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Ilan Hornstein, Chief Legal Officer & Head of Business Operations at Nauto, Inc.

Ilan Hornstein, Chief Legal Officer & Head of Business Operations at Nauto, 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 credit my broad business and technology background, coupled with many years of experience helping startups as outside counsel from formation through their exits. This foundation made the transition easier for me because I am able to understand the workings of companies in general and startups in particular. It is also in my nature to be curious and to seek out challenges. I like to dive in and quickly learn the business and technology of the company I work for, which allows me to start contributing as a lawyer and as an executive on the leadership team.

What issues did you tackle first? First comes learning the company’s business, technology, and history to identify what the most pressing issues are and what changes ought to be considered. I don’t believe it is possible for the legal function to add maximum value in a vacuum. The legal function needs to be tailored to the particular situation, goals, and objectives of the company (which change over time!). It turned out that the initial issues to be tackled at my current company were closing a handful of key deals, revamping the sales agreement, and laying the legal and operational groundwork for a significant scaling of the sales activity.

What substantive area did you hire for first? How did you make that decision and what did you look for in that person? I hired a legal ops person to work with me to prepare the legal function (and related quote-to-cash systems and processes) to be able to support an explosive growth of sales activity. This role was important because they allowed me to focus on closing the short-term critical deals while they worked to lay the foundations for automation to support the expected scaling in the next quarter. This doesn’t mean that this is necessarily always the first hire I would make. Next time around, it may be a completely different role depending on what the strategy is to get the legal function off the ground.

What is the most rewarding part about building a legal team from scratch? The most rewarding aspect is the chance to form the culture of the legal team at the start. The legal culture acts as a bridge between the art and science of practicing law and the needs of the organization. Starting with a blank slate (or as close to a blank slate as is possible given prejudices against lawyers) means that I can find and create the right legal team for the business. I enjoy learning and teaching. The steep learning curve when the team is just forming, and finding out how best to support the business, is a rich learning environment and a thrilling experience.  

Building from scratch has its challenges, what made you want to take this on? I’m comfortable at all stages of a legal team’s life-cycle. I enjoy leading legal teams from small to large. No matter what the stage or size of the legal team, there is always a balance between challenges and rewards. Building from scratch has its own unique thrills and the entrepreneurial spirit is strongest at that stage.

What would you advise someone who's taking on a similar role/challenge? The advice would be to find your community and connect with them. There is a wealth of experience and advice out there. I’ve had the benefit of strong mentors and have myself helped others who got started as the first general counsel or the first lawyer in a company. It’s tremendously helpful to have others to bounce ideas off of while embarking on this journey.