Hailing from the hills east of San Francisco, California, and growing up in and around the Silicon Valley, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from my earliest memories. My family can attest. Unlike many less fortunate, I had the unwavering support of my family, friends and mentors, and a compass by which to guide my studies and plans. With this background, I am duty-bound to be a resource for new legions of younger lawyers on how to kickstart your legal career in Silicon Valley.
This is a place where new ideas are activated. From South Park in SOMA to Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park and beyond, venture capital, private equity and other financial and strategic investors of all types can be found to sponsor innovative companies that startup with an idea in a lab or garage, and bring them to markets far and wide. Some of the brightest thinkers in law, accounting, investing, finance, management and strategy have moved from Wall Street to the San Francisco Bay to create new products and services. This is where new platforms and systems are brought to life, from the super-computer to the laptop to the edge, from the micro-computer to quantum computing, from the 2D to the 3D printer, from the life sciences to medical devices, from consumer internet to e-commerce, from the enterprise to the consumer, new clean energy systems and all types of innovation can startup, flourish, and go from garage to global.
As an aspiring lawyer, your first task is to take advantage of every opportunity in your law school to master the courses that are most relevant to technology. Start with the basics of corporations, secured transactions, securities regulation and business bankruptcy. You should have a general outline of income and corporate tax. This is your one shot to learn how to take a business from formation to exit without consequence. Bring your passion to the classroom and your internships, from your job interview to your first job.
Here in the land of technology, it’s not about formal attire. By way of example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wears the same outfit every day: gray t-shirt, blue jeans, and gray Nikes, and drives an electric Honda Fit hatchback. It’s about what’s in your mind and what you do with it, not about outward signs that would reflect success in other places.
In your first years after law school, it’s helpful to work in a place where you can serve innovative companies from startup to exit. There are many skillsets needed to take an idea and turn it into a company. You should try and obtain the experience of taking a company public through IPO or direct listing, and buying and selling companies in the M&A group. While there are a plethora of industry guides that rank the very top law firms and companies, you will get the widest experience in a law firm, and it need not be the one at the top of the chart. As long as you are in a place where your energy can be harnessed and where there are clients that you can work on, opportunities will abound.
The Role of Silicon Valley corporate lawyer is diverse
Multi-disciplinary master of laws
The corporate lawyer is the quarterback of the football team, directing the many legal disciplines that are implicated from corporation law to tax law, from intellectual property protection to employment compliance. Missing a compliance detail or overlooking a gotcha can be have significant consequences to the viability and value of a company upon exit. Your job is to bring it all together and get the details right.
while lawyers draft many documents that business people characterize as “boilerplate”, lawyers play a critical role in companies here, from the garage to the global stage. The technologists operating and investing in the companies here may have deep knowledge in their respective areas, but will have minimal expertise in the law, and will call on you to give them commercial advice that transcends the legal framework. Is the go-to-market strategy fundable? Can you monetize the product or process? How is a business valued, and at how much? In what jurisdiction the company be incorporated? What should be the corporate form and what are the tax consequences? How many stock options should the board grant an advisor or key new hire? With so many commercial decisions having a legal consequence, the lawyer has to be a commercial advisor.
Entrepreneurs take big risks, which can manifest itself in their mental and physical health. They leave the safety of high paying jobs with fixed salaries, good bonuses and stock options to jump into the deep waters of uncertainty that belie a startup. They spend their life’s savings and borrow from friends and family to create and extend the runway by weeks, and you will find them often stressed, frightened, lonely, short-of-cash and facing overwhelming odds. As lawyer, you will have to be part-time psychiatrist, beaming positive energy and faith in their stewardship, while dispensing prudent advice and sometimes tough medicine. To be successful serving this community, you will need to be the friend that the client wants to talk to, all while maintaining boundaries.
Network of connections
You will often find that your entrepreneur clients, even if not their first startup, will lack some key relationships and will require help from many different corners. Whether it be finding the right co-founder, someone to help them scale their finance function or build a financial model, how to identify and get introduced to investors, locate a data scientist, hire an engineer that specializes in user interfaces, successful lawyers need to have a network of connections that they make available to their clients.
Successful lawyers need to help their clients get to yes and find creative ways to get beyond “no.” Your role as lawyer is to draw the shortest and most practical path to completion. While legal provisions in the first commercial agreement may be imperfect, you have to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good. Most of the time, your clients will find that 80% is more than good enough, while you will bear the blame if something is fundamentally flawed from a legal perspective.
6 Tips to Kickstart Legal Career in Silicon Valley
In light of all of these realities, following are six tips to kickstart your career as a lawyer in Silicon Valley:
1. Learn the trade.
More than working hard, you want to dig into as many different areas of expertise that a startup needs, take on a wide variety of clients, and gain exposure to the widest array of transactions as you can capably and expertly handle. There is no substitute for learning the trade and honing your craft.
2. Your body is your temple.
Your legal career is a marathon, and often the winner is the one that can survive each step of the race. So, it’s important to be mindful of mental and physical health in everything you do. This starts with your diet, your sleep, the people you spend time with, and minimizing exposure to potions and people that will bring you down. If you are finding your patience is under pressure, find outlets to vent. Enjoy pleasures in moderation. Take care of yourself.
3. Outward and inward focus.
Your clients start with the internal lawyers at your firm. Be the path of least resistance to getting something done right. The very best impression you can make is in delivering top quality work. When this is accomplished, you can develop an external focus, attend events, speak on panels, build a social media profile. Humility as well as variety of perspective are appreciated in an external as well as internal focus.
4. Build and maintain a network of relationships.
Every client you meet, every deal you do, is an opportunity to be exposed to a new technology, a new vertical, a new platform, a new channel or strain of entrepreneurs, and professionals from all walks of life. Link up with them. Be practical, commercial and professional, and remember your integrity will follow you wherever you go. While we live in a global world, it can be small and very flat.
5. Commit to three activities in the community and outside the office.
Plant your flag in at least three places where you can build and maintain new relationships and nourish existing ones. These need not be purely business related. When you meet people that share your passions and priorities, you have the opportunity to make deeper relationships with kindred spirits, whether they be physical (think outside the box, like boxing), spiritual (think not just of church, but of yoga) or artistic (think of cooking, painting or taking pictures). Make commitments to attend over the long term.
Your legal career is a long-term project, or marathon and not a sprint. Think of it over decades and not just weeks. Measure your progress from where you started, not the distance from here to where you want to end up eventually. Think positively and optimistically. Be creative. If you can imagine it, you can do it.