Last Wednesday, March 28, the Student Association for Law & Entrepreneurship (“S.A.L.E.”) of Fordham University’s School of Law held a panel discussion aimed at fostering dialogue between practitioners currently involved in the start-up space and current law students interested in crafting a legal career which meshes entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity.
The event was dubbed “Start-Up Lawyers: Law in the Age of Technology.” It was moderated by Fordham law professor Sonia Katyal, and featured three lawyers: Sarah Feingold, General Counsel for Etsy.com; Eli Broverman, co-founder of Betterment.com; and Charles Torres, a member of the Tech Group at Lowenstein Sandler PC. Each discussed his or her own career path, and then gave advice on how to get involved in the burgeoning New York City tech scene.
Sarah was the employee number 17 employee at Etsy, an online marketplace for artists and designers, which sold over $300 million worth of goods in 2010. Etsy has grown since Sarah arrived, and now has over 250 employees serving 14 million members per year.
- On Approaching a Start-Up: Etsy did not have in-house counsel, so Sarah, having always been interested in working with artists, approached them. During this meet-up, she demonstrated where she would be able to help. “Show where you add value,” she said about approaching a start-up.
- On the Differences Between In-house and Outside Counsel: In-house needs to constantly see problems, and then be able to prioritize issues and figure out solutions to the most-pressing issues first. In-house counsel also needs to know when to rely on outside counsel for their expertise in particular areas.
- On How to Grow in Law School: Start becoming an expert in school. Research and write on your own, and become an expert in a small niche area that interests you.
- Charles Torres later mentioned that the #1 issue seen by outside counsel is section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code, which pertains to “nonqualified deferred compensation” paid by a service recipient (the start-up) to a service provider.
- Realize that “you are your own brand”: How you look in person, how you come off on Facebook or on Twitter; all of that helps shape the “public image” of your brand. You can do a lot to cultivate and shape that image now, before you hit the job market.
Eli was an Associate for two years at Proskauer before co-founding Betterment, which is an investment vehicle for professionals who do not have time to invest on their own. Currently, Eli monitors securities law compliance as well as trader management. It is a role that bridges both business and law.
Law students “don’t learn how to be a lawyer in law school,” so the two years at a firm were important to Eli. It was there Eli learned how to write and think like a lawyer, where he began to develop his professional network, and where he learned how lawyers price. All in all, it was where the theory learned in law school coalesced.
A start-up or small business probably cannot afford to pay the “in-house counsel” just for legal skills, so Eli emphasized developing skills beyond just the law—whether it be some rudimentary coding skills for a tech start-up, or a general background in business operations, marketing, or finance. Thus, “in-house counsel” for a start-up will wear many hats, only one of which is Legal.
Charles started as a litigator, but left litigation and went to a boutique firm to work with businesses. Charles advised that “if you feel unfulfilled [after a year or two at an initial job], don’t be afraid to try other areas of the law.” Keep searching until you find the portion of law that you like.
Random Bits of Advice from the Discussion
- If I could go back… Areas of the law that members of the panel wished they had emphasized more in law school: Employment law, Venture Capital law, Contract law, Intellectual Property. Also, spending a semester in an incubator or clinic can help develop professional skills.
- “Start-ups can’t afford to overlawyer things.” Every contract will have some ambiguity or open-ends, but businesses will never move forward if every contingency is planned for. In working with start-ups, you have to have a stomach for risk tolerance.
- “Understand your role” as company counsel – you are there to take the company from A to B. One value-add of a lawyer is knowing how to perceive, articulate, and maneuver the risk associated with the countless issues that develop while operating and growing a business. “Never present a problem without a solution,” otherwise, the client will move on to a lawyer who will find a solution.
- “Be nice.” Learn how to work well with other people.
To find out about future panels and other events, be sure to email S.A.L.E. at firstname.lastname@example.org.