My journey from being an intern at a Law Firm to being a Product Head at a Legal Tech company
I often get asked how I went from being an intern at a corporate law firm to a product head at a legal tech company and what I learned from the transition.
I was your typical sleep-deprived law student juggling through law school classes and mock courts who were working for one of the finest law firms in the country as a legal intern hoping that I'll soon be an associate. An opportunity came my way and without much contemplation, I jumped into it. It was about building a tech product for lawyers and that too a case management tool. I was bored with drafting petitions and thought it might be a good change for a few months before I get myself the dream law firm job and also, as a former litigation intern and a litigant I did have a hard time tracking my cases. I started out in the legal tech company with no experience of building a technology product ever and in a span of a year and a half, I successfully built the tool and a few other tech products.
As product manager for the case management tool, I’ve learned infinitely more about law, business, and people than I ever could have in the classroom. I’ve picked up along the way and some reasons why you should consider a career in product development.
Here are three of the invaluable lessons:
I. You don’t need a technical background to succeed as a product manager.
I didn’t have a technical background when I started. I oversaw and observed multiple teams of engineers and designers, managing complex software development projects. I don’t think it’s necessary to have any kind of specific background to be a product manager.
Lauren Chan, says: “Know your value add. I’ve seen three main PM archetypes:
An engineer turned PM,
A designer turned PM, and
A business person turned PM.
As a member of the third one, I recognize that I could never out-engineer an engineer or out-design a designer. Instead, I leveraged my knowledge of our business and customers to better prioritize what features make it onto the roadmap and help my team understand why we’re building those features.”
She’s right: You have to know your value. For me, this meant leveraging my familiarity with the legal profession (having gone to a law school and worked at a corporate firm) to design features specifically for the lawyers who use the system. It meant using the interpersonal and team management skills I learned through experiences in litigation, corporate law, and business to communicate effectively with engineers and accomplish tasks on time.
The rest you learn on the job. By working hard, asking questions, and immersing myself in the process, I’ve picked up enough of the details to speak the language of our computer and data scientists. Now, I use terms such as PHP and python regularly. I’ve learned that for scrum teams to hit sprint deadlines, it’s important to clearly define projects upfront, communicate regularly with engineers as new features are being built, and provide forums where questions can be asked as they come up.
These lessons are universally valuable. In fact, law firms and other professional organizations could probably benefit from implementing some of the structured task management tenets innate to the scrum process. The bottom line, then, is this: With the right mentality anyone can be a product manager, and if you invest in the job it will prepare you for whatever challenge comes next.
II. As a product manager, you don’t have a defined role. You need to be dynamic and do what’s required at that point in time.
There are few intellectual endeavors as challenging and developing as product management at a startup because of the unique space it occupies between the business team and the technology. The personalities of each side are different — business executives are often energetic, charismatic, shoot-for-the-moon types, and engineers are generally more practical, methodical, and realistic. The business team knows the market better than anyone.
They have big, inspiring ideas for where the company should go. And engineers are the only ones with the expertise to actually execute those ideas.
Product managers are facilitators — the glue that holds the two worlds together. Unlike the sales guy or the engineer, it’s the product manager’s job to know everything so they can bring both sides together harmoniously. It’s their divine appointment to interpret what salespeople hear from the market, distill it into the ideas that become a roadmap, and then effectively communicate that roadmap to the engineering team who can create the product that satisfies the original need. Though difficult, this unique position is an opportunity to build a well-rounded skill set of business acumen and market knowledge combined with people management and technical fluency. Because of the many different directions in which it stretches you, there’s no better position than product manager for growth.
III. To be successful you don’t need to have the best product out there rather your product should be built around the needs of the customer. This is harder than the study for civil procedure, but this time it’s actually worth the effort.
Product managers have the opportunity to be creative problem solvers, self-driven designers, and in-charge team leaders. But, ultimately, product managers serve the customer. Francis Brown puts it like this: “At the heart of every product person, there’s a desire to make someone’s life easier or simpler. If we listen to the customer and give them what they need, they’ll reciprocate with love and loyalty to your brand.”
The key to success in product development is a deep understanding of whom you are developing for. To build a product that is valuable, you have to understand the persona who will be using it. For me, this meant spending hours on the phone talking to advocates and general counsels to become intimately familiar with what the day-to-day job of a lawyer at a business looks like. What are the pain points?. What parts of their job do they really love? What keeps them up at night?
Studying the consumer takes time, but as a product manager, there is nothing more rewarding than delivering a product to a client that will totally revolutionize the way they do their job. And that is how I try to define success in my line of work.
This has been a short extract from my journey starting out as an associate at a law firm to being a full-time product manager/product owner at a legal technology company building technology products that made a difference. I now run a full-time product strategy consulting helping people turn smart ideas to brilliant products and experiences.
Article by Riley Hawkins on how he went from a law student to PM
Quotes by Francis Brown & Lauren Chan