How Big Law associates can land a job at a tech company, according to lawyers from Airbnb and DoorDash

Tia Sherringham (GC of DoorDash), Shana Simmons (GC of Everlaw), and Iris Chen (Deputy GC of Airbnb) on a blue background with robot and gavel icons.

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Facing heightened scrutiny from regulators and consumers, tech companies are eager to hire lawyers.

Lawyers, in turn, are looking at tech. Big Law associates grappling with burnout have long eyed in-house positions as greener pastures that offer better work-life balance. Tech companies, perceived as high-speed and glamorous, are especially attractive.

This year to date, legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa (MLA) has already conducted as many searches for in-house tech lawyers as it did in all of 2020, according to partner PJ Harari.

But the path to pivoting in-house isn’t straightforward. Insider spoke to 6 lawyers and legal recruiters to learn how to leverage Big Law experience to land a job in tech.

Expect a pay cut, but other perks

Lawyers making the jump from Big Law to tech should expect a pay cut, although compensation packages vary depending on geography, company size, and amount of equity offered, according to industry recruiters.

Starting salaries for junior and mid-level in-house lawyers can range from the low $100,000s to high $200,000s. General counsel typically make $400,000-plus, with 30-100% bonuses in most cases, said Harari.

Perks like the possibility of shorter hours and a big payout from equity, however, can make the pay cut worth it for some lawyers.

Pick the right practice area

IP law used to be the main path to a legal job in tech, but the path has since expanded. 

Corporate lawyers are especially sought after. “All those skills — drafting, negotiating agreements, licensing — are very transferable,” said Stacy Goad, a recruiter at Parker + Lynch, who advised younger lawyers to pick the right practice area at the start of their careers, since it’s harder to transition later on. 

What companies want will depend on what stage they’re at: Entrepreneurial startups might seek someone with product counsel experience, while more mature companies might want lawyers seasoned in IPO and regulatory work, said Melissa Cohen, an in-house recruiter at Cadence Counsel.

Privacy; competition law; data and security compliance; and emerging growth are also in demand at tech companies. Lawyers with subject-matter expertise, like healthcare and energy, can also command a premium.

Litigators generally have a harder time moving in-house, since most companies don’t litigate enough to hire a dedicated trial lawyer, said MLA’s Harari.

That said, certain companies in highly-regulated areas may value trial experience, according to Tia Sherringham, head of legal at DoorDash. Sherringham previously worked at Instacart, and was a litigator before that. “Since I litigated contracts and IP disputes, I believed I’d be well-positioned to negotiate those contracts and know what the pitfalls were,” Sherringham said.

Pick the right firm — or be willing to move to one

Working with tech clients is crucial step for lawyers interested in the industry.

“It’s important to choose a firm based on their clients, because they’re who might hire you in the future,” said Shana Simmons, GC at legal-tech company Everlaw and former associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. Before joining Everlaw, Simmons spent nearly 9 years at Google — one of Cleary’s clients — as corporate counsel.

If your current firm doesn’t have tech clients, you should be willing to move to one that does, according to Iris Chen, GC at Airbnb.  

Even better, secondments at a tech company can give associates hands-on experience of the industry’s needs, said Cadence Counsel’s Cohen.

“Spinoff” boutiques that specialize in tech are also “great feeder firms” for Big Law attorneys eyeing tech, said Parker + Lynch’s Goad. 

Demonstrate in-house initiative and passion for tech

Beyond practice area and client exposure, GCs say they look for certain traits when hiring.

A “business mindset” is a top priority. “I’m not looking for someone who’s writing an email at 10 p.m. only to give the same advice. I’m looking for someone who’s proactive, who’s able to pivot advice across the different departments within a company,” said Everlaw’s Simmons.

Flexibility is another characteristic of a successful in-house lawyer, especially in fast-moving tech. “You have to have an appetite for taking risks, and not having all your T’s crossed and I’s dotted, which can be uncomfortable for a lot of Big Law lawyers,” said Chen of Airbnb.

Demonstrating passion for tech is also key. Participating in networking events like the Technology Law Conference and those hosted by the International Technology Law Association can help lawyers keep a pulse on industry trends and make meaningful connections.

“Don’t underestimate the power of networking,” said Meredith Smith, GC at fintech Stash.

Be strategic about timing

Lawyers hoping to work at tech companies should be strategic about when to make the move.  

“Tech still has a bias toward youth,” said Airbnb’s Chen. The sweet spot is a fifth- or sixth-year associate: someone who’s “independent, but still malleable and can jump in on different tasks across a company,” according to Chen.

That said, all hope isn’t lost for more senior attorneys. More companies, like Robinhood and Stripe, are seeking lawyers with specialized knowledge — it’s just a matter of finding the right company, said Chen.

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LegalZoom surged 39% after making its trading debut. Here's what you need to know about the legal tech company.

LegalZoom makes its debut on Nasdaq.

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Legal-tech company LegalZoom made its trading debut on the Nasdaq today, trading under the ticker LZ.

The stock opened at $36.75 per share — 31% above the offer price of $28, valuing the company at more than $7 billion. Shares then extended gains to as much as 39%.

The company was founded to “democratize law” through flat-fee subscription services for small businesses. Robert Shapiro, best known for representing O.J. Simpson, is one of the company’s co-founders.

LegalZoom, along with legal-tech software Intapp, made waves when they filed for IPOs earlier this month. Intapp also debuted on the Nasdaq on Wednesday, opening at 3% below its offering price.

We scoured LegalZoom’s S-1 filing for everything you need to know about the company, its legal risks, and its plans for growth:

LegalZoom targets the growing small-business market

LegalZoom has a network of more than 1,300 independent attorneys and 75 in-house tax advisors. In 2020, 10% of new LLCs and 5% of new corporations in the US were formed via LegalZoom, according to its S-1 filing. 

The burgeoning small-business market means a $48.7 billion serviceable addressable market, according to LegalZoom. Small businesses have created 65% of new jobs since 2000, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since its founding in 2001, LegalZoom has expanded to provide compliance, tax, and business services. Its compliance solutions now make up most of its subscription services, according to its S-1. For instance, in most states, small businesses must have a registered agent to receive mail and court documents at a physical address during normal business hours. LegalZoom offers a registered agent subscription to digitize this process.

LegalZoom earned more than $134 million in the first three months of 2021 — up 27% from the same period last year. The growth was spurred by the pandemic, according to legal-tech expert Scott Mozarsky.

“The pandemic really accelerated a secular shift to online legal services, as people became more comfortable doing everything online,” Mozarsky told Insider.

As the pandemic winds down and the “offline” economy reopens, however, LegalZoom fears that the “tailwinds” created could slow down, according to its S-1 filing.

LegalZoom has faced a rash of lawsuits for illegal practice of law

The company also faces some legal risks.

In the US, only licensed lawyers can provide legal services. LegalZoom has been sued multiple times for alleged unauthorized practice of law.

A Missouri resident who used LegalZoom to prepare a will and two other individuals who used it to organize a remodeling business filed a class-action lawsuit in 2009, alleging the company illegally practices law. A 2010 class action accused LegalZoom of drafting a flawed estate plan. Both cases were ultimately settled in 2011, and LegalZoom has denied all wrongdoing.

In some jurisdictions, LegalZoom has already begun taking on the role of a licensed lawyer. In the UK, its subsidiary operates under an alternative business structure that allows non-lawyer entities to become licensed providers of certain legal activities.

Despite the lawsuits it’s faced, LegalZoom has said it may consider implementing similar alternative structures in the US. Utah and Arizona recently began allowing non-lawyers to provide legal services.

Another potential legal hurdle concerns the gig economy. While the gig economy accelerated small-business creation and expanded LegalZoom’s target market, recent legislation on companies’ treatment of independent contractors — like the attorneys and accountants on LegalZoom’s platform — could also expose it to employment liability.

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