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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