When every company is a tech company, “we’re just at the brink of what’s to come” for women who want to get into this practice area.
Olivia O'Driscoll, March 2021
Why Should Women Turn To Tech?
Anyone who graduated before 1995 might remember law school professors talking about traditionally male and female areas of law. Hasta la vista to those days, right? The truth is that legal teams often mirror the sectors they serve. Startup lawyers dress informally to put clients at ease. Media and entertainment law attracts storytellers and big personalities. Capital markets just resembles the opening scene of The Wolf of Wall Street, doesn’t it? Kidding, of course.
"Tech isn't so white-shoe; it's fresher, more progressive, and much more inclusive." [Becca Blank]
But the mirroring effect means that the demographics in different practices often reflect the industries they’re working with. In tech, women have traditionally faced male-dominated workplaces. The good news is that “tech is moving a lot faster than some of the old school industries.” That’s Becca Blank, chief of staff at Whistler Partners, a recruitment firm that specializes in tech. “Tech isn't so white-shoe; it’s fresher, more progressive, and much more inclusive.”
“Having the opportunity to work on cutting-edge problems that people have never solved before is something I enjoy. It requires creative thinking and constantly challenges the way we do things.” [Megan Baier]
It has to be. When companies are creating technologies that are changing the way we live, it follows that the sector itself has to move quickly. “Tech is flipping many industries on their heads,” says Megan Baier, a partner at Wilson Sonsini. “It’s reinventing transportation, healthcare, banking.” Baier’s practice focuses on corporate and securities law within life sciences, healthcare, and technology. “Having the opportunity to work on cutting-edge problems that people have never solved before is something I enjoy,” and she urges women to seize on the opportunities in tech. “It requires creative thinking and constantly challenges the way we do things.”
When clients are forward-thinking, law firms have to match up. Blank points out that “many startup law firms often work with female-founded companies, so it’s super important for those clients to have a female perspective from their outside counsel.” Sarah Wyman, a managing director at Whistler, adds to this. “If you speak with female tech partners, they will probably say they’ve been in meetings where they’ve been the only woman.” Baier confirms that, yes, “it’s very common for me to be the only woman in the room.” For this reason, Blank says that there’s an increasing demand for women to fill techy roles at firms: “If a startup sees that their outside counsel is all men, they might take their business to a firm with more varied perspectives.”
As such, now is the perfect time for women to enter the space, according to Emily Witt, managing director at Whistler. She says “there are a lot of opportunities out there for women interested in tech.” Because they’re aware of these practices’ gender imbalances, many firms are open to retraining women attorneys into tech practices. “Get creative about how you present your past experience. Emphasize tech elements of non-tech deals that you worked on. Men apply for jobs that they don’t have enough experience for all the time,” saysWitt. “Women should feel more comfortable doing that too!”
Baier didn’t start out as a tech lawyer. She tells us, “I got into tech law mid-way through my career.” What she wanted was more connection with her clients. “When I was looking to make a move, I found Wilson Sonsini, who were super focused on client representation. I also liked that tech is so fast-moving and innovative.”
Aly Simons’ journey into tech M&A was equally unintentional to begin with. She joined Goodwin in 2014 and is now a partner and co-chair of the firm’s technology M&A practice. “‘Being in tech’ wasn’t intentional until I came to Goodwin,” she explains. “As soon as I made the move, I fell in love with it. It is such a unique practice in so many ways. Tech is pervasive of everything now – every company is a tech company.”
She initially wanted to be a doctor, but she changed her mind when she graduated from Johns Hopkins University. After working as a paralegal for two years, she went to law school. After passing the bar, she joined a BigLaw firm in New York, where she did media M&A. “In hindsight a lot of the deals I was working on at the time were early tech deals,” she recalls. “I was working on helping Myspace expand internationally; we were buying digital media assets for News Corp. I was also on the team that formed Hulu. It was the very first of its kind – Netflix streaming came much later. When we were negotiating the deal, I remember wondering, ‘Who is going to watch TV on their computer?’ Oh how wrong I was!”
Witt confirms that a lot of women end up in tech through adjacent interests. “I’ve worked with attorneys who started their careers working on healthcare deals, and are now at telehealth companies overseeing digital health deals. Every industry overlaps with tech in some way now, it’s ubiquitous.”
For Lori Smith, an emerging companies and securities partner at White and Williams, her work in tech was an unexpected perk of being handed smaller clients at the beginning of her career. “Back in the 1980s I was a second-year associate at a firm that was comprised of a lot of former big-firm lawyers, who received referrals from their prior firms. These tended to be smaller entrepreneurial clients which happened to be in the VC tech space. I was representing software companies before anyone had PCs!” she shares. “And I represented telecom companies before anyone had cell phones.” Smith was pre-med in college although she graduated with an Economics degree in 1981 and has built her practice representing emerging tech companies. That ‘small’ work turned out to be “incredible experience” for Smith, fusing her STEM education with her interest in business. “It really solidified my interest in tech.”
A STEM degree can only be a plus here, but it isn’t essential. Certain specialized life sciences and IP practices might require a degree, but that’s not the case for many tech practices, like tech transactions, EC/VC and FinTech. “At a lot of Silicon Valley firms, a strong interest is enough to get you in the door,” says Julieta Stubrin, head of law firm relationships at Whistler Partners. And Julieta knows a thing or two about what tech firms are looking for – she was the head of hiring at Fenwick & West for ten years. “Being able to articulate your interest is key. Maybe you fanatically read tech articles, or you loved doing a deal that had a tech component. Add it to your cover letter, and bring it up during your interview.”
Sarah Wyman thinks that the tide is turning, and that a ‘next generation’ of women is rising in tech law. “We’re just at the brink of what’s to come,” she says. “So many firms are expanding their tech practices, like emerging companies, that don’t require a STEM degree. There’s opportunities for everyone. But if you are a woman with an advanced life sciences degree, there’s going to be a long line of firms that want to talk to you.”
For all of our lawyer interviewees, getting into tech law began as a happy mistake to some extent – the fortunate alignment of circumstances of where they were at the time. They all took a targeted approach and carved out their niche in the space. Women today (STEM degree or not) can take advantage of the appetite to get more women into this practice, and take a targeted approach too.
"People genuinely want to empower others. Most tech attorneys at the partner level had to be somewhat pioneering in their field, so they’re passionate about their practice. If you show a genuine interest in what they do, they’ll want to show you the ropes." [Emily Witt]
Tap Into Tech
If you’re wondering how to do that, the Whistler women have some top tips. First, if you’re considering a move, do your research. Before taking an interview, “I would suggest looking at the highest level of committees at a firm and make sure they have at least 30% women,” says Stubrin. “This way you know women's voices are being heard in the firm. This is a key indicator that women have an ear to upper management and are involved in making important decisions.” Blank adds that “a firm with a lot of junior partners is another key sign of progression. Bonus points if you can spot junior female partners! The firms that are willing to give the keys of the kingdom to younger partners are more likely to be forward thinking.”
Wyman underlines the importance of “connecting with people who you aspire to be like” via tools as accessible as LinkedIn. “You can find out what professional organizations they are in, look at their profile and use that as a guide to what type of opportunities are out there.”
A go-getting mentality will also take you far. As Megan Baier points out, “lots of tech companies start with a founder and an idea, and the companies are able to grow through sheer force of the founder’s will. These types of people really value hustle.” Witt adds that “people genuinely want to empower others. Most tech attorneys at the partner level had to be somewhat pioneering in their field, so they’re passionate about their practice. If you show a genuine interest in what they do, they’ll want to show you the ropes.”
"A lot of tech focused firms are starting to mirror their clients’ cultures. It’s never going to be easy to make partner, but a good recruiter can steer you towards a firm that’s willing to be flexible in exchange for your talent.” [Sarah Wyman]
On the topic of speaking up, your recruiter needs to know your end goal. Do you want to eventually go in-house, or would you rather make partner? Wyman emphasizes the importance of not compromising. “So many women default to going in-house, in spite of the pay cut, because they assume those jobs will have more flexible hours and better parental leave policies. And that, unfortunately, often is the case. But a lot of tech focused firms are starting to mirror their clients’ cultures. It’s never going to be easy to make partner, but a good recruiter can steer you towards a firm that’s willing to be flexible in exchange for your talent.”
Sisters Are Doing It For Each Other
If making partner is your goal, the advantage here is that many areas of tech law are still developing. If you can build your name as an expert in a new area, you can sidestep the old boys club entirely – “we’re looking at you, finance!” quips Blank.
“Female representation at higher levels is getting better,” Baier says, noting “a shift in the past decade. But we have certainly got a way to go.” Beyond cold numbers, women in senior positions often feel isolated because of a dearth of fellow women peers and role models.
“Women tend to believe if they do a really good job someone will notice – if I just work hard, someone will notice how good I am. That’s not the reality. You have to advocate for yourself.” [Lori Smith]
Smith shares how this affected her in her early career. “The firm I was practicing at actually had no women partners. My initial mentors were all white men in their 50s. However, they really did take me under their wing. At first, I found it intimidating,” she admits. “As a young woman, there were definitely times that I was too afraid to speak up in meetings or even in group discussions. I felt as though I wasn’t treated the same as my male counterparts in the room. Even as I progressed to more senior roles, I found that others would sometimes ask me to go and get coffee even when there were much more junior male colleagues in the room!” She’s quick to point out that “we’re talking about the 1980s here – things were very different!”
But Baier had similar feelings starting out in the late 2000s. “I think a huge piece of me overcoming these challenges is through mentorship,” she reflects. “You need somebody above you who takes an interest in what you're doing and wants to help you.” Mentors were utterly crucial to Smith too. “The people I was working with and for were what really helped me work around these issues,” she says. “I had a couple of mentors who pushed me to be my best. During meetings I would turn to them and tell them my ideas – they’d tell me to speak up and say it myself.”
Smith now echoes the advice she received. “My advice to young women is to speak up and believe in yourself. One of the big differences to how quickly men and women advance in their careers largely comes down to confidence. Women tend to believe if they do a really good job someone will notice – if I just work hard, someone will notice how good I am. That’s not the reality. You have to advocate for yourself.”
Aly Simons also points to the importance of supporting colleagues. “I hate going to networking events by myself, but if you send me with someone else, I will wax poetic about how great they are, and with the right person, they can do the same for me,” she says. “Creating little hacks for yourself and taking advantage of these situations is so important.”
A Mother In Law
Aly Simons isn’t just a high-flying BigLaw partner. She’s a mother of two (a combo that might have been unthinkable 20 years ago). And any working parents reading this know how challenging it is to balance both. “I don’t believe in a work-life balance,” Simons clarifies. “I believe in a work-life integration.
In practice that means carving out time for her children. “Every day there are meetings scheduled in my calendar for my kids. During these hours, I take them to school, pick them up, cook dinner, and put them to bed. If someone wants to schedule a meeting at these times, they need to call me, and I can make an affirmative decision on what I need to prioritize.”
“Tech firms reflect the ethos of their clients. Startups want you to bring your whole self to work. It's seen as a strength, not a weakness.” [Julieta Stubrin]
In Simons’ view, taking ownership of your time is essential to working successfully within a team. “When I start a deal, I tell my team, ‘You’re going to find out more about me and my life in this transaction. You’re going to know when my husband and I are fighting or going out on a date, or when my child is ill or has a soccer game, because I'm going to tell you.’ During those times, I may need my team to cover for me.” She appreciates it when her colleagues reciprocate, “because I want to be there for my team members. If they have friends coming into town, or a wedding to go or just need a night off, we communicate those things and then cover for each other. Sometimes it may be uncomfortable to talk about your personal life, but it also leads to very efficient teams.”
Simons’ openness isn’t typical for Big Law, but Stubrin finds that it’s more common at tech firms. “Tech firms reflect the ethos of their clients. Startups want you to bring your whole self to work. It’s seen as a strength, not a weakness.”
Simons has got this work-life integration nailed down now, but that wasn’t always the case. “As I moved through my career, I was walking down a path that had been presented to me.” She realized, “I hadn’t really had the chance to stop and think, ‘What is best for me?’ To make being a mother and a businesswoman work, I had to start dictating my own career.”
The Rise Of FemTech
It’s cynical to say, but inclusion is just good for business – you’ll know this if you’ve ever worked at a company that’s talked about ‘the business case for diversity.’ In tech, it’s simple: women are half the population, we all use tech, so having women on tech teams is essential for ensuring products make sense for all customers. They need to have a say in what products look like, how they’re developed, and how they’re used. That takes us back to the creativity that first drew Megan Baier to the practice. “In tech, problems are seen as opportunities for solutions,” she says. “It’s a great space for young women to get involved in.”