Apollo.io is a leading data intelligence and sales engagement platform used by over 160,000 companies, from rapidly growing startups to some of the largest global enterprises. They recently made their first in-house legal hire, Megan Niedermeyer, as the Chief Legal Officer.
Megan started out her career in law as an Associate at White & Case LLP, followed by Cooley LLP where she was a Corporate Associate.
“I was lucky enough to land my first in-house gig at Gusto, where I quickly became the Head of Legal and Compliance through a period of hypergrowth. My next role at Fivetran was also similar. I was the first in-house and General Counsel. We had a team of over 30 by the time I left two years later.”
She’s now building the legal function at Apollo.io.
Megan’s first legal hire at Apollo.io was Brenda Yun Perez — who came in as a Sr. Legal Ops Manager. Brenda's professional journey began as a paralegal, starting with a 10-year stint at a law firm. Recognizing the need for a new challenge, she transitioned into the in-house legal realm at Zynga.
It was at GoPro where she got her first taste of operations management, which she combined with her legal experience at Coinbase. There, she took up the legal operations role and built out a team of legal ops professionals to enable business. Brenda now leads legal ops at Apollo.io.
We sat down with Megan and Brenda for our podcast, The Abstract, to discuss the limits and the possible limitlessness of the legal function, where to draw the line when it comes to cross-functional operations, and how to focus on creating business impact. Read on for highlights from our conversation.
The limitless potential of legal teams and how to draw limits
The legal function is one of the most versatile departments in an organization. It can expand and take on operational challenges within the business, providing strategic business advice since it sits at the intersection of multiple aspects of the business.
“Fast-growing companies have a ton of areas where they need value addition. Legal teams are often kind of a sneaky secret weapon, where you've got folks who are strategists, great communicators, and good operationally. They can plug in in a lot of areas. Both a risk and an opportunity is that legal teams could be doing everything. But at the end of the day, if we don't cut back, we are doing nothing effectively.”
That’s why Megan stresses on figuring out how to limit oneself while maintaining a little bit of the limitless mindset, which means that they “can and should be operationalizing across the entire business.”
“If Legal is plugging in to keep HR afloat or to keep a critical process running that really shouldn't be living in legal, that's something that we should talk through and ensure that any issues are being seen and identified by others. I see legal teams get pulled into a lot of People work, and that can be a good thing to help the company move forward but also bad if it holds the rest of leadership back from seeing where they need to invest more. So, be careful where we invest our limitless resources.”
Breaking away from ownership-based decisions and focusing on impact
One of the key takeaways from our conversation was shifting focus from accountability or ownership to business impact. According to Megan, finger-pointing can be counterproductive; instead, teams should focus on creating business value.
“At the end of the day, we want to see the right outcome for the business. There are a couple of ways to get there, and we should decide based on our business, our talent, our current resourcing, our current experience, which way we want to skin the cat. Assess these aspects carefully to figure out who's going to take the lead on a certain area of responsibility and who's going to follow. But those should be outcome-based decisions rather than ownership-based decisions.”
Both Megan and Brenda stress on the merits of working with individuals who think of themselves as “owners”. These are the people who take initiative in everything they're presented with, instead of looking the other way if it doesn’t fall under their domain.
“Legal should be pushing businesses forward, not just receiving tasks. So, if a legal team doesn't equally view themselves as part of the business, actively making business decisions along with the marketing, product, and finance teams, then the symbiotic relationship between legal and business is lost. And I question really the value of legal over the long term of a company unless I can propel it differently than it's operating today.”
The impact of having non-lawyers on legal teams
Megan emphasizes the importance of having a diverse legal team that includes individuals with non-legal backgrounds. Lawyers possess exceptional skills in identifying risks and devising solutions to mitigate them, while non-lawyers are key to bridging the gap between lawyers and the rest of the organization.
“It's really important to have a mindset that's different from that of attorneys. Attorneys are excellent in all the things that we were trained to do — being extremely detail oriented, communicative, great at verbal and written communication, super analytical, etc. But sometimes those skills don't translate to the rest of your company. So, I really view the role of non-attorneys as translators for what the legal team is doing, how that works with the business, and how each side needs to adjust accordingly to make it a really good symbiotic partnership.”
The growth and future of legal ops: Leading collaboration, tech implementation and beyond
With the growing recognition of legal ops as an essential function, its impact on business and its potential are becoming more apparent.
“There are so many open Legal Ops Manager roles. People are seeing legal ops as a priority in hiring — to help build the infrastructure, to help achieve efficiencies, to build a team, etc. Thinking of legal ops has become a priority.”
The role of legal ops within the legal function
As the legal industry embraces technological advancements, the integration of technology in legal ops continues to increase.
“The legal department is the last department of an enterprise business to be SaaS-ified. There's going to be new programs and software, and we're going to try to figure them out. But that software implementation part of legal ops is going to continue to increase and rise. I think it'll be interesting to see whether legal ops takes on some of the IT skill set or if it becomes a partnership with IT.”
Another trend Megan notes is that legal ops is increasingly becoming an essential player in enabling communication, branding of the legal team, and change management.
“I am a huge believer of communication within a company and branding the legal team is equally as important as educating the business. [Introducing new tools and processes] really only works if you've got the brand, the capital, the relationships, the knowledge, and the 1-on-1 settings to get people to buy into the change management issues you bring to the table. And I think legal ops will continue to lean into that comms and change management piece.”
Educating legal and business leaders on leveraging legal ops
There is a need for education among legal leaders to fully understand and leverage the capabilities of the legal ops function. As awareness about this function increases, we'll see them being hired into more critical roles, such as Director of Legal Ops and even Chief of Staff positions.
“Lawyers and GCs need to understand how to utilize legal ops, how to work with them, when to rely on them, and how to communicate with them. It’s understandable because we’ve spent our careers being lawyers and understanding the work that a lawyer did, and now we need to outgrow that work to better leverage legal ops.”
The phases of growth for a first legal hire
Megan has been the first legal hire in multiple organizations, where she proceeded to expand the legal function during hypergrowth within those companies. She outlined two phases of growth for a first legal hire at a company:
- Running a one-person show
- Building out a larger legal team to keep up with business growth
“During the initial stage, you find yourself immersed in every aspect of legal practice, whether it's handling NDAs, managing equity grants, negotiating partnership agreements, or collaborating with the product team. You become a full-stack, all-encompassing lawyer, omnipresent and involved in every corner of the organization.”
However, as the business scales and more processes are put in place, the first legal hire often gets the chance to shed those responsibilities and build out a team.
“You spend more time only thinking and communicating than doing. One of the interesting aspects about being a GC for fast-growing companies is that you have to be able to pull off a one-man or one-woman show. You play the individual contributor in some areas until you’ve hired them away and process-sized them away. You are a C-suite executive in other areas. And a mid-level manager in other areas.”
Prioritizing legal resources and your own time
There’s a natural desire to accept every request that comes one’s way, as saying 'yes' to every opportunity provides valuable learning experiences and fosters personal growth within the role.
However, Brenda stresses that there must be a conscious effort to move away from the ‘yes to all’ approach and instead consider how the legal function aligns with each request.
“As an in-house legal team member, if you agree to take care of tasks that come from cross-functional teams while supporting legal, you must first prioritize. You need to be strategic about what you're doing than just doing whatever work comes to your desk. If you're doing everything, then it just jeopardizes your work and your health.”
The right way to say ‘no’
The key to shifting from ‘yes, always’ to ‘no, but’ lies in prioritization and strategy.
“It's not always about saying ‘no,’ but reprioritizing and then maybe declining the request for now. You could also say things like, ‘Why don't you get on our roadmap for next quarter?’ or ‘Why don't you speak to this team because they can help you move a little bit closer to the finish line?’ Take time to discuss the request and figure out how else you can help.”
However, this approach also depends on the stage of your company and the size of the legal team.
“It's important to note that this mindset shift depends on factors such as company size and needs. In smaller teams like mine at Apollo, where it's just me and my supervisor, flexibility and adaptability remain crucial. But overall, the journey towards more strategic thinking takes time, and it's a valuable transition for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and delivering high-quality outcomes,”
On the topic of balancing work-life, Megan also agrees and emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries and making time for yourself.
“Life is a lot to manage. Figure out what your standard non-negotiable is. For me, after many years in a law firm, I do not work weekends unless there is an emergency. Emergencies pop up and I'm around and I'm jumping into action. But that should be the rare exception, not the norm.”
Preparing for surprises while investing legal resources
When budgeting legal resources, Megan stresses on the importance of leaving room for unforeseeable risks.
“If you're at a start-up, for every three projects you plan for Legal, two and a half come at you by surprise. No matter how well prepared you are, how big your legal team is, or how mature the company is, there will be things that you can't anticipate. Because on that risk matrix, there are 100 different risks, from employment to data privacy to contractual to bank system collapse. As a legal team, budgeting for the surprises as well as for the day-to-day is a really delicate balance.”
Transforming the legal function and legal executive roles
“The role of the GC or CLO has expanded, taking on strategy, finance, operations, and more. However, there’s room for educating CEOs and boards about what lawyers and legal teams are capable of. There may be business problems that your legal team is uniquely situated to solve, and that legal team shouldn't be limited to staying in their box. As we continue to educate more folks about how Legal can impact business, I think you’ll see those limits erode away and GCs and CLOs take on more different and difficult functions, whether or not their title reflects it.”
To hear more of Megan and Brenda’s insights on transcending boundaries as legal professionals and the limitless potential of the legal function, listen to the full conversation on The Abstract.