Startup General Counsel
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Startup General Counsel Must Field a Variety of Challenges

A startup general counsel faces a wide range of challenges that may not see the door of an established company’s legal offices.

Startup general counsel are asked for more than legal advice, and they’re strategic partners and members of the senior leadership team, according to Sheri Michaels of legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, who talked about the required attributes for success and how startup general counsel can improve their odds for landing the role in an article for Bloomberg.

A general counsel working for an established corporation can be very worthwhile. There are great benefits, a nice salary, and stability. However, the temptation of a startup can be really strong — especially if you think highly of the company’s product, mission, and business model.

In you are a startup general counsel, you may have a profound effect on the company’s growth and ultimately be part of its exit strategy, whether it’s an IPO or acquisition. Plus, if you have stock in the company, that pay off nicely down the road.

Startup General Counsel Lawyer
Startup General Counsel Lawyer
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

The founders of many thriving startups have leveraged their agility and technology to adapt their practices, products, and services. This is particularly so in a world overhauled by COVID-19. Startups are seeing the value that a skilled startup general counsel can bring to their venture. That means it’s a good time to think about a career move. If you are considering this, here are some of the things a startup general counsel should know. And what the startup will expect before your first day.

Startups usually have small teams. As a result, the startup general counsel is called upon to handle a wide range of issues. So, a generalist is usually favored over an attorney who specializes in only one area of practice. Because the role of the startup general counsel is conspicuous, you must show that you’ve worked along side senior leadership supporting the business objectives to achieve the financial goals of the organization.

The startup will want to know your business judgment and financial acumen skills. Let them know if you’ve participated at the board level or if you have in-house experience at a growing company. If so, describe how you were part of the growth. You should also explain if you’ve taken a company public and your role in that process, as well as if you are knowledgeable with the regulatory landscape in preparing to take a company public. What about leadership? Have you hired, trained, mentored, and managed a legal team? And do you have experience with a domestic and/or international expansion? These are some of the things that the startup owners will look for in a startup general counsel.

Experience is another area that startups explore with a startup general counsel candidate, Has the individual worked on a wide variety of commercial contracts? Also of interest iw whether the person has assisted in leading and negotiating those agreements. This includes knowledge in mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance, securities and governance, data privacy, employment law, and intellectual property law. You may not be an expert in any of these areas. But you should be resourceful and know who to contact to help get the job done.

Sometimes this can be important. The article cites the life sciences business as one with certain nuances that are difficult to teach. These nuances include regulatory obstacles and the approval process. These companies seek startup general counsel who know how the industry works from the inside. Tech startups like to see business and financial acumen and broad experience in M&A and contracts. In effect, they want a business person who can look at things as an attorney.

As a startup general counsel, it is your job to help your company minimize risk, but with a startup, you can’t veto every idea — despite the riskiness of the venture. You’ll have to take a more flexible and practical business approach to keep things moving forward and base your guidance on the startup’s individual risk tolerance. Rather than saying “no” to risky propositions, you have to be a problem-solver who can find a creative way to say “yes.”

There are benefits to working at a firm or in a corporate legal department. One benefit is that you have other lawyers with whom to collaborate. However, in a startup, specially one in its early stages, you’re likely to be on your own. This requires the ability to work independently. You must have confidence in your ability to successfully address a wide range of legal issues. You may have the support of outside counsel on key strategic initiatives, you’ll be expected to handle day-to-day matters on your own.

Startups move at a lightning fast pace, and things can be chaotic. As such, your roles will continue to evolve, but at the same time, the startup’s leadership and staff may also evolve quickly. You’ll need to make strategic, educated decisions on the spot — without the luxury to take your time to come up with the “right” answer. That means being able to trust your gut and your training when it you-know-what hits the fan.

With startups, networking is critical. A strong word-of-mouth recommendation can be key in giving you an “in” at a hot new company that’s generating a lot of buzz.

You may also consider working with an experienced legal recruiter. Such a recruiter can find you some good-fit opportunities, help you promote the key components on your resume, and coach you through the interviewing process.

Those who have worked as startup general counsel will say that it’s not a complete departure from the typical role. However, if you’re seeking an adventure, and you have the personality and temperament for this challenging, fast-paced, exciting job, a startup could be one of the most exhilarating and satisfying experiences of your legal career.

Ryan Carpenter serves as Attorney and Managing Director of Carpenter Wellington. Ryan advises clients across a broad set of corporate and commercial matters.