Matt Small was an associate, comfortably settled at Testa Hurwitz & Thibeault in Boston, when Blackboard Inc. offered an in-house counsel spot in 2002. Since then, he and the ten-year-old company have grown up substantially. Under Matt, Blackboard—which provides online course environment software to over a third of the nation’s 6400 universities - went public in ‘04, and within the last year closed on a $185 million purchase of rival WebCT and a $165 million convertible debt offering. The latest feather in his cap is a nomination as 2007 Corporate Counsel of the Year by the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Washington chapter (WMACCA). Bisnow swung by to get schooled.
Matt poses at the “obligatory tech company foosball table.” In addition to GC duties, Matt serves as Secretary to the Board and just became head of HR. When additional roles come his way, Matt tells Bisnow, “You scale up and hope the wife understands.“
Why all the notice? Matt says that getting heavily involved in business decisions has given his five-member in-house team an enviably high profile within the company. Matt didn’t just provide legal counsel on Blackboard’s recent acquisition of plagiarism detection software, for instance–he identified, approached, negotiated and integrated the asset (a program developed by Sciworth) as head of Corporate Development. “There’s a group at the top providing input on all strategic issues, and I’m one of them,” Matt says. “More legal departments should play this role. You don’t want legal to be perceived as a cost center or business prevention partner. You want to be a force moving the company forward.”
Matt lives with his wife and former Wilmer Hale attorney Davina in Penn Quarter, a stone’s throw from the National Portrait Gallery. Their ski house in Vermont makes it easy to vacation with two toddler boys. (If you don’t count the seven-hour drive, that is.)
To build out the corporate development group, Blackboard is interviewing for two new hires with big-firm M&A experience. Matt’s philosophy to “hire top performers and teach them the Blackboard way” led him to I.P. and patent specialist Debbie Sheehan, formerly the chief patent officer at MCI and a partner at Fried Frank. (Debbie recruited her best associate, Andy Olek, to come along.) Being flexible has helped attract top talent; Debbie works fours days a week and Patton Boggs import Alyssa Senzel works three.
Matt likes that Blackboard’s leaders often stop by with questions that begin: “Hey Matt, not a legal issue, but…?”
Blackboard uses Wilmer Hale as its lead corporate counsel and McDermott Will & Emery for patent litigation and other matters, such as responding to the DOJ’s anti trust questions over the WebCT purchase. McDermott partner Mike Nadel provides what Matt looks for in outside counsel: someone who champions Blackboard from within the firm by getting the best attorneys on its matters, and who presents advice that integrates the views of all the various firm departments working on Blackboard issues. “I’m looking for a quarterback inside a law firm,” Matt says.
The guts of the operation at 1899 L Street, where 450 of Blackboard’s 800-plus employees work. “We can’t be down for even three minutes on a Sunday night,” Matt says, while the three guys over his right shoulder play Tetris.