The Expert in the Room: It’s You

What does it mean to work at a tech company? If you’re sitting in the legal department at a tech company right now, you have one of the most coveted jobs in the country. And I can tell you right now why you got it: you’re an expert. Tech companies are so selective in their hiring these days, they aren’t going to waste their time and their investors’ money on hiring someone who isn’t an expert. So that’s awesome—they think you’re a genius, and they’re going to listen to every word you say, right?

No. Nope. No, they will not. As soon as you start, you’ll find yourself in rooms with a dozen experts on a dozen topics. All of these topics are integral to what they’re building and their technology, and just like that—your expert voice is put last in line  I used to work with a real-life rocket scientist, and you can imagine what that did to my confidence as I prepared to go into a meeting to tell him he was wrong. Many times, these rooms full of experts are also full of men. Sometimes, they’re male experts who just could not possibly comprehend that the lawyer has something helpful or valuable to contribute. So as these meetings start to fill your days, you’re going to spend a lot of time establishing and re-establishing your position as an expert. Below are three strategies I use to keep doing exactly that.

Share your knowledge.

Back when most of my day was supporting a sales team by drafting and approving commercial contracts, I kept getting these asks: “The client asked for us to give them a giant discount and a termination for convenience option and also we’ll give them a free haircut—can you help me write it up?” Putting my business hat on, I found myself always asking, “Why would we agree to things like this? What are we getting in exchange?”

I learned the sales team had been drilled so hard with the idea that “the customer is always right” that they had never learned true negotiation skills. So I wrote up training based on what I had learned in my negotiations class in law school. Initially, I offered it to our sales and account management teams. Soon some of the delivery team members wanted to learn—they’re sometimes negotiating with our vendors, after all. I ended up training the entire company on negotiation skills. This was beneficial for two reasons: first, it makes my job easier from a risk management standpoint, because we are suddenly getting better deals with more agreeable terms; and second, I was able to demonstrate that the legal department is not just about checkboxes and boilerplate and (my least favorite word) legalese.

I showed them that I learned things in law school that they don’t know. Once they let me teach them, we started to build a much more collaborative and trusting relationship. Soon they were coming to me and asking: “Remember when you talked about bundling options in the negotiation training? Can I give you the context of where I am with this client and we can brainstorm some options?” Now you’re adding value on the business side, too.

Use your network.

Even if you don’t feel like an expert (remember—you are), don’t forget about your network. Look around the room at any bar association event, or even take a quick peek at your LinkedIn connections. Those groups together form yet another “expert” you can look to for advice. If you get in touch with the right group of people, there isn’t a question you couldn’t get an answer to. So don’t feel alone, especially when tech companies are trying to do so much with just one lawyer.

And speaking of that, many tech company law departments are (we always say with pride…) “small but mighty.” If you’re a one-person legal team, you’re making use of vendors in many aspects of your practice. That will nearly always include outside counsel, but also the constantly growing and innovating legal technology community. Talk to your vendors the way you would a law school classmate. Ask them what other people are doing rather than starting from scratch. In one example, the sales representative for our contract management system gave me great advice on approval workflows when we were trying to put a new one in place. She’s an expert too, and she was able to say “other companies your size do this instead.” After that, we cut contract approval time down by over 50%.

A commonly overlooked part of the in-house network is the insurance broker. Don’t forget to make your broker your close partner in your practice. Your cyberliability broker should not only answer any question you have about your policy but also help you gather information to help build risk cases for your executives to consider. I have gone to my broker and asked: “My team wants to sign this contract for strict liability on data handling—please help me convince them not to!” She was able to pull statistics on the payouts done on the last few big data incidents to help put a dollar value on their risk assessment. Sometimes, she can even give you the holy grail – “If you sign that agreement, we won’t cover it.”

When the answer is no, say no.

Every in-house lawyer, in tech or not, is working against the perception that legal is the dreaded “Department of No.” Some legal departments fully embrace that. I’ve worked for general counsel who kept the entire department in a different building and behind a locked door, away from the entire company that you’re supposed to represent. But when you are working for a tech company, this is not an option. You’ll be constantly working against this perception, and will never gain their trust and their belief in your expertise if you set yourself up this way. Instead, set yourself up as an innovator. Help them hack the law. This is a mentality they are looking for in their engineering and developer hires, and it’s valuable in their legal counsel as well. This is what makes being in-house at a fast-moving tech company one of the best jobs I can imagine—exciting and different and difficult. My team is solving problems that the laws we’re working within haven’t even imagined.

Within that hacker framework, though, keep this in mind. Say no when the answer is no. Pick your battles wisely, and when it’s time, let them know that this is a battle you’re picking. No, you cannot skirt immigration laws by having people work out on an offshore boat for two months while they get visas. No, you cannot file a patent application for X instead of Y just because your CEO read an article about how Y patents get processed faster.

On the first few of these, you will encounter frustration. You’ll hear: “There’s gotta be a better way,” or “Your job is to help me find the loophole,” or “That’s why we don’t ask the lawyers.” Recommit to yourself and to your executives what your job is: to be a business partner by protecting your company while enabling its goals. And when they overrule you—which they sometimes will—to take the course you advised so strongly against, your job is not done. At that point, it’s time to once again show your expertise by building the best defensible case that you can for your organization that feels they need to take this certain action.

About the Author


Stephanie Solera is senior counsel at Numerator, a data and tech company serving the market research space.

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