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6 Tips for Becoming a Startup Company Lawyer

Nearly 200 people showed up to the Betterment headquarters for an evening of networking and learning about making the move from a traditional law firm to an in-house role at a younger company. Here are some key things we learned from the panelists.

Articles by Sarah Kaufman

By Sarah Kaufman
Director of Brand and Content, Betterment  |  Published: August 7, 2014

The key to landing an in-house position is less about your level of seniority or the firm you came from and more about bringing a well-rounded background to the table.

Getting a job in-house comes down to attending events like this one and maintaining genuine, long-term relationships.

If you’re a lawyer at a firm and you’re thinking about transitioning in-house at a startup or younger company, one thing is clear: You’re in good company.

Nearly 200 people—mainly lawyers—showed up Wednesday, Aug. 6 to the Betterment headquarters for an evening of networking and learning about making the move from a traditional law firm to an in-house role at a younger company. The event was sponsored by legal news blog Above the Law (ATL).

ATL founder and managing editor David Lat moderated the panel, which featured an impressive roster of experts: Heather Dietrick, general counsel (GC) at Gawker Media; Craig Abruzzo, GC at Birchbox; Jeremy Schwartz, business development manager at Squarespace; Chris Travers, chief business officer and GC at Bonobos; and Eli Broverman, co-founder and chief operating officer at Betterment.

Aside from the obvious differences between traditional firms and startups—less shaving, no suit, fully stocked kitchens—it was clear that there is a sea of other adjustments that lawyers must make when transitioning from a corporate firm to an in-house role.

Here are some key things we learned from the panelists.

1. It’s all about “good old-fashioned networking.” Getting a job in-house comes down to attending events like this one and maintaining genuine, long-term relationships.

2. Understand the company’s business model. As a lawyer, your job will always be about assessing the legal risk of any situation that comes up, but when you’re working in-house, you have to create a balance between thinking like a lawyer and understanding that you’re there to help the business grow.

3. Be a generalist. The key to landing an in-house position is less about your level of seniority or the firm you came from and more about bringing a well-rounded background to the table. However, the panelists noted that the larger the company, the more specialized you’ll need to be.

4. Be prepared for whatever comes up. Unlike many traditional firms, which are staffed with not just a team of lawyers but also all of the departments that make up a large company (e.g., HR and IT), startups often have fewer people and resources, requiring their lawyers to wear many different hats. For example, “if the copier’s broken, you have to fix it,” Travers joked. The bottom line? Be smart and roll with the punches.

5. Major pro: You can add value in all different places. As a startup company lawyer, you often get to do a lot more than make legal decisions. You get to be part of decisions that are helping the business grow, and you can see the impact of your work.

6. If you have savings, you won’t go hungry. One of the scariest parts about leaving a cushy corporate job—in any industry—is the possibility of leaving your comfortable salary. Like with any life change, where you are in your lifecycle is going to affect your risk tolerance. If you’re single with no kids, for example, your tolerance is going to be higher. But the upside for everyone, family or no family, is that working in-house at a startup will likely give you more flexibility. To financially prepare for switching jobs, Schwartz suggested that you save about a year’s worth of expenses and try to live within your means.

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