The energy inside a startup is often electrifying. Talented people are working together toward a common goal at a rapid pace. You can immediately see how the work that you do contributes to the company’s growth. With rapid growth often comes higher stakes. Startup executives make dozens of decisions every day, and a wrong decision can diminish the company’s growth or, in the extreme, put the company out of business. Given the rapid pace of decision-making, an in-house lawyer at a startup must become a trusted advisor to the company’s business teams to help those teams drive growth and avoid significant legal risks. If you are considering startup work as part of your career, these four skills will help you succeed.
Know the Business
Besides knowing what the company does, spend time learning what the key decision-makers (e.g., the CEO, executive team, and department leaders) view as its primary financial, reputational, and operational risks. Then determine how to balance the legal risks of the business against those considerations. For example, how important would it be to negotiate the legal points heavily in a sales contract with a key client providing generous business terms? If you don’t have a lot of experience evaluating financial, reputational, and operational risks, I recommend rounding out your skill set by reading business articles, taking business classes, or listening to business podcasts (a favorite of mine is Masters of Scale).
A lawyer’s ability to identify risks is an extremely valuable skill in a startup. However, you must be proactive in your issue spotting. Unlike at large companies, which often have decision-making protocols that involve in-house counsel, the department leaders at a startup may not know when they need to involve counsel in their decision-making. Thus, to do your job effectively, you will need to build relationships with the company’s department leaders. You will be amazed at what you can learn about a department over a casual coffee or quick lunch. By earning your colleagues’ trust, you will increase the likelihood that they include you in future decisions to offer timely advice.
The best startup lawyers are great issue resolvers, not just great issue spotters. When you find an issue, think through practical solutions that fit the company’s legal, financial, operational, and reputational needs. Being able to tell an executive that you’ve identified an issue and have an actionable solution is a quick way to earn their respect and make the legal department a true partner to the business teams.
Become a Jack of All Trades
Because startup legal departments are often relatively small, you will likely receive any work that is legal-adjacent. For example, despite spending my entire career as a corporate lawyer, I had to quickly learn the ins and outs of insurance and employment law. Be willing to learn new things and expand your legal horizons. When in doubt, reach out to your law school classmates, former colleagues, and startup peers.
Working for a startup can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your career. If you are considering making the transition to this type of work, I would highly encourage you to start networking with attorneys and finance or operations professionals already working in the startup environment.