Beth Colombo, Sr. Legal Counsel with Vendavo, shares her journey and the essential traits of an effective in-house counsel.
CCBJ: Can you briefly walk me through the career path that led you to your current role?
Beth Colombo: It’s been an adventure—and I’m so grateful to be in the role I’m in at Vendavo, which has taught me that winding roads can lead you to right where you belong. I earned my BA in film, television, and theatre from the University of Notre Dame, then went to Quinnipiac University School of Law thinking I would love litigation; something about being in a courtroom seemed to dovetail nicely with a theatre background. I worked for a civil litigation law firm summers during law school and right after law school. But as we often do in life, I learned that I was wrong and that litigation was not for me. Corporate law was interesting to me, and I began applying for a variety of legal roles in this area.
Thankfully I did indeed find my home in corporate law, specifically in-house, starting with a large international company where I spent seven years gaining very generalist experience. It was a great job at which to begin my in-house career because the company I worked for had a large, ever-changing and extremely diverse portfolio of offerings, including hardware, software and services, among many other things. After seven years there, I welcomed a change; something where I could apply the knowledge and skills I had gained to a different industry. I found a role at a cybersecurity company that was really eye-opening because it was so different from my previous position. At the cybersecurity company, I honed my skills and broadened my knowledge base. It’s amazing what working for a different company and industry can do for one’s career. In my case, it was an opportunity to acquire new skill sets and opened many doors.
While I enjoyed that role and the lessons learned, I felt ready for even more responsibility, and I wanted the ability to affect positive change in my organization. Along came Vendavo, and more specifically my boss there, who empowers us by involving us in every aspect of the business she can; allowing us to share ideas and take on projects to improve our department and the company as a whole. For those reasons I feel the most fulfilled career-wise I’ve ever felt, and I’m supremely grateful for that and the path that’s led me here.
One final note on the winding route to where I am now: I like to think that I was ahead of the work-from-home trend, given I actually started working from home in 2018, after years in an office. So one of the many reasons both the cybersecurity and Vendavo positions interested me is because both were telecommuting roles pre-pandemic, and that was wildly appealing to me.
Talk to us a bit about the strategic planning and analytic communication skills you’ve developed in your career.
That’s a great question because the skills you’re asking about are the type of skills one is always working to improve. I want to be the best in-house counsel I can be—for my company, for my internal clients, for my legal colleagues and, obviously, for myself. So I’m continuously working to grow, and the skills you’re asking about are part of that.
Regarding strategic planning, I’m grateful to my current boss because she’s been quite intentional about involving me in that type of work. I’ve had more opportunities than ever before to improve those skills. One example: I’ve been able to sharpen my goal-related skills by setting a vision, then identifying and completing small achievable goals to accomplish that vision. While I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person, I would sometimes rush headlong to the big goal rather than rolling out a plan in incremental steps. It’s been important to my growth to see the value in achieving smaller, measurable goals as a means to accomplishing a larger overall goal.
A couple of other key skills I’ve cultivated with regard to strategic planning are delegation and resourcefulness. Because I can be a bit of a people pleaser, I historically take everything on myself. Saying no has sometimes been difficult. Asking someone for help or to jump in has historically been difficult. But having worked as part of lean legal teams for my whole career, I’ve learned the value of delegating when necessary, especially with regard to strategic planning and trying to get bigger, more high level things done. I’ve learned that others can do a great job and that I can learn from their processes.
With regard to resourcefulness, I’ve trained myself to not always dive right in when presented with a challenge, which was my inclination historically. Instead, I take a beat, or several beats, and brainstorm by answering questions like, is there a quicker way to successfully accomplish the same goal, or do we already have resources available to us that we could use for this? That has been huge for my practice and my company, because it saves time and resources whenever possible, which are among the many ways in-house law departments add value to organizations.
Additionally and importantly for strategic planning, and in general, my business acumen has vastly improved over my years in-house. I’m blessed to have grown up with a grandfather and parents in business so I’ve been around it for all my life. But even with that, I’ve found that the more you hear business concepts talked about in-depth, especially business concepts specific to the industry you’re in, and the more questions you ask, the more you learn. It’s similar to immersing yourself in a culture to learn the language; you have to keep up because you’re surrounded by it constantly. The same goes for business concepts, which become more natural to you. In addition to exposure at work, I also pay attention to business news so I have a well-rounded sense of what’s going on currently, not just what’s happening at my company or in the industry I work in. The other thing I’ve noticed is the more you’re involved in at your company, the more your legal practice is improved. For example, in supporting some of my company’s audits from a legal perspective, I learned information that was valuable in handling contract negotiations and other matters.
Regarding my analytic communication skills, they are obviously very important to an in-house role and, thankfully, some of these skills are natural to me and I’ve cultivated them in law school, working in litigation, and in my roles in-house as well as in non-legal roles. A vitally important analytic communication skill for an in-house counsel is the ability to utilize specific, precise language, both verbally and in writing. For example, a big part of the contract negotiation piece of my job is being able to draft specific language to meet the needs of the business. You can write some gorgeous verbiage, but if it’s not meeting the needs of your business, it’s pretty useless.
So the goal is to get the business where it needs to be with the language you use, which is achieved through active listening, collaboration and precise drafting. I’ve also developed an ability to look at challenges, especially complex issues, dispassionately, and to solve problems logically. Legal issues often demand this if one is to arrive at the best outcome for one’s company. That’s not to say there’s no passion involved; just that sometimes you have to remove yourself and look at an issue objectively. Importantly, I’ve honed a skill I began developing in law school, which is using hard evidence to support arguments, delivered with a direct and professional tone, whether to persuade the internal business team of the risk in an agreement or to support an argument in a dispute. It’s certainly much better as a persuasion technique, but it also goes a long way in building relationships and trust.
Key to backing up an assertion with actual reasoning is thoroughness—another skill that’s critical to my in-house role. In most organizations, the buck stops with Legal. Other departments come to us in part for our thoroughness. They count on us to catch what they might miss. This could involve researching a matter for litigation or looking into a statute referenced in a vendor’s or client’s template agreement, or into any number of questions internal clients ask Legal on a daily basis. Overall and finally, I’ve cultivated the ability to be decisive. This is huge because I’m the type of person who, when you ask me where I want to go to dinner, says, “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” So I can definitely be an over-thinker, and I’ve learned the value in shutting that off to confidently make efficient and reasoned decisions in my role. Because there’s often no time to mull over a decision for too long, and it doesn’t always serve the business well to do so.
Do you have any advice for other in-house legal executives, such as what they can do to further their business’s success?
I’ll start with basic advice, because I think it’s great for those new to these roles, but also to remind all of your readers of these basic things we all know, but sometimes forget. Do your best, be prepared and be confident. Don’t be intimidated or let the role or your exposure to the C-suite get the better of you. You were hired for a reason, so set yourself up to shine in your role. Something all of us in-house must constantly cultivate—it really never ends—is to balance risk and reward; meaning our job is to identify and articulate risk, while remembering we also work for a business. In the contract-negotiation realm, that might translate into asking how serious does the risk have to be to block a deal? How serious does the risk have to be to not block a deal, but warrant taking a strong stance? How serious does the risk have to be to simply advise the business of the risk? How minimal does the risk have to be to just let it go? Or we might ask: Is this a purely legal decision? Is this a purely business decision? Does this decision have both business and legal overlap?
This type of risk balancing is a constant effort and varies from business to business. One company will happily block a deal if the risk profile is unacceptable to it while another will try to compromise as much as humanly possible to finalize the deal. Yet another may be somewhere in between. This brings me to one of the most important ways in-house executives can work to further the business’ success: following the business’ lead (to a lesser or greater extent). As in-house executives we obviously have to be leaders, so we don’t slavishly follow the business’ lead. But it’s important to get a sense of how risk averse your company is. Often you’ll learn the risk tolerance of the business when you start a new role in-house. Or you have a sense, before you arrive there, that the company has a good grasp of what they tolerate in terms of risk, or the company is somewhat immature in terms of risk assessment, either because they’ve barely thought about it or have a history of underestimating or overestimating risks.
To mature the company in terms of its risk assessment, it’s important to have conversations with relevant stakeholders to explain various risk concepts, talk through those risks and get a sense of their risk tolerance. That is one huge way you can further the business’ success. And then of course there are the obvious ones: Work-life balance is very important, but when you’re working, be available when you can. And be approachable. Be a team player. Finally, honor your commitments. For example, don’t promise a review by Tuesday if you know you won’t get it done until Thursday. Underpromise and overdeliver whenever possible.
What’s your understanding of the role of the law department?
One of the things I love about being in-house counsel is the many roles we have in relation to the countless departments we support and with which we collaborate. An obvious role of the law department, as I just mentioned, is to minimize risk. A corollary to that is the responsibility to educate as to risk and to do so in an understandable way. Our business counterparts don’t come to us for a law school 101 lesson. They want to know the practical risk of whatever action they want to take. How will it affect their budget? How could it negatively impact the company? And so on. We’re also tasked with educating clients in a customer-friendly way. Clients are not supposed to know our business. That’s why they’re hiring us. They know their business. So if a client is concerned about HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), but if HIPAA doesn’t apply to our engagement with them, part of our role is to say so. If HIPAA does, in fact, apply, so there’s a legitimate concern there, you continue the conversation and make it as productive as possible.
Another role where an in-house legal department can, if they’re so inclined, add a tremendous amount of value, is relationship-building. Sadly, many people don’t think of that as an important legal function, but with the right legal team, it can be. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it. Legal can build connections internally and externally. Perhaps there’s an impasse on a contract negotiation. Legal may be able to speak with the client’s lawyer and perhaps we can work it out.
I’ll touch on one more role, related to the education described earlier, which is to continually train. This can be one-on-one training of, say, a new salesperson or anyone else who wants clarity on a legal concept or process, including someone new to your legal department. Or it could be larger-scale training, such as informing a whole team (or the whole company) on something like data privacy concepts.
Why, and for whom, are unconventional educational and career paths beneficial?
This might be my favorite question because I’m eternally grateful for the winding path I took to my current role; a path that included, in addition to law, work in all kinds of fields, including real estate, hospitality, sales, sports and entertainment. Without that unconventional path, I wouldn’t have the perspective or the skills I have that sometimes set me apart from others, and that have allowed me to contribute as meaningfully as I can to my company and to my colleagues. Those around me likewise bring their own educational and career paths to the table, all of which makes for better, more robust discussions in the workplace. If we all had the same uniform path to where we are now, we wouldn’t have the diversity of ideas that get us where we need to be as a business.
The second part of the question—for whom is an unconventional career path beneficial—is the part I really like because law school trains us to think in a very specific way. I remember the dean of my law school telling us to warn our family and friends that the way we think and talk and present ourselves would change. He wasn’t wrong. I may be passionate about an issue, but I can argue both sides of it. But lawyers can also get stuck in that way of thinking and unconventional paths, other ways of thinking and other ways of accomplishing tasks and goals, help you shift away from purely legal reasoning. We’ve all known lawyers who are really bright but don’t possess the soft skills that are required for an in-house role. That’s one way that an unconventional career path could benefit a possible in-house counsel – by providing varied experiences from which to learn and to grow non-legal specific skills.
I have a theatre background for goodness’ sake and that has benefited me greatly in my legal career. We all, but especially lawyers who tend to be overachievers, get very caught up in this “clear path” and doing everything one is “supposed to do.” But sometimes you’re better off embracing the unconventional nature of your path and seeing where it leads you. Based on my experience, it will end up benefiting you in the end.