Inna Barmash, Amplify’s General Counsel, on thinking business as an in-house counsel…
Tell us a bit about Amplify.
Amplify is an education publishing and software company. The company was founded in 2000 and we currently have approximately 400 employees. Our customers are K-12 schools across the United States. We offer a suite of early literacy assessment and intervention products, a literacy curriculum for elementary schools, a digital middle school curriculum, and a digital science curriculum.
How is Amplify’s legal department structured and what is your role within it?
Amplify’s legal department currently has two lawyers. I serve as General Counsel and work with our Deputy General Counsel. We’re both generalists with particular experience with technology transactions and intellectual property. We don’t have additional in-house support staff, so we think a lot about how to leverage technology to help our legal department run effectively and efficiently. We’re both tech-savvy and have worked well together to establish strong internal processes for managing the legal department.
In terms of my role, as General Counsel I oversee all legal and compliance matters facing the company, including commercial agreements, strategic partnerships, vendor contracts, customer contracts, Amplify’s equity plan, corporate governance, intellectual property, and data privacy and security. I also oversee M&A and litigation when it happens.
How did you make the decision to move in-house?
I came to law school with a background in technology. After law school, I joined the technology practice at Ropes & Gray, thinking that I would leverage my technical background and enjoy playing the role of a learned professional adviser to technology companies. I was very happy as an associate in this practice and wasn't actively looking to move. Still, while I enjoyed the variety of the firm’s practice, I always thought I would eventually want to focus my energy on one client and be more integrated with the day-to-day operations of a business.
When a recruiter reached out about the opportunity at Amplify, I was immediately excited about the work that the company was doing in education. Once I began interviewing, I was blown away by the management team and knew I would enjoy working with the legal team. It was clearly a great fit, and I seized that opportunity.
What challenges did you face during your first 100 days in-house at Amplify?
Substantively, the transition was pretty smooth because the work I was doing in private practice was quite similar to the work I initially focused on at Amplify. Structurally, the main difference I felt was the switch from having many clients and many lawyer colleagues to working with one, extremely demanding client and a significantly smaller group of lawyers.
But perhaps the best way I can answer your initial question is with a story. When I was interviewing at Amplify the president of the company asked me what I would consider to be a successful first year in-house at Amplify. I answered that I would consider the first year a success if I really got to know people at all levels of the organization and understood Amplify’s products and how the company supports its customers.
That latter goal turned out to be the most exciting – but to my surprise, also quite challenging in those first one hundred days in-house. Amplify is an education technology company, and I felt like I intuitively understood the business because we all went to school and feel familiar with the educational system. However, the day-to-day reality of school has changed quite a bit since we were in school, and the business of education is quite complex and not at all intuitive.
So one of my biggest challenges during the first one hundred days was to understand the interplay between education policy initiatives and transitions in technology, how that interplay has impacted schools, and how it translates into the products Amplify markets as well as more general opportunities in the education marketplace. I worked hard during the first one hundred days to acquire the industry and product knowledge I needed in order to give sophisticated legal advice at a level that was useful to my internal clients, but it was quite challenging at first.
What does “thinking business” mean to you as in-house counsel?
I’ve always considered myself a very practical and business-minded person by nature. What I have learned in-house is how to put this business-focused approach into practice. One of the ways I’ve learned to do this is to spend time being part of business-side conversations. For example, when my company implemented Slack as a communication platform, I joined many of the channels, whether or not they were directly relevant to my work. Monitoring those channels has been hugely helpful in making it possible, on a minute by minute basis, to be aware of the products that are being developed, what conversations the teams are having, and what challenges the product teams are solving.
More generally, I see the legal department as one of the few connection and synergy points in the company. We can see how the same problems arise and are solved by different product teams across different business units. This means we have the opportunity to serve as a point of coordination for the business. Executing this coordination role effectively requires that we have a strong understanding of business roles, the processes of each team, and the business issues that they’re solving.
Does being business-focused ever create tension as an in-house lawyer?
Yes. That tension underlies every day of my work. I see my role as helping product teams successfully navigate the framework of legal and contractual obligations within which we're working. Being effective in this role requires being a deal-maker and not a deal-breaker – and the most effective way to help business people make deals is to take a practical approach to problem solving. At the same time, the general counsel role requires focusing on maintaining enterprise value – which means protecting intellectual property and ensuring that we are always able to make certifications, representations and warranties that the company is complying both with contractual obligations and the law. When I advise business teams, I always keep those two considerations in mind.
What advice do you have for lawyers looking to transition in-house?
The best thing to do is to talk to a lot of people who are in-house at different types of companies. Take advantage of alumni networks. Reach out via LinkedIn. Don’t be shy. Be thoughtful and persistent in reaching out to people who you think would be interesting – you’d be surprised by how generous people are with their time and how much you learn from each conversation. Whatever you learn will be useful, either because it helps you decide to move to a new job or to stick around and feel happier wherever you are.