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Deal Makers and Breakers: “The Boutique Corporate Law Firm Founder and Managing Partner” - An Interview with Heather McCormick of Credo Law Partners

After a short hiatus, Deal Makers and Breakers is back! This month’s column features Heather McCormick, founder and managing partner of Credo Law Partners, a Los Angeles corporate law firm.

Ms. McCormick has experience providing general business law representation to emerging growth companies, venture capitalists, private equity firms, and other corporate clients. She represents some of Los Angeles’ preeminent private equity funds, as well as the area’s upcoming technology companies. Scroll to the end of the post for Ms. McCormick's full bio. 

Describe your education and early professional background.  As an undergraduate, I attended the University of Pennsylvania. When I graduated from college, I worked at Merrill Lynch in Manhattan before going to law school, which I highly recommend. Prior work experience gives you a better perspective on school and also gives you better understanding of what a high-level professional service ethic is before you embark on a career in a law firm.

What was your major at the University of Pennsylvania? English.

So you went from English to… From English to Wall Street. Don’t ask me how, but I’m glad I did.

When you were at the University of Pennsylvania, did you know you wanted to start a career on Wall Street?  I really wanted a “jump in and learn” position. Wall Street is full of intense positions that give you the opportunity to do just that. I am incredibly grateful for having developed a financial background through that work experience and through my MBA. I’ve found that having a financial background is a definite edge in building a corporate practice. It’s a skill that not too many corporate lawyers have, so it’s very useful.

Why did you decide to go to law school after being on Wall Street for a couple of years?  Since college, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in law – not necessarily because I knew any lawyers or had any idea what they did – but because I took a legal studies course while at the University of Pennsylvania, and it just made sense to me. I knew my mind worked that way, and I thought a career in law would be a good fit. Actually, when I first went to law school, I thought that I was likely to be a litigator. I had no idea at that point in time what that entailed. After working on my first pro bono litigation case out of law school, I knew it wasn’t for me. I realized that I like the productive aspects of corporate law as opposed to the combative aspects of litigation.

Please expand on your professional background.  I earned my JD from Boalt Hall and my MBA from Haas School of Business, both at the University of California at Berkeley.  After finishing school, I worked for the Silicon Valley law firm Cooley until I was a 5th year associate. I then worked for 3 ½ years as in-house Mergers and Acquisitions (“M&A”) counsel for Platinum Equity (“Platinum”).  I started Credo Law Partners (“Credo”) about 4 years ago now. I also serve on the Board of Directors of Pasadena Angels, angel investors in entrepreneurial companies.

In your different corporate positions, what types of work did you focus on?  At Cooley, I did general corporate work and worked with entrepreneurial companies. At Platinum Equity I focused on M&A. I also worked as outside general counsel to the companies in the portfolio that were not large enough to have an in-house general counsel. Here at Credo Law Partners, we do M&A, private equity, entrepreneurial companies and venture finance, securities offerings, executive representation, and general corporate work.

How did you transition from working as an in-house attorney to starting your own law firm?  There is a time in your career during which you focus on getting good experience under your belt. Once you’ve done that, you reach a point when you stop worrying about what other people think about you and more about what you want to do with your career. I knew I wanted to go back into private practice because I like being a revenue generator. I like the autonomy and power that brings. While working in-house has its own benefits, within the in-house environment, counsel is often viewed as a cost center, as opposed to a revenue generator. 

 At the time I left Platinum, I was an eighth or ninth year lawyer, so one choice would have been to join a big law firm as “of counsel,” trying to make up for lost time for not having come up through the ranks at the firm, then hoping that someone would anoint me partner. The role would have been to run other partners’ deals. However, I was at a point where I wanted to build my own practice and take charge of my own destiny. I also wanted to work with entrepreneurial companies, which I really enjoy. It’s an honor to be able to represent them. I find it fun and interesting and very business oriented. I wanted to cultivate that entrepreneurial client base more flexibly than what the staffing and billing requirements of a big law firm structure would have allowed. That’s why we founded Credo Law Partners as a boutique. It’s also why Credo has a very different client approach--fixed pricing, sharing in equity upside, no pyramid staffing--all aspects that clients love, and which big law firms are not capable of doing.

You represent many Los Angeles based technology firms. Can you elaborate on the Los Angeles tech market and your role in it?  Technology is a smaller market and community here in L.A. than in Silicon Valley. In some ways that is nice because there are only a handful of firms that really know what they are doing, and Credo Law Partners is one of them. Also, because it is small, you get to know your colleagues in the area. Perhaps it's a bit more of a challenge to stay on top of the latest norms in tech because we aren’t in Silicon Valley. However, playing in a smaller pond and competing with fewer players has its own advantages for developing business.

Notably, Credo doesn't do exclusively technology and emerging growth; we do both buy and sell side M&A, as well as securities offerings, executive representation and general corporate.

What is your typical day or typical week? How does it play out for you? Always differently than expected. The variety is one of the great things about corporate law. Your days are incredibly varied. This week, for example, we are closing a loan financing and a real estate acquisition, handling some employment matters for one of our corporate clients for whom we are general counsel, and preparing some partnership arrangements for two new business partners. We are also completing the sale of one company and beginning a transaction to sell another. And it’s only Thursday morning.

The variety truly is one of the great things about corporate practice. It’s a joy and a curse. You come in, the phone will ring, and soon there will be ten new things on your plate, which is fabulous. It also sometimes means that your drafting doesn’t begin until later in the day.

It’s a challenging practice but an interesting one. You are never bored.

Do you find that you have a substantial amount of client contact?  Absolutely, I’m on the phone all the time. Really it’s every girl’s dream job. In terms of in-person meetings, I’m absolutely a big believer in them. They are critical to business development. It’s a challenge to all lawyers and maybe especially women lawyers. We tend to put our heads down and get the work done to the detriment of making the time to develop that client contact. However, having that contact is absolutely critical for building business, and that is what makes you valuable as a law firm partner. Also, it’s more enjoyable than sitting in front of your computer all day.

 It seems like a lot of your career choices – working at Merrill Lynch, receiving a JD/ MBA degree, working at a Private Equity firm, and starting your own corporate law boutique – are very male-dominated and in an “Old Boys Club” corporate law setting. How has being a woman affected your professional development? Do you feel like you have had any additional challenges being a woman in this setting than what you see with your male counterparts?  I suppose there are both detriments and benefits to being a woman in corporate law, especially in the M&A world. I’m almost always the only woman in the room. The good part of that is that everyone always wants to talk to me. I guess I choose to see the glass half full.

I am lucky that I have had some good mentors along the way, but sadly not too many female mentors. This career choice definitely requires some lifestyle choices to be a successful. It’s a very time intensive profession. I think a lot of women struggle with that and balancing family. I myself do not have children, and I would find it very difficult to raise a family with my schedule.

That said, there are niches of corporate law that are much more conducive to a good work-life balance. I would say that if maintaining that balance is an important aspect for you, then seek out those niches, such as tax or employee benefits or lending, all of which are great careers in the corporate law but lend themselves to a more balanced lifestyle than M&A work.

I do corporate, and I do M&A, which are the most time intensive aspects of the field, and I love them. You have to love deals or you can’t do it. You have to derive energy from the work not have it suck energy from you.

What was your most interesting deal?  The most interesting deal experiences I’ve had were some of the international transactions I worked on at Platinum. Those deals really teach you about how business people and lawyers around the world view these transactions. Those global viewpoints are definitely not the same as our own.

For example, we, in our U.S. law practice, tend to be very detailed about the way we write things. I did a lot of deal work in Europe, and if you take that approach, the French, for example, will become very frustrated because they feel you are missing the forest for the trees. For them, the relationship comes first, and the business and legal parameters come second, such that the nitty gritty of those parameters are not as important to them as it is in our law practice. They tend to write more in concepts.

Whereas the opposite is true in other jurisdictions.  A U.S. M&A lawyer might say “that representation isn’t 100% technically right, but there are no contractual financial consequences to it, so we’re okay.” In Germany, that would not fly. They value being exacting, and that’s the way you need to practice there.

Learning about all the different nuances, the norms, and the cultural ways of seeing deals was an incredibly valuable experience.

What advice do you have to students and new practitioners who are interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?  The best advice I received early in my career was to go some place busy. It’s really true. I started at Cooley during the dotcom boom. The firm was bleeding mid-level associates who were leaving to go in-house and join the dotcoms. For better or for worse, the firm had to figure out who could run on their own. That gave an incredible amount of experience to the new associates. Unfortunately, that is not true in every law firm environment. I had summered at some places where that was not true at all. When people are busy, they delegate, delegate, delegate, and that is when you are going to get your best hands on experience. In that environment, you need to be able to sink or swim, but you have to be able to do that if you are going to be a good corporate attorney anyway. My suggestion is find that environment, jump in, work hard, ask questions, and learn all you can.

What advice do you have for mid-level attorneys who are thinking about going in-house or starting their own firms?  I think an in-house stint is good for anyone. It definitely changes your perspective on what’s important and what’s not. There were issues in transactions that we worried about when I was in a law firm that, once I was at Platinum, I came to realize were completely unimportant.  Also there are other important deal aspects –for instance, managing the integration of two companies post-merger– that law firm counsel get little experience with because their job is finished prior to that phase of the transaction. Working in-house gave me that experience.

For those who may be thinking about stating their own practice, this is advice that applies whether you are going to branch out on your own or whether you are going to stay at a law firm. By the time you are mid-level, get your head out of your laptop and get out there and meet clients.  Don’t expect that your law firm is going to encourage you to do it, because they will be quite happy to make you a worker bee as long as you are willing to stay one.

If you want to develop a book of business that will get you an equity partnership, or enable you to branch out on your own, you need to get out there. Having clients of your own really gives you freedom. It’s the freedom to make choices for yourself as opposed to having someone make them for you. That takes not only excellent work, but also client relationships. Although they are both crucial, the latter is more important. It’s really hard for mid-level associates to find and retain clients because what is rewarded and valued in a big firm setting at that point in your career is your billable hour number at the end of the month.

I would say, work hard, and by all means produce a respectable amount of revenue for the firm in which you practice, but spend that last few hundred hours on business development activity, not billing--whether or not that is encouraged--because it's essential to your success that you create those opportunities for yourself.

What has surprised you the most about your career path thus far?  What’s funny is how things have come full circle. When I was interviewing for business school, I remember the admissions officer asking why I wanted to attend business school since I was already going to go to law school. I remember I said, “Well, I think I might like to have my own law firm someday, and I want to learn about all the business aspects of owning a firm.”

By the time I had finished law school, however, I was convinced that the ultimate goal was to be in a big law firm – to become a partner at a big law firm. I worked very hard along that path for a number of years, but as I became more senior, I realized I valued the freedoms that came from operating outside that environment. It all came full circle to where my thoughts began. It is sort of like coming back to where your true self is in the first place.

My perspective on what constitutes success has evolved over the years. I once would have thought the external indicia of your career – your position as an equity partner, your reputation in a big firm, or those sorts of things – were how you measured success. Now, when I think of success I ask: “Are we building something that we are proud of? Do I like my colleagues that I work with every day? Do we operate with a good deal of integrity? Do our clients value and respect both the legal work and the business advice that we give to them? And do we have a good time doing it?” My definition of what is a successful lawyer has changed over the years.

Any last thoughts?  Corporate law is a wonderful, rewarding and varied profession. I’m blessed every day to wake up and love what I do. There are a lot of lawyers who can’t say that, so find an area of the law you truly love. Then, you are going to be able to apply yourself better and excel in your career. Also, do it in an environment that inspires you. If you find that you’ve past the point in your career where, in your current environment, you cease to have that passion for your work, look for something that will ignite that passion again. That true love of your work will really help you get to where you need to go.

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Ms. McCormick is an experienced global mergers & acquisitions attorney. She also handles securities offerings, technology transactions, lending, corporate governance and SEC compliance, and general commercial contracts and transactions of all types. Ms. McCormick is a Pasadena Angels investor, a mentor for the Los Angeles Business Technology Center, and a respected expert in the Los Angeles technology and private equity communities. Prior to founding CLP, Ms. McCormick was in-house counsel to Platinum Equity, a Los Angeles based private equity firm, where she practiced global M&A and served as outside general counsel to the technology companies in Platinum’s portfolio. Ms. McCormick also practiced law for a number of years with Cooley Godward, LLP, a leading Silicon Valley law firm, where she represented emerging growth companies and the venture capitalists who invest in them. Before she became a lawyer, Ms. McCormick was an investment banker for Merrill Lynch in New York.

Ms. McCormick holds a J.D. from Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California at Berkeley, where she was senior articles editor of the law review. She also holds her M.B.A. from Walter A. Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley.

Ms. McCormick’s experience as the founder of a boutique corporate law firm, her work with the Pasadena Angeles, and her background in business and technology qualify her as a “Deal Maker and Breaker.”

*****

Is there a particular Deal Maker you’d like to hear from? Do you have a question you’d like answered? Leave a comment below, and I’ll address it in future posts.

1 Comments

jlwallace

Another fantastic interview in this series. I love the quote about the French feeling like we miss the forest for the trees when writing! Feels so true sometimes. Thanks Michelle!

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