‘There is a creative and artistic side to me but also a very pragmatic and logical one. While I left that creative side behind, sometimes it still wants to get out.’ From speaking to Stephanie Dominy, general counsel of the hyper-complicated, open-source software security start-up Snyk, both her logical and creative credentials are in no doubt.
Dominy came to the UK at age 12 from Singapore while on an artistic mission: at the time she was training to be a ballet dancer, and had enrolled at a performing arts school. As such, she recalls that becoming a lawyer ‘wasn’t even intentional’. She says: ‘It was somewhat the expected thing, a safe career, something you would work hard at and then you will be recognised. I studied law at King’s and people were getting ready to go off and do training contracts, so I thought I might as well do the same!’
However, the realisation came soon after qualifying at Theodore Goddard that the traditional corporate partner route was not going to satisfy. Much like many of her in-house contemporaries, Dominy quickly found an urge for a more commercial role, where she could ‘see things through from beginning to end’. Luckily this desire came about during a boom period – the year 2000 and the beginning of the dotcom bubble. She recalls: ‘It was a really great time to go in-house, there were lots of interesting internet-enabled companies and lots of opportunities for junior lawyers.’
Her first move was to a tech PR company called Text 100 – now called Next 15 – which was listed on the Alternative Investment Market. She describes it as a ‘good first move’, with a small team of lawyers from whom she learned a lot. It was also a key building block of her soon-to-be tech career, despite the heavy PR focus.
After cutting her teeth there for two years, Dominy decided the time was right to move onto something bigger and bolder. In 2002 she joined Cable & Wireless, in a larger legal team of 20 people working on large commercial contracts, such as NHS IT outsourcing deals.
She says: ‘I learned a lot from senior lawyers there; it was almost like a small law firm. It wasn’t for me long-term though, it wasn’t somewhere you could really see yourself growing.’
Then came the most pivotal role of her career, and where she would spend the next 13 years. In 2004 she joined Gullivers Travel Associates (which later became Travelport). She says: ‘It’s a market nobody knows much about but everybody uses. When you go to a travel agent, they are using one of these platforms to make the booking.’
For Dominy, this was the most transformative position she held: ‘That’s where I really grew my career from being a mid-level lawyer to becoming head of a division and then GC of another division. I reported to many different bosses in the US, Switzerland and elsewhere. We went through many changes without me changing jobs.’
But eventually the constant buyouts and the subsequent structural changes to the business became tiresome, and Dominy reached a crossroads in her life and career: ‘There was another change coming up, and they asked if I wanted to leave my division. I thought, “If I say yes, that’s another commitment for a few more years to do the same thing.” I was 40, I’d just got divorced, so I decided that it was the time to be brave and just be open to other opportunities.’
That bold step turned out to be a productive one. She was encouraged by friends to set up her own consultancy, effectively a boutique law firm: ‘They said: “Why don’t you just go on your own? Use your contacts you’ve acquired over the years and get your own clients.” It seemed a crazy and brave thing to do. That’s what started the journey of change when I acquired a lot of tech and start-up clients.’
Going it alone proved to be beneficial in more ways than one – a better work/life balance was achieved by being able to manage her own time, but new and exciting clients were also coming aboard. Soon enough, Snyk, a UK-headquartered start-up which enables security and development teams to find and fix vulnerabilities in open-source codes, sought out Dominy.
‘At first they said: “Do a few hours for us.” Then: “We’re getting really busy, come and join us.” And I thought: “No, you don’t really need me, you’re very small, only 50 people.” They kept asking and then I eventually realised this company was really going somewhere, and it would be really foolish not to get on a start-up which is going somewhere.’
And Dominy is glad she made the switch. After joining in 2018 when Snyk had only 50 employees, she has seen the start-up rapidly cycle through from A financing to F, reaching an $8.5bn valuation today alongside nearly 800 members of staff. For a long time, Dominy was the only lawyer at the company, but it has since grown to a team of eight – she says that one lawyer per 100 employees is a good rule of thumb. ‘The legal team will probably double in size by next year,’ she adds. There is also an IPO on the horizon in the next 12 to 18 months.
As much as Dominy is happy with this manic pace, it takes a toll: ‘It’s definitely been the right decision, it’s also been a very hard and tiring few years. Like nothing else you could have experienced! Internally they use the metaphor of the rocket ship all the time, and it really is. It’s also a marathon. You’re running at a very high speed and sometimes I think “I can’t keep this up”, so you have to manage everybody as well as yourself to make sure you don’t burn out.’
It is no doubt a demanding role, and one of the biggest challenges appears to be pronouncing the name of the company: ‘No-one can pronounce the company name! On Twitter there is still debate. The founder says it’s supposed to be like “sneak” and it stands for So Now You Know. Some of our UK people say “snick” but the “sneak” pronunciation is taking over. Quite an ironic name!’
Dominy’s team is in a constant state of flux due to the ongoing evolution of the company, and while it remains small she expects her colleagues to be generalists ‘who are able to turn their hands to anything’. She says: ‘If one person is away, it’s no good saying: “Oh well, that person was assigned to vendor contracts”, if nobody else can do them. Everyone has to be well rounded.’
However, this philosophy is due to change as the legal team is set to double over the next year, with a demand for specialists higher up the agenda. This is compounded by Snyk’s potential IPO: ‘We will need a compliance function just to look at regulatory compliance, as well as data privacy compliance. Possibly we’ll need lawyers who just do procurements.’
But first on the wishlist is a legal ops professional, with Dominy an admirer of non-legal perspectives. ‘I really appreciate having non-lawyers on the team because a lot of our job now is to present data to the business and lawyers are not very good at that. Things like analysing metrics and producing nice dashboards. I really appreciate the legal ops-type mentality, so I think my next hire will be a legal ops person. Someone to project manage the lawyers, get us onto more automation and to use systems and tools better.’
Just like many fast-growth start-ups, Snyk has neither the time nor inclination for a formal external panel and instead opts for a wide geographical approach. However, due to what Dominy describes as Snyk’s ‘unusual’ structure of being UK headquartered but US focused, Cooley has become Snyk’s number one firm for its transatlantic capabilities. ‘We need people to support us seamlessly across both regions and Cooley is great for that,’ Dominy reports.
Otherwise, Dominy likes to use a wide range of smaller, local outfits in the jurisdictions she needs. ‘It is harder to manage everybody but you don’t need a full-service, international firm.’ With this flexibility in mind, Dominy says that she often takes advantage of commoditised overflow services offered by law firms as well as flexible lawyering options similar to Lawyers On Demand.
‘I would like to say we have a really formal beauty parade thing – one day we’ll get there. We’ve just been so fast in our growth that we don’t have the luxury of doing things with a proper procurement department. It’s really been about talking to different partners and trying them out. It’s important to make sure they give us a diverse team. We want you to be very responsive, that will be a big tick. Cost is lower down the list of priorities – we’ve got a lot of cash in the bank as a high-growth company, so the priority is speed.’
In terms of the unique challenges faced by being the GC of a software security company, Dominy contends that there are no specific regulatory hurdles. Instead, the usual concerns around cyber security are amplified as a matter of reputation: ‘The biggest thing we all fear is a security breach, which could apply to any company, but when you’re saying to the market that we’re trying to make the digital world a safer place, you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you!’ This concern is even more acute when attempting to take the company public – ‘You need to show you know what is out there in the ecosystem, everywhere you operate.’
Unique to the start-up environment are successive fundraising rounds, as Dominy quips: ‘They’re almost like mini-IPOs. We’re getting so good at them, it’s almost run of the mill!’ Despite becoming nearly second nature, Dominy insists that they are the most satisfying and rewarding aspects of her role. After a huge fundraising round, which can raise hundreds of millions of dollars (Snyk’s latest raise in September 2021 brought in $530m), Snyk reserves roughly tens of millions for its employees to take part in a tender offer.
Dominy says: ‘It’s the most work, because you’re dealing with an employee population that doesn’t necessarily know how to do this. You’re educating them on what this means without influencing them about selling their shares or exercising their options.’
But once they have liquidity, everyone is happy. ‘It’s a good story for everybody because we’ve managed to get investment into Snyk shares and employees have sums of money that are enabling them to do things with their lives like buy a house. They feel great about it and they’re very appreciative of us and it feels good to be a visible force of good, rather than the traditional lawyers in the background.’
Dominy is a passionate advocate for diversity, inclusivity and equality, chairing one of Snyk’s resource groups for women. While she recognises that the in-house legal world has a positive record for female representation, her crossover into the tech world has left a lot to be desired. ‘Tech is quite male dominated and any developer-oriented organisation is male dominated, so we have to constantly put forward role models and recruit more from our diverse pipeline.’
Of great importance to Dominy is nurturing and growing a legal team as they cope with the frenetic pressure of servicing such a fast-growth company. She concludes: ‘We’re moving so fast that people make mistakes. You don’t want them to go slower necessarily, but you want them to have a sense of psychological safety that they can go fast, make mistakes, and they can also be honest about where they’ve gone wrong and learn from it. Let’s just do the best we can. Hopefully there won’t be too many mistakes but we can always fix it!’
At a glance: Stephanie Dominy
1997 Trainee and associate, Theodore Goddard
2000 Legal counsel, Next 15
2002 Corporate counsel, Cable & Wireless
2004 Senior legal counsel, Gullivers Travel Associates
2006 Vice president, legal, Travelport
2011 General counsel for global travel distribution and global travel services, Kuoni Group
2016 Owner, Dominy Legal
2018 General counsel, Snyk
Snyk – key facts
Size of team Eight
External legal spend Between £1.5m and £2m for 2021
Preferred advisers Cooley, Yigal Arnon, McInnes Cooper, Vistra, Bird & Bird, Vischer, Southgate Law, Baker McKenzie, Haseltine Lake Kempner, Mannheimer Swartling, Davis & Gilbert, Thomsen & Burke, Taylor Wessing, Temple Employment, Helen Smith Immigration.