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How I became a tech start-up lawyer

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In the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, HowardKennedyFsi’s Louise Eldridge explains how the post-financial crisis fight for survival prompted the discovery of her “inner geek”.

As I trained and qualified into the corporate team of a City firm I thought I had my career in law all mapped out before me…

What can I say, I’m a Virgo. I like to plan. I like lists, post-its, highlighters and wall charts — anything that adds colour, structure and order to my world. I know many lawyers who fit that mould. Am I stereotyping? Sure. The problem with us planners is that we can often find ourselves entrenched in what we think our own personal career map should look like.

As I consider my career to date, it’s fair to say my pre-set ideas were a little, shall we say, naïve.  My strengths have not come from having a structured, inflexible road map, but instead from learning to be adaptable, and to some very small extent dare I say, being entrepreneurial.

When the economy went into meltdown I was mostly doing M&A work, initial public offerings (IPOs) and Alternative Investment Market (AIM) transactions. Suddenly the world became very different. I thought about how I could differentiate myself from the multitude of other corporate lawyers out there all fighting for the same few scraps of work.

I knew trying to differentiate on price was not the answer, as I didn’t want to find myself competing in a race to the bottom. I had for some time acted for a number of digital-focused companies and was lucky enough to have a lovely client who ran a PR agency representing tech companies. Around the same time as I was thinking about differentiation, she took me to my first tech event, introduced me to “the scene”, and little by little I began to carve out an increasing, albeit not exclusive, sector focus. Timing was everything.

The technology scene at that time was not what it is now; it wasn’t really in the mainstream press, on the TV or the subject of a large government campaign. It was no less exciting, though, and instinctively I knew I wanted to be part of it. There is no doubt that my interest in emerging technology (or my “inner geek” as a client refers to it) has helped me gain traction. I made it my business to know about what the trends were — perceived or otherwise — and the more I read of the technology-focused press, the more I wanted to read. It wasn’t a chore. It was as though a new career outside of the law had opened up to me. Of course I was still drafting investment agreements and so forth, but I also had the opportunity to live vicariously through some incredible businesses I had the fortune of being involved with.

Working with early stage companies is not without certain challenges from a business perspective. If they are too early stage they may not be able to afford to pay you, and frankly that’s not going to work out for you for long before your partners start taking issue with your chosen business model. Leave it too late, though, and somebody else has potentially established that crucial relationship which may then be difficult to come between. It’s a balancing act — and increasingly a commercial decision may be taken on a case-by-case basis, as you effectively make judgement calls on the viability of a business.

I have recently founded and launched HoneyHive, a micro-brand of HowardKennedyFsi that provides information and free seminars for emerging tech companies. It’s early days and it’s evolving. We are not ashamed to say we are trying to be more than legal advisers, although no sooner do I write that I cringe at how much that sounds like marketing speak. But maybe I don’t need to apologise for that. Given how tough the market is and how fierce the competition, I believe we will all need to evolve to compete effectively. So where’s the harm in trying to understand a sector better if that means you have an edge over the next person?

What would I go back and tell my younger self if I could? Probably to abandon thoughts of a career road map and instead allow it to evolve, taking into account changes to the legal market, the economy and any number of other external factors. If I am honest, I also wish I had paid more attention more in science classes at school. Or better still, that I had signed up to take a course in computer programming at university. When clients start talking programming language — quite literally in code — I know at that moment that my inner geek still has much to learn.

Louise Eldridge is a partner in HowardKennedyFsi’s corporate team.