Tell us about your background as a General Counsel and current career status…

I am General Counsel (and nominal Chief Financial Officer) of OpenConcept Systems, a startup that provides mobile conference apps for conferences.  Two former colleagues at AOL where I worked came up with the idea.  I had just shut down a digital music company (an experience comparable to 8th grade–worth doing once, not worth repeating) and was looking for another startup opportunity.  When my former colleagues approached me, I jumped at it.

What is the biggest challenge in your role as General Counsel?

It now sounds clichéd to say that the biggest challenge is covid, but it is!  Our app works best for in-person conferences, which obviously have not happened much for the past 2 years.  Our biggest challenge was to cut costs and hunker down to get through the pandemic.  Now that omicron is waning, we are hopeful about the future.

How do you feel the General Counsel should act as a business partner?

I think of myself as a jack-of-all-trades in addition to being a lawyer.  This is pretty common in startups, in my experience.  My expertise is intellectual property law, but it helps to know a little bit about a lot of things as an in-house lawyer.  Common sense and experience are also extremely helpful!  But I think that the best trait is an ability to say “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you on that.”  Knowing what you don’t know and being willing to admit it gives you credibility (and is the right thing to do).  Lawyers often don’t like to admit that they don’t know everything, but it’s often advantageous to take a bit of time (not too much!), and think over an issue or consult someone with substantive knowledge before opining.  It isn’t legal’s job to say “no,” it’s legal’s job to say:  “What do you want to accomplish?  Here’s how to get there without ending up wearing an orange jumpsuit.”  Creativity and flexibility are key to success as an in-house lawyer, especially in a startup environment.

How do you see the professional growth trajectory as a General Counsel?

I think I am one of 5 people I know that loves being a lawyer!  I love the problem solving. I love being in-house and feeling like I’m making a difference in the company’s growth. I don’t see myself working full time doing anything else.  I do see transitioning at some point to serving on boards of companies.  I think I can provide a perspective that would be helpful strategically.

What is the best advice you can give for In-House Counsel?

Every attorney’s career path is unique, and that’s how it should be.  And there are some things about the practice of law that aren’t fun (otherwise, it would be called a vacation, and no one would have to pay you).  Good listening skills are key–what do clients (internal and external ones) really want to achieve?  No client likes to be told “no,” so don’t say it unless you absolutely have to.  I think the best way to succeed is to understand client relations.  Be responsive–reply promptly, even if it’s to say, I got your email/voicemail/text, and I’ll get back to you.  Keep your promises–if you say you’ll get back to a client within the week, then do exactly that.  Explain your thinking–often brainstorming with non-lawyers results in a better solution.  Being responsive, dependable, and productive will get you noticed.  Happy clients make for happy bosses.

About May Liang

May Liang is General Counsel for OpenConcept Systems, Inc., a mobile conference app development company. Previously, she has served as General Counsel for Total Music, LLC a digital entertainment service, Executive Director for the Epilepsy Therapy Project, and Associate General Counsel for America Online, Inc. Ms. Liang’s areas of expertise included intellectual property, technology licensing, telecommunications and employment law. Ms. Liang has also served as a Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. She has bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and political science from Stanford University and her law degree from the University of Michigan.