Productivity and Workflow

Transitioning from Corporate Attorney to Startup General Counsel

Post by
Tomer Dorfan
Transitioning from Corporate Attorney to Startup General Counsel

In early 2018, after several years in the transactional groups of two large NYC law firms, I took a job as the general counsel of an early stage startup. I am writing this to share some of what I learned from the transition.

My last day as a corporate tax attorney was a Tuesday. That evening I boarded a plane to Austria to join my new team at a medical device conference in Vienna. The next day I was on the expo floor pitching our solution to computer vision researchers, and three days after that I signed my first partner onto the company's platform.

As the fifth employee and first non-technical hire, I found myself taking on a role far broader than general counsel. I still had primary responsibility for the organization's legal function, but I was also deeply involved in business development, fundraising, hiring, and general strategic planning. From discussions with attorneys who made similar transitions, my experience is not unique.

After starting my new role, I quickly realized two things: First, I needed to speak to some experienced general counsel to get their advice on building a legal department from scratch. Second, given the breadth of my responsibilities, I would need to streamline our legal operations so that contracting was never the bottleneck in our sales and business development efforts. This second point was particularly important given the volume of agreements I was dealing with.

Seeking Advice

About halfway into my first month, I reached out to a trusted legal recruiter who has always been very generous with advice to ask if he would connect me with anyone that could help me navigate my new role. He put me in touch with two experienced general counsel who gave me the following pieces of sage advice:

  • The legal team operates within the context of, and exists to service, the broader organization. The processes it adopts need to integrate smoothly with the way other business units operate.
  • A good in-house legal team understands an organization's business goals and provides legal advice that balances legal risk with commercial progress. Failing to do so will gain the legal department a reputation as a necessary evil rather than a trusted partner and advisor. (I personally believe this holds true for law firm attorneys as well).
  • As a cost center, in-house legal teams often have limited budgets for new hires and tools, which makes efficiency critical to sustainable long-term success.
  • The burden of effective contract management and record keeping falls on the legal team. Business units focus on their core competencies and will often neglect to follow procedures for executing and filing documents set by the legal team.

Aside from these pieces of advice, one of the general counsel I spoke with also referred me to an industry group comprising general counsel of technology companies and venture funds. The ability to tap the collective wisdom of that group helped me on more than one occasion.

Streamlining Legal Operations

When I started my new role, the team I joined was already using Slack, GSuite and Trello to manage all of their workflows and operations. As a person who came from a large law firm that used a combination of MS Outlook and iManage to manage all work processes, this required some adjustment.

Initially, I tried using Outlook (old habits die hard) and spent about a week doing demos with different document management systems and contract lifecycle management solutions in a feeble attempt to recreate my old processes. Before long, I realized that using Outlook on top of Gmail created more issues than it solved and it would be an uphill (and ultimately losing) battle to get the rest of the organization to adopt any DMS or CLM I reviewed.

Instead, I heeded the advice of the general counsel I spoke with and adapted my way of doing things to the organization by taking the following steps:

  • I created a series of folders in Google Drive where I stored active and final versions of each document. This served as my precedent bank.
  • I developed a naming convention intended to make it easy for me and others to track the organization's contract pipeline. This was my attempt at version control.
  • When I needed input from the CEO, Chief Medical Officer, or our engineering team, I would add a card to our collective Trello board, assign it to the right person, and send an email notifying them.

For the most part my process seemed to work, though not without issues. For example:

  • It was incredibly difficult to get others to use my file naming conventions, so version control was a mess.
  • Finding precedent language among the many document versions I amassed wasted at least thirty minutes on each contract revision.
  • Because substantive discussions regarding our agreements occurred across multiple communication channels (Slack, email, and Trello), aggregating input from various stakeholders (including outside counsel) often felt like herding cats.

In many ways, these issues—and my inability to find a simple solution to them—laid the groundwork for FeatherDocs, the company I co-founded and currently run with my technology partner, Gabe Ruttner.

All-in-all, because the organization was small, the processes I put in place made sense. Nevertheless, I never lost sight of the fact that as our team scaled I would need to find (or build) a solution to scale with it.

Final Thoughts

The transition from law firm attorney to in-house counsel can be tricky. To set yourself up for success, make sure to understand the organization's business goals and tailor your advice to them, adapt to the way other business units do things (to the extent possible), and try to streamline legal operations to make efficient use of your limited resources.