For most lawyers, the path to AGC opens up after about 8-10 years of experience in the industry. It took Katayoon Tayebi, AGC at FIGS, 6 years, a growth-oriented mindset, and as she puts it, “a little bit of luck.”
She started out as a Corporate Associate at WilmerHale, where she spent a year before moving into an in-house role at Compass, a real estate technology company. There, she climbed the corporate ladder from an Associate Counsel to Senior Counsel in 4 years. Now, she acts as the Associate General Counsel at FIGS, an e-commerce platform that sells medical apparel for healthcare professionals.
Read on to explore our conversation with Katayoon on her career trajectory, the challenges she’s encountered, what got her to where she is now, and actionable advice for first-time AGCs and lawyers looking to accelerate their growth in today’s dynamic legal industry.
Fast-tracking your growth and career trajectory
Katayoon was straightforward when we asked how she reached the AGC role within such a short timeline. She boiled it down to two things: hard work and luck.
“It definitely takes a lot of hard work. But you also have to be at the right place at the right time. For me, that was Compass. Being able to participate and help lead the charge when the company was going through significant growth gave me so much exposure to so many different things. So, even though it seems like a short period of time, it was a very busy four years.”
Choosing the right place for your practice
Our biggest takeaway from this conversation was Katayoon’s emphasis on learning and being deliberate about what you do, especially in terms of choosing where to work and supporting your ambitions with the right goals and timelines.
“There are different ways to go about it. You can go to slower-paced companies, where you’ll likely adopt the regular timeline of becoming an AGC with around eight to ten years of experience. But if you're trying to hit the ground running, going to a company that will let you really flex your leadership skills and get exposure to a lot of different things at once, while challenging, can fast track your career.”
As for Katayoon, she credits her time at Compass and the exposure she received there for her quick rise to the AGC role.
Expanding your skill set and gaining exposure
“When I joined Compass, I spent about 50% of my time helping the sales team and the other 50% of my time on M&A transactions. Eventually, I was leading our M&A efforts and supporting other strategic projects like helping our team build a marketplace, reviewing comms, providing support for our Series F and Series G funding, etc. I was also part of the team that helped the company go public. I leveraged this exposure to expand my skill set and become more of a generalist.”
This exposure, according to her, is key for anyone aiming for higher leadership roles, especially early into your career.
“Some people want to be siloed in their role and that's okay. Different strokes for different folks. But if that AGC, DGC, GC role is the ultimate goal, I think it's really important to diversify. Get as much exposure to different things as you possibly can, because what it really comes down to when you're in-house is making quick judgment calls by trusting your experience and intuition. Having leaders that give you the freedom to learn, make mistakes, and get better is also key. My manager at Compass taught me so much and let me take initiative and try different things. So, as a people manager, it's also important to listen to your people and what they want from their careers.”
However, not all companies are conducive for getting this kind of exposure.
“Different companies have different ways of doing things. One of the things I love about our legal team at FIGS is that we all get to be generalists. This gives us a ton of exposure to different practice areas and legal/business issues. At Compass, it was the same kind of ethos in the beginning but as the business grew, there was a natural degree of specialization. Even the same company can shift how its lawyers function over time.”
To people with less visible opportunities for growth and exposure into various aspects of in-house legal practice, she recommends taking initiative and getting close to business.
“The best thing you can do is talk to your business teams. Ask to be a fly on the wall in their meetings and invest time into building those relationships. Without that, you're not going to know where to pitch in, since business teams don't always know when they need legal support. The more exposure you have to what business teams are up to, the more likely it is that diversification will happen for you because you'll be the first to hear about what’s going on.”
Getting close to business and leadership
For in-house lawyers, it’s essential to understand the business perspective and weave that into your practice.
“It's quite different from working at a law firm, where your job is to provide the most conservative legal advice. If you’re doing that in-house, it's just not going to fly. Your business partners will not want to talk to you, and the legal team becomes a blocker. So, try to take a business-friendly approach to the advice that you give. Look for creative solutions, be able to triage, and know when you need to slow down to speed up.”
Understanding risk tolerance
A major aspect of being “business-friendly” includes making concessions and approaching risk thoughtfully.
“Understand your team's leadership, the company's leadership, and their risk tolerance. Different legal leaders will have different views on how to determine risk, and understanding that risk tolerance is super important to your success. If you work for a growing company, for example, your general counsel and your business leaders may be more open to taking on more calculated risks. Getting comfortable with that is probably the best learning that you can have.”
When trying to estimate that risk tolerance, Katayoon recommends measuring it in terms of how important it is to the business and its success.
“You need to look at the big picture. If a transaction can create meaningful value for the business financially and operationally, then you should take that information into account when looking at the legal risks involved. Your job is often explaining legal risk in a digestible way to ensure that the business is aware of what could happen and what the consequences of certain decisions may be. Your business teams may be ok with the risks and decide to move forward. Your job becomes mitigating the risk as best you can and not taking it personally if the business is okay moving forward even with the risks you’ve outlined. Thinking big picture can also help you identify business risks. For example, even though a decision may not carry legal risk, it might carry PR risk. Being able to identify risks that impact the business (while not always ‘legal’ in nature) will also help you become a trusted advisor.”
Additionally, exposure to different companies and leadership, legal or otherwise, helps speed up your understanding of risk tolerance for various types of businesses.
“When you're starting off, you can learn a lot from observing how different lawyers work and react to risks. Some people will have a low risk tolerance, and you’ll get to see how the business reacts to that approach. Other lawyers will have a higher risk tolerance but may be experts in providing creative solutions and focusing on the really problematic issues. Experiencing these different perspectives really helps you hone your intuition and understand what the business and your leaders care about.”
Investing in building relationships with business
“Get to know all the teams and the leadership of those teams. Invest in those relationships so that you are the first to hear about what's going on.”
As in-house lawyers, your relationship with the business determines your success. You need to be in the know of all business initiatives and build credibility so they trust your advice.
“Something that helps lawyers gain respect with the business is actually understanding business and financial terms, and having an appreciation for the company’s business model — which will tie heavily into the rationale for matters that the legal team becomes involved in. Understanding business goals will help you prioritize projects and initiatives more efficiently. Separately, when you’re delivering advice to the business, speak their language. This means when you’re talking to finance, put the legal risk in financial terms. When you’re talking to Ops, flag operational hurdles that could arise. Tailor your advice to the specific business team that you’re talking to so they can see the tangible impacts of making one decision over another.”
Insights on supporting a business going public
At Compass, Katayoon had the opportunity to support the company through its IPO in 2021. She admits that that was probably the one project she was most proud of in her career so far.
“Opportunities like these are few and far between, especially when you're in-house. And that’s what I mean by needing a little bit of luck — I just happened to be there when the company wanted to go public.”
Here’s some advice she has for lawyers helping take their companies public:
#1 Get comfortable with change
“You have to be prepared for change. When companies hit that milestone of going public, you’ll see a change in executive teams, focus areas and business plans, and unique challenges that come with being public (share price fluctuations, public filings, etc.).”
As lawyers, these changes can be a little disorienting, and Katayoon emphasizes on the importance of not panicking during those times.
“There's a little bit of volatility that exists right before, during, and especially after a company has gone public. Just don't panic. Stock prices will fluctuate, people are going to leave or switch roles, and new people will join the company. These things don’t always speak to the health of the company — sometimes hitting the ‘going public’ milestone is what helps executives and other employees turn the page to their next career chapter. As risk averse people, these kinds of changes can cause discomfort but you just have to let it go and understand that change is normal.”
But not all change is bad. A public company means more opportunity for growth and a front seat to witnessing the maturity of your company and your leadership team.
“The difference between a company when it's private versus when it's public is really interesting. Companies have different duties when they go public, so you might see your leadership change their perspectives and goals. They may want to build processes, or they may need new approvals to do things that they didn’t need approval to do as a private company. They have duties to a larger shareholder base as a public company, so even things like public comms become very important.”
#2 There will be a pivot in risk tolerance
When your company’s looking to go public, it’s a given that you’ll have to up your risk tolerance to match those goals.
“When you're a private company, you have less disclosure requirements and public scrutiny relative to public companies. To some degree, this enables private companies to have a relatively higher risk tolerance. But, if your private company has plans to go public, you need to start thinking about IPO readiness from a financial, operational, and regulatory perspective — far in advance of an actual public listing.”
Advice for first-time AGCs and enterprising lawyers
Whether you’re looking to go in-house or moving into a leadership role for the first time, Katayoon has three great pieces of advice to share.
#1 Understand, then take action
“When you go in-house, really try to understand the ethos of the legal team. It’s easy to get there and bring the law firm mentality and culture with you, but it’s critical to understand that the in-house role is wildly different. The culture is different, the advice you give and how it's delivered should be different, and if you’re in a role where you’re managing people, it's critical to learn management skills. Even if you’re coming from another in-house role, you need to be patient and watch how things function in their current state for a while before initiating changes. Take the time to watch and listen so you can better understand what needs to be improved.”
As business advisors, great lawyers tend to quickly spot issues and suggest solutions to move forward. However, that can be counterproductive when you’re new to the business and unaware of the larger context behind why things are the way they are.
“You need to pay your dues to the folks that have already been on the team for some time and really understand how it functions before you begin making changes, whether that means implementing new processes or determining areas where you can empower your business teams to take initiative to free up legal bandwidth.”
#2 Put on different hats
Something she emphasized throughout the interview was the importance of trying on different hats and gaining greater understanding into a wide variety of areas, especially in your first few months into the job.
“Don’t pass up the opportunity to dig into what your colleagues are working on. Often, you’ll find that there are efficiencies that can be created in cross-functional work. Sometimes inefficiencies may exist because things have always been done a certain way and no one had the time to stop and consider a better way. Sometimes you need to slow down and fix the foundation to really speed up — and the only way to figure out where you can do that is by learning about what other people do and why.”
#3 Stay kind and boost fellow lawyers
Law can often be a cut-throat industry. Being kind, according to Katayoon, is the best piece of advice she can offer.
“Be kind to the people you work with, be kind to your business team members, be kind to outside counsel, and be kind to people who are in law school or college and want to pursue a career down this path. Lawyers can be high-ego and our jobs are stressful, but it takes two minutes to respond to someone who's reached out to you — and 15 minutes for a phone call. Be kind, pay it forward. Your reputation takes you a lot further than any kind of specific skill you have in the field.”
Staying in the loop in the legal world
Finally, we asked her how she stays in touch with the legal world.
“Twitter is where I get a lot of my information, honestly. For me, it's more about staying in touch with what's going on in the world rather than just the legal world. I think that informs a lot of what the legal work is going to be. For example, the recent SVB collapse — that had a lot of impact for some legal folks. So, staying informed on what's going on in the world is really beneficial and I always try to stay up to date with news.”
Besides news publications and social media, she had a few more resources to offer:
She also highlighted the power of staying in touch with and leveraging your network.
“The best tool you have as a lawyer is your network. Even when we were deciding on a CLM, we were asking around to find out what other people are using and what their experience has been. Talking to your colleagues and your former coworkers, and not burning bridges, is super important.”
What’s top of mind for her these days?
Currently, Katayoon and her team are focusing on building processes around all legal work, and training the business to follow those processes.
“Building internal processes is probably our biggest focus right now. Every company needs to spend time building and refining their infrastructure to scale. So, for me, my focus is streamlining, simplifying, or ‘formifying’ some of the things we do on a regular basis so we can refocus our time on more strategic projects that need our full attention.”
As for the future, she’s excited to see where AI takes the legal world.
“Some people are scared of it but I honestly think it's just going to make everyone's life so much easier. You really can't substitute a lawyer. Take risk tolerance, for example. Maybe AI can give you data on which path you can take but, at the end of the day, you need context to be able to make a call. So, I personally don't think it’s scary. It’s actually really cool.”