We had the opportunity to sit down with Sara Mo Lee, Stella & Dot’s General Counsel since March 2016. Stella & Dot is an online social selling company that not only designs and offers jewelry, but also allows women to run their own business by becoming stylists.
Prior to coming to Stella & Dot, Sara was a Corporate and Securities Associate at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, one of the world’s biggest law firms.
Here, Sara discusses how she made the transition from big law to Stella & Dot and what she’s learned about the fashion industry since making this move.
Are there any particular legal challenges that you face that pertain to the fashion industry?
I’m a general corporate and securities attorney by trade. The great thing about being a generalist transactional attorney is that you essentially serve as external corporate counsel to a lot of companies, which gives you a broad range of experience. This has proven to be extremely helpful since I have been doing a wide range of legal work on a great deal of diverse matters.
Working in the fashion industry, I would have to say a large portion of my time is spent on intellectual property matters. We design unique and beautiful jewelry and accessories in-house so we do deal with the issue of others trying to copy our designs.
“The Internet is my best friend. I research as much as I can before I make a determination.”
Since you were doing a lot of transactional work before and have now started taking on a good amount of IP work, how did you go about educating yourself on areas of the law you weren’t as familiar with?
There definitely is a learning curve. The Internet is my best friend in some respects. I try to research and learn as much as I can about any given area of law before I make a determination or recommendation on any course of action. For example, on IP work, I was familiar with counseling companies generally on IP matters, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking into very specific IP issues as a corporate attorney. I now feel that I’m pretty familiar with trademarking issues as I manage our trademarking portfolio. I’ve also become well versed in copyrighting as we register our designs internally.
I also work with outside counsel fairly often. A quick phone call to knowledgeable outside counsel may oftentimes not only get you the answer you are looking for but also help with efficiency, since they may know something off the top of their head, saving you a lot of time. In general, I’m learning more about so many various issues and areas of the law that I didn’t know the ins and outs of, such as regulatory matters, and FTC and FDA regulations, for example. Being in-house has really opened up my eyes to the day to day issues you encounter when running a company, from the very mundane to significant, complex legal and business matters.
Do you have any particular tools that you use? Any programs that help you get work done efficiently?
Working for a startup/private company, you definitely operate a lot more leanly than working for a larger firm. I used to have a 24-hour business center and help desk at both of my prior firms. You learn to be a little more creative and also be willing to roll up your sleeves and do whatever is needed to get the job done.
“Outside counsel should really understand your needs and want to support you.”
As for tools, the first thing I asked for was ChangePro, my redlining tool. I do a lot of contract review and tracked changes can get really messy sometimes. A great redlining tool really helps.
How often do you find yourself working with and using outside counsel?
Well, I had to admit that one thing I didn’t realize until I went in-house is how expensive outside counsel can be. This has in turn made me realize the importance of finding outside legal advisors who won’t nickel and dime you. They should really understand your needs and want to support you, which in my mind means that they won’t charge you for every 5 minute call. When running a legal department, you have to also think about a legal budget, which is something I only did from a project perspective when serving as outside counsel. I truly believe that finding great partners and good outside legal support is a key to success for a general counsel.
Because of the high cost of outside legal counsel, I have been really impressed with the [UpCounsel] model. I love how it’s project based and that I can turn to resources if I can’t find the right attorney to engage fairly quickly. It’s nice to know there is an alternative to turn to when you need to find attorneys who are experienced and who will do a great job at a reasonable cost.
What’s daily life like as a GC of a fashion startup? What are some of the things you deal with on a daily basis?
I definitely have a daily to-do list that I go through. I feel you really need to be flexible, because a lot of times your day does not go as you may have planned. For example, I might have had a full day on my schedule, but something urgent may come up that is really significant for the business that you need to prioritize.
“Read up on the company and all the different aspects of the business.”
I am also finding that I am working cross-functionally with different teams whether it be marketing, field development, or finance on a regular basis. When I have a little bit of down time, I then turn to things that are more routine like spending time managing our IP portfolio, ensuring our corporate records are in order, and doing research on random matters. I am also constantly monitoring any potential for infringement since a lot of people do try to use our copyrighted designs. There is never a dull moment!
What are some top tips that you would give to other startup GC’s?
1. Be extremely responsive and communicative about timing and expectations. Understand what each department needs from you, why they need it and by what deadline. I think all of this really helps you be a good partner for all your business partners.
2. Understand the business and the company’s goals as much as you can. There’s so much to learn when you come in. When you serve as outside counsel, you can focus on what you need to know for the deal on hand, and oftentimes you are able to only understand up to a certain layer of your client’s business. You don’t delve as deep as you need to understand the specific details. In order to be effective in-house counsel, you really need to know what’s driving things while also understanding the nuances of the business. So I would say when you come in, really try to educate yourself, meet with everyone you can. Also, read up on as much as you can about the company and all the different aspects of the business so you can get familiar with the landscape as quickly as possible.
3. Be creative and be willing to take risks. I never wanted to come in and be the person that says “No, you can’t do it.” There are rarely going to be situations where you completely eliminate all risks. You’re just going to have to understand that if you want the business to do well and grow, you’re going to have to be comfortable with a little bit of risk in order to achieve the business objectives.
4. Have fun and enjoy what you do. I really love this company and I truly believe in the mission. Not only is Stella & Dot a mission driven company, but the people here are really great. I feel that it is really rewarding to be a business partner, which allows me to actively contribute to the company’s success.