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How General Counsel Can Land a Job at a Startup

April 6, 2021, 8:01 AM

As a general counsel, you know that working for an established corporation has its merits: stability, great benefits, and a desirable salary. But the lure of a startup can be particularly strong—especially if you believe in the company’s product, mission, and business model.

GCs in startups are called on for more than legal advice; they’re seen as a strategic partner and a member of the senior leadership team. This is a unique opportunity to have a profound impact on the company’s trajectory and ultimately be part of its exit strategy, whether it’s an IPO or acquisition. And if you hold shares in the company, the end-game payoff can be quite lucrative.

Founders at thriving startups that leveraged their agility and technology to adapt their practices, products, and services to a world reshaped by Covid-19 are recognizing the value that a skilled GC can bring to their venture, making this a great time to consider a switch.

Here’s what general counsel considering the switch need to know.

Is a Startup the Right Fit for You?

If you’re considering swapping your corporate gig for startup life, it’s important to know what’s expected of you before you dive right into the fray.

Broad Experience

Since startups typically have smaller teams—and the GC must handle a wide range of issues—a generalist is usually favored over an attorney who specializes in a certain area.

Since the general counsel role at a startup is a prominent one, you’ll need to demonstrate you’ve worked side-by-side with senior leadership supporting the business objectives in order to achieve financial goals.

The company will want to know your level of business judgment and financial acumen. Do you participate at the board level? Do you have in-house experience at a growing company? Were you a part of the growth? Have you taken a company public? Are you familiar with the regulatory landscape in preparing to take a company public? Have you hired, trained, mentored, and managed a legal team? Have you been a part of domestic and/or international expansion?

Startups look for GCs who have seen a wide variety of commercial contracts and have helped with leading and negotiating those agreements. They’ll want you to have a respectable knowledge base in areas such as mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance, securities and governance, data privacy, employment law, and intellectual property law. Even if you’re not an expert in any of these disciplines, you should be resourceful and know who to call to help get the job done.

Is industry experience important? Sometimes. The life sciences business has certain nuances that are difficult to teach, such as regulatory hurdles and approvals. These companies value GCs who understand how they work from the inside. Technology startups want business and financial acumen along with broad experience that includes M&A and contracts. In essence, they want a business person who can look at things through a legal lens.

Flexibility

As legal counsel, it’s your job to help your company minimize risk. However, when you’re a GC for a startup, you can’t strike down every idea—no matter how dicey it is.

You’ll need to take a more flexible, practical business approach to keep things moving forward and base your guidance on the organization’s individual risk tolerance. Instead of saying “no” to risky propositions, you have to be a problem-solver who finds creative ways to say “yes.”

Independence

One of the benefits of working at a firm or in a corporate legal department is that you have other lawyers to collaborate with. But in a startup, especially one in its early stages, you’re likely to be flying solo. This necessitates being able to work independently with the confidence in your ability to successfully navigate a wide range of legal issues.

While you will likely have the support of outside counsel on key strategic initiatives, you will be expected to handle day-to-day matters independently.

Ability to Think on Your Feet

Startups move at lightning speed, and things can get chaotic. Not only do your roles keep changing, the organization’s leadership and workforce are likely to evolve quickly as well.

You’ll be required to make strategic, educated decisions on the spot—rather than take your time to come up with the “right” answer. That means being able to trust your instincts and training when it comes down to the wire.

Improve Your Odds for Landing a Job

In the startup realm, networking is important; a strong word-of-mouth recommendation can be instrumental in giving you an “in” at that hot new company everyone is talking about.

Working with an experienced legal recruiter is another way forward. A recruiter can find good-fit opportunities on your behalf, help you highlight the right elements of your background and experience, and even coach you through the interviewing process.

Among those who have walked this path, few would argue that being GC of a startup is a complete departure from the typical role. But if an adventure is what you’re after—and you have the personality and temperament for this challenging, fast-paced, exciting job—it could be one of the most exhilarating experiences of your legal career.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Sheri Michaels is a partner in Major, Lindsey & Africa’s New York and Basking Ridge, N.J., offices.

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