David S. Mitchell – Morning Consult
For the first 10 years of his legal career, David S. Mitchell started every day with a to-do list. In September 2018, when he joined the startup Morning Consult as its associate counsel, he ditched the lists.
“The quintessential characteristic of startups is constant change,” he says. “Startups, by their very nature, are full of ambiguity, which doesn’t exactly make it easy to map out your day.”
For the first few weeks at the decision intelligence company, Mitchell says he found the ambiguity frustrating, but then grew to love it. He even found it was making him a better lawyer.
Now, with four years and several promotions under his belt, he feels comfortable helping the company grow as it continues providing its clients with insights on everything from tracking brand health to how competitors are performing in the market.
“Whenever I make a decision, I’m thinking from the legal and business perspectives,” says Mitchell, who was promoted to chief legal officer in October 2021. “I consider where the business was, is and where it’s going.”
Keeping a legal eye on the future
Now, instead of starting the day with a to-do list, Mitchell begins with a guiding question: “How do I help Morning Consult evolve to solve today’s problems, knowing that everything can change tomorrow?”
Most recently, the answer was to facilitate a stronger dialogue between the legal and commercial teams to reconcile each department’s unique approach to contract execution.
He says a primary tension between these two departments in most startups is time. Where commercial staff focus on swift contract turnarounds to enhance customer experience, legal staff want to support that speed while ensuring the business is taking only reasonable risks.
Morning Consult conducts over 30,000 daily interviews of consumers across the globe, pairing high-frequency survey research data with applied analytics. This data about what people think and how they will act helps the company’s clients, which represent more than half of the Fortune 500, make informed decisions.
Mitchell’s first step to make processes more efficient for Morning Consult and its clients was standardization, which included creating contract templates. Now, salespeople can generate certain contracts without waiting for the legal department to draft and review them.
To make the process more efficient, Mitchell uses a contract life cycle management tool, which allows him to create clearer workflows alongside actionable analytics. For instance, if a finance review is required, the system automatically routes the contract to finance. Once the contract is ready for legal review, the system alerts staff in that department.
These customized workflows have also minimized risks as the system ensures that all necessary stakeholders get an eye on contracts and a voice in their creation.
“I’m happy with the results, and so is Morning Consult,” Mitchell says. “Contract analytics are driving better decisions. We’ve also seen a significant decrease in the time it takes to execute contracts while further mitigating risks.”
Building a core
Mitchell doesn’t just partner with the commercial department. He also advises executives and works with everyone from sales, client services, product and marketing to engineering, human resources and talent acquisition. He’s also directly involved in the legal team’s hiring decisions.
“I don’t just look for skilled attorneys,” he says. “Rather, I look for someone who’ll approach business problems as a businessperson—and just happens to be a lawyer. That profile helps break the stigma of lawyers being aloof and siloed.”
He believes people are more comfortable working with lawyers who can think like businesspeople than with lawyers who may not understand how businesspeople assess opportunity and risk. He also seeks people who are innovative and intellectually curious. Sometimes a stakeholder can’t afford to hear “no,” so Mitchell and his team creatively figure out the “how” of saying “yes.”
“I’ve also learned that building a team of good people with a diversity of experiences and backgrounds makes for an amazing experience and a competitive edge,” he says.
Turning the page
Mitchell values creativity because it led him to take a multi-year hiatus—despite being on partner track at the firm Dechert. He had a book he wanted to write and knew he had to pivot or face the prospect that he’d never finish it.
When the firm’s partner and others asked Mitchell how he could take such a risk, he answered, “My mother—and my time in big law—taught me to be fearless.”
His gamble paid off, and he published his historical and political fiction “We Hold These Truths” in 2016, a mere two years after leaving Dechert.
Before he left to work on his book, he’d spent most of his professional career at law firms, first in New York City then Washington, D.C. He’s grateful for those experiences, saying that big law may put lawyers through a crucible, but it confers self-confidence that is highly transferable across industries.
Although Mitchell was interested in tech as he considered his next career move, he wanted to return to academia; he had enjoyed undergraduate at Yale and his post-graduate at Harvard Law School. So, he worked for a little over a year at Georgetown University where he managed its information technology contracts. But when Morning Consult offered an in-house opportunity, he couldn’t resist.
“While I had to shift the way that I approached work when I joined Morning Consult, I welcomed the challenge,” Mitchell says. “I’ve constantly got one eye on the past and one eye on the future here, and it makes for a remarkably dynamic and fulfilling work experience.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer IV 2022 Edition here.
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