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Spencer Gusick, '93, Tells MLaw Students He's at Home in House in Silicon Valley

Spencer Gusick, '93, Tells MLaw Students He's At Home In House in Silicon Valley

By Amy Spooner
September 21, 2015

When it comes to establishing a career path as in-house counsel, it's what you know and who you know that counts, Spencer Gusick, '93, told a group of Michigan Law students during a September 19 address.

Gusick speaks from experience. He has worked for household names like Facebook, Pandora, TiVo, and Universal Pictures, and he told the audience that relationship building has been instrumental to his success.

"The path to working in a law firm is straightforward—go to a top school like Michigan, and get recruited," he said. "But when you want to go in house, there's no clear path. A lot of it depends on the connections you've made."

Gusick began his career at Pillsbury Shaw Winthrop Pittman LLP and Squire Patton Boggs, doing intellectual property litigation and commercial transaction work. In 1997, friends who were starting a business doing "websites"—Gusick's use of air quotes was a nod to the newness of the medium at the time—convinced him to join their team as their lawyer.

He's never looked back.

"When you work in house, you get immersed in the business," Gusick said. "That's how you add value. At a firm, as long as you're billing hours, you're making money for your employer. In house, you're usually not the one who is making money for the company. Your work ideally makes it easier for others in the company to achieve their business goals while reducing avoidable risk.

"In-house lawyers are overhead to their employers; you become a cost that needs to be justified. And you do that by demonstrating that you support the business so that your company makes money."

Gusick told students that getting an in-house position is most often the result of the connections you've made in your career. For example, many people have launched careers in house by distinguishing themselves at a firm. "Lawyers often get their first in-house job offer from a client of their firm, or from a company that was across the table from them and respected their work. If they see you as someone who understands their business and is good to work with, they may want you on board as their business grows. Other times, a partner who leaves a firm to go in house may invite star associates to join them."

As for making the leap from a firm to a company, the lack of a billable hours system is a big differentiator, Gusick said, which can be a pro and a con. "In a firm, everyone complains about making their billable hours. However, billable hours are a clear indicator that you are doing your job. There's almost a Pavlovian conditioning that rewards associates for putting in the required number of hours. In house, there's always an unlimited amount of work you could be doing, and no one knows how many hours you work." To be successful, in-house lawyers must prioritize their time to do the work that has the most impact on the company, Gusick said. "It also means people who review you may not really know if you are pulling your weight for the company overall; they just know if you did their particular project or not. There's no clear metric to show that you are working hard and doing a good job. You just kind of have to spread the love and keep as many people happy as possible."

One challenge then, of in-house work, is getting recognition for a job well done. Gusick said that some of this comes down to the luck of what you are working on. He ran a program responsible for handling all worldwide intellectual property claims against Facebook based on user-generated content. "We put out fires every day and diffused threatened lawsuits that could have been very disruptive to Facebook's business. And because we did a good job, we rarely were on Mark Zuckerberg's radar." He said that other lawyers who worked on areas that were more in the spotlight, like high-stakes patent litigation, the acquisitions of companies like Instagram and Occulus, or battles with the European Data Protection Authority were more likely to receive kudos from management, which often helped them advance. "In house, you have to consider how your work is perceived by others. The hierarchy isn't simply based on how many years you've been out of school."

Ultimately, Gusick recommends that attorneys gravitate to an in-house position that they find satisfying, rather than worrying too much about internal politics. "The way to measure success in house is if the job resonates with you. If you are excited to come to work every day, if you like the people you work with, then you are successful. I don't think people should settle for a role that doesn't fulfill them in that way."

And when it comes to building those all-important connections, Gusick reminded students that they've got 22,000 at their fingertips—Michigan Law alumni. "Email alums for advice; ask us to meet for coffee. Michigan is a tremendous network."

Gusick's talk was sponsored by Michigan Law's Entertainment, Media and Arts Law Students Association, and co-sponsored by MLaw's Office of Career Planning, the Privacy and Technology Law Association, the Intellectual Property Students Association, and the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review.

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