Helen Doukas

In the spotlight: Helen Doukas

LawVu provides collaboration and productivity tools built specifically for in-house legal teams. We chat with Helen Doukas, recently appointed General Counsel at LawVu, about her new role, the challenges of settling in, and the tension between being adaptable and holding boundaries.

What does leading and growing the legal function at LawVu involve and what does a standard day look like for you?

LawVu is a tech company headquartered in Tauranga that is quickly expanding globally. It’s in the relatively early stages of its corporate life, having completed a Series A investment extension earlier this year. As a legal function, we need to mirror and facilitate that broader trajectory and adapt our style and advice accordingly. For instance, during the tech start-up phase, a legal team’s value is in helping unlock the organisation’s potential in a way that manages its risk profile, including through processes that drive efficiency and support scale, taking an increasingly global approach to advice as the markets in which a product is offered proliferate, and offering advice which is robust but also coupled with a healthy dash of pragmatism.

When you're sole counsel or in a smaller legal team, a standard day holds a lot of variety including BAU contracts for clients and suppliers, dealing with general legal queries around marketing, privacy, IP, providing project based advice and so on. Particularly where an organisation is growing quickly, to get the most out of a legal team, it’s important (although not always easy) to put in place measures to scale legal services. These include: utilising self-service tools (such as an NDA that can be automatically generated by people in the business); ensuring templates are fit for purpose, up to date and commercial; implementing technology to track, prioritise and allocate work; creating central repositories with appropriate contract access controls across the business; and implementing processes which enable legal to focus on the legal aspects of repetitive tasks (as opposed to the administrative).

Legal clinics, another tool I’ve recently implemented, were a concept I was first introduced to by our General Counsel at Uber years ago. Legal clinics tend to be useful where legal resources are limited and there are a large number of people with quick legal queries, or who want visibility into the workings of legal. It’s an opportunity for anyone to come and ask a quick question of the legal team, or just say 'hello' thus fostering the ethos of commercial and accessible advice, and at the same time reducing email churn or formal lodging of tickets where the effort that takes may be out of proportion to the effort to respond to the request itself. Importantly, clinics offer an opportunity for people to have their issues or questions heard and acknowledged (such as 'my contract is taking too long' or 'my customer is frustrated') and the ability to put a face to legal and explain their perspective.

In all cases, the legal team will need to meet the business where it’s at, and its priorities and focus will need to be tailored to the particular challenges, stage, risk appetite and needs of the organisation it is supporting.

What are the biggest challenges when stepping into a new position and how do you intend to address these?

To me, a nice challenge of a new role is not knowing the people I am working with yet, and more specifically not knowing their way of working, expectations or communication preferences. Understanding these styles and preferences is key to partnering effectively and landing on those mutually beneficial outcomes. Personality tools that emphasise how we receive information are really useful, although what matters is not the precise tool that’s used but rather that the organisation speaks a common language when it comes to working styles. When you're working with someone and you each understand how the other receives information, you can each articulate your thoughts and present something in a manner that is likely to resonate. For instance, if a peer is detail oriented, you could provide more specific information and detail upfront. If they prefer verbal communication, you can set up a call instead of sending a long email. If they are very task driven, you might skip the chit chat at the beginning of a meeting. I’m lucky we’ve just gone through this profiling process at LawVu and are already speaking a common language, which has short circuited a more drawn out process of discovery if I were figuring it out alone.

Another challenge is that the legal function may at times be perceived within an organisation as slowing down certain outcomes. By definition, a legal process involves an extra step that stands between a business person and the outcome they are looking for (such as onboarding customers), although, as we know, agreeing the parameters of a deal (also known as terms and conditions) is a necessary part of any business interaction! I’m very conscious of the reality and perception of the legal team’s impact within an organisation. I find that a good way to help manage this is firstly, to set up the self service and scalable practices mentioned above. These drive efficiency and output. Secondly, it’s about embedding a culture of connectedness. Connectedness within the legal team itself to maintain unity and consistent messaging and service, and between the legal team and the business in recognition of the fact that everyone is on the same team, but coming at it from different perspectives and skillsets; it’s at the intersection of these that the magic happens.

Are there any expectations you had about this role that you have found differed from reality, in both a good and bad way?

Particularly as a junior lawyer, General Counsels always seemed to me to be very self-assured, very confident in their opinion, and comfortable pushing back on the business. Having now been in the role, I can confidently (!) say that I doubt myself sometimes and that I’m continuously calibrating the balance between robust technical legal advice and commercial pragmatism. I don’t always get it right. I see space for lots of different opinions and can accept that my initial perspective may not always be the right answer, or maybe it’s technically right but practically not workable, or maybe there isn’t a single correct answer. Regardless, I’m open to adapting. I will add, though, that I’ve found this is most effective when coupled with a healthy ability to hold certain boundaries as ultimately General Counsels are the custodians of an organisation’s risk profile. I imagine the tension between being adaptable and holding boundaries is something a lot of General Counsel feel in their day to day jobs!

What are some of the trends that you're seeing in the in-house legal profession and how do you see it evolving?

I'm seeing many of the same trends that other practitioners are seeing and speaking about, particularly around an increasing acceptance of the place for technology to help lawyers manage their work and connect with their clients.

Lawyers are trained to be reliant on their own resources and experiences to provide legal advice. Because we place such importance on qualifications and experience, I do think that traditionally there may have been a tendency for lawyers to believe that the best answer can only come from a human mind. The rapid development of technology, whether it’s to manage workflow, create reliable repositories, or even to use artificial intelligence for legal review, challenges that. It has forced us to question the old paradigm and explore new ways of working.  So then the question for us lawyers becomes a philosophical one; how comfortable are we handing over the reins to bits, the building blocks of the digital world? And the answer is; increasing more so.