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5 Ways to Break into a Legal Counsel Role in Tech

As attorneys reflect on 2018 and their aspirations for the new year, I wanted to provide a go-to resource for those considering in-house legal roles at tech companies -- something I wish I had years ago in this process -- on what it takes to break into these roles.

A bit about me: I am fortunate to be a legal counsel at Zendesk, a global technology company known for its customer engagement and customer service platform, where I focus primarily on commercial transactions and privacy law. I work with a fantastic team where we regularly take on interesting legal and business challenges and with whom I learn and grow every day. In my past life, I worked in-house at the Wikimedia Foundation, the scrappy organization that owns and supports Wikipedia, and Tipalti, a fast-growing fintech startup.

Why I wrote this: Attorneys and law students regularly reach out to me about my experience working in-house in the technology space and request suggestions on how to get their foot in the door.

Getting your foot in the door

1) Get to know people in the industry. This can help you in so many ways (non-exhaustive list):

  • Industry benchmarking

  • Career inspiration and development

  • Referrals -- so important! (More on this below in #4)

  • And the best part: befriending people who know exactly what you do so you can build each other up and also commiserate together

2) Demonstrate your interest in tech law. This can be anything to show your intellectual curiosity and efforts to learn, such as joining professional groups, writing blog posts and articles on topics you’re interested in, and attending relevant events to both learn about exciting legal trends and meet fun, new people.

3) Gain specialized knowledge / experience. Many companies are seeking candidates with specialized knowledge in hot practice areas as a result of fast-changing technological trends, such as privacy law, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and sectoral knowledge like finance. These can help you demonstrate how you can be asset to the company.

4) Apply early and through good referrals.

  • Timing. The early bird gets the worm. Many tech companies move fast to hire. Set up alerts on the usual platforms, eg. Indeed, Linkedin (I’ve noticed Indeed posts before the others), but also targeted lists. My favorite is the Internet Law and Policy Foundry Job Board(Disclaimer: I’m a Fellow there). Getting to know individuals at other companies may also help you obtain a heads up on company hiring trends.

  • Informal chats and referrals. Build friendships and meaningful relationships, and show gratitude. Tech companies heavily rely on referrals to find people that are not only smart and hardworking, but also have grit and great personalities that fit into the company culture. Also, remember that this process is a two-way street. You can informally chat with others to show your interest in the company and how you may be a good fit, but you should focus conversations on gaining firsthand knowledge about the company and the people.

5) Brand yourself and your goals. What are your professional “hashtags”? What are your ideal company’s hashtags?

Help your target compan(ies) connect the dots and see why they need you on their team. Below are some important considerations to map out, especially for those who have never worked in a corporate setting.

  • Ideal characteristics of companies. Think about what types of companies would fit you best. For instance:

- Company size – This will affect the size of the legal team as well the number and breadth of business partners you will support in your role.

- Growth – High-growth companies will keep you on your toes. I find this exciting as it keeps my role dynamic, while others may prefer more stability.

- Specific industries / sectors – If you have experience in a specialized or regulated industry such as finance or healthcare, consider looking at companies innovating in these spaces from a technology perspective.

  • Your future team members. What are the characteristics of your dream team, and where do you fit into this? This setup can make or break your career, and significantly impact your daily drive and happiness. If you’re fortunate, you will have managers and colleagues from whom you can learn, receive mentorship and support, and also reciprocate.

  • Career goals / trajectory. Why in-house versus a firm, public interest, or non-legal role? How will this role help you achieve your long-term goals?

  • Don't be distracted by job titles. Read the fine print. One company might label a position as "Legal Counsel", while others may label the same role as "Corporate Counsel", "Commercial Counsel", "Product Counsel", or a combination thereof -- yet another reason to talk to people for insider information.

Why all this matters

The competition, fit, and networks getting in the way of your proverbial lottery ticket. For many attorneys, going in-house is like a lottery ticket to the ultimate legal job: no billable hours, (allegedly) less-intense schedules, and thought-provoking, cutting-edge work.

  • The market offers lots of job opportunities for in-house roles as legal teams continue to expand, but accessing these roles can be very competitive.

  • It can also be difficult to find the right fit and determine what type of company or organization is best, especially since many lawyers and law students have little to no experience in a corporate setting.

  • Lastly, breaking into these roles without a network can tough, as many hiring managers rely on referrals, recommendations, and sourced candidates, particularly in regions like the Bay Area.

Stay tuned for Part Two on how to succeed once you get your foot in the door.

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