A veteran general counsel who’s moved into private equity investment says he led his in-house teams over the years as a service business, an approach whose goal is to position attorneys as problem solvers for the organization.
“Ultimately you have your own client base, your own internal marketing program to educate people on your services,” Ari Buchler, operating partner of ZMC, said in a webcast with LinkSquares Chief Legal Officer Tim Parilla.
Buchler spent three years after law school at one of the largest law firms in the United States, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, mostly advising on mergers and other types of deals, before moving in-house to a traditional business-to-business magazine publisher at a time when the industry was transitioning away from print to the Internet.
“I remember drafting a linking agreement,” he said. “Today you just throw a link in somebody’s web page.”
The move enabled him to gain experience in contracts, the bread and butter of in-house work, and intellectual property, before taking his first general counsel role at Phase Forward, a startup that helped pioneer web-based filing systems.
“At my first management meeting, I found out we had two weeks of cash,” he said. “That was a great dinner conversation at home that night.”
Over 11 years there, he helped the company grow from 90 people to a Nasdaq-listed public company that was acquired by Oracle in 2010.
“Being in that general counsel role and having visibility into the entire trajectory of the company was a unique experience,” he said.
Significantly, the leadership team at the company didn’t bring a traditional view of the GC role, Buchler said.
“They had no desire to just have legal deal with contracts,” he said. “They had an expectation and a desire for the GC to help the company with governance and take the company down that roadmap to an eventual IPO.”
After the Oracle acquisition, Buchler moved to another startup and then to GC roles in private-equity backed portfolio companies until moving fully into the investment side of the business, effectively taking him back to the kind of deal making he was doing at the beginning of his career.
“I have a short attention span … so I gravitated to deal work,” he said.
The key for in-house attorneys who want to grow into executive roles is to get experience in as broad a range of areas as you can, because it’s critical to gain perspective on an organization as a business and not just view it through a legal lens.
“Your role continues to be to help manage the company’s risk, but we’re living in a world where it’s not about risk elimination but risk management and risk mitigation,” he said. “You’re weighing that risk against the benefits to the company, so there are concessions you’ll make for a seven-figure deal you’re not going to make for a five-figure deal. That’s where you really need to think you don’t treat every deal the same way and take more of a business-oriented view, because we’re all trying to close business.”
Buchler benefited from having leadership colleagues over the years who expanded his portfolio beyond the legal team to include other functions, including sales at one point and, at another, taking over as head of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) licensing affiliate.
“Having a P&L is not something lawyers normally have in a company, and it just brings a whole new perspective,” he said. “Where do you spend your capital?”
Buchler said he felt more prepared for heading up the OEM operation than he might otherwise have because of his years trying to run his legal team as a business entity within a business.
“It wasn’t much of a change in orientation,” he said. “I tried to be very customer-oriented, working with a sales team, a product management team.”
As part of that service orientation, he tried to make the in-house department the go-to resource for the organization to get any type of question answered, even if it wasn’t a legal issue.
“Even if you don’t have the answer, you can help try to get to the answer,” he said. “We’ll be creative. If I can’t give the answer that somebody wants, they can walk away knowing we really made a good-faith effort, exhausted the options. More often than not, we can get to the answer.”
Seeing the legal operation in that way, it was important he give attorneys a chance to expand their areas of expertise rather than spend their days just doing one kind of legal work, like contracts.
“My advice is, always be curious,” Buchler said. “Look for ways to constantly grow yourself and the interesting jobs will come your way.”