Successful Stakeholders Series: Legal with Ambar Chavez
5 Keys to Succeeding with Product Counsel
In my past roles, it has been critical for me to work well with Legal. I’ve successfully partnered with Legal to navigate everything from the murkiness of fees and pricing to strategies for platform safety. I’ve thrived because of my successful partnership with Legal.
I sat down with my friend, Ambar Chavez, to talk about her best practices as she works hand in hand with PMs and designers every day. Ambar cut her teeth as a litigator and regulator before moving into a Product Counsel role at Blend. This is the second article in the Successful Stakeholders Series that helps product managers do their best work with cross-functional partners.
Start with a shared goal
Product and Legal both want to build a product that sells and is scalable. You know how much you and your engineers hate having technical debt? Well, here’s the secret: Your product counsel doesn’t want you to have to rebuild features because you missed a requirement either. That’s why it’s imperative to have legal work closely with product, engineering, and design early while the requirements are still being defined. And especially if you work in a regulated space like financial services, you have to make sure that your product features will be compliant with lots of regulations.
Share the sandbox
When Chavez first started as a Product Counsel, she trained with Customer Support new hires as part of her onboarding. She was taught how to go into the product and learn the product — so that she can not only answer questions, but also to be able to flesh out the root question or concern. Chavez’s exposure to the product didn’t end with onboarding. As Product Counsel, Chavez spends time in the product everyday. By being in the sandbox, she knows what is being worked on. By being in the beta, she knows what is being tested. Knowing the product and monitoring what’s in the works helps her ask the right questions and spot issues.
Keep product counsel in the loop
Chavez builds strong relationships with her PMs through a variety of channels. She has regular 1:1s with her PMs, watches JIRA tickets, and participates in Slack channels (her PMs know when an “eyes” emoji is coming by now). When PMs get pertinent questions from Sales, she’s copied into the email. When there’s a big product launch or feature release coming up, she helps them strategize and prepare in an execution planning meeting. Your product counsel can only help you if he or she knows what’s going on. You can start building this ongoing cadence just by copying in your product counsel.
Two heads are better than one
Sometimes, you feel a lot of pressure as a PM that everything is riding on your shoulders. You’re responsible for driving a big launch, but you don’t have to do it all alone. Chavez helps her team game plan by first determining if something is a “big launch.” She sits down with the PM and lead engineer and they walk through the product and how it works. The more APIs, middleware, and layers, the more potential break points and risk in the launch. The higher the repercussions of a failure, the higher the risk in the launch. If there’s enough risk, then prior to launch, they get everyone — from engineering to QA to design to product to legal — together to talk through what could break, what controls are in place to prevent it from breaking, and what the mitigation would be. So everyone can sleep a bit easier at night knowing that you have a plan if anything major goes wrong.
Understand who needs to make a decision
There are times when product counsel will say they think your idea is too risky and should be reconsidered, but those times are few and far between. Usually, Chavez tries to give her PMs two to three options. For example, if your product goal is to collect user consent, then your options could be to use a checkbox, radio button, or a line of text that indicates that clicking continue will signal consent. She assesses the level of risk with each option and leaves the ultimate decision to the PM. And if you’re making a purely cosmetic change in the product, then the right decision maker isn’t the PM but the designer. By educating and arming the team on how to think about compliance, it empowers them to make decisions.
Partnering well with Legal helps Product Managers be more successful in their job. Make your product counsel a full member of your team by finding shared goals, giving them access to the sandbox, keeping them looped in, brainstorming together, and understanding decision making. The way Chavez sees it, the word “Product” is in her job title, so it should be part of her job. And it so happens that is one of her favorite parts of the job, so it worked out.
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