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Aparna Dasai Williams, General Counsel at Coalfire Systems, Inc.

Aparna Dasai Williams, General Counsel at Coalfire Systems, Inc.

November 18, 2022

What best prepared you, coming from a large legal org, to be a sole lawyer at a small company? What helped you in making the transition to running the legal team from scratch? I received great advice at the beginning of my career to never stop learning and to not fall into the trap of only doing one thing. Going in house from the start was unique when I began my career and I made an effort to ask for opportunities to work with other team members so that I could be exposed to all facets of our larger department. Even though I began in the transactions group, I shadowed or asked to be second chair with the teams who handled other areas. I eventually moved through different groups to become more proficient in a set of topics that I thought were invaluable to support a business, such as global transactions, product counseling, marketing, privacy, corporate compliance, and employment. Building that general awareness of each practice and knowing how they work together to support the business vision gave me a roadmap for what an effective legal function looks like.

What issues did you tackle first? I tackled the things that drove revenue first. If you don’t remove obstacles from the sales process and you don’t build a good relationship with your sales leaders, none of the other amazing legal work matters. Understand what your company sells, the focus markets, the preferred customer experience, and everything else will flow from there. You will know what kind of contracts make sense, what IP to protect, what regulatory needs apply, what kind of marketing reviews are required, and then it’s easier to build a long-term support and hiring plan.

What substantive area did you hire for first? How did you make that decision and what did you look for in that person? After 6 months as the Head of Legal, party of 1, I made the choice to hire a team member who would focus on Product, Privacy and Procurement. In addition to sales, these were the needs that specifically supported the growth of the company. These areas were gaps in my experience or didn’t require my level of skill or experience. It was a wonderful opportunity for a more junior lawyer to really establish their skills in important pieces of the business and take a decent volume of work off my plate as I transitioned from doing more tactical work to more strategic planning and execution. I held onto sales transactions because that landscape was changing and still needed my guidance.

What is the most rewarding part about building a legal team from scratch? As with building anything, I think it’s that sense of knowing you have been trusted and are valued for your experience. There will be some fast fails and not so great choices along the way, but to be given the chance as the expert is a strong motivator. I am also a big fan of creating opportunities for junior lawyers to expand their skills and to coach and mentor them in their career journey. The time you have to spend together in a new legal function allows for a lot of that.

Building from scratch has its challenges, what made you want to take this on? I was at a decision point in my career, and I was struggling with taking a step back or what I considered the biggest challenge of my career to date. Encouragement from my current GC and a few former colleagues who had gone on to become GCs was the strongest factor. I did a lot of homework and informational interviews before I put myself out there. It is not the next natural step for everyone.

What would you advise someone who's taking on a similar role/challenge? Don’t do it for the prestige or the glory of having the title. This is not a glamourous job. It is hard work and you have to call on every ounce of experience, strength and courage. You have to be willing to learn from failure and take risks. You have to want to lead, manage and help your team thrive. Most importantly, build a network. I am an active participant in 3 large legal networking forums and I still connect regularly with about 20 former colleagues in all areas of practice. The ability to learn from and provide support to others is invaluable. You may be the sole legal counsel at the beginning, but with your network, you will never be alone.