At the age of 6, Todd K. Hanna was already “pounding on a pedestal somewhere and making people listen.” All signs seemed to point to a future in litigation. But then he landed a job doing corporate transactional work after graduating from law school and discovered that he loved being able to assist with business challenges as much as tackling legal questions.
Hanna knew going in-house would let him do both, so more than a decade ago he accepted a position at a tech company. It proved to be a perfect fit.
“I just loved the pace and complexity and change associated with technology, and how technology helps businesses do what they do better,” he says.
Last September, Hanna was hired as vice president and general counsel at Sovos Compliance, a company in Wilmington where he encourages the legal department to be “brash” and “have some swagger” while providing “great legal support.”
Hanna recently sat down with New England In-House’s Matthew Cove to discuss the challenges of running an in-house department at a fast-paced tech company, and why he thinks it’s important to instill some humor in the workplace.
Q. What changes have you made since you joined Sovos a year ago?
A. The pace of the growth and the pace of the change are hard to keep up with. They acquire a company about every year, and they add new products and new customers all the time. It’s daunting, and the legal department — a bunch of very smart, very capable people — was just struggling a little bit to keep up.
So what I was able to do was come in and create some definition in their roles, definition for the department, map against the sales organization that was also growing so that we were scale-able against sales, but also develop better relationships between the lawyers and sales.
Then we looked at the processes and contracts that we were using. I found them to be really slow and burdensome, so we found really creative ways to simplify the processes and contractual templates. Lo and behold, we’re finding ourselves closing deals faster, building better relationships with sales, building better relationships with customers, and everyone seems to be a lot happier.
Q. How much of your job is the more technical legal work and how much of it is about relationships and about how your department interacts with partners?
A. It’s probably pretty split. I do try to roll up my sleeves and get involved in deals all the time, especially the more complicated deals, the more strategic deals or just the bigger dollar-value deals where I think I have a role that I can play.
My lawyers do a great job negotiating themselves, but sometimes it’s helpful to have another voice on our side. So where I can do that, I certainly want to. And I like to take on some deals myself, too. I love to negotiate; I love to try to add value in the contracting cycle. And it gives my lawyers an opportunity to see how I do it.
I do this job with a real customer- and revenue-focused perspective. I really see myself and my department as a conduit of the legal and contracting cycle, and it’s important that we are taking the responsibility to drive business and generate revenue really seriously. There’s a lot of law departments and lawyers who like to operate separate from the business. They kind of see themselves as an arbiter or a check and balance.
Q. Why do you think those departments emphasize being separate from sales?
A. I think it’s a more conservative approach, where you take the position that your client is the company’s interest, and the company’s interest may not necessarily be aligned with sales interests. Sales may just want to do deals, whereas the company obviously wants to protect [itself], protect its livelihood.
For me it’s about finding the balance. I do think we’re part of the sales cycle, and I do think we’re customer-facing, and I do think we have an opportunity to either add value in a deal or detract from it. And when we remove ourselves too far from the business and try to constantly push back and slow things down, it has a negative effect on the customer’s experience with us.
I like the opposite to happen. I like when we close deals and the customers say, “My god, it was such a pleasure to do business with you at this stage. In fact, even the lawyers were a pleasure to do business with and it’s never that way.”
Q. You came up with the mantra “GSD”— or “get sh-t done.” You said instilling that philosophy in your department was the most important change you made. Was stuff not getting done before?
A. Yeah, stuff was getting done before — just maybe without the same level of alignment to the business outcomes or the same visible effort that sales likes to see or the business likes to see.
I think about teams and fostering teamwork very specifically in that my team needs to understand what our mission is, what our vision is, and have a little identity. For us the mission obviously is to provide great legal support to internal clients and external customers and make sure that we’re enabling business to get done — good, predictable, achievable business.
But that’s kind of boring, and that’s just sort of a mission statement. We want to do it with a particular kind of identity, and what I wanted my team to feel is that they understood how they were supposed to do that. So the “GSD” mantra was very intentional — it wasn’t something that just kind of organically sprung up. It was something that I installed purposefully.
It of course stands for “get sh-t done,” which is vulgar and kind of brash, but that’s how I wanted them to operate. I wanted them to be brash. I wanted them to have some swagger. And I wanted it to be something that the sales folks would be like, “Ah, I love that. If you’re going to do your job with that kind of a mantra, I get you.”
Q. Do you think it has improved productivity within your department?
A. You know, it’s a little silly, but it’s silly in a productive way. It has actually become a common phrase around the office that everyone’s using. In fact, when people compliment my team on having done a good job on something, they’ll tell me they totally “GSD’d.”
Q. Sovos has grown since your arrival. How much of the company’s growth has been in legal?
A. We’ve probably doubled the size of the department since 2015, and we’ll continue to be appropriately reactive as the business develops. But the important thing for me is making sure that everyone has enough to do, not too much to do, and that they like their work.
The other thing that we do is, while most of the attorneys are 90 percent focused on commercial contracting with customers, I’ve made sure that all of them also have a different role outside of commercial contracting that’s theirs and theirs alone. I want everyone to feel like they get to contribute to the business in different ways.
Q. You clearly bring a sense of humor to the job. Do you think people are surprised to see that in an in-house legal department?
A. I think it’s unexpected. I think as much personality as I try to bring, as much humor as I try to bring, is if not unusual then certainly unexpected. But for me it’s critical. We spend so much time in the office together, and this is hard stuff that we’re doing. We’re negotiating really complex software-licensing agreements with customers who expect that what we’re selling them is going to work so they can meet regulatory reporting obligations.
It’s pretty serious stuff, and if we allow ourselves to take it seriously all the time it can wear on you. So it’s important for me to find, for my own well-being but also for those around me, opportunities to do the work seriously but then to have a sense of humor and have fun in between those serious moments. And I’m lucky to work at a place like Sovos that totally embraces that.
Q. What have you learned in 12 years working in-house? What mistakes have you made?
A. It took me some time to learn to manage the emotions of the job. I think there was certainly a time when a high-pressured salesperson or a really frustrated customer would upset me. It would upset my tone, how I was talking to people, and I’d have arguments with my own customers about terms and conditions.
It took me a while — years — to learn how to deal with that better. I faked it for a while. I faked a person who wasn’t affected by those kinds of emotions. But over time I just became that. I’m really not affected by it anymore. I understand customers’ perspectives and approaches, and I understand salespeople’s perspectives and approaches.
Q. What would your advice be for someone just out of law school who’s looking to go down the in-house path?
A. There’s different kinds of people; there’s different kinds of lawyers, for sure. I’ve known lawyers who are kind of heads-down, they can just churn out work and bill a ton of hours, and the legal world has a place for them. I was not one of those kinds of lawyers.
In-house is a place where you get to wear a lot of hats. You get to really use your personality in what you do; you get to really understand your company’s business. And I find that so meaningful and rewarding that we do the legal work and we can see the effect it has on customers.
Q. What do you think makes your department unique in the in-house world?
A. I think we’re really focused on accumulating data so that we can operate like any other business unit, where we can report out the results that we’ve achieved, metrics, standards that we’re trying to meet or exceed. Every contract that comes into the department, we grade that contract based on the terms.
We do a customer satisfaction survey of sales. We send the survey out to sales every quarter saying, “Hey, how did we do for you?” And that’s data that not only are we tracking now, that we’re reporting out, [but] I’m actually bonused on it. My bonus is predicated on the amount of contracts and the grades of those contracts in tandem with the service level that we’re delivering to sales. So it’s really a different approach. We’re so in the business that sales’ satisfaction is how I’m going to get my bonus for next year.