This article features highlights from episode four of our podcast, The Abstract. You can listen to the full conversation here.
Embarking on a legal journey that began with a deep-rooted concern for the environment during his junior high years, Akshay Verma's unwavering passion for making a positive impact became apparent early on.
“In college, I did a minor in environmental science, and in my junior year, I took an environmental law class. I decided to do something to help the environment by tackling issues related to CFCs, deforestation, and styrofoam recycling through the law. That set me on the path to becoming an environmental lawyer.”
Having dedicated nearly seven years to environmental law, Akshay took a bold leap into the tech industry, transitioning to the business side of the law at Axiom.
This pivotal move opened doors to new opportunities and experiences, including a stint in legal ops at Meta. It was this transformative phase that set the stage for his current role as a driving force behind legal operations at Coinbase, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the US by trading volume.
But Akshay's impact extends beyond his role at Coinbase. Recognizing the importance of guiding the next generation of legal professionals, he also takes on the role of an educator, offering invaluable insights to law students through his Critical Lawyering Skills class. By sharing his own experiences and wisdom, Akshay empowers young legal minds to chart a course that aligns with their purpose and values.
In this episode of The Abstract, we sit down with Akshay to unravel the intricacies of his career journey, from his early days in environmental law to his venture into the business side and leading legal ops teams.
In this post, we’ve listed some of the highlights of our conversation with Akshay.
Aligning values with career ambitions for professional success
When it comes to planning your career trajectory, there is a crucial element that is often overlooked — understanding your values and aligning them with your interests and skills.
Imagine having a roadmap that guides you towards a fulfilling and purpose-driven career, where every step you take resonates with who you are at your core. That’s exactly what Akshay advocates.
“Our profession is plagued with mental illness, stress, and even substance abuse. A way to mitigate those circumstances is knowing yourself, your values, what you care about, what's not going to mesh with you, understanding the business landscape, and figuring out a way to marry all these elements.”
Akshay explains how he has navigated his own career path with purpose.
“Looking back, I can see a pattern. Innovation, being on the cutting edge, taking risks — these are values I think I embody. And that's what has led me down my path in the last eleven years.”
In his classes, Akshay talks about things he wishes he learnt back in law school. He encourages his students to delve deep into their values and understand what truly matters to them.
“I ask my students to cut out 50 cards and write values on them. They do a scoring mechanism, pick out their top three or five, and we talk about them in the class. We then match the values to what the student is going to find in the organization they want to work with or the roles that they're looking for. Finally, we do a role-playing exercise around particular client situations or employee-employer situations where the values are not matching up.
We also do a why-why analysis on some statistics around mental health in the legal profession, and everybody has great answers. For me, it comes down to an unreasonable expectation-versus-reality situation.”
One of the reasons why Akshay is so passionate about this approach is because of the staggering statistics surrounding mental health and substance abuse in the legal profession. To bridge the gap between unreasonable expectations and reality, he emphasizes the power of education and firsthand experiences.
“I urge my students to meet people as much as they can and ask questions like, ‘What is it really like to work in Big Law?,’ ‘What is it like to work with the government?’
Combined with identifying values, this approach helps the students drive towards the right career path. Instead of the carpet bomb approach, they can have a more targeted way to find potential opportunities, asking themselves, ‘Does this organization share my values? Is there a genuine match here?’
It's not about settling for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but rather about building realistic expectations and finding alignment between personal values and professional pursuits.”
For Akshay, seeing his students apply these tactics and experience immediate benefits is the ultimate win.
The shift from billing hours to driving business strategy
Akshay's journey is a testament to the transformative power of exploring different avenues and embracing opportunities that resonate with your values and passion.
After practicing environmental law for nearly seven years, Akshay made a pivotal decision that would shape the trajectory of his career.
“I practiced environmental law for seven years. I was at Pillsbury for two of those years, doing regulatory work in the environment. I jumped over to a smaller firm in San Francisco, called Farella Braun & Martel, where I did environmental litigation and some regulatory work as well. In 2012, we were about to have our first child. So, I jumped ship in the summer to leave the law firm life entirely and go over to the business side of the law at Axiom. It was a pivotal moment in my career, which has now led to this incredible legal ops path that I'm currently really enjoying.”
The journey to becoming a legal leader and truly showcasing his business prowess began as a consultant at Axiom. The company embodied the values and culture that resonated with Akshay. It was the antithesis of everything he had grown disillusioned with during his time in traditional law firms.
“I didn't have the chance to let the ‘business side’ shine in the law firm world because I was busy drafting memos, researching, and going to court. I didn't really have an opportunity to go out there and build a business. Since I was a natural networker, I enjoyed doing it. So, I built a network which I was able to leverage much more completely in my Axiom life than I ever was as a lawyer. I got the best of both worlds. And I didn’t have to bill hours. The first month I was at Axiom, I remember this distinct feeling of, ‘Wait, I’m not doing time entry.’ But you get over that pretty quick.”
Embracing this new professional identity, Akshay felt a sense of liberation. He embraced the opportunity to think of himself as a businessperson, constantly seeking innovative solutions and strategies to drive success for both himself and his clients.
What companies and clients really look for in their lawyers
“There’s a survey which reveals what employers and clients value most out of their lawyers. They create a list of the top ten values, which I put up in my class. It’s an eye-opening moment for most students, just as it was for me when I first read the report.
Seven of the ten have nothing to do with the practice of law. And near the top is relationship building, along with things like being invested in the values of your employer or your client, responsiveness. work ethic, and intentionality around those kinds of things. They don't teach any of that in law school.”
It’s intriguing to see relationship-building among the top qualities businesses value in their lawyers. These are the skills that are rarely taught in law school, yet have a significant impact on your career in law.
“The three that are not in the “life skills” category are more hardcore skills that you do learn in law school. These are oral advocacy, communication, and research skills. But that's only three of the top ten. You'll learn them in law school. But the other seven are the life skills that you already have. And those are the most important career skills in this profession.”
Akshay urges listeners to listen to the voices of clients and employers who have identified the skills that truly matter for success in the field. And the one that takes the lead is relationship-building.
“When you need people to have your back, when you're in the muck and things have gone south, you need to draw upon your relationships with people. Hearing things like, ‘Hey, we're going to get through this. I need you to trust me,’ is critical because they help you get through sticky situations. Anybody can get through the bull market; it's the bear market to get through which you need to have your relationships solidified.”
For someone practicing law or starting a career in law, embracing these principles can build a strong foundation for success, both professionally and personally.
Building high-performing, world-class legal ops teams
The evolution of legal ops has brought about a shift in the dynamics of the legal profession. Akshay's journey at Axiom reflects this transformation, as he witnessed the rise of heads of legal ops becoming his primary contacts and clients.
“In the second half of my Axiom tenure, my main points of contact and clients were evolving into heads of legal ops. In my seven-year time frame at Axiom, I had seen this shift into a specific role, generally with a specified remit, functioning within the legal department, usually with a team supporting it. And I remember talking to a client who was a head of legal ops and asking her a lot of questions. She was really enjoying being on the operational side .”
Coincidentally, in 2018, Akshay felt a sense of restlessness after his long tenure at Axiom. When Cambridge Analytica broke onto the scene, he became deeply entrenched with the legal ops team at Facebook, which was one of his clients back then.
“Facebook had a massive legal department. Even when I got there in 2018, it was about 800 people. By the time I left, it was 2000 people.”
The exposure to such a vast and dynamic environment equipped Akshay with invaluable knowledge about legal operations, which he carried into his next adventure.
“I started to think about whether I wanted to be at such a huge place. Remain there and innovate or try to implement the things that we've done here on the ground floor, and see if the building blocks can be truly operational as the department scales?”
It was this desire for creating meaningful impact that drew him to Coinbase, despite having limited knowledge of the crypto industry at the time.
Akshay's approach to strategic planning in legal operations
The journey to join Coinbase was no small feat. Akshay underwent an extensive interview process with individuals from both within and outside the legal function. This included a presentation that eventually turned into the roadmap for the legal ops team when Akshay joined Coinbase.
“My interview culminated in a 20-minute presentation in front of a small panel at Coinbase. The main question posed to me was, ‘What differentiates a world-class legal operations team from a run-of-the-mill legal operations team?’ The question forced me to think about it from the perspective of what's worked well and what I could improve. I thought about my experience at Meta and how I could take it to Coinbase. And as I was putting the slides for my presentation together, it ended up transitioning nicely into the roadmap when I joined.”
Instead of simply adopting new technologies or haphazardly pursuing initiatives, Akshay places importance on asking critical questions.
“I'm a big believer in planning and forethought before you jump in, particularly in operations. Instead of investing in technology or new processes, just pause for a minute and think, ‘Why are we doing this? What's the plan? What happens when things go south? How do we mitigate this?’ I think all those things are important.”
Akshay's experience has shown him firsthand the rapid transformations in the legal landscape in just a short span of time. Looking ahead, he envisions an even more profound impact with the advent of various categories of AI.
“I cannot even begin to think how much all the different categories of AI are going to change how legal work is delivered internally and by law firms as well as by ALSPs over the next couple of years. Understanding that is a key role that legal operations will play.”
Empowering legal by entrenching legal ops with the business
However, for Akshay, the future of legal ops is not solely confined to technological advancements. He firmly believes in the importance of getting closer to the business itself.
“A big focus should be on how the legal ops function can intentionally get closer to the business. We are a business function for all intents and purposes. We've done a great job serving our stakeholders in legal, but that's one step removed from the information that we need to serve them better. Understanding business roadmaps, priorities, and pain points is going to become a much higher priority so that we can advise our legal counterparts or our legal stakeholders better. That's the next evolution in this particular profession.”
Prioritizing employee experience when hiring top legal talent
The priorities for law students and early-career professionals have undergone a remarkable transformation, as Akshay has witnessed over his years teaching them.
“Surveys and data reveal that, nowadays, people care a lot more about mental wellness and balance in their lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work-life balance; it can be a balance between anything that matters to them. Those kinds of priorities have taken over. Things like compensation, choice, and autonomy matter a lot more.”
The COVID-19 pandemic played a pivotal role in accelerating this transformation.
“The pandemic has been a really good thing for professionals in whichever sphere they tend to work in, but particularly the legal profession, in terms of the choice over what they do, how they do it, and when they do it.”
For employers, this paradigm shift calls for a re-evaluation of their approach to attracting and retaining top talent — offering a remarkable employee experience.
“Whether you're hiring fresh grads or not, you need to create an outstanding employee experience to be competitive. And that has to do with more than just compensation and stock option packages. I used to hear a lot about success and money when I was a law student. But now, it's family, time, autonomy, and happiness that matter. I think that's a great thing for human beings.”
To listen to more of Akshay’s insights on charting a career path in law, check out the full conversation on The Abstract.