Career Transition to Greater Professional Fulfillment

The Barrett Group’s CEO Peter Irish Interviews Stephanie Yang, In-House Counsel At ThreadUp, Inc.

Stephanie Yang worked more than 10 years in employment law at two larger law firms, making partner, but then feeling that something was missing.

This is the story of how she became In-House Counsel at ThredUp Inc. and found much greater professional fulfillment.

Peter Irish: Welcome to the hiring line today. I’m Peter Irish with The Barrett Group and it’s my great pleasure to introduce to you, Stephanie Yang, who is Senior Counsel Employment and Litigation at ThredUp, Inc. Welcome Stephanie.

Stephanie Yang: Thank you so much, Peter, for having me.

Peter Irish: My pleasure. Thank you for coming on. Well, Stephanie, you have accomplished something that many of our executives would love to accomplish and that is to become an In-House Counsel and I think that’s what we would like to explore in the course of this interview. So maybe we could start out with where were you before you became in house Counsel. Tell us a little bit about that.

Stephanie Yang: Sure. I started my career, like many do, at a law firm. Initially, it was in employment law, and I sort of stayed in that lane because the economy was bad. This was Lehman Brothers and employment law provided an opportunity to still meaningfully practice law with lots of litigation, even in situations where there is an economic downturn overall. So, I was fortunate to start in this area. I really liked it. I love the human interaction, and, from time to time, the drama of it all. So, I stayed in it.

My second firm was Jackson Lewis where I again practiced exclusively employment law and I was there for a total of almost seven years. In January 2020 I had the opportunity of making Partner there, which I was very grateful and happy about. That was my career trajectory, very traditional big law, if you want to call it that type career path.

Peter Irish: And then came the pandemic and that had some impacts on you. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about how that impacted you.

Stephanie Yang: Sure. So, I made Partner in January 2020 and as we all remember March 2020, so two months thereafter, was when everything started shifting and becoming very different, and the pandemic hit home. And so, we as all other firms and companies started a fully remote environment. And it wasn’t all bad.

I think in the beginning, I found it very invigorating. I was helping clients with new issues every day, related to the pandemic, or arising out of the pandemic. But I was learning as the new regulations were issued, at some point seems daily, and then sort of immediately turning that around and meaningfully help clients how to implement and make their workplace as compliant as possible. So, I really enjoyed that for a while. The litigation side of my practice slowed down for a little bit, but it was more than supplemented by these types of day-to-day Covid compliance type questions.

And I think where things really started shifting though is, as you’re working from home and your kid is remote learning. I have a four-year-old, and so you see your child more and you have to compartmentalize your day a little bit better as I’m sure all working parents had to experience during this time. But then as a result, you also start thinking about what you are doing, meaningful and contributing, I guess, to a greater good.

And so that sense, I started feeling that maybe a year into the pandemic. Initially everything is new, and you are doing all these measurable things for the client, to help them with a new situation. I think as everybody got a little bit fatigued or a lot, maybe a lot fatigued by Covid, so has that shift changed. The litigation started coming back quite a bit more. And again, it wasn’t like a one-day process. I think initially I was totally fine and I thought I would just get back to what I was doing before the pandemic, which I very much enjoyed for many, many years.

Peter Irish: You told me that basically you felt like something was missing. There was a gap of some kind. Could you describe that gap? How did you recognize it? How did it manifest itself?

Stephanie Yang: At first, it was very subtle. As I’m having a conversation to let’s say negotiate a settlement, or maybe having a Zoom court hearing, arguing about a specific discovery motion, or some other brief, in the back of my mind, I’m kind of like, wow, this is like such a trivial, not trivial for the client trivial, trivial in the macro sense, such a trivial situation.

Instead of spending meaningful time with my child and participating in helping her with her learning to try to make up for time lost during remote learning, I’m doing this very routine, I don’t know if routine is that right word, almost routine work that boils down to, for example, if a specific document should be disclosed to the other side, that in the grand scale of things in five years nobody would even remember that such a document was there.

Peter Irish: Very, very operational, very detail oriented. And maybe somehow boring?

Stephanie Yang: It was starting to get boring. I did not feel engaged. On the surface I remained engaged, but I did not feel that the work was interesting. Because as you stayed home in the pandemic, you start to realize what is important, right? And it is kind of like do I want to spend the majority of my work time editing or drafting briefs on issues that I know are not going to matter in six months or a year? Or do I want to try to do something different?

So, I started seriously questioning myself in 2021 and initially not really coming up with a solution. And then, I guess going back to why the work was no longer engaging anymore. It was also a lot of the sense that there has got to be things that I can do to contribute to the greater world, than tracking my time in sort of .1 increments constantly. Which is what you do at law firms.

Peter Irish: Sure. Did you have inclinations? I mean, where there sort of particular social goods that interested you more or ways that you might prefer to contribute?

Stephanie Yang: You know, initially I did not have a sense of what that might be. I just knew that I needed to do something different where I feel like as I’m applying my skills. Maybe not immediately, but maybe in a year or two, I could see the progress and the contributions that I have made. But then to your question, I had little to no idea what that might be. And so even though I started feeling the sense of engagement beginning 2021, I wasn’t even looking for an alternative job. I was just sort of doing a lot of thinking in terms of what will make me feel fulfilled.

Peter Irish: I think you told me in our first conversation that you had some kind of excitement when you became Partner and then of course that flattened over time. And then there was the pandemic and everything else. But didn’t they come back and try to enrich your employment situation with more duties or something?

Stephanie Yang: Yes. To the firm’s credit, they were great! They tried to put me in charge of all sorts of different things, like some things that some people will find boring. E-discovery being one thing that the firm was really trying to be a leader in, so they put me in charge of that for the San Francisco office. They gave me mentorship opportunities for younger associates to see if that would help with the engagement a bit more if I’m helping younger lawyers.

To be honest, all of these were helpful, and I think I actually will have left even perhaps a couple of months earlier than that, had there not been these efforts. But then I think as the excitement of making Partner, it sort of flattened over time. And even though the engagement did improve, I could sense myself slipping away, in a figurative sense, not in reality.

Peter Irish: You were looking for something where you could contribute more meaningfully. And then that in-house counsel opportunity arose somehow, right? Tell us about how that opportunity appeared.

Stephanie Yang: It’s kind of like serendipity. One day, my contact at ThredUp, Inc., which was at the time already a client that I was working with as their Outside Counsel in the employment law area. And so, one day, my contact made aware to me that they are going to be posting this in house employment law opportunity. It was going to be the first attorney internally on the litigation and employment law side. And she wanted to see if I knew of anyone that might fit the profile.

I read the description initially with the intention of trying to think of who I know that might be well qualified for the job. As I read on, I was kind of like, wow, this, in many ways kind of describes me, and would behoove me not to ask about the opportunity, right?

Because the qualifications all seem to check the box. It’s a company that in an industry that I’m really into. I’ve always had a passion for fashion related e-commerce, and this is right in that space. And of course, also has a mission of trying to reduce waste. It’s a consignment or secondhand shop online. And I’ve always liked their people too because I had the opportunity and the privilege of having worked with them already for a few years as Outside Counsel. So, I was like, I really need to ask at least inquire about the opportunity, because otherwise, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least ask.

Peter Irish: Okay, so then there was this informal expression and so you said, hey, I’d be interested in this somehow. And what was the reaction?

Stephanie Yang: Originally, I proceeded with caution only because I had a good relationship with them, but then I didn’t know how they would feel about this. Because it is always different, internal versus external, in terms of a position. Also I think initially, the position posting has said that they preferred somebody who is based in Arizona, just from a geographic point of view. And I had no intention of relocating to Arizona. Also, I didn’t know if that was a must. It certainly sounded like it at the time from the job posting. I thought rather than guessing, I would just have a quick conversation and be very open about it. And I made it very clear, because I didn’t want to hinder the company’s business objectives either, if Scottsdale, Arizona was a must.

Peter Irish: Well, that’s always powerful when you are negotiating a job, if you feel comfortable walking away from the table. It gives you a certain, let’s say power in the discussion. But they were welcoming, they appreciated you raising your hand, I gather.

Stephanie Yang: I think so. And the reaction I got was, they were very appreciative of the fact that I raised it, that I was sensitive to the fact that this may or may not be a priority for when it comes to location. I think that they also discussed it internally and let me know, hey, while we said we prefer that location, we don’t think being in California is a deal breaker, especially if we can find the right candidate.

Peter Irish: Well, of course you knew their business a little bit. That helps, I suppose. So, was there then a formal process, did they put you through some sort of formal process and could you maybe briefly describe it if they did?

Stephanie Yang: Sure. So, the formal process. There was a vetting call with the internal recruiter in charge of the process, and then thereafter there were maybe about four formal interviews, 30 to 40 minutes each, so more of a half day type deal.

Peter Irish: And these were virtual interviews?

Stephanie Yang: Yes. Virtual interviews.

Peter Irish: Okay. And how did you feel? Did you need to prep for these interviews, or did you feel well prepared going in?

Stephanie Yang: Even as Outside Counsel, even though I obviously might know more about them than your average candidate who hadn’t worked with them, I still prepared. Because most of the business partners who interviewed me, three of the four, were not people that I have worked with before as Outside Counsel. I felt that to make the best use of their time and mine, I ought to know a bit more about them, about their function within the company. And just do all the research that I can beforehand, so that I come prepared with questions that make sense to ask them. So, I did. I printed out everybody’s LinkedIn page, studied it carefully. And I also looked on the company website for any news mentions of them or the location that they were working out of.

Peter Irish: Right. It sounds like you were very well prepared. You were already their in-house counsel. So, I think the relevance is kind of obvious. But were there other points in your history that you could raise and say this makes me the ideal candidate from a transferability of experience or skill point of view?

Stephanie Yang: That is a great question. I pointed to the compliance work that I was helping with other clients during the pandemic, because I think those are so relatable and universally everybody was facing similar sets of issues. And I let them know about that type of experience, not just with them, but with other companies of different sizes, different industry, and different needs, to show that even though I understand their business and I really love the industry and I think it is a perfect fit, I can also be flexible in the event that business wants to pivot in any way. I can customize my advice and make it usable in that sense.

Peter Irish: So, after those four interviews, ultimately there was an offer. May I ask how did the offer come? Was it verbal? Or was it in a meeting? Was it written? How did the offer eventually arrive?

Stephanie Yang: So, it was verbal. It was a phone call, followed by an email.

Peter Irish: All right. And what was your reaction when you got the offer?

Stephanie Yang: I was very happy. And then I said to myself, I better start making a pros and cons list because even though at the time I was 70% plus sure that I was going to go, it was still a big decision to leave my firm that I had been at for almost seven years. And so, the first reaction was really, really happy. The second reaction was, I better start doing some more thinking before I finalize on this decision.

Peter Irish: Right. And there were no particular conflict of interest questions in this case, right? You weren’t really affected by that?

Stephanie Yang: No, I was lucky in that sense.

Peter Irish: Well, congratulations on the new in-house counsel role and all that. Tell us a little bit about the new role, what is it that you do and how and why do you find it that much more fulfilling?

Stephanie Yang: In a way there is some overlap and continuation of projects that I was assisting with on the outside that continued. But in my internal role, I’m just becoming an internal person and assisting from the inside, even though the substance of the work might be similar. And I think that is probably common for anyone going in-house as external counsel already for a specific company. But then the difference is that I get to be a lot closer to the operation team.

As outside counsel, because you are charging by the hour, most clients, understandably, they would just tell you sort of the minimum context, get the advice really quick, and then in terms of how they implement though, I rarely get to see the outcome; if ever. That is just the norm of how it works.

As in-house counsel, I not only get to see the implementation, if there are questions and whatnot during the implementation phase, I always I stay in constant communication with the teams. And even though in a way it is a lot more operation heavy and much more detailed than let’s say in the outside role, you see the outcome, you see how it got implemented and how your advice eventually shaped that business decision. Mostly for the better so far, of course, without disclosing any details, but so far that’s what I’ve observed.

Peter Irish: That’s great. Well, it sounds very fulfilling, much broader, and even though it is more detailed, I guess there’s the social mission that you also feel comfortable with, right?

Stephanie Yang: Yes, definitely. I know I’m guilty of the same thing. I probably have a ton of stuff in my closet that is just sitting there. When I moved in the past, I’ve been guilty of just like tossing it out or sending a random box to goodwill. Being able to address that on the bigger scale, has you sort of see why it is that I’m doing what I’m doing.

Peter Irish: Well, let me ask you then, there are other lawyers out there who might like to make the same sort of shift to in-house counsel that you successfully did. What advice would you have to them about either how to find and in house counsel position or how to acquire one once they have identified the opportunity?

Stephanie Yang: I would just say, really think about what interests you, what makes you passionate. As I was thinking more about it, this opportunity came along, and it was a perfect fit. But even though I hadn’t yet articulated that completely for myself, because I already knew I wanted to do something where even if it is a for profit company that has a social impact. So that when something like this opportunity came along, I knew that it would be a good fit right away.

Whereas if I had just used in-house counsel as the ultimate goal, but without articulating what makes you want to go in-house, it would have taken a lot longer to realize what it is that I wanted, and which opening would have been a good fit. I guess my advice to summarize is to really do some internal thinking and digging as to why you want this, and what types of company, or industry, or social impact would you want to see from your um potential future position and then go from there.

Peter Irish: Part of what we do with our clients is the Clarity Program. We help them envision what they’ll be doing in the future and make it as concrete as possible. What have they accomplished? Who do they work with? What did they do today? What are they looking forward to tomorrow? Make it as concrete as possible. And that’s what I hear you saying. You made this this ideal position as concrete as possible and lo and behold it arrived.

Stephanie Yang: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Peter Irish: Well, let’s see. Any other advice or feedback for lawyers who might be seeking professional fulfillment. Anything else you’d like to share?

Stephanie Yang: This might be more basic for your clients, but just getting yourself ready. So, if you know you are going to be… I’m just going to use e-commerce slash retail as an example because that’s the industry that I’m in right now. So, if youare interested in e-commerce or fashion or retail, read up on it. Of course, on the legal side, but also on the non-legal industry trends. So that when the right opportunity comes along, you’re already well prepared for it.

Peter Irish: It sounds like you did excellent preparation for your interviews as you described it. I seldom hear people make that much preparation.

Stephanie Yang: Oh, really? Thank you!

Peter Irish: Most people just go in and think they’ll wing it based on their charm and their experience. So, well done, you! All right. Well, anything else you’d like to share at the moment, Stephanie? Otherwise a fascinating story.

Stephanie Yang: No, that’s it. Thank you so much for having me!

Peter Irish: It was my pleasure. Thank you very much. And good luck in your new role.

Stephanie Yang: Thank you.

Also read: Why Suffer In Silence?

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