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‘Get your hands dirty’: How GCs can cement their role in start-ups

In-house lawyers who join start-up firms need to be versatile, embrace change, and become less risk-averse, one GC said.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 10 March 2022 Corporate Counsel
Nick Brown
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Nick Brown, general counsel at venture capital firm AirTree, said working as GCs could be rewarding as they could witness the results of their efforts immediately.

“You can directly see the impact of your work in the business whereas that can be quite difficult in a law firm or a big organisation,” Mr Brown told Lawyers Weekly.

“You don’t necessarily see the end results of your work in quite such a direct way in a big law firm. I think that’s one of the most satisfying things of working in a start-up. You can have a really direct input in the success of the business.”


However, Mr Brown flagged that transitioning from a large law firm to a start-up or scale-up company carries its own set of challenges, including operating in a small legal team or even as the sole in-house lawyer.

This would mean that GCs must contend with a variety of tasks “thrown at you”, which could fall outside their areas of expertise.

“I think you just have to not be afraid of change and you have to learn to embrace it. You have to unlearn a lot of the hesitancy and risk aversion that comes with being in a big law firm environment,” he advised.

Mr Brown’s comments have come ahead of the Corporate Counsel Summit 2022, which will be hosted by Lawyers Weekly in May.

He will participate in a panel session where he will provide insights into how GCs could play a key role in building companies from scratch and add true value by enabling and empowering decisions and facilitating the business’ growth ambitions.

Because GCs may be the sole lawyer in a start-up firm with limited resources, they could be expected to assume a senior leadership and business strategist role.

“You’ve got to be able to give a sensible commercial view, even if that view is that the firm should go and spend some money to get some proper advice from an expert in the field,” Mr Brown said.

“You’ve got to be able to get up to speed quickly and be able to make those early judgements to be useful. You’ve got to be willing to delve into stuff that you don’t really know about and assess whether something could cause issues for the start-up firm.”

GCs could be expected to act as a sounding board to the founders and provide advice on business strategy and commercial direction, which may fall outside their purview, while assisting the business with events or other miscellaneous activities, Mr Brown said.

“There’s going to be times when you’re going to need to pitch in and get your hands dirty,” he said.

“You’ve got to be the sort of person who thrives in that very fast-moving, ever-changing environment. You’ve got to be quite adaptable and willing to roll with the punches.

“Also, if you’re the sort of person who is going to be strictly focused on doing exactly what’s in your job description, you’re probably not going to thrive in a start-up environment.”

Because GCs may also have to contend with budget constraints in a start-up firm, it is critical for them to assess and prioritise risks to optimise the use of the available resources and enable business growth, Mr Brown suggested.

“Recognise that you’re not going to be able to get external advice on every single legal issue that crosses your desk,” he said.

“That can be difficult if you’re coming out of a big law firm environment where you probably have specialists in any area of law you might come across on tap.”

Listening to the founders and staff to identify their pain points and manage those risks are key components of a GC’s role.

“Spend at least your initial month or so listening to people and figuring out the impact you can have rather than going in and trying to impose things on people,” he said.

“Then you can figure out the top three or four risks and how you can fit into that process in the most efficient way so that you’re valuable to the business rather than a blocker. There’s nothing that’s going to kill a GC more than being seen as a blocker or an obstacle that has to be overcome.”

To hear more from Nick Brown about how GCs could become a trusted adviser and partner to a start-up, scale-up or high-growth companies as well as the challenges of working in these firms, come along to the Corporate Counsel Summit 2022.

Click here to book your tickets and make sure you don’t miss out.

For more information about the summit, click here.