Bridge Between Law and Business: Q&A with Trâm Phi, Senior Vice President, General Counsel
We sat down with Trâm Phi, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, to learn about what inspires her and how she thinks about her role overseeing DocuSign’s legal, government affairs and risk management.
After law school you started in private practice. When did you decide to leave private practice and go in-house?
I really loved being in private practice at a law firm. I was working with tech companies and found it to be challenging and intellectually interesting, especially since I didn't have a tech background. I also loved the camaraderie of being at a law firm. Then, 9/11 happened, and I joined an aviation security company, which was an incredible opportunity to be on a management team of a company that was protecting the flying public. Going in-house allowed me to go deeper within one industry. When you're in private practice, you handle transactions or specific issues for companies. When that wraps up, you're done and no longer involved. When you're in-house, there's continuity. Once a transaction closes, you're involved in the integration within the larger company. I really enjoy that continuity and being involved in business issues and the bridge between the law and business.
You bring a unique and cross-functional blend of law and business to DocuSign. How do the two overlap in your daily responsibilities?
I don't think you can be a successful in-house lawyer unless you have a mix of law and business acumen. I love looking at substantive technical legal matters and being able to see how we can apply the law in a creative and practical way. At the same time, my experience has given me a great deal of exposure to business issues outside of legal matters. That context has allowed me to provide more constructive and valuable advice where legal and business matters overlap, and has allowed me to also serve as a knowledgeable business advisor.
How do you prioritize the big issues—commercial contracts, risk management and regulatory compliance—with your day-to-day duties?
That's the really challenging part of my job, but it's also part of the reason why I like it so much. I get to focus on different things every single day. Sometimes prioritization comes easy because there's a quarterly cadence. For example, I know that every quarter-end, I'm going to be highly focused on commercial deals. Then there's a time during the quarter where we're focused on our earnings release and our SEC reporting. I look over a longer term horizon when we are planning various compliance and risk mitigation initiatives, as well as broader cross-functional initiatives, and I also want to make sure that we're focused on providing development opportunities for our legal team. All of this requires a lot of planning to make sure that I am balancing the priorities within the legal team and the broader company.
What attracted you to DocuSign, and why are you still excited to work here today?
First, it’s the people, and that starts with Dan Springer, our CEO. I think of him as not only a great leader but more importantly, I think he's a fantastic human being. He sets the tone for the company. It’s why we have such a great culture and great people. The second reason is the work that I get to do. In particular, I love working on the DocuSign Agreement Cloud. I’m interested in legal operations and how corporate legal departments can be more scalable and efficient. That includes how we can leverage technology to more efficiently handle less complex matters and make the administrative parts of our job easier, allowing us to focus on higher value issues. It's a dream job for me. I’m at a company where my team gets to not only use our products, but we get to work with the product development team. We provide input and thought leadership on the product roadmap. Being involved in innovation is quite rewarding for me.
How has your legal team influenced product development?
We have a continuous feedback loop that goes from my team over to the product development team.
My team lives and breathes contracts, agreements and process efficiencies. We have a number of use cases where we understand how to make processes easier. We have a lot of input on product direction and the features that we know are really important. A number of improvements made to our products are the result of feedback my legal team has provided.
You have shared that your family left Vietnam and immigrated to the US. Can you tell us more about how your experience has impacted your career?
After we left Vietnam in 1975, we were sponsored by a Lutheran church in Indiana, and we lived there for about 15 years. It was a challenge growing up in an area where there were very few Asians, and my family struggled for a number of years. But the overwhelming number of people we interacted with were hard-working, family-focused, and well-intentioned, and so growing up in Indiana gave me hope. Growing up, I didn’t know I was going to be a lawyer, but I knew I was going to know my rights and that I wanted to be a professional. I also was influenced by seeing the challenges my parents encountered. Over time, all of this coalesced and naturally led to me studying law. Those experiences gave me my drive to succeed. If my family and I could thrive under more difficult circumstances, I could face any challenge that came my way.
Have you had mentors or sponsors in your career? If so, how did they help you grow as a professional?
Early in my career I had the mindset that I could do it alone, and I didn’t look for a mentor because I didn't know anyone who looked like me or had a similar background as me. It’s one of my biggest regrets. As a result, I didn't have a mentor in the traditional sense, although I did have people who I admired, and I actively solicited their views and advice. But I missed out on opportunities to connect with people, which made things even more difficult. Now I appreciate the fact that mentors can come in many different forms. Whether you're looking for a traditional mentor or multiple people for different kinds of advice, being open to a mentor is something I encourage.
When or where do you get your best ideas?
My best ideas always come when I've had a chance to step back from the immediacy of an issue and find some quiet time. I'm an introvert. Oftentimes I’ll continue to think through issues at night or on the weekend. I'm able to continue to iterate on something, and out of that deeper level of thinking come my best ideas.
Moving forward, what trends will impact your profession and trade?
I think there is going to be an increased focus on regulatory compliance. I see regulations continuing to grow over time. Privacy and trade controls across the board are impacting every company, not just tech companies. In addition, corporate legal departments will have an increased focus to more broadly lead digital transformation and the continued use of AI. There is still work to be done to get to a stage where it's going to be a needle mover for corporate legal departments. I see that accelerating over the next several years.
What do you look for when recruiting talent to your legal team?
I look for folks who are intellectually curious, not just smart. I really like people who have fire in their belly and a point of view. Experience is relevant and important, but I definitely will take a chance on someone with limited experience if they have talent, curiosity and enthusiasm.
Why should somebody come work on your team?
Three reasons, but first is the interesting work. We are doing challenging, cutting edge work day in and day out. The second reason is development opportunities. We are highly focused on setting our team up for success. We're always planning on how we can improve the day to day work that we do. We also take a longer term perspective on how we can support their professional and career development over a multi-year period. Lastly, it's the people. We are such a great team. I am really humbled that I get to work with such a world-class legal team.
Besides work, what other endeavors do you find gratifying?
Basically, I like to spend time with my family. My husband and I have children at home who keep us busy, and we love to travel and have shared experiences. I also love to cook, and host weekend dinner nights for our extended family and friends. Another favorite pastime is reading, especially nonfiction, but I’ll read almost anything. It’s that quiet time that I find very gratifying.
Interested in doing the work of your life at DocuSign? Check out our openings. We’d love to talk more.