The Efficiency Frontier: Bitmovin GC Ken Carter talks legal automation and efficiency

You’re probably familiar with the maxim ‘work smarter, not harder’. It’s the golden rule of anyone working – or looking to work – more efficiently.

For Ken Carter, GC at Bitmovin, he sees it as his fiduciary duty to be more efficient – scaling a business isn’t just about growing, it’s about achieving greater results with less effort.

Attorneys and legal professionals have their work cut out for them, so when it comes to the legal space, the pertinent question of the decade is: how do legal teams work smarter? Ken is a pro at building out repeatable and scalable processes, so we chatted to pick his brain about the future of law, legaltech and the no-code space.

What is Bitmovin?

Bitmovin is a video infrastructure and cloud software tech company. 

And what do you do?

As General Counsel, I’m responsible for all legal and public policy matters, including corporate governance, commercial transactions, intellectual property, prosecution and defence, and HR, finance and other administrative issues.

Let’s dive right into it! Why did Bitmovin hire you?

Bitmovin hired me because I’m really good at building processes around repeatable, scalable processes around routine legal activities. 

When I got here, they were spending a tonne of money on outside Counsel to negotiate contracts, and there was never the same contract twice. It was a mess. There was no consistency, no standardisation, everything took forever, and it just wasn’t scalable nor maintainable. 

I was hired to simplify all of that, and the reason why they chose me is because I’d done this before at Cloudflare (an internet security company). I was a very early employee at Cloudflare and its first Head of Legal. The company grew so quickly, that there was no way you could do every contract and negotiate every contract. So we built processes around contracts, and processes around the way we diverge from our processes. We pushed a lot of legal decision-making into the hands of sales reps in a controlled way. This allowed us to do about 45% of all contracts without any direct involvement of the legal team.

Another thing we’ve also been working on at Bitmovin is the Universal NDA, something I’m really passionate about. We collaborated with the Startup Legal Garage at UC Hastings College of the Law to create an NDA for routine commercial transactions for wide adoption. The goal is to limit the time that’s spent by lawyers reading and negotiating these agreements.

You seem excited about experimenting with no-code solutions for legal work. What drives your curiosity and interest in the legaltech space?

I had the good fortune to spend the early part of my career doing heavy, arcane economic work, and studying things, and I bring that sort of curiosity with me. I also have the experience of having written thousands of words on unlicensed radio spectrum policy! The same sorts of problems crop up, such as: how can I do this? How can I get all these competing, different demands done in the most efficient way? That’s what I did during the early part of my career. 

I also had the opportunity to retrain myself as an MBA after becoming a lawyer. I became so enamoured with the concept of efficiency and how we understand efficiency. How do you measure efficiency? How do you manage the efficiency frontier? 

One of the product projects I worked on when I lived in Europe tangentially involved bringing a software engineering approach to writing legal code and statutes. The software engineering approach involved modularising everything so that you can test it as you build out dependencies. I realised it’s the same as legal code, which is an ordered set of instructions with definitions for variables and conditions.

And if you look at my early work, like all about efficiency frontiers. I like asking: how do you orchestrate the best probability for the best possible outcome with limited information?

What’s it been like building processes to make legal workflows and processes more efficient at Bitmovin?

I’ve been at Bitmovin for 3.5 years. When I first got here, I simplified everything, and then we bought some legaltech that I started playing with and using. 

But we got to a point about a year and a half later where what I had built was so complicated and nobody could understand it. 

I genuinely felt like I had failed and hadn’t lived up to my interview with the Chief Technology Officer, where I promised to simplify all this. 

Once I got over that sort of sense of failure, I realised that this is just in the nature of our business. We have three complex products, and we have customers on old contracts, customers on new contracts, and there’s an inherent complexity there that I can’t simplify.

Where did this feeling of failure come from?

We were using one particular legaltech tool extensively, and at one point, we had almost 90 workflows. 

When did you realise something wasn’t working? 

I had this sales representative call me at an ungodly hour in the morning because he was in Rio de Janeiro and needed to know what contract to use for a deal he negotiated. 

That’s when I realised: this doesn’t work. This is not scalable. I realised: I’m the only one who knows how the contracts and processes work. There were so many workflows, and it was so complex that nobody could manage it at that point. 

Did you go back to the drawing board? Talk us through what you did next.

I saw a presentation at a legal ops event soon after by Adam Nance, the Head of Legal Operations at Slack. He was showing off what he had built in Slack. For example, if his marketing team wanted to know if they had publicity rights for certain customers, they could type it in Slack, and the Slack bot would query a database and return an answer. I thought, that’s what I need. 

We went out to lunch and he explained how Slack workflows operate. I had two interns come in and build a workflow chart and the logic behind what contract configuration is needed. From there we built a spreadsheet, and from the spreadsheet, we built a chatbot in Slack. 

While I couldn’t eliminate this complexity, I could solve it by building a layer of intelligence above it. 

But it helped us reduce the number of workflows we had, although each one is more complex. 

Then I saw Josef’s Co-founders Tom Dreyfus and Sam Flynn at another legal operations event online, and I thought… this looks a lot easier to use. 

Because we are still building and refining our processes, there’s still a fair amount of fine tuning and change that goes on, and I could not wait six weeks to get engineering cycles to update the Slack bot, and now we’re trying Josef. 

Josef gives me the ability to give consistent routine legal advice and control over that! 

You’re a proactive attorney! Why do you think other attorneys haven’t pursued automation or legal technology despite its benefits?

It is ingrained in our professional code of conduct to be risk-averse. So, if you do something dumb as a non-lawyer, you’ll get fired and lose your job. You’ll feel bad, but you’ll go back to the market and get a new job. You’ll be fine. If I do something dumb, as an attorney, I’ll lose my licence, and I won’t be able to get another job, so that makes me super risk-averse. 

Lawyers are fiduciaries – we have to put our client’s interests ahead of our own, so those two things can make some lawyers scared to do anything innovative. 

In addition, our professional training is to look to the past at a whole bunch of bad things that have happened, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it. We look to precedent, in order to handle the present. No one teaches us how to look to the future to handle the present, so all of that conditions us.

“Lawyers are fiduciaries – we have to put our client's interests ahead of our own, so those two things can make some lawyers scared to do anything innovative.”
– Kenneth Carter, General Counsel, Bitmovin

How does no-code automation like Josef help GCs serve their clients to the best of their ability?

It allows your client to scale! Scaling isn’t just about growing a bigger business, it’s also about achieving greater results with less effort. To do anything less is a breach of your fiduciary duty.

My client is competing against other businesses, so I need to be able to help them understand what the trade-offs are. How can I help my client become as efficient as possible for all the things that should be efficient? 

You want to balance these competing notions of the subsidiarity and broader harmonisation. You want everything to be as consistent as possible, but you need to be able to control for when situations diverge. One of the things that we’ve done with legaltech is build a consistent pre-programmed set of chess moves, foreseeing that the customer might ask for something else.

There are things that shouldn’t be efficient, too. I don’t want to build a system that’s like, ‘Click here to be fired’. I don’t like that at all. 

What does no-code digital transformation mean for future lawyers?

Well, junior lawyers tend to do things like put contract templates together, but now I have a piece of software that does this. I do not need a junior attorney to do that anymore. So, what do legal teams do now to ensure that junior lawyers become senior attorneys? 

“While I couldn’t eliminate this complexity, I could solve it by building a layer of intelligence above it.”
– Kenneth Carter, General Counsel, Bitmovin

Do you think the automation of these repetitive tasks might actually provide young lawyers the space to focus on high-value and strategic legal work?

I can’t answer the question any better than you’ve asked it. People are not good at doing repetitive tasks, but computers are. People are good at discretion and intuition and the grey areas.

I like the idea of the Minotaur – half-man, half-bull. If I combine my intuition, my creativity, my thinking, along with data and analyses from the computer, I’m going to beat anyone in negotiations and in the practice of law, especially if they’re just throwing artificial intelligence and legaltech at this problem.

The ability to do two things at once, or use two tools at once and merge them, is a winning combination.

Do you have any material you can recommend to aspiring Minotaurs?

I recommend Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World by David Epstein.

The question it asks is: Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist? The answer is ‘yes’. You’ll want them together in appropriate measures. There’s a chapter about chess competitions and grandmasters playing computers, and it was determined that the team that has some probabilistic analysis based on a computer model but still uses a human player is actually the best model.

Outside of being a General Counsel and pushing the efficiency frontier, what do you do for fun? 

I’m a dad. To my children and dog, I’m just dad, complete with the dad jeans and the dad jokes. I spend a lot of time with my two children teaching them to do things that we both enjoy, like cycling and camping. My older son just got scuba certified in the Fall, so we’ll be spending time diving in Monterey! I’m also taking my daughter camping and snorkelling on the Sonoma Coast.

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