A General Counsel & a Startup Specialist

Hilary Sutton Issue 16 - March/April 2015, Legal 1 Comment

SecureNet’s GC, Secretary,and Head of Compliance has a knack for creating in-house legal departments at burgeoning businesses

Tanya Avila PortraitUpon graduating from the Arizona State University College of Law, Tanya Avila did not set out to launch a legal department. But after starting legal teams at Volusion and then Wincor Nixdorf, she has become an expert in the practice. Avila currently serves as General Counsel (GC), Secretary and Head of Compliance at SecureNet LLC, a direct payment processor that aims to make pricing transparent and straightforward.

SecureNet streamlines the way businesses accept payments. Its integrated suite of payment tools is a simple yet advanced way for merchants of all sizes to manage commerce in any environment: in-store, online and via mobile devices. The PayOS platform is backed by detailed business analytics that help merchants make informed decisions to grow their business.

Earning a Chance & Running With It

Just before Avila’s last semester in law school, she interned with GoDaddy, where she was tasked with managing a commercial copyright product. Though the internship was not in the Legal Department, it fed her interest in intellectual property. After Avila graduated from law school, a position opened up on GoDaddy’s legal team. Even though she was fresh out of law school, Avila had impressed her superior, and she recommended Avila for the position.

“I hit it off with the director,” Avila said. “I built a relationship with my boss where she was willing to go out on a ledge and recommend me for this job. No matter where you’re at in your career, it’s about learning how to build relationships.”

A job on GoDaddy’s legal team in 2003 was an exciting place to be, Avila recalled. “The Internet back then was new, uncharted territory. [People were] trying to apply rules and regulations of the real world to the virtual world. It’s harder to do because it’s not as clear-cut.”

Avila joined SecureNet in 2013, where she has once again created a legal department from the ground up. She had been the first in-house counsel at both Volusion and Wincor Nixdorf. “[SecureNet] had a GC before, but a lot of her work was lost, so I’m starting from scratch again,” Avila acknowledged.

In creating an in-house counsel department, Avila finds both challenges and opportunities. “A lot of times you’re the first lawyer people have ever talked to. My biggest challenge and biggest reward is being able to fairly quickly show value,” she said. “You don’t get that with an established legal team. I get to do it my way the first time. I’m not stuck with some archaic system.”

Tanya Avila Portrait
Fit First

Avila has learned, in her years managing a legal team, that the best way to earn loyalty and encourage productivity is to determine the goals of each team member and help them get there. Sometimes those goals include people moving on to a different position or even organization. “When I’m talking with staff members, I keep in mind their individual objectives,” Avila said. “I want to make it a win-win situation.”

As Avila has established and grown multiple legal departments, she has hired many team members. Her criteria for hiring varies from position to position, but one characteristic is consistent: cultural fit.

“If you don’t find someone who has the right personality traits for the company culture, they won’t be a success,” she said. “I try to focus most on the fit, then skill set second.”

The necessary personality characteristics vary widely depending on the company, the team and the position, Avila added. “In some positions you want a hard worker. Some call for someone who is more ambitious. In some, you want someone who’s going to get along with everyone. In some, you need personal skills more than technical skills. I focus on building a team within the needs of a company.”

What They Don’t Teach You in Law School

Avila is a passionate advocate for developing soft skills—something she often finds to be weak in the world of law. “Law school is great for teaching you how to be a lawyer. Law firms are great for teaching you how to write a brief and interpret the law. But neither help you learn how to connect with people in the C-suite,” she said.

Lawyers moving from a law firm to an in-house position have to change their strategy, Avila noted. The job of the law firm’s lawyer is to have technical prowess but to also be a salesperson. The in-house lawyer’s approach is completely different. “Sales skills don’t matter when you’re in house. If you try to sell yourself in house, you lose trust. You have to have more sincerity and investment.”

Building a new legal group in a start-up is nothing short of a challenge, but one Avila loves. “You don’t have job security. You have to be comfortable that your job may go away in a month,” she said. “But it’s fun, and it’s exciting. You’ve got to take that risk if that’s something you want to do.”♦

2014_TA_32 Tips for Outside Counsel Working With Inside Counsel

Avila writes a blog about the practical side of being in-house counsel called In-House Out-Takes. She wrote an entry on the 10 commandments of outside counsel who work with inside counsel. Here are a few of Avila’s tips:

Know the industry. “Understand the industry in general and who the players are. For the most part, my firms need to know who my top competitors are and not represent them or seek to represent them, even in non-adverse matters. Nothing will lose confidence in a firm more than name-dropping a competitor to one of my business partners. They don’t trust lawyers as it is. Don’t give them more reason to be suspicious.”

Staff appropriately. “This crosses several service industries, but law firms are not immune. I should not be paying partner rates for fill-in-the-blank forms. At the same time, I’m more than willing to pay the partner on the case to lead the critical deposition in the bet-the-firm litigation. Understanding the difference should be intuitive, but if it’s not, ask me. This is one of those things where there won’t be forgiveness later.”

Communicate.Give me a fairly consistent update on the state of things. If there hasn’t been an update in two or three weeks but you’re expecting one next month, tell me that. This gives me something to tell my management team and helps me have a realistic view of what type of invoice I should be expecting at the end of the month. So if I have to ask for updates more than once, you won’t be getting my business twice.”

Read more of Avila’s blog at http://inhouseouttakes.com.

Tanya's Key Partners:
 Meyertons Hood (Patent matters) | Foster Quan (Immigration Services) | Richards Rodriguez & Skeith (Business and Transactional)

Comments 1

  1. Wally West

    I have been looking into getting some legal counsel, and I don’t really know where to get it. I have a friend that has a recommendation, but that is all that I have. I have been looking into it, and I hope that we will be able to figure a few things out soon.

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