Making the Leap: How Molly Siems Went from In-House Lawyer To Business Development Professional

This guest post was edited by Mark Uzunian based on an interview with Molly Siems, Director of Business Development at Justworks.

Come hear Molly share more about her journey from corporate lawyer to BD all-star at Firneo Forum on March 29th in NYC.

“Why would someone spend so many years in school and sleepless nights studying for the bar exam, only to change careers?” asks Molly Siems, Business Development Director at Justworks. A pointed question, but after five years of practicing law, Siems says she felt unfulfilled because of the skills she wasn’t using. The practice of law began to feel forced, and many lawyers – feeling unfulfilled by legal practice – seek a different path. But, how exactly does someone go from practicing law at a big New York firm to business development professional?

Taking the Leap

“There is no one way to move from the legal to the business side, but one way I recommend is going in-house,” says Siems. After practicing law for a number of years in mergers and acquisitions with a later detour into trademark and copyright law, Siems was approached with an unexpected opportunity: Practice in-house law at a tech startup called NewsCred as their fifteenth employee. Siems jumped at the chance.

One of the things I immediately enjoyed as NewsCred’s Legal Director was my high-level vantage point of the company’s operations,” explains Siems. The role involved negotiating for the company’s best interests which required a complete understanding of what each of the divisions actually do, and what their priorities are. “A perspective only a few people ever get to see,” says Siems. “I appreciated being a critical part of the conversations shaping the company.”

A major part of her job at NewsCred was reviewing and negotiating contracts on behalf of the various teams, including reseller and referral agreements for the business development team. “After three years of being Legal Director, our then-BD lead left for another company, and the CEO asked if I was interested in taking on the role,” Siems explains. “I’d spent years putting deals together on paper, but now my job would be making those deals and relationships successful in real life.”

Making the transition to BD wasn’t without its challenges. “It took some getting used to. As in-house counsel, I spent the majority of my time on defense. This BD role, on the other hand, was more ‘salesy,’ primarily focused on channel sales through strategic partnerships, which requires a much more offensive mindset,” Siems says. Some days she would find herself staring at emails, brain hurting, trying to force a shift in perspective. But every successive conversation she had with partners became easier until a switch was flipped.


From Legal Director to Business Development Director

With a BD career that was off and running, Siems’ experience as a lawyer continued to serve her well at Justworks. “My legal skills helped me operationalize the deals we design in business development. I can bring a practical perspective to the esoteric ‘what if?’ conversations and shift them toward more practical discussions,” Siems says.”If the parties move forward with this deal, how will it actually play out in real life? What resources is it going to require from both sides? Who is going to be responsible for what parts?” Having a more disciplined, practical approach to conversations due to her legal background helped Siems turn abstract ideas into concrete practice.

There have also been plenty of calls and meetings where her legal background made a huge impact on the resulting deals. “Recently, I was involved in a big negotiation with a Fortune 500.  As we talked about the deal, the lawyer side of my brain instantly identified a serious flaw in the deal terms that could potentially cause the partnership to go off the rails,” recalls Seims.

After working on the deal with this company, Seims decided to bring up the problematic issue, which did not go over well with the other side. “It definitely caused friction during the discussion. As a lawyer, however, I knew that this kind of thing happens in tough negotiations. I knew exactly how to handle it, and how to get things moving forward again,” recounts Seims.

“While I certainly don’t regret getting my law degree, I’m happy to have made the transition to BD. I get to be more creative, and I get to think more about the offensive side of the business,” says Seims. “When I was a legal director, most of the conversations I had were adversarial. I spent my time playing a zero-sum game with the people on the other side of the table, hashing out who gets what, and who is responsible for what when things go wrong. These days, I’m creating ways for my company and our partners to win together.”

Molly’s 3 Tips For Lawyers Considering A Career Transition Into Business Development

Imagine this: You’re a business lawyer, and recently you’ve started to feel burned out. The daily grind of negotiating, writing contracts, and reviewing them with a fine tooth comb has finally gotten to you. At the same time, you like creating deals and helping partnerships come together. Is business development for you? Lawyer-turned-BD professional Molly Siems has a few tips.

  1. Remember: It’s all about people. “When you’re a lawyer, your job is all about concepts and abstract ideas. It’s about thinking through things. It’s a very academic and intellectual kind of work. Business, on the other hand, is literally about people. All day, every day.

“Whether it’s people outside of your organization, or people inside of it, you have to figure out how to work well with others. You need to learn how to build rapport and relationships with them. Working with people means understanding their needs. The better your understanding, the easier it becomes to team up with them on a partnership. In BD, it’s your job to convince people both inside and outside of your organization that your unconventional ideas are worth pursuing, and to help you make those ideas a reality.”

  1. Build bridges inside your own organization as quickly as possible. “It’s essential that the people you work with know you and trust you. Trust goes a long way, and it makes it much easier to get help when you need it. Asking for favors is a part of the job in BD. You may find yourself in a jam, and really need the marketing team to help you with a piece of partner collateral, for instance. If they don’t know who you are, why would they help you? They have their own job and their own responsibilities to worry about. Unless you have built up those relationships, believe me, they’re not going to pay attention to you or help you out.

“That’s very different from the practice of law. As a lawyer, your most important coworker is the law. You know how to read the law, and how to interpret it. You’re writing contracts, you’re reading cases, and working with ideas all day. It’s a very solitary, academic kind of job. In BD, it’s all about people and relationships. That’s a big shift, and a very different set of skills.”

  1. Balance your creativity and pragmatism. “Being successful in BD means being creative, and constantly thinking about new ideas. You need to spot new opportunities that other people haven’t spotted. At the same time, you need to bring a critical eye to all of those ideas, to make sure that they are actually worth pursuing.

“One of the best uses of your time will be figuring out what the real-world impacts will be for these exciting ideas that BD has come up with. Not just the ROI, but the full set of consequences. Your legal mind will allow you to take into account things like how much pain a partnership or deal is going to cause for your company, and how difficult the deal will be to operationalize. Sometimes, you may realize that an idea that looked great in concept just isn’t worth it in reality.

“Believe me, it’s easy to spin your wheels and have a lot of great ideas that don’t end up going anywhere. If you’re not careful, six months can go by, and you can have literally nothing to show for it.”

Want to connect with Molly and hear more about her journey from law to BD?  Come to Firneo Forum, the first-ever conference on Business Development on March 29th in NYC.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Please enter your name, email and a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.