get comfortable with this basic truth, it becomes much easier to weigh issues and come to the best answer.
What ways do you automate your legal department to try and make things as streamlined as possible? What are the systems or process hacks you use that you can share?
People at Thumbtack are brilliant, and they do not like to waste time.
With that in mind, I try to make it as easy as possible for everyone to seek legal advice. I am always available for drop-bys, I will answer questions in many different communication channels, and I stick to the tools people at the company already like best. For example, I’ve avoided using any of the expensive contract management databases, and I collect and store everything through Google Forms and Google Drive. It’s easier for people to use and better integrates with the way the company already works than any product on the market. I also have Slack notifications set so when people use certain keywords, I get a notification and I can immediately jump into that channel and join the conversation without people having to seek me out. Finally, I have a lot of self-serve forms and templates people can use. I trust them not to abuse the process, and it makes their lives a lot easier to pull standardized things quickly.
What is your strategy for managing your relationships with outside counsel and making sure you get the best bang for your buck?
It is important to set the cadence correctly from the very beginning. Initially, that means actually reading the engagement letter and having a conversation about the things that concern you. It means not being afraid to address things you do not want to see in the bills.
Next, I try to be clear about how I like to work with outside counsel. For example, I generally do not want to see partial interim drafts. If I receive one, I become concerned about how efficiently my money is being spent. I do not like to see typos in formal memos or polished documents, as it makes me question the substance of the document. I also like to talk through some issues on the phone, so having outside counsel available to call me back quickly is helpful.
I also set expectations that I need counsel to provide practical advice. When I'm paying a big law firm, it is not because the lawyers are better researchers or statute readers than I am. I am actually a pretty good reader and researcher. What I am paying for isexperience, so I expect to receive advice that is steeped in experience and pragmatism.
I work with some fantastic lawyers who understand all of these things intuitively -- Anna Hsia at Zwillgen, Rachel Paris at DLA Piper, Jonathan Blavin at Munger, and Michele Floyd at Sacks Ricketts Case are my most trusted outside counsel.
High growth startups are changing the way businesses run and grow. What impact do you think that will have on the legal industry?
The most obvious is more flexible billing arrangements such as flat or capped fees, reduced hourly rates, or locked in rates without annual increases. If law firms want to work with high-growth startups, these are some of the concessions they have to make. I am very discerning about every dollar we spend, and with so many terrific non-traditional options for outside counsel, it does not make sense for a company to just pay the advertised rates for partner or associate time.
If I am any indicator, startups will also demand that law firms actually take the time to understand their businesses. If you are pitching my company and you are not a customer of our product or service, you have already lost me. Likewise, it just shows a basic lack of attention to detail to butcher the terminology that is publicly available about a company, so I expect good law firms will be careful to do their homework.
The last is data security. Most law firms do not have the internal expertise to protect sensitive client data, and because this is something tech companies think about a lot, I expect law firms working with tech clients will have to start thinking seriously about it as well.