Senior in-house counsel from Twitter, Airbnb and other tech companies swapped legal career stories and lessons learned at a panel Wednesday morning.
Panelists at the event, hosted in San Francisco by local legal recruiting firm Kerwin Associates, stressed that for in-house counsel, the pathway to career fulfillment may not be as linear as their counterparts at firms.
“One of the biggest mistakes in-house lawyers often make is they think, ‘Oh, now I’m in-house, there’s this path, this trajectory I’ll grow in. And unlike a law firm or maybe other professions, it’s just not lock-step,” said Rafik Bawa, the deputy general counsel of product at Airbnb. “A hard realization is that you may have all the skills to be an effective leader and contributor in the organization, but there just isn’t any role, there isn’t that opening … it’s a tough choice.”
Bawa and Sean Edgett, the vice president and general counsel of Twitter, suggested in-house counsel try growing laterally if promotions aren’t open. Counsel can build skills by taking on new challenges, working with new teams or trying management experience without switching companies or job titles.
But sometimes lateral job changes aren’t enough. Melissa Tidwell, the general counsel of Reddit, said lawyers who want to switch companies for a new position can be transparent with managers about the skills they want to develop or grow for that next step.
“They’re excited to see you succeed. Going out and expanding and growing,” Tidwell said. “My mantra to my teams are your success is my success. So to the extent that it’s time for you to move on … rock on, that’s awesome and you should not be afraid. I had honest conversations with my boss at Google.”
The ability to have honest conversation stems from trust, Tidwell said, something panelists stressed was crucial for in-house counsel to develop across department lines. Jill Dessalines, a legal career consultant and former assistant general counsel at McKesson Corp., said people are more likely to take advice from those they trust. Edgett said in-house counsel should make sure executives know legal is ”on their side” when dispensing legal advice.
Trust and reputation can also be built by volunteering for new projects, spotting areas legal can improve and taking initiative to fix them, and taking on important but less-exciting work others may ignore, panelists said. Tidwell worked with engineers—one of whom referred her to her current position—and Edgett took on intellectual property and real estate work.
Panelists noted new in-house counsel often struggle with the soft-skill aspects of trust-building.
“It’s credibility, reliability, follow through. And bringing people along your thinking. And then the authenticity … is huge and sometimes, I think, undervalued,” Edgett said.
In-house counsel transitioning from law firms may also struggle with corporate communication styles, said Katie Biber, the general counsel of crypto custodian Anchorage. When asked what advice she’d give new in-house lawyers, she said one thing: “brevity.”
Company leaders need legal advice fast, relayed in a way that’s easy to understand. But many recent in-house hires fall into firm-style communication patterns, sending long emails filled with every possible legal risk.
“It’s totally brevity … it’s making mistakes and being OK with it,” Tidwell said.