How I have had 5 Careers in the Legal Industry.
A colleague just reminded me that it has been 10 years since we started our first jobs! I have gone from Biglaw, to in-house counsel, to running a small firm, to starting a legal tech company and I am always exploring something new..
In the Beginning:
Life in Biglaw
On 3 January 2011, I pulled up to 22 Fredman Drive which were the offices of Eversheds (now Hogan Lovells). It was my first day at work as a Candidate Attorney, a 2 year journey as an apprentice in a law firm which culminates with passing the attorney bar/board exams. I bounced out of bed — both nervous and excited that I was taking the first step in my career. I asked my dad to help me iron my outfit for the day; a white shirt and black slacks, then I tied back my dreadlocks and put on my sensible black heels that he had bought me.
My dad, who is also a lawyer, was visibly beaming that I had been selected as a Candidate Attorney at an international law firm and I was following his footsteps. He had taken 2 weeks off to help me furnish my apartment, get comfortable with the route to work ( though I didn’t have a drivers license yet) and settle into my new life as a solicitor. Then he returned to his own law firm and practice in Zimbabwe.
At the end of orientation week, I knew the law firm life was not for me. I started my first 8 month rotation in a litigation team, where the only highlight of that rotation was the team and free lunches at advocates chambers.During that rotation I may or may not have forgotten to go to court to note a judgment. The daily time sheets, indexing and pagination of court files, carting files up and down to advocates offices for a 0.4 time entry and forced interactions at month end drinks were the bane of my existence. People would look forward to, or dread, the month end billing report as it revealed who was rising up or bubbling under budget.
It was only later when I learned what really matters isn’t what you bill, but what you invoice and eventually collect!
I also learned about office politics and the power players of the firm if you wanted to be offered a position as an associate at the end your 2 year period as a Candidate Attorney.
The rainmaker whose team operated by its own rules (coming in at 10am and leaving at 4pm), the partner who had been at the firm all his 40 year career, the partners who struggled to make budget and how we all tried to stay away from them because they wouldn’t be in a position to retain you as an associate. There was also the partner who never took on a female or black associates, the partner who only took on LGBTQ associates and so I made a concerted effort to join the team of the partner who only took on Black associates.
She ran the mining team, working with international mining companies in helping them to obtain and retain their licenses to operate. This was the first time I felt like I was doing something I enjoyed- it was an all Black, female team. We would go on long road trips to visit mining clients, communities or regulators. I got to spend a lot of time out of the office- away from my time sheet, going to mines and meeting regulators- often these trips would allow for some sight seeing, such as visiting the Big Hole in Kimberly and going underground in a coal mine.
As a mining lawyer I felt like I was doing something important by contributing to the development of communities. I got my first glimpse into politics in the wave of Marikana, investigating unsafe working conditions, developing environmental plans for rehabilitating mine property, working with corporate executives to understand their strategy and the adrenalin of speeding down the N1 from Joburg to Pretoria to meet arbitrary regulator deadlines for various submissions. I loved the centrality of the role and how each matter brought new challenges.
Each client had a different problem and the partner I worked for gave us free rein on matters. This built my professional confidence to execute and communicate as a professional. Although she would manage the relationship with the client, I would send the emails, they clients would call me if they had questions, etc. My criticism of the team was that it was too familial for a work environment and we could have used more intelligent tools to track matters, create reports and be efficient- which would have helped us to bill more. In 2013 the Black bubble was burst and the gang broke up.
Throughout my career I wanted to maintain that feeling of being connected to people, processes and policies while creating a product that’s profitable.
After Biglaw, I tried a couple of different things. I went in-house in an oil and gas company, where my boss lived in Durban and I was based in Joburg- so basically I have been remote since 2013. It was my first time working alone, after being accustomed to an office with 400 lawyers. I had to learn to trust my work, be thorough, do research and create my own support network of mentors. I was running legal and business affairs- so I would put together decks, find co-investors on projects and lead meetings after a short phone call with him. He was part of the young, new money Black elite that had made money from government contracts and had former President Jacob Zuma on speed dial. He opened my eyes to a whole class of Black, young, rich entrepreneurs that traveled to Bali on private jets. In those environments I quickly learned how political favor is volatile and qualifications to do the work are optional. At the time Zuma was ousted, a lot of them- including my boss- went broke.
I was 5 years into my career and had been disappointed by employers, so I made a bet on myself. I had some savings, worked out a rent free living situation and talked my varsity best friend into starting one of the first legal consulting firms in South Africa. I learned about finding clients, keeping clients, expanding revenue streams, business models, leadership, networking and expansion. We were so adorable when we started, see our launch video below.
I also launched Africa’s first lawyer on demand service. As a founder, I was able to find that feeling again, but I quickly realized that our service was too manual for scale in a way that mattered. Part of it was not knowing what tools we could use for a small services focused businesses and as I set my sights on moving away from a lifestyle business- I knew that technology would essential to our success. I was 8 years into my career at this point, running a good profitable company and contemplating the hard pivot to grad school in a foreign country, with a 6 figure price tag.
Ultimately I made the decision and attended Cornell with the vision of going back to my business then things changed. Instead, I become a founder- again- which I wrote about here.
While in school I thought of becoming a Product Manager, however it wasn’t presented to the law students as a career option, it was solely for Engineers and MBAs. Initially, I didn’t care because I didn’t understand most technical terms and I was just trying to keep up with my own course work. In January 2020, the blitz interview season was upon us, the technical students and MBAs were filling up their diaries so fast and law students were high key scrambling. I started to look at the PM job requirements and I was like “Hey, I know this stuff.. well some of it.” I went to the career services office like:
I have always been of the opinion that whatever an MBA graduate can do; a lawyer can do- just with a calculator.
I was benched very hard and told to stay in my lane- to look for roles in legal tech companies- maybe doing business development, or sales if I no longer wanted to practice law.
If the school didn’t see what I saw for myself, then I had to make it happen. All this was happening on the backdrop of a Coronavirus outbreak, BLM protests and many graduates being unable to find work. I half heartedly applied for jobs, while I turned my full attention to a class project that had some real world traction. When I went full time with Anü, I looked at this as an opportunity to do 2 things — either run a successful tech startup or have enough skills to rebrand myself as a PM. Either way I was setting myself up to win.
My 5th pivot is loading as I am staring down another path. It’s less scary because I have learned how to get good at taking wild bets on myself adaptability. In contrast, my father has been a lawyer his entire life. He graduated from law school 32 years ago, each year he has renewed his practicing license and I honestly envy him for finding the thing he is good at, that he also enjoys. I enjoy certain aspects of the law, but not all the ways that it is practiced. I need room to experiment, to be playful and to also not always follow precedent. I am extremely blessed because my dad has supported these expeditions. Now it’s time for his investment to pay off.
5 Tips on Making Career Pivots:
- Create A Big Vision for Your Life.
- Be Intentional About Skills To Acquire.
- Know Your Core Competency.
- Network Like Crazy.
- Community (I created The Legal Werk for mid-career legal professionals who want to make a pivot, switch, climb or reset their careers to have a source of support.) If you want to join us sign up for updates here.
- Know Your Tolerance for Pain.
- Have Faith!
Are you a lawyer who has made a career pivot? Or are you thinking of one? If so, I would love to hear from you.