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The Quintessential JD Preferred Career: An Interview with Valerie Chianuri

Hot off the heels of our 2-part interview with a high caliber legal recruiter in March and April, my list of accomplished Ms. JD interviewees grows with Valerie Chianuri (another fellow BLS alumna), Senior Director of Exusia Inc., a global technology consulting company. Valerie has had the quintessential JD Preferred career, holding cutting edge roles in the fields of entrepreneurism, privacy and payments law (and beyond).  No matter what field you are in, her story is an inspiring one and makes the case for alternate uses for a JD better and more succinctly than I can in a year’s worth of blog posts.    

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Tell us about your professional journey. You've dabbled in consulting, BigLaw, and in-house since you've graduated. How did you end up in your current gig and what drew you to this career path?

I have always been a creator at heart – an entrepreneur (before this became an overused term).  Becoming an attorney was one of many steps of finding my true passion but I never thought of it as a a culmination of my professional achievements.  Prior to attending law school, I obtained a degree in Finance and Management from NYU Stern, and worked for a few years in forensic accounting at Deloitte and, subsequently, anti-money laundering compliance and privacy at American Express.  Compliance is, what I consider to be, a quasi-legal field and many of my mentors at AmEx were attorneys.  I realized that any potential growth in this field would require a JD.  The stars aligned on the personal and professional fronts and, when my son was 10 months old, I started law school, while winding down my job at American Express. 

I graduated law school in 2010, at the crest of the financial downturn.  Jobs were scarce to come by and I turned back to the world I was already familiar with – compliance consulting.  I worked at Deloitte for a couple of years, this time on the technology risk management side, which exposed me to the rapidly developing world of tech.  By the time the next opportunity came along – to run the compliance and legal functions for a brand-new mobile payments startup company – I felt ready.  I had the finance and compliance experience, the legal training and a high-level understanding of the technology sector.  I felt that this was the opportunity that I was waiting for a long time. 

Working at a startup company is exciting and scary, at once.  I believe that, to the extent a person can afford to take the risk, everyone should try working at a startup company, at least once in their life.  The experience is versatile and your problem-solving skills become razor-sharp.  Building a new company takes away the fear of making mistakes – something that can be antithetical to an average risk-averse attorney.  In other words, I got the “entrepreneur bug.”  Eventually, the company I was working for was sold to another startup (where I continued working as VP of Legal), which ultimately folded after running out of money and failing to meet sales targets.  However, once you feel the versatility of that experience, it is very difficult to go back to a traditional job.  So, after a short stint at the really great law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, my builder mind turned back to the technology world, this time running the legal function for a growing (now 400-person) technology consulting company. 

After helping create so many great (and not so great) things for other people, the next chapter is to build something for myself.  My husband and I are starting a data management technology company – Plexifact, which has already gained some traction with prospective clients.  My partner is a brilliant data technology nerd, with experience from some of the world’s biggest financial institutions and, at this point in my career, I can read contracts as well as I can run payroll and put together pitch decks.  Who knows what awaits? 

Would you categorize technology as a “JD Preferred” career path?  If yes, how so?

I became very skeptical of the legal field when I graduated law school, in part because the market conditions made me think twice about the usability of the JD in the “real world.”  Law firms were downsizing and it was difficult to see where else this degree could be of use.  However, looking back, I believe that a JD is the most versatile degree for, pretty much, any path.  Law school teaches critical thinking and finding answers to fact patterns.  If we take a step back, we can apply these methods to many situations in business and, specifically, in the startup world.  Young companies require their attorneys to have a good understanding of a variety of subjects, from employment law to contracts, immigration, advertising and litigation.  Obtaining a JD may not teach you all of this in-depth, but it teaches you how to solve a problem and where to find the solution.         

Walk us through a typical workday of someone occupying your role.

A lot of my job is answering questions and finding solutions to problems.  As a result, email is the primary working tool, especially when working with other geographical areas.  (Have you ever woken up to 147 emails, simply because everyone wants you to be copied on the burning issue of their day and the responses from all relevant stakeholders?).  Meetings take up quite a bit of time, as well.  Unless the issue requires a legal opinion or it’s a meeting updating the business executives on the state of legal affairs of the company, I try to listen more than I speak (but more on that in the next point).  The rest of my time is occupied by reviewing various documents, mentoring junior team members and interacting with external providers (e.g., law firms) on various matters.        

What value does having a JD confer on someone in your current role? What skills do you use that you picked up in law school?

Definitely critical thinking and problem solving as I described earlier.  Also, the ability to recognize certain issues (fact patterns) before they become liabilities.

What do you like the most about your job? The least?

Most: helping build something; solving problems. 

Least: dealing with the inefficiency that often comes with ‘growing pains’ of a young organization.

What would you be doing if not your current role?

I would (and will) be building companies in another capacity.  Anything that keeps my mind active and makes me feel like I am contributing to a bigger goal.

What advice do you have for fellow JD holders who might want to pursue a similar path?

Learn how to work with the business.  In many companies, the legal function is viewed as the “business prevention department” and business people (especially risk-taking entrepreneurs) make the mistake of avoiding consulting with their in-house attorneys in advance, paying a hefty price further down the road.

Unfortunately, such examples abound.  The legal function is an advisory partner to the business and its interests in furthering the business growth are aligned with the rest of the business.  Thus, if something is “not illegal, unethical or against the laws of physics,” (as a colleague of mine used to say) a good attorney should be able to find a solution to the problem, while adequately accounting for the risks.  This way, when you have to say ‘no’, it is well-researched, thoughtful and you have already created a level of trust that can carry an attorney’s career much further than reading any treatise.    

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So much wisdom in one little interview.  Many thanks for imparting it on us, Valerie! 

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