Working as a a lawyer at a startup

Katie Noonan (Global Head of Social Impact, Forage), Emily Rahme (Associate Legal Counsel, Uber), Sophie Taylor (Chief of Staff, Blackbird Ventures), Jess Rogers (Strategy and Operations Manager, Snap Send Solve), Amelia Crawford (Legal Counsel, TikTok), Tim Atkins (COO, CancerAid)

This post aims to answer the question “I’m a lawyer. Should I go in-house at a start-up or change roles completely?” Each of the responses are from people that have previously worked in private practice as lawyers.

There are two other must-read articles that go with this one:

  • What skills are startups looking for? This article should help you understand that besides your legal skills, you have a number of other qualities that a startup would find valuable
  • Role titles for generalists - This article looks at some of the common titles to look for to get your foot in the door as a non-lawyer

What’s it like working in-house at a start-up?

Emily Rahme (Associate Legal Counsel, Uber)

Working in-house is exciting and interesting, and the pace is generally much faster than in private practice. The nature and type of work in-house is also very broad, meaning you get exposure across a spectrum of legal issues. The fast paced environment and broad range of work means you don’t spend as much time zeroing in on specific legal issues (spending more than an hour doing any legal research is rare, for example), unless you’re in a specialist role. This can be really appealing for people who enjoy varied work. 

Another key difference is the structure. In an in-house role, you’re expected to provide advice directly to the stakeholders in the business, who are your clients. There isn’t a Senior Associate or Partner who’s signing off on your work; instead, the responsibility is on you to advise where you can and seek support where it’s outside of your expertise. I think this can be challenging for lawyers, especially when transitioning from a private practice role. Lawyers typically need structure, clear instructions and good record keeping. Often these practices aren’t as developed or sophisticated in startups, however it will challenge you to “own” decisions, take responsibility, react quickly, and become an excellent problem solver.

My favourite aspect of working in-house is the fact that you get to partner really closely with the business. If you’re interested in the commercial side of things, it’s great for that. Partnering with the business means you get to work closely on exciting projects and product changes/launches. It also means you can guide and influence outcomes, which is really fulfilling. There’s something really satisfying about being involved in a project end-to-end and then seeing the results in-market, or providing advice on a matter and seeing the steps taken to action the advice.

Amelia Crawford (Legal Counsel, TikTok)

I work as one of the Legal Counsel for TikTok covering Australia and New Zealand. TikTok opened an office in June 2020 and I started one year later in June 2021. I work with the business to make sure the App is compliant with existing and new legislation in AUNZ (such as new online safety codes and legislation, privacy and consumer law), and to help grow and foster our TikTok creator and user community! Day to day I draft lots of contracts (covering a very diverse range of contract types and projects) and also provide legal advice on a range of issues including IP, music, privacy and contract law (just to name a few!). 

Is it possible to go in-house > a non-legal role?

Emily Rahme (Associate Legal Counsel, Uber)

Absolutely. I know four people in my company who have made the transition. Of those four:

  • three transitioned from private practice into in-house legal roles, 
  • one came straight from uni into an in-house legal role,

and they all later transitioned into commercial roles. 

What would you say to someone considering a legal v non-legal role?

Katie Noonan (Global Head of Social Impact, Forage)

Lawyers are trained to be risk conscious so it can seem likely a very risky decision to move from being a lawyer in private practice to a non-legal role within a start up. It feels like and can be a big transition but hopefully some of these questions will prompt consideration for which path (legal or non-legal) you should pursue. 

Ask yourself: Where do your interests lie?

Ultimately, if you’re interested in roles outside the law then I suggest not delaying the inevitable and try your luck at a new role. The startup that I work at, Forage, is full of ex-lawyers (including our CEO) that have pivoted directly into roles in product management, sales, customer success, marketing and partnerships.

Lawyers are skilled at quickly learning entirely new industries and issues, synthesising information, excellent communicators and thinking commercially and strategically. This all means we’re able to pick up new skills and hit the ground running pretty quickly.

If you’re interested in being at the forefront of the startups strategy or product, speaking regularly with customers or users and making decisions that drive the company forward then a non-legal role could be for you.

Conversely, lawyers at startups will often be involved in liaising with external counsel, making sure the product and business are compliant with a range of regulations across IP, data, privacy and entering into agreements with customers or suppliers.

Ask yourself: Are you comfortable and ready to take on a new challenge or do you want more certainty?

Moving into a non-legal role will require you to quickly learn new skills and take on new responsibilities required for that role. The comfort and support that you felt while working at a law firm, in a job that you knew how to do and that you knew you were good at, will not be present. In the initial stages of your transition, you will need to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable and less supported. The personal and professional growth opportunities might be higher in a non-legal role but go in with open eyes that the first 3 to 6 months will require a lot of learning on the job.

If you’re someone that loves to thrive and perform at 100% as soon as they walk in the door, you may prefer to stick with a legal role where you already know how to do your job and can excel from the beginning.

Ask yourself: Are you interested in early or late stage companies?

If you want to work in a smaller startup with less employees, it is likely you’ll still be asked to assist with legal work (even if you take on a non-legal role). In smaller companies there is likely not to be any in-house lawyers yet and so it's often inevitable this still becomes part of your workload. Speaking generally, lawyers in earlier stage companies are also more likely to be pulled onto tasks or projects outside the law because for small companies, it is all hands on deck. 

If you’re interested in working only as a lawyer and not assisting with tasks outside the scope of your role, you should consider joining a later stage company where jobs are more defined.  

[Check out the Startup Lifecycle article to better understand startup stages]

Ask yourself: Have you found a company that you love?

I once heard Rachael Neumann from Flying Fox Ventures say that "if you're given a seat on a rocketship, you don't ask which one". What this means is that if you have found a company that you love or think is going to have an amazing journey, then don't be too fussed about which role you take. There's plenty of opportunities to move around internally after a while and many examples of lawyers transitioning into non-legal roles once they are inside the startup. 

Emily Rahme (Associate Legal Counsel, Uber)

I would say that roles in the business, rather than in legal, get to drive decisions and strategy. By contrast, in-house legal is a cost centre (rather than private practice firms which generate fees) that supports, rather than drives, decisions made by the business.

Sophie Taylor (Chief of Staff, Blackbird)

Think about what you enjoy and don’t enjoy about working in private practice. If you love the legal work itself but not the confines of a law firm, transitioning to a legal role at a startup could be a great next step. When interviewing, ask the hiring manager: What does a day in the life of the role would look like? What would be the most interesting and least interesting tasks you’d be typically doing in a week? In-house legal roles can vary greatly between companies, so make sure it’s the kind of work you’re interested in and would be learning from, before jumping on board.

If the legal work itself doesn’t excite you in private practice, don’t transition into a legal role just because you think it might be the only way to transition into a startup with your legal background. Being a lawyer often feels like quite a specialised role, but the skills you learn as a lawyer (research, solving complex problems, project management, internal and external communication) are easily transferred to so many roles within a startup.

Don’t stress too much about the job title itself. Once you’re in a company, it’s easier to work out what you really love doing, and lean into that area of the business. In any fast-scaling startup, the needs of the business will change every year and so can your role. Many lawyers I know transitioned into quite generalist (non-legal) roles to begin with and then became increasingly specialised in operations, product, investor relations, or people and culture roles.

Amelia Crawford (Legal Counsel, TikTok)

I spent just over 5 years in private practice in two law firms and experienced two different styles of working. At the first firm, I worked on several smaller cases and had to constantly jump from one topic/client/memo to another. At the second firm my clients were larger and the matters bigger, so I would work on one case for months, doing deep dives for days into any given piece of work. There may be exceptions, but if you don’t like or find it difficult working in an environment where you’re constantly having to jump from one thing to the next, start ups might not be for you. You have to make quick calls, balance commercial objectives with legal risks and come up with new processes that may not have been tried and tested. 

I’ve loved the move - but it has been full on! So don’t think that just because you’re moving out of private practice it’s going to be a 9-5 walk in the park. Be prepared to knuckle down. 

I don’t think you can ever go backwards by making the move from private practice to in house. If you make the move and want to go back, a law firm will always be there for you and any experience in-house is going to be looked on as a relevant skill/valuable experience. My advice would be not to jump at the first in-house role you get, do take the time to find the right fit in the industry/field that interests you. Applying the law to matters that are relevant to me has given me so much more purpose to do what I do!

Jess Rogers (Strategy and Operations Manager, Snap Send Solve)

Getting clear on your objectives will help in deciding whether to take a legal role in a start-up or make a complete career change. If your ultimate goal is to move into a non-legal role, I would seriously consider bringing the transition forward. It’s never too late to make a change, but if you have a feeling that law might not be for you, get your hands dirty trying a new area and see if you like it. Making a career change is challenging, but you’ll learn quickly while stretching your capabilities. 

If you’re enjoying working in the law or you see it as your long-term career, then there are some fantastic start-up legal roles around. You’re closer to the action as a start-up lawyer than you are in a law firm and you get to see the impact of your work firsthand. 

It’s also definitely possible to transition from a legal to a non-legal role. Working in a legal role can be a great way to get an in-depth understanding of a start-up and you can then use your insights in a non-legal role. As I wrote earlier (and depending on the circumstances), if you apply for a legal role with the sole aim of using it as a transition to a non-legal role, you might be better off being upfront and seeking a non-legal role at the outset. 

Tim Atkins (COO, CancerAid)

If you genuinely enjoy practising law, then a legal role makes more sense. But try not to feel pigeon-holed by your legal degree + career experience thus far. You have far more skills than you may appreciate, and there are a heap of start-ups, and a range of job titles, that you might find more fulfilling. For those I know that went into a non-legal role at a startup, they've loved every minute since and never looked back. So if you don't love law, I would strongly suggest looking at non-legal roles.

What have we missed? Please hit 'Contribute to the Guide' to give your perspective and help others into their first role.

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