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Kenneth Carter, General Counsel at Bitmovin

Kenneth Carter, General Counsel at Bitmovin

November 18, 2022

What best prepared you, coming from a large legal org, to be a sole lawyer at a small company? Working at Google, I was surrounded by highly accomplished lawyers, some are the leading expert (no joke) in their fields. When you go in-house at a startup, unfortunately, you can’t afford to bring all of those experts along with you. What I did instead is attempt to model their thinking when presented with a problem in a particular expert's subject area. Having been exposed to so many interesting and exciting people allowed me to say to myself, “how would person xyz think about this copyright issue.”

What helped you in making the transition to running the legal team from scratch? Building a legal team from scratch is more than straight-up legal work. A former colleague described me as not treating law as a practice, but rather as a science, to which multiple disciplines are to be applied and measured to create the best possible outcome with limited resources. Traditionally, we lawyers (and I am guilty of this as well) look to precedent, in order to help us determine what the present status should be. Having picked up an MBA along the way, I try to look to the future and work backwards to develop an evolving present. Also, having worked with software engineers for the last dozen years, I have adopted their approach in the practice of law. Like a software engineer, I build modular contracts so variables can be negotiated or so that the company can add new products down the road by simply plugging in a new module. Also like a software engineer, I am constantly iterating and refactoring our legal code base, based on learnings in practice, improved processes, and data science.

What issues did you tackle first? When you join a startup there is a backlog of legal issues which haven’t been addressed. Things are a mess. You have to decide what is really on fire and what can wait. You then start to organize the chaos and create some order. Once you have the most pressing issues out of the way, you need to start building capacity. You have to create processes and systems to serve the routine legal needs of the company in an automated, scalable fashion. At Bitmovin, I was hired to solve a very specific problem. Our products are highly innovative, backed by research and development and proven in the marketplace with globally recognized brands as our customers. However, at the time, we were not scaling as fast as we expected. Enterprise sales were backing up at the contract stage. It took us weeks and months to conclude sales contracts with our customers. Nothing went smoothly and we never did the same deal twice.

In my third week at Bitmovin, I started about building simplified, modular contracts, and automated workflows to empower sales teams to solve each customer’s specific needs. Contract closing times fell to days and hours. This saved us the cost and effort of hiring new people to do laborious, manual tasks, which could cause the contract closing time to drag on for weeks and months. In the time since, our business has grown more than five fold. Today, this system allows us to close over 1,000 contracts per year, many with just a few mouse clicks. In day-to-day matters, I have always followed this prioritization: statutory deadlines; board matters; build capacity; money-in-the-door; and money-out-the-door.

What substantive area did you hire for first? How did you make that decision and what did you look for in that person? Working at startups which are highly resource constrained, I have tended to delay hiring. In fact, I have been with Bitmovin for four and a half years now and my first hire is just starting this month. Instead of hiring, I have tried to build repeatable processes for routine legal functions using the best legal tech I can get my hands on. Processes and software scale; people don’t scale. When I do go to the market for talent, my best hires have always been one hop away in my professional network. Startups also don’t have the luxury of being able to support several subject matter specialists. So, you have to find a generalist who can intuit their way through a variety of different types of legal issues. I look for someone who complements my way of thinking, while being different enough to avoid scenario fulfillment and to cover a broad enough waterfront. Finally, I look for someone who is not just smarter than I am. I look for someone who I am genuinely afraid will take my job.

What is the most rewarding part about building a legal team from scratch? I am an inventor first, a lawyer second. I love the thrill of discovering something new or solving a complex problem elegantly. I get a genuine endorphin rush from it.

Building from scratch has its challenges, what made you want to take this on? It’s actually great fun. Yet as the question suggests, it’s not for everyone. At the same time, I don’t want to imply that those people are unwilling to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work, to the contrary. However, you have to have a propensity for it. You have to be the kind of person whose mind is comfortable with ambiguity and who is able to ask and answer the questions what does the company need now and what will it need in the future. For me, the most exciting thing has been the chance to intuit my way through a wide variety of different types of problems and to learn about a broad array of legal and business issues.

What would you advise someone who's taking on a similar role/challenge? Just remember when you jump into this, no one is going to die. And, more importantly, no one is going to shoot you. When you first start, you will do some common sense lawyering to solve most of the problems you face. You should aim to get 80% of all problems to an 80% solution, then tackle the next thing. If you run into something which is outside your abilities, you will get support from your peers at other companies and from outside counsel.

The other thing to be acutely aware of is the fact that the practice of law is changing rapidly, accelerated by emerging legal tech. As lawyers, we are inherently adverse to this change. It contravenes our legal training. However, we have a fiduciary duty to our clients to achieve the best outcome possible. So, we have to adopt technology to improve our outcomes or our client’s competitors will and put them out of business.

There is a lot of talk about AI supplanting lawyers. Frankly, I don’t see it now or on the horizon. I do, however, see task automation and data science as the way to win in this arena. Human beings are not good at doing repetitive tasks, but computers are good at pattern recognition which can help automate such tasks. Conversely, human beings have something computers don’t - discretion and intuition and the gray areas. If you can combine human intuition, creativity, thinking, along with data and analyses from the computer, it is a winning combination. This is especially true if the other side is just throwing artificial intelligence and legaltech at a problem.

Finally, if you are concerned about a robot coming to replace your job, get a job programming robots.