Automating the big fat middle: legal at MessageBird

Damian Bethke, 14 July 2021

When your company’s scaling as fast as MessageBird, how do you handle priorities, people, and processes to make legal more efficient? We decided to ask MessageBird's general counsel, Damian Bethke.

Hi 👋 who are you?

I’m Damian Bethke, I’m the general counsel at MessageBird.

You've been at MessageBird for three years - how has the legal team scaled in that time?

When I joined, we were around five lawyers. And now we’re at 11. I also used to manage information security and IP; as we continued to scale, it’s now managed by our CEO. The extended team takes us to about 20, serving a business of 700. 

How do you support a business that’s constantly scaling while legal headcount remains unchanged? 

A GC is typically exposed to some of the biggest operational pain points in the business and has a unique view on solving those challenges. Legal automation is definitely never a goal in itself but it can substantially help each GC to solve those challenges. 

For example, it’s a GC’s responsibility to develop a highly effective go-to-market strategy, and the contracting process with customers builds an essential domain of this. If you’re signing dozens of contracts a week, it’s helpful to automate your contracting process as it can end a repetitive process that often becomes a bottleneck to the business. This is an obvious example where the power of automation helps us to create a bigger impact in the business without hiring additional headcount. 

For me, there was no question that we needed to automate in order to handle the legal work. I could’ve probably employed an army of paralegals to do the contract work, but that’s not how we want to build the company or make an impact in the industry. 

It was important that I look at the needs of the company in a forward-looking, cost-effective way. And forward looking means you disrupt, you rethink, you transform, and you try to find a better alternative to doing things in a company where there is a culture of agility and maximum accountability.

"Scaling the team and automation should be happening in tandem, and you as a GC need to establish exactly how you plan to make legal more efficient"

How do you know whether to automate or to hire?

There’s no connection between a lack of budget for headcount and the need to automate. Scaling the team and automation should be happening in tandem, and you as a GC need to establish exactly how you plan to make legal more efficient. Having said that, for me the headcount KPI, although important, isn’t priority number one - like most legal teams I need to find a way to “do more with less”.

In practical terms, you want to try to increase the number of contracts the company processes in the stages where you do not increase legal headcount. You want to assign your lawyers towards negotiating the tough, big dollar contracts - by creating the right balance between headcount and automation, you are creating fantastic value for the company. 

What's the biggest challenge when it comes to addressing the needs of the business?

Automating the big fat middle. For example, looking at contract automation as a pyramid, it’s clear that you can’t automate every single contract. You can’t automate the heavily-negotiated, multi-million dollar deals that sit at the top, because the larger corporations won’t agree to your terms. 

So instead, you focus on automating the smaller deals in the middle. In order to do so, you need to have a fantastic tool, a good alignment on the process, and on pricing, with effective guardrails in place - so that when an agreement lands on my desk, the quota of human error should be as low as possible. 

You want to decrease the likelihood of mistakes, and that’s only possible when you hone in on the task, and find ways to perfect it. But is it the key task that moves the needle for the business? Maybe not - maybe instead, GCs should focus all their time and attention on the top-of-the-pyramid, multi-million dollar deals, the ones that really leave an impact on commercial revenue. 

The best way to deal with the challenges in a lean legal team comes from the top down - the GC needs to know what to focus on - and make sure that the priorities are crystal clear within the legal team. It’s not easy, but achieving this makes a huge difference to your efficiency.

"We need to forget we are lawyers, and predominantly think as business people who happen to be lawyers. I can’t stress how important that is ... understanding the 'why' behind what we do can help calm the chaos around us"

What advice would you give to GCs looking to grow their teams?

There’s always going to be a mountain of work you need to overcome, and that workload is always going to get interrupted by massive, unexpected challenges. The only way to contribute value in such an enormously fast-paced environment is by looking at our roles in a different way.

We need to forget we are lawyers, and predominantly think as business people who happen to be lawyers. I can’t stress how important that is: when reflecting on their own work, lawyers may find that they don’t fully understand the commercial objectives, and that they can’t answer the ‘why’ behind the work they do. Understanding this fully can help calm the chaos around us.

Also, don’t forget that you as a lawyer contribute an immense amount of value to the business - whether you realise it or not! You understand the business, and there's always a massive need for you because you will be the only one who is able to translate the legal world with the business world. You're the bridge between the two. And that's a major part of what businesses need nowadays.

Thanks Damian! 

Damian Bethke is the GC at MessageBird. Want to hear more from the visionaries scaling in-house legal? Join our community of 400+ lawyers and legal ops teams. 

Topics: Legal operations

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