Mergers & Acquisitions

Moving In-House with Megan Fouty

CCBJ: Megan, talk to us about what led you to Glowforge.

Megan Fouty: I started my career at a law firm, where I did defense side employment law. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to move in-house. I liked the business side of things. I liked strategy, and I liked having a specific client or company to get intricately involved with, so I made that a goal. I graduated from law school in 2009 at the height of a recession, and all my law school friends were getting either laid off or having their OCI jobs revoked and going back to non-legal jobs. Everybody thought my plan to go in-house one year out of law school—and at a time when most people just wanted any legal job—was certain to fail, but I went ahead and started networking, which had always played a large part in advancing my career and shaping my general professional and personal life. I even published a book about it last year, The Art of Networking.

I met with hundreds of attorneys from all over the state (facilitated by the fact that I had just gotten laid off, thanks to being the most junior attorney at my law firm). I told everyone about my goal to move in-house. One of my interactions was with the mother of a little boy to whom I gave private swimming lessons. She was a partner at a major law firm I told her what I was looking to do. She introduced me to a friend who worked at a Fortune Global 500 company and, long story short, I got an in-house job there, doing international employment law and then immigration. Five or six years in, I took a step back—I wanted to be intentional around my career—and asked myself, “Do I want to stay in employment law, or do I want to shoot for general counsel?”

The answer came back “general counsel,” but I would need to broaden my résumé and get some other experiences under my belt. I went back to my network, meeting with people and explaining that I wanted to broaden my expertise to include drafting and negotiating commercial agreements, and to get into some other, more generalized areas of law. Through a contact, I was introduced to the assistant general counsel at Moss Adams, a large national finance company. The company was looking for an experienced commercial negotiator, which was not me but, undeterred, I met with her and we got along well. I'm sure as a favor to the person who introduced me, this assistant GC introduced me to the GC, who brought me in for an interview.

I will never forget that interview. The GC leaned back in his chair, stared at me intensely and said, “If you were me, what would you be worried about?” I said, “Maybe that I don’t know commercial contracts.” He said, “Okay, what do you say to that?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been working in-house now for many years. I’ve hired people and what I’ve come to realize and believe is that you can teach the right person anything, but there are many things you can’t teach—and I have those in spades. I am a strong leader. I am a strong communicator. I understand business. I know how to get alignment among business folks. I have a strong work ethic. And I get up to speed quickly. But you’re going to have to teach me contracts. But the things that I have, you’re not going to have to teach me. And I don’t believe you can teach people those things.”

He hired me and I stayed there for a few years, negotiating a majority of their agreements. Then one day a mentor of mine who had become the GC of a tech startup in Seattle called me up and said, “Come be my number two and help me build a legal team.” I was pregnant with my first child and said, “I don’t know if it’s a good time. I have this job. It’s a good job. I don’t know if I want to make a leap. I don’t know if I am cut out for startup life right now. I don’t know if I want to take more of a risk. It sounds like a lot of work. I haven’t built any credibility there. I’m about to start a family. I don't know how my priorities and my goals are going to change.”

She said, “Just come interview.” The interviews went well, and as I was considering the job offer, one of my mentors gave me an amazing piece of advice. “Of all the things you listed—What if my priorities change? What if I’m sick while I’m pregnant? Can I build up credibility? What if I don’t like startup life? What if this risk is too much?— none have happened yet. You are not sick, your priorities have not changed, etc. So don’t count yourself out of an opportunity based on risks or worries that are not yet a reality. If they become a reality, then you figure out what you want to do based on the facts in front of you, but don't lean out based on a bunch of what-ifs.”

I took the job and made the leap. I helped build a legal team from scratch. And that tech startup hypergrew. We grew from 100 employees to 1,000 employees in a year. We did several fundraising rounds. We got GeekWire’s Startup of the Year, Tech Titan of the Year and Deal of the Year. We opened up offices across the country. We did a ton of work and built out the legal function. Then the GC, my mentor, moved on to a different company and I took over the legal team. I was happy with the team, and was thinking about having a second child when I got a call from a recruiter I know who said, “There is a job at Glowforge.” We talked about it and I said that while I was interested to hear more, I didn’t think it was a good time to make a move. Her response: “Just come talk to the CEO.”

I did and, long story short, I took the job. I was their first in-house counsel and built a team from scratch. I was attracted to so much about the company. They say that once you’ve served as a GC, you’re interviewing the CEO and the executive team as much as you’re reviewing the company and as much as they’re interviewing you—and I fell in love with the executive team. They were incredibly talented (and I daresay brilliant) people, more than half of whom were women and or underrepresented. The culture at that company was all I could have asked for.

I always tell people when you’re looking in-house — you have to look at how the company treats legal as a function, which is one of three ways. The first approach is legal is a necessary evil because the company has gotten to a stage where it feels it needs a legal department, but your legal work is met with resistance or departments come to legal only when something terrible happens. Legal is constantly battling to get their voices heard, and their advice is usually disregarded.

The second way is where legal is there to serve specific operational jobs. They’re there to negotiate mergers and acquisitions, to handle litigation, to negotiate contracts, etc. They’re paid well and are treated with great respect and even friendliness. And they stay in their legal specific swim lane.

The third way is where legal is treated as a strategic business partner. They’re at the table for all the major conversations and not just for pure legal advice, but also for strategy, proactive thinking and problem-solving. The CEO treats the general counsel like the CFO, the CTO or any of the other executives. The General Counsel’s business acumen is sought out and appreciated. That is how the Glowforge CEO treats legal. I don’t know that I would ever go to another company where that is not how legal is viewed; where legal is not at the table among all the other executives when strategic conversations around the direction of the business are being held. That is what sold me on Glowforge in addition to being impressed by the executive team and the culture.

I also recognize some people don’t have the privilege of being super picky or deciding selectively where they go, ;sometimes you just need a job, sometimes or you just want your first in-house job, —but if you have an opportunity and you're looking in-house, considering the approach to the legal function will greatly help you select the culture or job experience you may have.

Talk to us about the qualities you look for when you’re bringing people onto your team.

When I’m hiring new people, it’s not all about the résumé, because at a startup there is no way to come fully prepared. You are thrown all sorts of curveballs. You have all sorts of things that nobody understands how to do, and you need a team that can figure it out. What I look for is a work ethic. I look for grit, resilience, a sense of urgency and for someone who is flexible and scrappy. I look for someone who I can literally hand a head-scratching conundrum and they won’t get flustered and say, “I’ve never done that before,” or “Do you have a template?” I’m looking for someone who will say, “Let me go figure it out.”

My ideal hire will use their business savvy, their intelligence and their legal knowledge to figure out a path forward. They will come up with different kinds of solutions and proposed actions. They need to show attention to detail, to move quickly, to not become anxious by a change in direction. They should be true generalists and be able to move quickly and figure anything out. If they come to me and say, “I’ve never done this before,” my response will be, “Me neither. Here's what I would do …” whether it’s reaching out to my network, looking up the statute, combing blog posts from various law firms, calling up the agency in question, whatever it takes to figure out a proposed path forward.

What I look for are the “soft skills” of being able to figure anything out, being able to shift quickly, having a work ethic and sense of urgency, being unflappable, being flexible and adaptable, being able to move quickly but accurately, and being able to communicate well and to get alignment and cross-functional partnership with the business people, because if nobody wants to work with you, your advice is ineffective.

What changes would you like to see within the profession?

A few years ago, as a side hobby, I founded a business called Diversity University, which provides diversity, equity and inclusion tools to companies, organizations and law firms. We do unconscious bias training, diversity project management and listening sessions. We work with executive teams, run workshops and similar things like that. I’ve worked with all sorts of various pieces of the legal profession. Along with networking, it is near and dear to my heart and I’ve been trying to pair the two things —my book, The Art of Networking, and my work at Diversity University—to try to increase awareness among legal professionals as a way of driving changes in the profession, in the community, and at our businesses and companies.

If you’re at a law firm, having a diverse population is better for the clients, with more representation, more innovative ideas and more ability to understand and reach various client groups. If you’re at a company, you can help drive these initiatives forward as well as be part of the change that should happen within the profession and the community. I would love to see the legal profession become far more inclusive and far more aware. For example, there are some pretty antiquated hiring policies and practices, such as only looking for candidates with top brand law school and law firm experience. You’re going to cut out a whole bunch of incredible talent that way.

Other policies affecting DEI are the way firms handle origination fees or billable hours, parental leave, the handing out of client assignments, and the structuring of diverse teams. Too often, such policies are not well thought out, not sufficiently intentional, resulting in a lack of inclusivity and diversity, and that does a disservice to our profession, our communities, our organizations and the clients we serve. I would love to see more people educate themselves, question the status quo, and be change advocates for a more inclusive and forward-thinking profession.

Things are changing, I am seeing more and more legal professionals take an interest and an intentional role. But slowly.

Being a woman, and being an underrepresented woman, in the tech profession, in the legal profession and at the executive ranks, all three of which tend to be male dominated and white male dominated. I still feel it. I’ve gotten all sorts of advice and seen all sorts of coping mechanisms. I've seen other executive women use masculine names. If their name is Christine, they go by Chris. I've seen them be told, “Don’t be too girly. Don’t be too friendly (if you want to be taken seriously). Don’t use emojis. Don’t say ‘like’. Don’t smile too much. Don’t wear too much makeup. Or women are told to lean into their gender with advice such as, “Make sure you always wear a dress to court. Make sure you put your hair down,” when we should be advising women to just show what they can bring to the table and to join companies and cultures that don’t label assertive women “bossy,” but rather “leadership material.”

We are raising the next generation of women to see themselves as leaders and to know that women, and other underrepresented people, belong at the table where key decisions are made, whether at a law firm partner or in-house. There’s still a tremendous amount of work to do there.

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