Ilan Hornstein and Sabrina Ross make up an all-Sidley-alumni legal team at Nauto. Ilan is the Head of Legal and Sabrina is Associate General Counsel of Privacy and Security. They spoke with Pam Martinson to share reflections on their career paths, what it takes to work in a Silicon Valley start-up, and the importance of mentorship.
Pam: Let’s start with – What is Nauto?
Ilan: Nauto is an AI company on a mission to make driving safer and smarter. We’re doing this today by helping commercial fleets better identify and prevent distractions, coach and improve driver behavior, and reduce at-fault collisions. We’re also using this knowledge of driver performance to create a shared data platform that informs the safe development of autonomous vehicles. We see the elimination of distracted driving as the way in which we can impact the world. Ultimately, we hope to do that through enabling autonomous vehicles but, in the meantime, we’re deploying artificial intelligence in a device that’s installed in vehicles, which can help the driver be safe on the road. We sell to fleets and we’re already seeing reductions in claims of 35% in the fleets where our device is deployed. And, with early adoption customers, we saw 54% fewer distractions per hour behind the wheel and as high 70% in some drivers. It makes me feel good to work for a company where we’re already saving lives now.
Pam: What has your path been at Nauto?
Ilan: I joined the company six months ago to run the technology and commercial transactions side of the business. What I love about working in a start-up is that you are not required to “stay in your lane”. I’ve had opportunities to help in other parts of the company, and bring my engineering and business training to bear. A few months into my time here, our then-GC decided to return to private practice and the management team asked me to take the GC position.
Pam: Sabrina, could you share what role you play, and how you came to Nauto?
Sabrina: I started with Nauto about a year ago. I had just had a baby and wanted to experiment with flexible work. The then-general counsel reached out to me and I started on some smaller projects for the company. I loved the team and the product so much that by spring I was quick to take on the official Associate General Counsel of Privacy and Security role.
Pam: Did the two of you know each other when you were at Sidley?
Ilan: I think we must have crossed paths, but neither Sabrina nor I were really aware of each other. It was a really interesting surprise how our networks at Sidley overlap.
Pam: Did having that Sidley experience in your background help you work together?
Sabrina: Absolutely. We both understand the training and approach we grew up with as lawyers. Sidley has a professionalism and approach to ethics that feels very much present.
Ilan: Very recently we had an “all hands on deck” project for the company where we needed to move very quickly into two difficult markets. Because we both knew people at Sidley and we trusted each other, Sabrina and I were able to work together to very rapidly get it done.
Pam: You’ve both had a fairly short experience at Nauto, but I’d love to hear if there have been any experiences that you are always going to remember from these last six months.
Sabrina: Having been at Apple and Uber before Nauto, I really like to be at companies where privacy is core to what they’re doing. It is intimate having a camera in your car. I have a research device in my car and it sees my husband and me laughing at our baby or whatever. It’s been really exciting to work at a company that cares about getting privacy right and works to make privacy a competitive advantage as opposed to a pain point in each deal.
Pam: Ilan, you’ve been general counsel for a very short time. What surprises you about your role so far?
Ilan: It’s something that I’ve been working towards for a very long time, and it feels almost surreal at times. I love how some executives have introduced me when we were dealing with third parties. They’ve said, “This is Ilan; he’s our general counsel, but he’s like no lawyer you’ve ever met.” People have different experiences with lawyers, and I think it’s important to be what I call a “complete lawyer”—not just a theoretical lawyer.
Sabrina: They get that you’ll come equipped with not just legal solutions, but with technical and business ideas as well.
Pam: Ilan, do you think your engineering degree and business background was necessary for the role, or could somebody who is “just a lawyer” have the same success?
Ilan: I don’t think you have to be an engineer, but I do think that it gives me credibility with our technical folks. I also don’t think that a business degree is required. Having a passion for the technology, and really believing and wanting to understand it, is really important. As a lawyer in a large law firm, you encounter interesting situations and technologies. If you spent the time trying to understand it, you are then in a position to provide concrete solutions outside of the law and that is tremendously valuable. In Sidley’s Palo Alto office, I had really great mentors, such as yourself, who helped expose me to a variety of industries and companies. I have used skills and experiences that I remember from deals I worked on at Sidley, where I learned how certain business structures work, to make a positive contribution outside of legal.
Pam: It sounds like you both had some meaningful mentoring experiences. Could you tell me about those?
Ilan: Well, my biggest mentor is you, Pam. You are the person who plucked me out of Boston College law school and ended up convincing me to move across the country, even though I had offers from firms in Boston, where my wife had a career she was pursuing. But it was probably the best decision that we ever made. You were the invisible steering hand behind the projects I worked on, how to navigate a law firm, and how to grow in-house in a company. All of the partners in the Palo Alto office were great—Tom DeFilipps, Hank Barry and Deborah Marshall taught me a lot about being the “complete lawyer”.
Sabrina: For almost 10 years now, I tell people that I owe much of my privacy law career to Ed McNicholas (Alum) and Colleen Brown in DC. I still see them when they come to the Bay Area; I call them when I have hard questions; I refer companies to them when they say, “I need a privacy lawyer who is calm in the face of stress.”
Pam: Sabrina, when you were at Sidley, did you ever picture yourself in an in-house position?
Sabrina: Yes. For the type of lawyer I am, I wanted to see how companies were actually operationalizing the guidance that I gave because that is one of the challenges of privacy law.
Pam: What about you, Ilan? When did you start thinking seriously about being in a company?
Ilan: I actually was in a company, and negotiating deals, prior to law school. I reached a point where I was limited in that role, and I thought, “If I can’t touch the whole document if I don’t go to law school, then I’ll go to law school. Challenge accepted.” I always knew that I would want to be back in a business, and I wanted to be in the position of being the general counsel for a technology company; that was a long-term goal. I learned in law school that if you want to get really good training on the transactional side, you have to go to a law firm. Originally I thought I would spend three years in a firm, but I stayed a lot longer because I kept learning and learning. It wasn’t an easy decision when I decided to leave Sidley, but I think it was my time to leave and go on to the next phase in my career.
Pam: Even I admit that it’s worked out okay. Sabrina, do you have any advice that you would give to current Sidley associates?
Sabrina: I know so many lawyers who say that they love what they do because they feel like they’re constantly learning. A few years ago, I started keeping a journal of my day-to-day tasks. Almost like timekeeping, but instead documenting which tasks I enjoyed, which ones I didn’t. Things like that can help you reflect on whether you’re getting the things you want out of your job.
Pam: I know there’s probably not a typical day, but can you describe what your workday looks like?
Ilan: The truth about being in-house at a startup is that of the things that you think you’re going to get done in a day, about 30% actually get done. Current events overtake your plans. Since I’ve taken on my current role, sometimes multiple days pass without me touching a document, which takes some getting used to. It’s a lot of meetings, and influencing, and learning about the company, and being involved in very odd things—because anything that’s odd in a company bubbles up to the general counsel eventually.
Published December 2018 - UPDATE: Sabrina is now Public Policy, Facebook
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