When the opportunity arose for Courtney Browne to move in-house after a tenure with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, she knew there would be a lot to learn.
She would need to diversify her expertise after primarily working in mergers and acquisitions (M&A), as private companies rarely have teams of subject matter experts akin to large law firms. She would need to learn the best way to work with other business functions and make it clear that she and the legal office could be an essential business partner. Fortunately, when that opportunity came knocking in the form of a corporate counsel role at Birchbox, Browne had some familiar footing: She had been a customer since the company’s beta testing.
A childhood friend of Browne’s had gone to Harvard Business School with cofounders Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna. When the Birchbox team was ready to beta test their monthly subscription service—which mails out a customized box full of samples of makeup and other beauty products—Browne was among the first recipients. In fact, she was such a fan of the service that she became a paid subscriber once Birchbox officially launched. “I wasn’t planning on leaving the firm when I did, but it was a great opportunity to work for a brand that I was already very invested and interested in,” Browne recalls. “I came to a role that required me to use my basic skills in contracts drafting and corporate governance, and then just expand.”
A large aspect of that expansion came in the form of building a strong base in intellectual property (IP), something that has only become more important as Browne has risen to the position of general counsel. While every merger or acquisition that she worked on involved some aspect of IP, Browne gave it only a cursory glance, knowing that the resident experts would step in and ensure the right steps were being followed.
But Browne discovered that IP was tied throughout every element of her work at Birchbox. “IP is definitely something that is underlying everything we think about, but we take on a lot more,” Browne says. And while she wasn’t necessarily an IP expert, Browne was able to build from the general skills she had developed, utilize the resources she has in the business to learn what she needs to know, and know when to partner with outside counsel.
“I was able to build upon those general skills with the scrappiness that you need at a firm, a willingness to deal with challenges, and an openness to challenges,” she says.
As a leader in the organization, Browne has to ensure that everyone at Birchbox can develop their own basic skills when it comes to IP. Browne and the organization’s other legal professionals hold training sessions with employees on the basics of IP to ensure that everyone can work from a shared base.
“We work with our marketing teams, our creative teams, and other teams that do a lot with creating new products or dealing with other people’s IP,” Browne explains. “We do some upfront training with them so they know the basics and so that other people can spot issues. We’re all in it together.”
“We work with our marketing teams, our creative teams, and other teams that do a lot with creating new products or dealing with other people’s IP. We do some upfront training with them so they know the basics and so that other people can spot issues. We’re all in it together.”
She may be part of only a two-person team, but these training sessions help turn the entire organization into a metaphorical legal team. And as the organization continues to grow, she plans to grow the team as well.
In addition to looking out for the organization’s IP, Browne needs to keep track of employment law, tech-related agreements, and any lingering concerns. One major space for opportunity for Birchbox is social media, although that also poses its own set of challenges. “We need to think about all the implications of posting things, sweepstakes, contests, and more,” she says. In addition, her and her team need to keep an eye out not only for IP concerns in their own organization, but also for fan videos posted on social media. “If it can come across as something that’s coming from Birchbox, it could be problematic,” she says. “We could be very aggressive and send a letter asking them to take down their posts. Our general position is to find it flattering.”
Browne has also been involved in the development of two in-house Birchbox brands, down to the packaging and logos. “That’s definitely something that is interesting and has definitely changed the way that I’ve looked at things,” she says. “When I’m going into stores and looking at things, I’m thinking a lot more about all of that.”
Throughout that entire detailed process, Browne aims to ensure that the legal department is viewed as a partner, rather than an impediment. “We need to help our business partners achieve whatever it is they want to achieve,” she says. “It may not happen exactly the way they want it to, but we’re not here to say no. We’re here to provide alternative suggestions.”
In order to arrive at a point in which she can provide alternate suggestions, businesspeople need to feel comfortable coming to her with questions. “We’re all working toward the same goal,” Browne says. “My role might not be to develop the new marketing campaign, but in reviewing it, my goal is the same: to get the best product out there for the customer.”
Considering her own experience in getting those amazing products that Birchbox delivers, that goal remains crystal clear.
Sharing Wisdom, Giving Back
In addition to her work with Birchbox, Courtney Browne gives back by mentoring students in their quest to reach their own legal careers—a passion influenced by her mother’s career as a high school guidance counselor.
Through her work with the New York City Bar Association, Browne was asked to become a mentor through Legal Outreach. She was paired up with a college sophomore, and she holds monthly meetings to go over life skills, professional development skills, legal debate development, and fun outings that would expand the student’s experiences.
“Our goal is to always do something that she hasn’t done before,” Browne says. “We tried ramen and went to the museum. We try to have fun.”
Browne also returns to her alma mater, Columbia Law School, and mentors students there as well. She finds fulfillment in being able to watch students’ growth in confidence and passion for the law throughout the process. “Typically, when you’re in school, they don’t tell you everything you’ll need to know,” she says. “That’s something that’s important to me: helping people. I’ve been fortunate to have people who’ve helped me, and I want to be able to pay it forward however I can. I’m very much influenced by my mom’s counselor background.”
The Birth of Birchbox
It’s fair to say that when Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna met that they had different approaches to beauty. On one hand, Barna was a self-proclaimed novice, while Beauchamp was a connoisseur. However, they did agree that shopping for products was frustrating, inefficient, and confusing.
That’s when they developed the idea for Birchbox, the brainchild of two friends with a love of the Internet and an itch to create a better way to shop for beauty products, according to Birchbox’s website.
Barna and Beauchamp envisioned a way for customers to easily and efficiently try, learn about, and purchase beauty products online. Eventually, they combined monthly deliveries of personalized samples with original editorial and an e-commerce shop.
The first Birchboxes were then shipped in September 2010. Millions of boxes and product matches later, the company’s mission remains the same: to help customers find products they love. They keep that top of mind every day, according to the company’s website.