I recently moderated a panel at General Assembly for lawyers interested in making a career transition into tech. It was a solid lineup: Veronica Picciafuoco, Content Manager at Docracy, Ben Rossen, co-founder of Smallknot, and Isaac Tilton, founder of Legalshare.
Whereas the last panel I participated in focused on legal roles at mature companies — the other panelists were the general counsels of Etsy, Foursquare and Meetup — this one explored working at early stage companies.
Lawyers ask me all the time about how to get into tech, and my main advice to them is to understand that there is no set path. This is especially true with early stage companies. Very few need a full-time lawyer. For most, legal is at best an afterthought, and at worst just an obstacle in the way of getting business done.
As a lawyer looking to move into tech, you need to emphasize your transferable skills. These could include your analytical and negotiating aptitude, client relations experience, writing ability, attention to detail and relevant domain expertise. These skills have real value even though you didn’t acquire them working in startups.
One of the best ways to understand how you can be useful at a startup is to talk to early stage companies about their pain points and needs, and not in a strictly legal sense. At first, you may even need to offer up your time and help for free. It’ll be a worthwhile investment in making yourself a more attractive candidate for what every startup is ultimately looking for: a problem solver.
Rule of Thumb: keep it short.
Given what a huge part of our lives email is, both at and outside of work, it’s amazing how bad most of us are at it. You can find some good guidelines to help avoid common mistakes. But by far the most important thing you can do, in a world where we’re all ridiculously busy, is to keep your work emails short.
If you can’t say it in 3-4 sentences or less, email is probably the wrong medium. Call instead. (There are a few exceptions, like when you’re trying to memorialize a conversation, or when calling isn’t an option for whatever reason). Otherwise, you should take the time to cut your message down to size. Not only will your recipient appreciate it, but it’ll also force you to clarify the point of your communication.
So how do you control email verbosity? Here are 3 tips that help me:
1. Think before you write. What’s the next action you want the recipient to take? If you can answer this question before you start typing, you’re 90% of the way to a crisp, concise email.
2. Say the same thing with fewer words. In journalism school, I had a professor who gave me a gift I’ll appreciate the rest of my life. Everything I submitted to him, he would rewrite using fewer words. And for every word he could cut from my copy without changing the meaning, he would dock
me half a point.
Try this with your own writing. The results will amaze. When you cut the words that do no work, the rest have that much more impact. As a result, your writing isn’t just shorter, it’s also more powerful and effective.
3. Use shorter (and simpler) words. Don’t use fancy words when simple ones will do. Don’t say “however” when you can say “but,” or “superfluous” when “extra” will work.
Look, I love the richness and variety of the English language as much as anybody. But most of the time, when somebody uses a longer word, it’s not to convey nuance — it’s to sound smart or official. But all it really does is make the reader work harder for the same payoff.
So what do you think? How do you keep your emails short?
"We certainly don’t attract people on the basis of salary. We attract people on the basis of an opportunity to get something done right and kick it out the door without it getting all screwed up. And an opportunity to work with professionals who are as good as you are in other disciplines. So, what we’re going to judge ourselves by – the senior management of Apple is going to judge itself by – is, can you maintain this atmosphere of creativity, of tremendous productivity? A company where it’s fine to fall on your face as long as you pick yourself up pretty fast. And an environment where we give people enough rope to hang themselves by and hope that they don’t. If we can maintain that, for the next 10 years and beyond, we will have been successful. And the rest of the stuff will take care of itself."
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose… You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
- Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, June 2005