AdRoll, Stephanie King, General Counsel, January 2017
AdRoll is the largest independent retargeting and prospecting platform with over 25,000 clients worldwide. It specializes in performance marketing and analyzes data on over 1 billion digital profiles through its proprietary technology. The company is home to the world’s largest opt-in advertiser data co-op. AdRoll’s goal is to map the world’s intent data and put it to work for every advertiser on the planet. AdRoll is headquartered in San Francisco with offices in New York, Tokyo, London, Dublin and Sydney. It is backed by Foundation Capital, IVP, Accel Partners, Merus Capital, Peter Thiel and other leading investors.
Q: In your best relationships with outside counsel, what are the three most important things other lawyers could learn from them?
A: All in-house lawyers have their own internal clients and are dealing with limited resources (their own teams’ bandwidth, budget, time and the business’s attention) while fighting the impression we are blockers and not builders. Any outside counsel that makes our jobs easier with this context in mind adds huge value. For me, this comes down to pragmatism, being proactive and good communication.
Outside counsel who understand our business and can apply their expertise with a pragmatic mindset are indispensable. Our business lives in the legal grey in a lot of areas and is also changing quickly. Take the business into account when providing guidance, both which laws actually apply to our business and how to navigate compliance pragmatically in a business setting with limited resources. We are often reading the tea leaves and have to communicate our guidance to business folks internally who are facing pressures to innovate and generate a sustainable growth business model. Saying “this is the law and that’s it” won’t get you far in house; you have to be part of the solution. And outside counsel who make this easy are on speed dial.
Proactive outside counsel can also help in-house counsel focus resources and get ahead of issues, which is invaluable. For example, in ad tech, data security, data use and privacy are primary issues to our product and the law is constantly changing under our feet. We are a small team supporting an international business. Lots of resources exist like articles, blog posts and white papers, but we don’t have time to digest them all (or even a fraction of them). Our proactive lawyers help me find the signal through the noise and focus my limited resources and message appropriately to the business if these are changes we need to worry about, or not yet.
Communication is also critical—being concise and clear. We don’t want a memo (usually); I want to know what matters in the context of my business, what are the material issues to consider and what are my options because I have to communicate this in business speak to my internal clients. Translating legalese from long memos creates more work in-house counsel don’t have time to do. Please also engage with me. If you aren’t sure what I am asking for, please clarify before spending time researching. And if I am missing a material point, it is okay to call me out on it, too. I expect to be challenged. You are the expert on the law (I may be missing the point or I may see a nuance in the business, which changes my analysis). I have had some of the most interesting and mind-expanding conversations with outside counsel while debating practical application of grey areas of the law to our business.
Q: And, of course, the follow-up: What are three things outside counsel should never do?
A: Maintaining trust is key. Surprises with lack of expertise, non-responsiveness or large bills [are frustrating]. We have a saying around how we want our customer experience to be: Surprise and delight. Do not surprise and terrify. The same holds true here.
When I go to an expert, I expect that person to have the substantive knowledge to respond at some level without hours of research or tell me upfront, “It is really tricky” and ask how much effort I want them to put in given my risk tolerance for being “not totally right” on this issue. If what I need to know is out of their wheelhouse, let me know. I actually really value when someone tells me it is not their area of expertise and will get me in touch with someone who is. I will go back to that lawyer with future business.
Poor communication on expectations (level of expertise, effort involved, not owning up to a mistake) usually goes hand in hand with surprise bills, which rarely work out well for anyone (especially when I can’t explain the bill to my finance team).
Feeling ignored is also a huge challenge. I was outside counsel once and I know I am not the only client. But just let me know you got my email and can’t respond until x, y, z. Usually I can wait (and will) or I will find someone else if it is an urgent need. This helps me set expectations internally with my business clients. If I don’t hear back, I now likely have an issue with managing expectations internally as well.
Q: How has purchasing legal services changed?
A: I fall into the bucket of in-house counsel who like to go to experts, not one firm. I use a lot of different outside counsel. I also hire the lawyer, not the firm.
I do ask for estimates on a project and I give more guidance on whether we want every stone unturned versus the opposite of that. While my attorneys manage the outside counsel with whom they work directly, because we are a small department I still play a very active role in managing the work outside counsel does for us.
Q: With all the highly qualified lawyers out there, what factors really influence your hiring decisions?
A: I hire the lawyer and it’s about specialization, pragmatism, communication and value for money. I have a “stable of lawyers” approach rather than always staying with one firm (although we try to stay with firms with whom we already have a relationship if they have the expertise). I most heavily weight my decisions on referrals from other lawyers I respect. There is a women’s GC network in the Bay Area, and that’s one of the first places I go. My alumni group is also important.
Q: Competition is fierce among law firms; what have law firms done effectively to market to you that captured your attention?
A: We have found firms that publish in Lexology. Other great marketing efforts include the firm email “alerts” and MCLE online and in-person trainings. They raise brand awareness for the firm and specific lawyers. Lawyers who present and are pragmatic, knowledgeable and concise really stand out. That’s helpful for firms to establish someone as an expert. It’s not quite “try before you buy,” but it really is effective business development and it helps to know if you are going to connect with a lawyer.
Q: What law firm trends are you seeing that you would like to come to a screeching halt?
A: I haven’t had to deal with this as much as some of my peers, but please don’t bring firm politics to your relationship with me. For example, when a specific lawyer changes firms and I want to change with them, please don’t give me grief about moving with the lawyer. How does that help the relationship with the firm? Ask me questions about why I want to move, learn from it and improve your services, but don’t guilt me. You are trying to keep the one toy, but you are losing the toy shop! Guilting your clients when we are trying to make the best decision is a really short-term view of the long-term relationship.
Q: What is your greatest challenge as in-house counsel?
A: There isn’t enough time in the day! Prioritization and the ability to honestly assess risk in a fast-moving market [are my great challenges]. We have imperfect information from both the legal and business sides, and it can be hard (sometimes impossible) to find the signal through the noise. At the end of the day, we just have to make a decision and move forward because we have a business to run.
Q: Lawyers often are worried that seeking client feedback, ascertaining the client’s preferences or learning more about the business will be viewed by the client as an imposition. How would you respond to that concern?
A: I understand why this may be seen as challenging and yet so important. It’s how you ask the question. If it is framed genuinely in trying to provide better service, from my perspective, only good can come from engaging in this conversation. From my perspective, these conversations are fundamental to providing high-quality legal services. I welcome them and actually would wonder about a lawyer or firm who didn’t ask these questions.
One caveat is sometimes clients are just slammed, so you may not get a response. Find an opportune time to ask. Better yet, at the outset ask if there is a better way to get the information. For example, setting up a call with a third-party consultant may not be in the cards, but a chat on the phone or response to a brief email survey they can do at night or during their commute may get you better response rates.
Q: Any other advice you would like to give law firms?
A: Many of the skills needed to provide top-flight client services are not taught in law school. You have to learn them on the job. Counseling, in house and outside, is a relationship business. For firms, it’s important to understand that soft skills are as (and sometimes more) important than the substantive skills when it comes to distinguishing yourself from the crowd and building long-term mutually rewarding relationships with clients.
Most importantly, I highly value my firms. They are the experts, and I couldn’t do my job without them. I am a jack of all trades, and my value is being a connector—knowing what I don’t know and finding the right person who does. Many have also become some of my greatest friends and colleagues.