Building the Dream Legal Team for Startups

legal team for startups
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Well-established Fortune 500 companies have large, complex legal functions that most people view as a “traditional” team structure. For startups, trying to develop a new legal team in the same way could be a recipe for disaster – and furthermore, be misaligned with the organization’s cultural and business goals. While there is no right or wrong approach to legal structure, there are a few factors that may be valuable for startups to consider in building their legal team.

Tip #1. See Your Company from a Candidate’s Perspective

At the outset of your search, it’s of course important to know the characteristics of a lawyer most likely to thrive in a startup and in its culture. However, it’s equally important for startups to bear in mind the characteristics of a lawyer most likely to want this type of opportunity, such as those who are entrepreneurial by nature and interested in doing cutting-edge work.


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To find the right fit? Focus on what’s in it for them. Too often, hiring managers don’t see it from this perspective. They’re sitting at their desk thinking, “Why wouldn’t a candidate want to come here? I made the decision to come here and know it’s way better than working for a large multinational conglomerate. What’s not to like about a startup that is trying to change the world?”

Instead, you should take stock of what your startup can offer candidates, alongside what legal skillsets and experiences you need to bring your company to the next level. Attracting the best talent requires looking at jobs through the lens of a candidate with many options. For example, if your company is five years old and has never had in-house counsel, you should think about what your startup has to offer to a top candidate, such as the opportunity to truly build something new from the ground up.

Tip #2. Turn Challenges into Selling Points

If your startup is in crisis mode or facing significant hurdles (funding challenges, government inquiries, etc.), this can be paralyzing for some lawyers. But for others, crisis presents opportunity to rebuild a better ship. Take an honest look at whatever your company is going through and determine who will embrace that kind of challenge. The right candidate will welcome challenges like these so that they can add something new to their legal toolbox and stretch themselves beyond where they are now.


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Tip #3. Do Not Try to Check Every Box

Hiring managers often gravitate toward candidates who have already done the job specified in the job description. The problem with this approach? Ambitious lawyers who have traveled that road may not want to do it again; there’s nothing new that adds to their repertoire of experiences. Or they’re willing to do it again, but not with as much relish as someone who is being given a brand-new opportunity. Passion and hunger to achieve something new and disruptive is one of the intangibles essential to building a company that’s just getting off the ground.

Be open to candidates who may not check every box, but who have the right attitude to learn and demonstrate capacity to grow. Be willing to take a shot on a lawyer who has proven themselves in a different arena and has the potential to grow into this new role, particularly if you are committed to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Tip #4. Embrace the Outsider

It’s true that industry experience matters at some startups, such as those in highly regulated industries (e.g., healthcare). But generally, your legal talent doesn’t have to come from a role in the same industry to do the job at hand. In fact, someone who hails from an unrelated sector could have a key advantage with an outsider’s perspective. They’ll be able to lay a fresh set of eyes on problems and approach the job with good questions that challenge the status quo (not just on legal questions, but also the business itself), while also injecting creativity and vision at a critical time of growth for your startup.

Tip #5. Be Flexible (Particularly on Titles and Job Descriptions)

The beauty of a startup environment is that the lanes haven’t yet been drawn; you’re working with a clean slate. You want to be open to various titles (keeping in mind internal equities) that will resonate with the talent you’re looking to attract, rather than finding talent that will live with the exact title you have landed on. Pick titles that lend your new in-house counsel the proper respect from internal and external stakeholders.


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Another way to attract the right legal talent is a carefully constructed and exciting job description. Think about the types of lawyers you want to appeal to: dynamic, engaging, personable, entrepreneurial, collegial, collaborative. If your job description conveys only the narrow duties of a purely commercial counsel role, for example, you’re going to draw the opposite of what you want.

Craft your description in a way that leaves enough room for the candidate to write their own story. Certainly, it’s important to outline the core areas of expertise you’re looking for. But the best descriptions go one step further and convey an openness to giving the right candidate leeway to develop and spread their wings beyond the boundaries of the job description.

Tip # 6. Consider Contract Attorneys in Addition to Permanent Hires

If you don’t have the budget for a permanent legal employee, or if you need help in addition to permanent hires, consider a contract attorney model: It can help you keep your legal spend lower, while not relying as heavily on outside counsel. You can find contract attorneys with deep subject matter expertise who are able to offer a wealth of industry knowledge and hit the ground running without much handholding.

Interim talent offers an immediate hiring solution, so you can get an experienced lawyer started working on projects while taking your time to make longer term hiring decisions. What’s more, if your interim lawyer is working out well, you can often convert them to a full-time employee down the road. Think of the contract period as a test drive of sorts.

Tip #7. Build Today’s Team for Tomorrow

As you design your dream legal team, look at the bigger picture—well past your immediate need today. Startups often are laser focused on building their revenue, as they should be, and putting out the day-to-day fires instead of taking a step back and envisioning what’s needed tomorrow and next year as well. Hiring for today’s need is a mistake; it may keep the house from burning down but will do little to grow your business for the long term. Think big and create broader legal roles that will help support your startup’s future goals.

Thanh Nguyen & Michael McGinnis

Thanh Nguyen is a director on Major Lindsey & Africa's In-House Counsel Recruiting team in the Los Angeles office. Michael McGinnis is a Director-Client Development for Interim Legal Talent at Major, Lindsey & Africa.

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