As a part of the In House section, Attorney at Law Magazine recently sat down with corporate counsel Melanie Margolin to discuss her career, the industry and her plans for her new position as chief legal officer with Thumbtack.
AALM: What drew you to Thumbtack? What are you most looking forward to in your new role?
MM: Thumbtack’s mission drives everything we do here. And that mission is about helping small businesses and professionals support themselves and their families. While doing this, it also makes our customers’ lives better and more manageable. I see my life mission and Thumbtack’s mission in lockstep. It’s one of the reasons I am so excited to be on this team!
I really want to be a holistic leader who drives results, engages with and inspires the people here, and – substantively – helps create and maintain a risk profile that allows us to reach our goals. My responsibilities will be to make sure the legal function supports our business initiatives in a proactive, practical, business first manner. My public company background is an asset because I can make sure Thumbtack employees and leaders know what that would or could look like, and we can make fully informed and risk weighted decisions.
AALM: In your position with Wabash National, you adopted some new technological advances in the legal department. Will you be introducing any similar changes in your new role with Thumbtack?
MM: I think it is important to have tools that not only help support the lawyers and legal personnel at a company, but also enable us to serve our internal business partners and work with our outside counsel in the most efficient way possible. Thumbtack’s technology is already quite collaborative, but as my team grows and develops, we will be interested in seeing what is best practice for corporate legal functions.
AALM: You’ve previously stated that the first 60 days of a new position should be focused on observation. What have you seen so far at Thumbtack and/or what will you be assessing in your new legal department?
MM: I have been blown away by the enthusiasm and dedication that everyone has for this company, our pros and our customers. Everyone I talk with loves what they do, and wants to make sure that our fantastic culture permeates throughout the company. I have also learned that the leadership team and the other employees I’ve met throughout the company are incredibly smart and focused on making Thumbtack a success.
AALM: COVID has affected most business operations in the last year. How has the pandemic shifted your outlook on the role and efficiencies of the legal department?
MM: In the early stages of COVID-19, most of my legal colleagues and contacts around tons of corporate legal groups were working around the clock — it was as if the crisis management plan for a pandemic hit squarely within all of the areas in which legal advice and risk mitigation is critical. That kind of commitment, and ability to use critical thinking and problem solving skills to keep businesses open, understand and follow ever-changing regulatory frameworks, and work through people safety and wellness issues demonstrated how engaged and knowledgeable in-house lawyers can make a real difference for their companies. As a result, the pandemic only strengthened my commitment to having strong processes and procedures in place that allow the legal function to pivot from their regular roles, and move quickly and adeptly into crisis management, linked arm in arm with the business leaders.
AALM: What are your main goals when working with outside legal counsel? How has that changed over the years and what changes do you anticipate in the future?
MM: I have a unique perspective on this because I served as a partner in a law firm for many years before taking my first corporate role. In my experience, the best relationships with outside counsel are those where the firm and the company see the relationship as a true partnership. The firm needs to understand that the company’s objectives become the firm’s objectives; the lawyers serving the company on the outside need to know the corporate strategy, the leaders, the issues and the market if they are going to provide top level support to the in-house lawyers and company as a whole. At the same time, the company needs to support the firm by looking for opportunities to expand the relationship, help drive change around diversity, equity and inclusion by working with diverse legal professionals, and refer the firm to other potential clients when possible.
AALM: How can in-house counsel best support the overall business goals of their company?
MM: In-house lawyers must learn the business as if they ARE the business. It takes some time, and we may come at it differently than someone with a career in sales or marketing or product design. In order to truly support the business goals, lawyers need to be in the room where business decisions are happening, and they need to have a voice at the table before decisions are made.
This does not happen unless they can show that they understand the business objectives and are thinking with a business-first mindset.
AALM: How would you describe the culture you strive to create within your legal department?
MM: As a society, we spend more time with our work colleagues and teams than we do with some of our family members. I think anything in life worth doing, is worth doing 110%. So, if I am going to spend time and energy and effort working, I want it to be at a place where the people are smart, collaborative, connected and joined at the hip in achieving the goals we set. I also like to think about the long game. In my experience, creating and maintaining a terrific company culture over a long stretch of time is what allows people to really see themselves somewhere for the long term. Truthfully, I also think working hard mixed with playing hard is just more fun. So, I strive to create that type of dynamic for my legal function, which is on point with the overall Thumbtack culture.
AALM: What first drew you to the legal world? Why did you choose to pursue in-house roles?
MM: As cliché as this will sound, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” in the fourth grade. I wanted to help people solve problems and I had a true sense of right and wrong, even at that age. Interestingly, though, I did not have the stomach as a young adult many years later to pursue a career in criminal law, so I went into civil law, representing small and large, private and public companies in many industries.
I first decided to take an in-house role when I was approached to lead a global litigation team for a large public company. I was reporting to a new general counsel who shared my values and approach to business-first thinking. I still loved private practice and my clients and team at the firm, but I knew if I did not take that role when it was offered, someone else would, and I would always regret not giving it a try.
As it turned out, I loved being in-house and serving on business leadership teams to help drive business results and mitigate risk at the highest levels.
AALM: Tell us one of the most important lessons you’ve learned over your career.
MM: Connections with other people are what drive good business – that process of connecting the dots, making deep relationships, introducing new ideas, and seeing the way from point A to B with a sidestep to point K is so much more effective than a plain linear path. I’ve created a diverse network of professionals and friends and mentees in my life who I always think about and for whom I like to make connections. I help them when they need it, and rely on them when I need something. I am a better lawyer for connecting those dots with them through my career, and frankly, I’m a better person for it, too.
AALM: Tell us about any mentors you’ve worked with through your career and the best advice they shared with you.
MM: I came from a humble background and was the first person in my family to go to college. Doing that without the guidance of a mentor or coach was tough at times. I often found myself not wanting to make the wrong decisions, but having to rely purely on my drive and intention to figure out the right decision!
When I was in a place to make sure others had an easier or clearer path, it became part of my purpose professionally. As a third year lawyer, I started coaching law clerks and paralegals and asking them to imagine what their careers could look like. Since DEI has always been a cornerstone of my value system, I found myself paired with women, LGBTQ+ professionals and racial minorities in these discussions because there weren’t a lot of people who looked like us or led our lives openly in law firms.
I had official and unofficial career development relationships with controllers, engineers, sales and marketing professionals, communications and corporate developments employees and everything in between. I’d like to think I helped each of those people in some way professionally, but as is always the case, I’ve learned just as much or more from anyone I’ve ever mentored, coached or sponsored. I am grateful for the time we spent together.
AALM: Do you have any advice for young up-and-coming lawyers?
MM: You only have one life to live. Enjoy what you do as a lawyer, or do something else. Some people thrive on nose to the grindstone, working themselves silly billing hours and solving all the problems from behind the scenes; others love to try cases; some find a lot of satisfaction in public financing or helping startups become high functioning public companies.
Whatever it is that drives you to love being a lawyer is what you should focus on.
But if you can’t find that in a firm or within a corporate legal department, think really hard about pursuing a different career path that uses all the skills you learned becoming a lawyer. So many young lawyers force one version of a legal career because they think that is the only way. I often encourage young lawyers to really evaluate what they like about the law and chase that.
AALM: Tell us a little about your life outside the office.
MM: I have two dogs, two cats and over the years many horses have called my house a home. My partner and I are looking forward to moving west after 20 years in Indiana, where we raised our daughter, who is now a freshman at Colorado State University studying all things horses. I look forward to learning the city, enjoying the ocean, and wearing much more casual clothing to work!