Started as a music journalist and transitioned into the VP of Legal at Buoy Health, Cory Lamz tells us about how he, being solution-oriented, has always wanted to help people, specifically, by using creative economies, data and digital technologies.
His role at Buoy has evolved extensively; from focusing on contracts initially to providing a holistic and comprehensive view of business and he shares with us the skills and experiences that he has picked up along the way.
In the 11th episode of #LegalMatters, he speaks to us about staying true to one’s own methods, about how to build relationships with a problem solving mindset and advises in-house legal teams to take an extra step in translating legal analysis for stakeholders.
You have had a very interesting career so far. From writing at Westword and Vanyaland to becoming the VP of Legal at Buoy Health, do you mind sharing a quick highlight reel of your career so far?
I started as a music journalist and I loved being able to connect with people who are passionate about what they did in the music space. Eventually I realized that I wanted to help people in a different way, because I'm a very solution-oriented type of person.
So I transitioned out of music journalism, and decided to go to a graduate school in Boston, specifically focused on creative economies, data, and technology. I did that in conjunction with a law degree.
Initially I thought that I wanted to work for Jay Z as his right-hand lawyer. But, along the way, I realized that there were so many other opportunities to take what I had learned about, especially creative economies, and the digital data space with respect to music, TV and consumption, and apply that elsewhere. At that point in time, other industries were taking those same concepts around disruption and data, and applying new and innovative ways to solve problems.
I worked at a weather data company for a little while. Eventually, I found myself at Buoy Health (“Buoy”) where we use health data to help people and navigate through the healthcare system. The through line in my career has always been about helping people, but more specifically, in using data and digital technologies to do that.
Could you chat a bit more about why you decided to make the change to move into legal? How did you weigh the pros and cons?
I think there were two things that I was thinking about. The first was my parents' voice in the back of my mind, “he would make a great lawyer.” They had been saying it to me since childhood, but I never listened to it until one day. As the first in my family to go to law school, there were many unknowns about the process and what it meant to be a lawyer. But the idea of learning about this new, foreign world of practicing law became very appealing to me.
The second thing was how can I use my passion to help people? I’m solution-oriented and I like to learn, figure things out. So the idea of taking complex ideas, and then simplifying them to help people also pointed me to law school. I am so lucky and grateful that I had the privileges and resources to be able to go to law school. The experience changed my life.
Curious to know, were there any kind of skills that you picked up working as a staff writer that is now helping you today?
There were two skills; the first is to seek out opportunities. As a lawyer, it can mean different things. But, the biggest way that I interpret that is seeking out new opportunities to deliver value to your stakeholders; finding answers to questions like, how can I make their lives easier? How can my team demystify the law, in a way that enables our stakeholders to do what they need to do without thinking about the legal stuff as this jumbled black box?
“One of the virtues of working as a journalist is you either find opportunities and stories yourself, or have them assigned to you. Having that opportunity mindset is really valuable, not only as a journalist, but also as a lawyer too, because you never know where life could take you, and then to be able to learn and grow through that process is the second skill. “
So let's zoom into Buoy now where you've been for around three and a half years at this point. Could you talk a bit more about what exactly you were hired to do? What were the things that were on your plate at that point, and how has it evolved since then?
I was hired to focus on contracts initially. Prior to me, Buoy didn’t have an in-house legal team and leveraged outside counsel and firms, which we even do for certain matters today. Law firms can add a lot of value, especially on a very specific matter or project. On the other hand, in-house legal teams can provide a much more holistic, comprehensive view of the business. Neither approach is better than the other, just different. And many businesses need both!
As Buoy continued to grow, we realized that there were more opportunities to bring that legal function in house to better serve the business. It meant identifying the future challenges for the company and having the foresight to get in front of those, or working with teams to advise and empower them, or educate them on the law. Ultimately, starting as a contract writer evolved into a much larger breadth of responsibilities.
I've loved the journey. It's been wonderful to see the legal function grow into a trusted team that delivers measurable value to the business.
What are the things that Buoy leverages outside counsel for?
Largely, this decision comes back to the question, “do we have the internal knowledge and expertise? Or how soon can we acquire it?” versus “does it make more sense for this project, or this thread of work to be outsourced?”
There are certain constraints, such as time and money, to keep in mind, too.
I prefer to tackle matters in-house, but there can be gaps that may come up as the business evolves. It’s not feasible to be experts in every law, but our in-house legal team is an expert when it comes to best knowing the business.
So you mostly function as a generalist?
Yes. In addition to providing legal support across many different workstreams, I provide a comprehensive view of the business that can help connect the dots and reduce friction.
I always like to tell new team members that if they get stuck on a project, the legal team can, at the very least, point them to the right person in the organization. We are so cross-functional.
Businesses come to lawyers with the perspective of finding a solution to their problems. So, how important is it for you to have a seat at the upper-management table or decision-making process?
The way that we have built the legal culture at Buoy is one where we don’t let our challenges become problems. We keep the pathway clear for better communication and that’s how our stakeholders know exactly when to bring us in.
When it comes to decision making, at the end of the day, only a handful of decisions fall to me. Regardless, having legal involvement in certain conversations, particularly about strategy or a new product launch, can only help anticipate concerns and resolve them sooner. Outside of those, my team and I provide information about the law or advice on certain risks. We help empower stakeholders to make the best decision possible.
Now let’s fast forward to the next 24 months - what’s next for Buoy? How does this business ambition translate to the legal team? How do you see the legal team at Buoy evolving?
Buoy is on a wonderful trajectory to continue its ultimate mission to help make healthcare more accessible to everyone and by being the best way to get better. There are many different touch points in the healthcare journey where Buoy hopes to help alleviate some of those pain points for people.
First and foremost, our bread and butter is based on the idea of self-empowerment — providing our users with the information they need to self-educate through different materials and resources that we have on our website, thereby helping them navigate through the rest of the healthcare system.
Next, for Buoy is that we’ll be increasing the sophistication of the ways in which we help people. More sophisticated products that are even easier to use than they are today.
Due to COVID, things like telehealth have exploded in the United States and certain laws and regulations have gone into effect or will be coming online soon which might have a peripheral effect on Buoy as well. So building products that are consistent and compliant with those obligations will be an exciting opportunity for us while still empowering the user as our North Star. I want to make sure that the legal team can keep pace with this and scale our support upwards.
Part of that scaling includes figuring out how to use existing legal resources, like SpotDraft, to scale our support of the business without having to add more headcount or continuing to refine process so that we can respond to the business with the service level objectives that we've already established, even as the magnitude of the work or the amount of work grows. Buoy also switched to being remote-first during the pandemic, so any processes or resources or work must also support remote work. This is all top of mind for me right now.
Let’s talk about Buoy some more. We know that healthcare is a highly regulated sector. What do you think are some of the unique challenges that you face and that other legal leaders do not?
It's so important to understand what the law is and what it isn’t, and who it applies and doesn't apply to. Buoy sits in two playgrounds, healthcare and SaaS. There are certain laws, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), that apply to Buoy, because they relate to the collection, processing, and protection of health data. But because Buoy doesn’t deliver healthcare, in some contexts HIPAA doesn’t apply. HIPAA is a great example of how sometimes existing law applies to Buoy sometimes, but sometimes not. In other cases, laws may apply to Buoy but indirectly through other channels. So the biggest challenge is to understand this nuance, and identify and understand these gray areas.
Understanding the risk tolerance from a business perspective is also important, especially when it comes to effectively trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. In some ways, the law hasn’t caught up with technology yet, so it’s important that Buoy stays on top of these changes. In some cases, we are also involved in the conversations around these changes, especially related to artificial intelligence.
We’re also in a very unique position within the marketplace, as a mixture of both SaaS and healthcare. As the demand for digital healthcare continues to grow, we’re seeing more and more innovative health tech companies that will fill up these gray spaces.
We read that case study on developing Federal AI standards. We know you wrote that keeping Buoy Health’s use case in mind. Curious to know, have you thought about what role AI would play in transforming an in-house counsel’s day-to-day work?
“AI can be a tool in your toolbox that can help support decision making, but it shouldn't make the decisions. “
I'm always going to be in the early adopter camp when it comes to technology. But that being said, it's always important to know the limits, for example the biases of the system along with the folks who trained it.
However, you can use human intervention to mitigate or lessen some of those concerns. When using AI for legal work, there always needs to be some degree of double check, because it’s possible that one word could change the legal analysis entirely; and if the AI were to pivot because of that one word, the output could go down an entirely different rabbit hole.
Buoy uses AI to help its users inform their own decisions, but they're still in the driver's seat.
Ultimately, I think there's a lot of power in AI in helping us do what we need to do, be that healthcare or be that legal work, be that Spotify with suggested songs or Netflix with recommendations. Whatever the goal is, I think AI has a lot of opportunities to help, but I don't think AI should replace the human element.
Now, let’s talk about some of your principles and learnings. If you could go back in time, when you just graduated from law school, what kind of advice would you give yourself?
“It would be not to lose sight of who you are, because that's what makes you special. Law schools, businesses and the market may tell you how success can be achieved but they don’t tell you about what makes you special.“
In law school, I struggled with my studies and my preparation because of imposter syndrome. I was surrounded by people who were smart and passionate about studying. My ways of learning were different than theirs. But when I figured that I needed to focus on myself rather than others, that’s when I ultimately became successful.
I failed the bar exam the first time I took it. I realized through that experience that I wasn’t staying true to my methods and myself, instead I was trying to follow a certain path that was suggested by the prep course I took. So the second time around, I did very well and passed. Besides returning to the study habits that had worked for me in the past, I also had to remind myself that I had come this far in my journey because of who I was, not because of what other people told me to be. I think it can be very easy to get caught up in the glamor and prestige of being a lawyer - suits and ties, talking in a certain way, and speaking latin. But at the end of the day, all of those things don’t matter if you can’t help your clients. After all, we’re all here to help each other and use our unique talents to do so.
According to you, what are the top key skills that a new age lawyer should have now?
“I think that lawyering is an art, not a science. You can learn the science aspect, i.e., theory and the case law, from law school, but you get the art purely through experience. I would also recommend that folks learn how to use legal technology to make your legal practice better and your life easier.”
The second thing is to understand your clients and the problem they need to solve. Put things into context for them. My third piece of advice is to take the extra step of translating the law and your legal analysis into what this all means for your client. If they cannot understand the advice you have given them to take action or make a decision, then you’ve failed them.
The same is true for contracts. If two parties are coming together to agree on terms at a very high level, the contract could be invalidated if the parties are not speaking the same language, literally and figuratively.
When I translate the law or legal analysis for my stakeholders, I often use bullet points. At the end of the day, if you can say the same thing in one sentence versus ten, why take up the space? For bigger, more complicated concepts, I try to use visuals or real-life examples where possible.
Now, as a legal leader, what would be the key learnings you would like to share with other leaders at other companies?
The first thing is to be a problem solver, not a problem creator. There are a lot of obligations that flow from legal analysis. If you're on a product or an engineering team, or business leader within an organization, you build the rapport with that individual or that team in a way where you can be seen as a trusted advisor or a trusted resource. In turn, they can then help you by raising issues and coming to you with questions.
“Building that relationship through a problem solving mindset, as opposed to a problem creating one is very important. “
The other thing is to understand what processes or technology your stakeholders or your clients use. Meet them where they are. Because if you can integrate into those types of platforms, or tech or processes, there is less likelihood of things getting lost in translation. Everyone will be better off.
My suggestion, especially for those who work in the tech space, would be to consider adopting an agile or scrum-style project management workflow, because then the processes are streamlined and iterative, the communication is easier and the collaboration can be more effective. Whatever way the company collaborates, the legal team should strive to collaborate in a similar way.