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Community Spotlight: Kirk Simmons, Head of Legal at Canva

January 25, 2021 5 min read

Meet Kirk Simmons, the first lawyer hired at Canva as its Head of Legal. Prior to Canva, he worked at Cricket Australia, eBay and DLA Piper. He is based in Sydney, Australia.

How did you find yourself in your role today?

My network. I was looking to relocate and I asked an ex-colleague at a technology company if he knew of a role. The role I took wasn’t advertised as a legal role, but when I looked at the JD and spoke with the recruiter it had all the hallmarks of a legal role.

At Canva, our team has a philosophy that we ought to help the business be risk aware, not risk averse. Starting in BigLaw helps you to understand and better assess risk, but it’s not the only path to developing your risk assessment and mitigation capabilities.

Before you joined Canva, you had spent time at eBay and Cricket Australia. What were your biggest learnings from these experiences?

Every in-house lawyer is told at some point in their career that you need to learn the business. At technology businesses, lawyers don’t need to write code or pull together wireframes (but it’s impressive if they do).

Lawyers do need to invest time to learn the commercial drivers and develop relationships with key stakeholders. This will inform understanding of the commercial outcomes (e.g. growing monthly active users) that ought to be considered when you do legal work for the business.

What advice would you give to someone who joins as the first legal hire?

Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you’re the first legal hire, there will be twenty, fifty or maybe even a hundred hires before you depending upon the industry your business operates in and the regulation that your business is required to comply with. Those prior hires probably won’t have turned their mind to matters that aren’t mission critical (e.g. do we have a signed copy of every NDA?).

I’d advise someone who joins as the first legal hire to embark upon a listening tour of your stakeholders. That listening tour can be used to create a mind map of the legal issues that face the business — you can even use a traffic light system to help you differentiate them and inform your legal roadmap. The business you learn about today isn’t necessarily going to be the same business in a month, so keep your finger on the pulse by staying in touch with your stakeholders.

Tell us about Canva. What does Canva do and how does Legal play a strategic role in driving business initiatives?

Canva is a simple way to create beautiful graphics. It’s a drag and drop design and publishing tool that has been created to be incredibly user-friendly. There are now more than 40 million monthly active users registered on Canva, in over 190 different countries. The company was valued at USD $6 billion in June 2020.

One of the Canva values is to set crazy big goals and make them happen. Whether that’s acquiring a company, or setting up in China, the Legal team plays a strategic role in driving business initiatives because every lawyer in the team follows another Canva value which is to make complex things simple.

If you’re in a 21st century company navigating 20th century laws, it isn’t always easy, but if you manage to do it you’ll play a strategic role at your organisation.

When you started at Canva, you were a team of one and now you’re a team of 10+ and currently hiring for an employment counsel. What advice do you have for scaling a team? How does Legal Ops play a role and what priorities do you anticipate?

Scaling your team takes time. It is a 2-3 month process to draft a job description, to interview the best candidates and have the lucky candidate serve out a notice period.

If you’re in a fast growing business, you may not realise you need a lawyer until it’s too late. Nevertheless, it’s important to hire thoughtfully. You need to consider experience, expertise and cultural fit, and above all — adaptability. In a small team, culture is important and it’s important to find lawyers that are comfortable in a rapidly growing business.

Startups are unpredictable. They pivot. They grow faster (or slower) than expected. They take risks. The list goes on, and most of these factors are out of your sphere of influence.

Legal Ops can play a huge role in scaling your team through matter management. By helping you to take your unstructured data from Slack messages, legal inbox, forms and/or in-person conversations into a single repository, Legal Ops can help your scaling team identify what trends and recurring types of legal work so that you can hire accordingly.

What brings you the most satisfaction in your role? What makes you say, “Nailed it!”

When someone in the business tells me or a team member that they can’t believe we’re a lawyer (or something to that effect).

What are your priorities for 2021?

My priority for 2021 is to continue helping the legal team to scale with the business, including a review of our legal operations roadmap.

How is Canva handling remote work? What has been helpful in preventing burnout?

Canva is handling remote work well – fortunately, Canva had equipped staff with the tools for remote work prior to the pandemic so office shutdowns weren’t a nightmare. What prevents burnout for one employee won’t necessarily work for another employee, but a handy hint we were told early in 2021 was to do a calendar audit.

What in-house legal trends are you seeing that you find particularly exciting and/or interesting?

It’s become standard for in-house legal teams to have (or be implementing) some degree of legal technology, whether it be a contract management system, matter management or equity record keeping. The pandemic is driving a ‘more for less’ attitude among my colleagues at other organizations so I expect that this will continue.

What certifications do you think are essential to succeed as an in-house lawyer?

I wouldn’t describe certifications as essential, but they can distinguish an in-house lawyer from their peers. For example, if you’re a privacy lawyer, you may be a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) or if you’re a legal operations lead you may have done basic coding courses. Those certifications should be weighed up against prior work experience etc.

Who, or what, inspires you?

My mother. She came to Australia from Malaysia as a 16-year old and is a career nurse. She’s still working at 72 and I strive to be as compassionate and hard working as she is, and always has been.

What would you tell your 25-year-old self?

Be opportunistic, and don’t close yourself off to opportunities from left-field because you don’t know where they will take you. At 25, I’d worked as an associate for a Supreme Court judge and I wanted to become a barrister which isn’t close to where I have ended up working in-house at a technology company.

Are you a mentor? Who have been your mentors and why/how did you approach them?

Yes. My mentors have usually been more experienced colleagues, but I’d describe some colleagues at my peer level as mentors too. In most cases, the relationship developed organically.

What are two things people don’t know about you? Fun facts or secret talents?

First, my wife and I enjoy amateur winemaking. I can’t say that our friends and family enjoy the fruits of our labour.

Second, as a baby lawyer I grew a beard to make myself look older/experienced. With the number of grey hairs I now see in the mirror, I might need to reconsider my approach.

What book are you reading right now?

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline.

Meet other legal leaders in this series, including Joel Benavides, Head of Global Legal and DPO at Redis Labs; Jennifer Chung, GC of AccuWeather; Ryan Black, Director of Legal Ops at Opendoor; Florence Chan, Legal Ops Manager at Cloudflare; and Deanna Sheridan, GC of Spartan Race. And if you’d like to get new jobs and invitations to exclusive member events, join the Ironclad Community.

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Vera Devera leads Ironclad’s event programs. She’s passionate about creating extraordinary, one-of-kind experiences, and loves bringing people together. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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