Revisiting My Days as a Start-Up Lawyer

Last week when going through old files, I found this photo of a marketing campaign I had helped develop 15 years ago during my start-up days. In January 2006, I joined a tech start-up called FON. The company’s mission was to build a ubiquitous user-generated WiFi network where any user could connect to any other user’s WiFi signal when roaming. Share at home, roam for free. When I joined, I was employee number 6, the only lawyer on staff and the only native English speaker. 

On my first day, right as I was leaving the office, the founder and CEO – who loved to test new employees by giving them some last minute arbitrary assignment – asked me to prepare an urgent presentation detailing a new product concept. When I finally got home around midnight, the red light on my first generation, newly issued Blackberry was flashing: “Attached draft agreement, first round of seed money. Send mark-up by START OF BUSINESS.” That was only part of week one. I often tell this story about those first days:

. . . the CEO and founder who had literally made hundreds of millions selling businesses he had founded, proposed a certain marketing campaign. I sent him a lengthy email with a very well-reasoned description of why his idea was misguided. He called me into his office and said, “Eric, I know you are very smart, but I didn’t hire you to tell me that my ideas are bad. Either you make them better, come up with a better idea, or don’t come back to work tomorrow.”

By the end of the month, we had secured around €20 million in financing from the likes of Google, Skype, Sequoia Capital, and Index Ventures. Thus started a wild and intense ride.

During that ride, as the lawyer and native English speaker, I became jokingly known as the palabrator, a play on words in Spanish and terminator. That meant I wrote everything. So on top of contracts, I wrote all copy. I prepared or signed off on all customer and partner facing presentations, marketing materials, newsletters and press releases. I wrote or edited FAQs, product descriptions, and spent countless hours trying to get all of our messaging right … not because any of this was technically a lawyer’s job, but because the words and their delivery had to be perfect.

Emceeing our 2007 1st year anniversary event

Because our CEO and founder thought that business developers – definitely not lawyers — added value, I was expected to do business development as well. I traveled to customer meetings, I emceed events, and I coordinated the relationship between sales teams around the world. I even interviewed all candidates for open positions. It was a start-up after all, so no one had the luxury to say, “that’s not my job”. 

Definitely one of the highlights was sitting with the marketing team, especially next to the designers who could turn any whim of mine into a great campaign. At one point we were running a pilot in Madrid’s LGBT neighbor Chueca and were handing out free routers to bars and restaurants. We wanted to convey the message that our technology allowed you to safely convert your home/business WiFi signal into a hotspot. As we brainstormed, we came up with the idea of handing out condoms with our logo and catchy slogans printed on the packaging (ie, comparing safe sex to WiFi sharing). Coming up with silly, juvenile one-liners was way too easy: “Have FON”, “Safe Connection” and a couple of other phrases I won’t repeat relating to hotspots and easily locating them.

Sometimes being a lawyer is more than just cutting and pasting phrases like:

  • which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld,
  • as otherwise agreed by the parties in writing, or
  • to the extent permitted by law.

Yes, we draft and negotiate contracts, structure transactions, assess risk, give recommendations based on existing legislation, manage disputes, and all that other good stuff. But a huge part of being a lawyer is being your company’s advocate which means making it look good to the outside world and showing up at the party like you’re the big brother. Our weapon is words. 

We used to joke that the first week on the job felt like a month, the first month a year and 6 months – if you lasted that long – a lifetime.  And there were lots of casualties along the way. We even kept a running count of those who didn’t survive.

As I have written about agile teams, start-ups achieve end-to-end agility almost right away:

Sitting on puffs working with PR and Marketing

[A start-up] is a small team that inhabits the same open-space. When you want to talk to marketing, operations or to the product manager, you pull up a chair. When I worked for a start-up, we’d literally take our laptops and puffs to a quiet corner of the office. In fact, I happened to sit between two web designers. I would bug them all day long with my ridiculous ideas for new marketing campaigns. In a normal company, no one would have paid any attention to me. But in a start-up, nobody cared that I wasn’t Marketing. We all gave our input and were able to try out lots of ideas quickly until we got one right.

But start-ups can also lose that agility very quickly:

Imagine that start-up (or a new business unit) scaling up very quickly. Suddenly you have a product management team of ten people, three regional sales teams, and operations and R&D located at separate sites from the business-facing teams. Next thing you know, your business has become very siloed, communication is strained, messages are lost in translation and teams become tribal. We’ve all seen this happen. Sales doesn’t understand what it is peddling and R&D doesn’t understand what the customer needs. The support functions, like Legal, HR or Finance, become their own centralized tribe out of sync with actual customer and market needs, and what they have to offer is many times too late, out of context, or one size fits all.

When we peaked at around 150 people across three continents, we were already breaking off into tribes just as described above. This coincided with the 2008 Great Recession, and as our cash was evaporating, tensions flared amongst a once very tight-knit group. Some of my favorite people left and others stayed. I didn’t want to take sides, so I finally decided to exit and take my chances as a slasher working for multiple start-ups.

On my last day at the start-up, I wrote:

These have been the “best of times, the worst of times, the tale of two companies”, but overall they have been amazing! I have never had so much fun or enjoyed myself like this before working with a better group of people than I have at FON. It was all worth it!

I have had the great honor of working with such a wide variety of different people from different professions and different fields. I learned about everything from technological geekiness to designing webpages to building a company from the ground up. I also had the great fortune of working closely with our teams across Europe and Asia. But most of all, I had fun — fun with a young and dynamic group of people — and never had to wear a suit, tie, or shave. And we laughed and laughed and laughed the whole way through. When I look back at this time, I am sure that I will think of it as one of the best experiences of my life.

Eventually the slasher business was too unstable. I was a newlywed hoping to start a family, so I moved to an established multinational tech company, in an established legal department where I have been ever since. At first the contrasts were extreme. I left a room full of eclectic sales, marking, finance and ops people and a bunch of developers we called the Men in Black – where there was always someone kicking a ball in the hallway, on their laptop in the corner on a puff, or yelling on the phone with a Gallego accent. And I settled on a silent floor full of lawyers with their heads down quietly typing away. I went from being part of every strategic decision to a place where to make an impact, I had to start at the micro level, one deal at a time. Surprisingly I have really enjoyed and thrived being in a much larger organization, with its amazing pool of lawyers to learn from and a much larger network of business colleagues to build relationships with.

But when I read that post from my last day, and especially now as I revisit old photos and videos of that time (especially this one or this one with some many faces I haven’t seen in years), 10 million stories come to mind, and I feel the same bond with my colleagues as I did back then and still continue to think of them as teammates today.

That time definitely made me a better lawyer, a business partner, and colleague. In particular: I learned:

  • Solutions only. You are not getting paid to say no.
  • Be part of the conversation on all aspects of the business. You need to be in the (virtual) room to make an impact, and no one will invite you if you show up with the word “no”.
  • Be a Big Brother to those around you. Not just as your client’s advocate but also as a mentor and coach to your younger colleagues.
  • Understand the business. Understand the technology, but more importantly know the business rationale driving the technology. The business use case always precedes the technology, but “coming up with the idea” means nothing without the ability to execute.
  • Get started, make things happen. Don’t wait for perfection. Get going.
  • Do not isolate your work from your client’s work. It is all your work.
  • Don’t talk law to business people. They will tune you out. Talk business. That is what they understand and what they care about. You can worry about the law when you get back to your desk. Listen to how everyone else talks, learn their language.
  • Relationships and trust are everything, and they last longer than you do at any company. Remember we are ultimately emotionally committed to our colleagues not to our companies. It is why most engagement survey questions are geared towards whether an employee feels valued by and connected to their coworkers. But just as easily as camaraderie can be built, it can be lost. Think long term: once we are on the same team, we’ll always be teammates. 
Teo and I at the South Summit 2018.
I always feel so much pride whenever I run into one of my old colleagues and I see how they have grown.

Most importantly, laugh on the job. I don’t mean party with your colleagues, I mean make work enjoyable. We spend too many hours of our lives at work or worrying about work. You have to make the effort to make it fun, especially when the work is tough, intense, and demanding. Life is too short not to enjoy your time with your colleagues. But the moment you start dreading waking up to go to work in the morning, it’s time to move on.

Talk to Me like Lovers Do

Last year I posted the following on Linkedin:

A reminder to business lawyers, especially in-house counsel: always talk business to your client. They don’t care about your legal issues. They expect you to solve them. They care about their business. So during their time, talk business. During your time, solve the legal issues.

Every once and a while, one of my internal business clients will say: “you don’t talk like a lawyer, you talk like one of us,” and I think of that line “talk to me like lovers do” from the Eurythmics.

This came to mind now while writing about what I had learned working at a start-up.

QuaranTeams: We are the Leaders

Hopper Small Office

Through solidarity and reaching out to each other, each one of us plays a key leadership role in these difficult times

Lawyers freak out. It’s our job to worry … about everything. Nobody wants us at their parties because what others see as fun, we see as imprudent. But the secret to being an effective lawyer is to always keep calm, stay positive and never let the client see you worry. Just as you don’t want to see fear in your doctor’s eyes, you certainly don’t want to see your lawyer panic either. Most importantly, people are much more likely to listen to their lawyer’s advice if their lawyer is good humored, constructive and positive.

For context, I live in Madrid, Spain where we have been in almost complete lockdown for over two weeks. My children have not left the house now in seventeen days, and the shopping center across the street – where I go to the pharmacy and grocery shopping on the rare occasion that I leave the house — has been converted into a make-shift morgue.

So when all of my Madrid Legal colleagues started working from home two weeks ago, I realized that as one of the more elder senior members of the department, I needed to step up and use my best lawyer skills to help keep my colleagues inter-connected and engaged during these very unique times. Furthermore, many of my younger colleagues are single, not from Madrid, and could easily feel overwhelmed from the sense of isolation. Other colleagues have friends, family members, especially elderly ones at risk or even in the hospital. These are scary times.

As someone who is not shy of the spotlight, I decided to take the lead by setting up a Microsoft Team called “QuaranTeam MAD”. I envisioned a video-podcast a la Robin Williams’ “Good Morning Vietnam”, where I would open each day with “Good Morning, QuaranTeam” followed by a few bad jokes. A good sense of humor goes a long way, but as a senior colleague once told me, an effective leader needs at times to show vulnerability, meaning knowing how to admit, “I don’t know” or “I need help”.

I took his advice, broke my lawyer-with-a-smile facade and started QuaranTeam by recognizing that I am vulnerable. So here it goes: This is frightening like I have never been frightened before. I am worried about my parents’ health and having them so far away. When will I see them again? I am worried about my wife, children and myself. I am worried about how we’ll manage closed off indoors for so long. I am worried about my friends and colleagues. I am worried about my own finances and the global economy, and I am worried about what the future will look like for society. Will life ever be the same?

I uploaded the first video, and immediately my colleagues joined and began participating. One of them set up a daily virtual coffee break for the group, and I can’t explain how exciting it is to witness the positive vibe around the chat when people see each other’s faces. People share experiences while getting a glimpse into the sides of our lives we don’t usually see at the office, like children and pets coming in and out of the background. Suddenly it was not me, but dozens of people taking the lead. Colleagues checking in on each other to make sure we’re staying physically and mentally healthy. Instead of me thinking I was keeping other people sane, they were helping me keep my s – – t together.

By staying online, inter-connected, checking up on each other, and sharing a piece of our own daily lives – no matter how trivial — each of us is playing a leadership role to get us personally and professionally through these times.

This has made me realize a few things:

  • I don’t need an engagement survey to tell me that someone at the office cares for me. I am seeing that now every day and it is incredibly moving.
  • We all have the opportunity to take the lead by simply staying in touch with each other. Calling each other. Reaching out using the tools we have at our disposal. Staying connected. It makes a huge difference. Not just with colleagues but with friends and family.
  • If we are not active, interconnected and focused, we will lose ourselves in the negativity of the news cycle and become isolated.
  • And most importantly, we are only as strong as the relationships we have.

I want to thank my friends and colleagues for keeping me sane. I cannot promise to not run out of bad jokes. If I get repetitive, humor me!

* Note: This post is not intended to reflect the views of my current employer Amadeus. It is entirely my own viewpoint .

Architecture of Deals

Duc TrangLast year my team of lawyers had our annual offsite meeting in Athens, Greece. Besides the sightseeing and team bonding, we also got schooled … by Duc Trang. As I wrote at the time, Duc Trang a senior legal exec

now trains lawyers and other professionals in business acumen and is due to come out with a new book about the Architecture of Deals and how to design transactions. But for our Athens adventure, Duc gave us a session on how to analyze a business’ competitive position in order to make better strategic decisions. along to run a training session on how to analyze a business’ competitive position in order to make better strategic decisions.

Duc has just published Architecture of Deals: Strategies for Transactional Lawyering about helping transactional lawyers like myself and those in my team become more effective at what we love doing: helping our clients meet their business objectives. You can read more about the book here.

His European book launch is in London this week, but let’s see if we can get him to come to Madrid later in the year.

The Spanish Chapter of the ELTA and Rethinking the Lawyer’s Value Proposition


I am very honored to join the Spanish chapter of the European Legal Tech Association and head its section on skills and training. Yesterday, the chapter, led by María Jesús González-Espejo and Laura Fauqueur, presented the Spanish team to the Ilustre Colegio de Abogados de Madrid (ICAM). Each of the section leads in attendance — including Carlos Martín Ugalde, Paloma Aparicio, Moisés Barrio, Manuel Deo, Alberto Dorrego, Gonzalo García Valdecasas, Juan Manuel Moreno (for Javier Martín), Mariló Pardo, María Belén Pose, Pablo Rabanal, and myself — were asked to describe what we hoped to achieve within our respective areas.

To be quite honest, I hadn’t put much thought into what I was going to say. Even though I am fluent in Spanish – having lived in Spain for almost two decades – I am not as good of an improviser in Spanish as I am in English. But when the deputy of digital affairs from ICAM, Esther Montalvá, opened the event perfectly hitting the nail on the head with the challenges and opportunities facing the legal profession, I knew exactly what message I wanted to convey: Lawyers need to  focus on and reinforce our original value proposition:

  1. We are your confidants.
  2. We are your advocates, here to defend your rights and your interests. We are not mere traffic lights signaling when to stop and when to go.
  3. We are communicators.

As such, to be an effective lawyer today and tomorrow, you need to improve how you gain and keep your clients’ trust, how you defend their interests, and how you communicate with them, their customers, regulators and other third parties.

At least that was what I wanted people to hear, so I was happy to read in the that that is more or less what I actually said (in Spanish):

Lo importante es preguntarse, en este contexto, cómo podemos los abogados seguir aportando valor”, reflexionaba Eric Napoli durante la presentación de la ELTA española. “Creo que, a pesar o gracias a la tecnología, podemos poner en valor tres de nuestras características que no debemos olvidar. Somos personas de confianza, como los médicos. No somos meros asesores: ayudamos y defendemos los derechos de las personas. Y somos, o deberíamos ser, grandes comunicadores.

My plan is to organize a discussion open to the public on this topic in July. Stay tuned!

Business Strategy for Lawyers on a Saturday Morning

534FA431-48B2-49A8-9AB8-BE0307F6E654.jpegA few Saturdays a year, I teach a course in Business Strategy to junior associates at Uría Menéndez through the FT/IE Corporate Learning Alliance at the IE Law School in Madrid. It is an awesome program that gives Uria’s young lawyers training in business skills that are essential to becoming more effective lawyers in today’s demanding and ever-evolving marketplace.

As great as that sounds, while I wait for the students to arrive, I can’t help but feel some sympathy for these guys who are about to be subjected to my monologues on lawyering and business strategy for five hours on a sunny Saturday morning.

Digital Transformation In-House: it takes Two to Tango


This week I was very fortunate to have attended the first of a three part workshop on Digital Transformation for Chief Legal Officers held by the Instituto de Innovación Legal in Madrid. A special thanks to María Jesús González-Espejo and Laura Fauqueur for the invitation!

It was fascinating to listen to the other participants share their experiences about the pressures their teams face in the Spanish marketplace. Most were chief legal officers and general counsels from Spanish companies or offices, and while the team I manage and the business we support are global, the challenges are the same: how to deal with containing costs, regulatory uncertainty, adapting to change, evolving skills, risks to our companies’ reputations, and how to reinvent ourselves and the value that lawyers add to our in-house clients.

We also had two practical examples of the use of artificial intelligence for the automation of contract generation and claims management and discussed what legal officers should look at when selecting a contract management tool. One of the best lessons that came out of this what that automation cannot be done in a vacuum. In other words, it is not something that belongs just to the Legal Department. You need the support and buy-in of your internal clients, aka the Business.

From our experience, automation makes a lot of sense for the Business. It not only helps in terms of simplifying the customer experience and speeding up the contracting process — bringing in revenues quicker and decreasing administrative costs — but in theory should also improve post-contract account management. Standardization should significantly make the lives of your billing departments better, making it much easier for them to prepare invoices and collect fees. Account managers — especially for those with large portfolios — will also find it easier to engage with their customers over the life of a contract. Implementation and delivery teams should enjoy the benefits of standardization and simplification, being able to quickly identify customer requirements and better allocate resources over multiple projects. For these reasons, the work flows and automation should be developed in a way that has the end-user experience at the heart of the design and benefits all of your internal stakeholders. But start small. Don’t be overambitious.

At first many lawyers — obsessed with making sure that all t’s are crossed, i’s are dotted and no loophole is left un-closed – distrust automation or at least fear that it will render our work irrelevant. But with the simplification of menial tasks, we lawyers can focus on what really adds value and where the exciting work begins: helping our clients succeed. Once we reach that realization — as we have in my team — we not only welcome that task, we encourage it.

But there is a but: it takes two to tango. I can only simplify, standardize and automate what my business colleagues are willing to do themselves on their end. Simplification takes more discipline from our sales colleagues who ultimately will have the harder task of selling a one size fits all model — as opposed to something tailor-made — to the customer than it does from us. How many times have you heard: “Just give me a one-pager”? The Business demands a simple, short contract, but when it comes to negotiating the commercial terms, they want all the flexibility in the world, and that flexibility means tailor-made, non-standard contracts. So the next time someone comes to you demanding simplification, force them to begin with the commercial terms and go from there.

It takes two to tango. We’re ready to dance. Are you?

Why Technology Favors Tyranny

Harari Technology Tyranny.png

You all are going to think I am the Grim Reaper of new technologies, crying that the sky is falling at every turn. Yes, I am using this blog as a forum – amongst other things — to discuss the difficult decisions that businesses, lawyers and society need to face when looking at how new technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Biometrics may impact our lives. (examples, here, here and here).

Working for a tech company that invests millions in innovation, I am very interested in seeing how we can use new technologies to improve society. But in order to do that, we need to be very vigilant. The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous and significantly change the course of humankind.

Am I exaggerating? In a must read article in The Atlantic, Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deux: A Brief History of Tomorrow) makes precisely that argument:

More practically, and more immediately, if we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, we must regulate the ownership of data. In ancient times, land was the most important asset, so politics was a struggle to control land. In the modern era, machines and factories became more important than land, so political struggles focused on controlling these vital means of production. In the 21st century, data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset, so politics will be a struggle to control data’s flow.

Unfortunately, we don’t have much experience in regulating the ownership of data, which is inherently a far more difficult task than regulating land or machines. Data are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, they can move at the speed of light, and you can create as many copies of them as you want. Do the data collected about my DNA, my brain, and my life belong to me, or to the government, or to a corporation, or to the human collective?

. . . Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.

If you find these prospects alarming—if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similarly degraded form of society—then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy.

The world my children and their children will inhabit will be vastly different from ours in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.

When in Greece, Know that You Know Nothing

Greece 2

I expend a great deal of hot air preaching both here in this blog and in the classes I teach to young professionals about how important it is for lawyers, especially in-house counsel, to understand their client’s business, industry and strategy.

Two months ago, my team together with my manager Jackson Pek held our annual team building event in Athens, Greece. Jackson brought along two senior GC’s (in experience not age), Duc Trang and Evangelos Apostolou. Duc now trains lawyers and other professionals in business acumen and is due to come out with a new book about the Architecture of Deals and how to design transactions. But for our Athens adventure, Duc gave us a session on how to analyze a business’ competitive position in order to make better strategic decisions.  I hate to use the term, but it was “awesome”.

When you are the one in front of the group doing all the talking, you often forget that there is a lot of value in being the one who is listening and learning. So it was very humbling to learn from Duc. His very simple approach to assessing a company’s relative competitiveness enables lawyers (and other corporate support functions) to better engage with their clients as more effective business partners.

In today’s corporate world, HR departments spend a lot of time building up their employees’ important soft skills, but at the end of the day, little effort is made to teach business acumen. I can’t stress enough how much value legal teams get from the sort of business skills training that Duc offers, and he has a unique ability to put it into the context of what we lawyers do in our every day roles. In fact, by the end of our first session, we were already analyzing our own internal client’s competitive position and brainstorming about improved strategic approaches and better ways to focus our support. Again, it was “awesome”.

Then there was the icing on the cake. My team and I got to hang out in Athens with Jackson, Duc and Evangelos, and I got to pick their more seasoned brains with lots and lots of questions about how to be a more effective business partner and a better manager for the amazing team I work with.

It reminded me of Socrates’ “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. Efharisto, there is always something to learn and luckily someone to learn it from.

Solutions Not Problems

Dr._No_-_UK_cinema_posterI have written before about how effective lawyers focus on providing solutions, as opposed to acting like a mere traffic light that says stop or go. A few months back, I was to talk about an experience that had an impact on my career development. I told the following story about my first day at a tech start-up more than a decade ago:

On my first day at the start-up where I previously worked, the CEO and founder who had literally made hundreds of millions selling businesses he had founded, proposed a certain marketing campaign. I sent him a lengthy email with a very well-reasoned description of why his idea was misguided. He called me into his office and said, “Eric, I know you are very smart, but I didn’t hire you to tell me that my ideas are bad. Either you make them better, come up with a better idea, or don’t come back to work tomorrow.” I was very embarrassed because I knew he was right. So often we lawyers get caught up in telling the clients what they shouldn’t do, when we need to focus on providing solutions. Whenever I find myself becoming a nay-sayer, I remember that conversation and what my role is supposed to be.

Here is a good check list of things legal teams can do to avoid becoming the “Department of No”. Nevertheless, finding solutions is easier said than done.

When I had written about what it takes to be an effective in-house lawyer back in April, one of my favorite business-side colleagues sent me a message asking to put my money where my mouth was on a particular transaction we were working on. My team had reviewed a prospective customer contract and identified dozens of potentially unacceptable terms, and my internal clients were not impressed. In that instance, I had to explain that we weren’t trying to “kill” the deal, just describe the ugly commercial conditions hidden in the contract, a document that they likely had not reviewed yet. Contracts aren’t really about the law. They are mainly about the business, so often times lawyers are simply informing our clients of the inconvenient reality of what the terms of the deal are.

But point taken. Lawyers shouldn’t aspire to be mere messengers and contract readers. We need to find ways to make a deal better than the one sitting on our desks. In the last two weeks, I have had to remind myself of that story from my start-up days to make sure I was part of the solution, not the problem. Just always keep in mind that if you ignore the problems, then you are not providing a solution either.