Thinking of jumping aboard as the first, the one, the only general counsel or chief legal officer with a growing company? Well, get “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
That’s advice from Melissa Reiter, a seasoned in-house lawyer who recently became the director of legal at Jobber, a Canadian-based technology company that provides business management software for small home service businesses. She says even if you’ve been in-house at another company, it’s important to be open, talk to people, and realize that you are not going to know everything from the outset,
“Embrace that discomfort,” she said. “The best advice I can give to someone is to really just try and listen and learn as much as you can.”
Reiter is one of a growing number of Canadian lawyers who are joining high-tech, high-growth companies as their first or only senior in-house lawyer. She left her role as director of legal at travel company G Adventures after seven years to join Edmonton-headquarted Jobber in January.
Miranda Lam also took the leap in January, moving directly from her role as a litigation partner with AmLaw 200 firm McCarthy Tétrault to chief legal officer and senior director of business development at Vancouver-based bio-tech company Acuitas Therapeutics. Acuitas is in a massive growth phase as it makes lipid nanoparticles, which are basically the bubblewrap that allows mRNA drugs like the Pfizer COVID vaccine to be delivered safely into the body.
Lam said she was pretty sure she would be at McCarthy “forever” but when the CEO of Acuitas, one of her clients, approached her about working with them, she decided to take the chance.
Despite never having worked in-house and not “knowing how to fill a test tube,” she realized she didn’t want to look back in a few years and wonder what might have been.
“Don’t be constrained by your specific skill set,” she said, noting that a lawyer’s fundamental training and value is to “find a solution to whatever the pressing issue is, and don’t worry that you may not have done it before.”
Lam, like others, was also drawn in by the chance to be an integral part of growing a business and its legal team, and not simply being part of a “brief chapter” in a client’s story.
“I have an opportunity to shape the future of the team and have an impact on how the company evolves and scales,” said Sarah Dale-Harris, who also in January became the first director of legal at Prophix, another growing Canadian tech company that creates financial planning and analysis software.
Dale-Harris, who had previously worked in-house at other tech companies and whose private practice had focused primarily on technology, said her career had led her to this point of readiness to take on the opportunity to build a legal team and help steer a company that’s doubled its workforce in two years with plans to grow exponentially over the next decade.
The biggest challenge of moving into a new role in a business that’s often had the chief financial officer or CEO dealing with most legal issues is to “integrate ourselves into the business in a way that helps reduce friction both between the legal and the business team,” said Dale-Harris.
Pinar Ozyetis, who’s only been in her role as the first GC at advertising technology company StackAdapt for a few weeks, said she wants “to just enable the business to get where it wants to be, and to build out a team that supports that.”
Being the first also means changing the preconceived notion of what legal counsel is there to do, said Marlo Kravetsky, the GC, chief risk officer, and chief privacy officer at Purpose Advisor Solutions, a tech platform and practice management solution for advisory companies and portfolio managers.
Noting that the wealth space is “a bit of the realm of cowboys,” she wanted to be seen as more than the “department of ‘no.’” A good counsel, she said, knows how to get to “yes,” even if it’s sometimes onerous.
“You want to show that you’re innovative, that you’re going to help them achieve whatever it is,” she said, “and you’re going to use law, regulation, compliance, and risk and help them leverage that to their advantage.”
Like Dale-Harris, Ozyetis, who was formerly the GC and vice president at LoyaltyOne, said she was looking to join a company that fit with her personal goals and career trajectory. In her case, she was specifically looking to join a high-growth, “fast-moving” company and that generally equates to the tech sector.
For her, that also meant being part of the executive team and knowing the company leaders wanted to build a legal department to “support the hyper-growth of the company.”
As a solo GC, Kravetsky said she loves the challenge but also the “incredible opportunity” she now has, helping build a business. She also gets a thrill out of the variety of work.
One hour she’s dealing with an employment matter, she said. Then she’s handling a contractual issue. And then she’s moving on to a conversation about enterprise risk appetite.
“And that’s just before lunch,” she said.