Market Insight

Litigators & Startups: The Business Case for Hiring Litigation Attorneys to Lead

August 17, 2020

Eve Wachtell, COO & General Counsel of Altitude Learning, accurately points out a basic reality about in-house legal hiring: “Litigators make fabulous GCs, but most startups are looking for corporate or IP backgrounds”  

Why is this?

VC-backed firms have a need for speed.  The last thing they want are slowing-of-growth signals to their investors.  This is why, when they hire talent, they lean towards the “hit the ground running” philosophy -- meaning the candidate has already done most of the things the business currently needs to get done.  This puts litigators in a tough position as the immediate needs of early stage companies tend to be corporate, commercial, and transactional.  For businesses acting on this philosophy, they may be missing something crucial: hiring on the talent’s capacity to lead.  

Litigators make exceptional leaders. 

The Litigator Success Story - Erin Abrams, GC of Via

“I would say my subject matter expertise as a litigator wasn’t immediately or obviously relevant for my role at Via when it was still an early stage startup. My way of thinking about problems and anticipating risks was ultimately helpful and I believe was the main skill-set that I drew on in my early days at Via. Whenever I talk to other litigators who are thinking about going in-house and they’re worried that they can’t crossover and do corporate or commercial work, I say, absolutely, yes, you can. There’s no reason why you have to be pigeonholed to only do litigation. You can 100% learn corporate law..

Instead of marketing yourself as just a litigator – when a company doesn’t have a lot of litigation at an early stage, maybe they don’t think they need a litigator.  Instead, I styled myself as a professional risk mitigator. The idea is that I’m able to see around corners and anticipate risks, and that became very helpful in my early days at Via as we were trying to rapidly expand around the world in a highly regulated space. As we grew into a global company, we focused on having best-in-class corporate governance practices and appropriate policies and procedures for our risk. My skill-set from my days as a litigator came in very handy in helping us build a best-in-class compliance program. The same skills that were helpful in a courtroom, whether it’s exercising good judgement, speaking clearly and persuasively, and also knowing your audience and what they care about, whether your audience is a judge, a jury, or a board of directors, I think those skills are very crucial to success as a GC.”

The Value of Litigators to Tech and Startup Companies -  Ben Alden, Former GC, Betterment

“I am a big believer that litigators make great in-house lawyers at tech companies, especially younger and regulated tech companies. Someone once told me that of the Fortune 500 GCs, about half are former litigators. I’d love to find that statistic somewhere...

The job of a litigator, abstracted, is to take a client’s problem, figure out all the law that governs the issue, uncover the facts from all sources, mold the facts and law into a narrative that’s convincing to extremely sophisticated parties (judges, arbitrators, etc.), all while another smart lawyer is gunning for your work, and maybe you. You have to be a strong advocate, good on your feet and in writing, and you have to be flexible to adjust to the varied and changing cases, rules, regulations, courts, etc., you face on a regular basis. Most importantly, you have to be excellent at issue spotting. All of these are very useful skills at a tech company, especially in a regulated one, especially as the regulated field itself is developing.

This doesn’t mean I think litigators can or should do anything and everything, just that I think the cliche that litigators don’t go into in-house roles isn’t accurate or good advice.

For litigators looking to go in-house, I’d recommend you look for regulated tech companies--even if you don’t have experience in the specific field--or tech companies that are early on, when your issue spotting abilities are critical.”

The industry moving forward

An ongoing challenge for business leaders (and anyone, really) is staying aware of their own biases. The acknowledgement of litigators as strong leaders is not to undermine legal leaders without litigation experience, but rather to note the hiring bias that currently exists in the legal domain.  For high-growth businesses, perpetuating this bias may misallocate talent spend towards shorter-term needs and away from longer-term business goals.  

The tech industry needs effective legal leadership more than ever.  The regulatory uncertainty coupled with economic uncertainty demands incoming GC’s to have the dynamic business minds on top of legal expertise - enabling strategic long-term positioning and protection for the company.  More and more GC’s are being hired early in the company’s lifecycle to build a culture of legal and compliance, rather than an afterthought once the company is far along.    

Former litigators leading legal departments are all around us.  Here are a few in the TechGC community worth noting.  

Companies should hire for the capacity to lead.  Litigators should make the case for why they can.  

“For me, it’s still all about compelling stories and bringing them to life.  That might be the litigator in me”  Ulysses Hui, General Counsel, Japan Display Group

TechGC is a private, invitation only organization for General Counsels of leading venture-backed technology companies and venture capital firms. Our mission is to drive innovation, education and mentorship in the legal industry while creating a strong peer group and community whose members support each other throughout their lives and careers. Our membership includes over 1,500 GCs across New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle.