Lessons I Learned in Law

Laura Frederick on understanding context through curiosity

December 15, 2022 Heriot Brown Season 4 Episode 6
Lessons I Learned in Law
Laura Frederick on understanding context through curiosity
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law Scott Brown speaks to Laura Frederick, Founder and CEO of How to Contract, a global leader in practical contract training for lawyers and professionals. She is also Managing Attorney at Laura Frederick Law, PLLC as well as a best-selling legal author and a LinkedIn influencer.

 Laura shares some of the lessons she learned in law including:

·      Make sure you always know the context, whenever you’re doing anything for your clients. 

·      No job is worth destroying your relationships or your mental health. 

·      Therapy is by far the best investment you can make to achieve career success and happiness. 

 Laura also fondly looks back on her time working as in-house counsel at Tesla. She reflects on how their very flat corporate structure worked to reduce bureaucracy and made it an enjoyable and efficient place to work. 

Laura shares details of her book which offers valuable advice and tips for anyone who is having to draft a contact. The book is called How to Contract: Learn How to Draft and Negotiate from a Former Big Law and Tesla Commercial Contracts Lawyer


Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment.  

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This episode of Lessons I Learned in Law is brought to you by Beamery.

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Scott Brown  (0:02)

Hi, I'm Scott Brown. Welcome back to Lessons I Learned in Law, the podcast brought to you by Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. We are specialists in placing lawyers in fulfilling careers in-house. Now, regular listeners of the show will know the format by now. But for those newbies, I'll let you know that each week I'm joined by someone from the legal profession as they walk me through their top three lessons that they've learned from working in law. We hope that these give you valuable insights into what it's like to work and succeed in the legal profession. Today, we take another trip back over the pond and I'm delighted to be chatting with Laura Frederick, welcome to the show, Laura.


Laura Frederick  (0:41)

Thanks for having me.


Scott Brown  (0:42)

Great to have you. Laura is an ex big law attorney where she worked with Morrison and Forrester, before spending 14 years in house in tech and energy with companies like Tesla. She is now Founder and CEO of How to Contract, which I'm really looking forward to hearing more about later, that helps lawyers and professionals learn how to draft and negotiate contracts in the real world, which is a problem for many of the lawyers that I speak with who work in-house. She's also best-selling legal author and LinkedIn influencer. So, honoured to have you, Laura.


Laura Frederick  (1:15)

I'm so glad to be here. It's a great opportunity to share some of the lessons I've learned with others.


Scott Brown  (1:21)

Without hesitation, then, we'll jump into those. Could you tell us your first lesson, please?


Laura Frederick  (1:26)

Yeah, so my first lesson, and I think one of the most important, is to make sure you always know the context whenever you're doing anything for your clients, whether it's drafting a contract, giving advice, anything, because in the real world, which is where I live, and you live, and we all live, it matters what the context is. And I'll use contracts, for example, because that's my focus. And what I really do all day, every day, with a contract, how you draft for example, in an indemnity provision, or a confidentiality provision, would be very different, depending on the business, the type of Counterparty, what sets stake what's involved. And so we can't just learn, oh, it's always drafted this way, we have to learn, okay, here's the core concepts. But then if you're this kind of entity or company, you'll want to think about these things and maybe change it that way. But if you're this kind of company, you may need to change it a different way. So that context is so important that I know, when I was a new lawyer, I didn't appreciate the context, I thought, Oh, well, there's one right way to write this, or there's one right piece of advice that all clients should take. And over my career, I saw even with the same client, same industry, same type of contract, you know, one, you may have all the leverage in the world. And so you approach that negotiation differently than when you have no leverage, and you're just trying to get anything you can get in that contract. So that's why for me, I think for a lawyer coming into either becoming a lawyer or changing practice areas, focus not just on the content that you're learning in terms of the law and counselling for your clients, but also always customised for the context. Right?


Scott Brown  (3:21)

What's your advice for a junior lawyer or someone making that switch? What's the best way to go about acquiring that information?


Laura Frederick  (3:28)

Yeah, the best way I think, is to ask the client, and especially if you have business people, or technical people you're working with, because often they're happy to go on about what they know. And especially when it comes to educating lawyers. They love to tell us all these things we don't know. And so I think being a curious lawyer, asking questions, finding context, not being embarrassed to ask the question, because I think as lawyers, we are trained in a way that makes us think we're supposed to be the ones who knows all the answers. And that can be really disabling and not a good thing for a lot of lawyers, because we don't know the answers. We know our legal stuff. But our clients, our technical team, our you know, finance team, everybody else knows their stuff better than us. And so our contract isn't just about legal things. It's about the operational business relationship. And so making sure you're asking all those questions, not feeling embarrassed to ask the questions. Your clients welcome it because they know if you understand it, then you can protect them better. So it's, that's hard to get over. But if you can really just be curious. I also say it's, it's do the thought experiments of, okay, I'm the client, it's six months in, everything's going terrible. What options do I have? So I always tell the junior people especially as the with contracts is Think ahead, put yourself in the scenario in the future where things are not going as you expected. And make sure you know they didn't pay. Well, let me look at the payment provision, are we really clear on making sure they can pay, or I want to terminate. So making really sure your language is clear so that you can terminate, not just I cut and pasted this provision from someplace else that should be okay. But really investing yourself imagining yourself in that future point. And being the one having to terminate?


Scott Brown  (5:28)  

You've touched on curiosity there, you spoke about curiosity and asking lots of questions. It's been mentioned a couple of times on the show, how important do you think that is being inquisitive and curious?


Laura Frederick  (5:39)  

It's everything, I think it's the most important quality you have, especially for I do commercial contracts, which is the you know, buying, selling and licencing stuff, whether it's good services, technology, and I was an international economics major, I don't know anything about technology. But I've worked in technology my whole career. So I don't have that technical background. And the only way that I understand the things that my clients do, is because they teach me and they explain and being curious means not only are you going to be more appealing to your co-workers, and they're going to have more trust in you because they know you understand what they're talking about. But it's also makes the job a lot more fun. And there's some hard things about what we do. But becoming an expert in all the things our clients do is to me the best part. And so being curious and letting ourselves be curious, is if you deny yourself that, then you're really denying, I would say what's the most fun thing about our job?


Scott Brown  (6:42)

I think it's the best thing about any job to be honest and like curious, being curious in any profession, as I see it for us as recruiters as well. It's just paramount to everything. You have to ask questions and be, I think, genuinely curious. Versus there's a there's a there's a line between being genuinely curious and interested than asking the questions and going through the motions. Where did you find that easier? You've been you spent your career both in practice and in house in to acquire that context and understanding where we are? Have you found it easier, or the differences between the two? 


Laura Frederick  (7:17)

Yeah, so when you're in a law firm, it's you're very far removed from the business. I mean, even if, unless you're embedded and sitting in their offices, you are working in your law firm offices, or wherever you are remote from the business, and you don't have all the other employees as your co-workers. So I the law firm is really beneficial for training. And I strongly recommend it, if you're able to get that in house job, I mean that in law firm job, because in a law firm, they're going to really focus on helping you learn how to draft and negotiate and understand contracts and the debt with a depth. But you don't learn as much on the operational side. But then when you go in house, you become masters and experts at the operations. But you may not have as much time spent on the nuances of the drafting. Because it's just a different environment. So if you do, there are so many people that go into house now straight out of school, or after a minimal time doing something else, maybe, you know, litigation or employment, and then they go in house, and they find themselves handling commercial contracts. And so they didn't have that training. And that's where my stuff comes in. Because I saw that so much. And I was like somebody needs to write down what the job is, and what we need to know to do this job for all those people who didn't get great training like I did when I started out. So that's a lot of the book. It's really designed for people who don't have a lot of background in contracts or commercial concepts. And it's written in a way that it for the experienced lawyers that refreshes everything, but for new lawyers, they're able to get a good context for what's going on.


Scott Brown  (9:02)

Awesome. So tell me a bit more about the book, then you've just said the inspiration there. When did the idea come around to publish that? And how do you go about doing that, I guess?


Laura Frederick  (9:11)

Yeah, no, it was, it was kind of a fluke. So I was it was summer of 2020. We were in the middle of the pandemic. And I wanted to grow my I had started a solo practice and I wanted to grow it and find new clients. So I thought, okay, there's a common marketing technique called show me that you know, or show me that you have the expertise. Don't tell me. So I thought, well, I'll show people I know stuff about contracts. I started posting a contract tip every day. And it was really little things that I wanted my counterparties to know things they don't teach in law school, but those of us who've been practising for a while all know. So that's what I how I wrote it. And it became very popular because as I said before, there's very little of this information document out in the world, and P People wanted it. And soon I was like, Can you print those in a PDF and send it to me. And I thought, Well, that'll be a lot easier if I do a book that way anybody can buy it. And so all I did was for the initial book I just took, I had 91 contract tips, because I did it in after about three months of posting my contract tips. And I collected them and I put it on Amazon, and people loved it, because it's, it's just a little bit different than your standard contract. And then I just came out with the second edition, which went from 91 tips to 322 tips. And then I added in each of the tips as I create signature cartoons that go with the tip and highlight a point in a ridiculous way, whether it's with cows, and their lawyers representing them in negotiations, or it's dogs talking about using commercially reasonable efforts or aliens, whatever it is, it's just sort of a way to highlight what's going on. So the book just came out last week, actually. So this is really timely, the second edition, and it's available on Amazon.


Scott Brown  (11:14)

We'll move on now to lesson two, if you don't mind, Laura.


Laura Frederick  (11:16)

Sure. And lesson two, it's a tough one for lawyers. But the what I'd encourage people to know. And what I learned is that no job is worth destroying your relationships or your mental health. And we get sucked in so much on this point, because we're taught client service. And when they say jump, we say how high when they say I need this tomorrow, we make it happen. That's our job. So we do that. But what happens over time is if that becomes your dominating concept, your mental health starts to degrade. And no one's looking out for your mental health or your personal relationships. Your company's not your job's not your boss isn't, you know, you have to step up and make sure that your mental health is imbalance that you are taking vacations, that you're not overwhelmed with stress that you're keeping things in perspective. And it's so hard to do. But it's, you know, I think of I had a job one of my first jobs, I got to that point, that mental health breaking point, I remember, I used to work until five, I'd give the partner a document, she'd take it home. And then I had to wait in the office. And she would call me with edits before it gets sent to the client. And she'd call it like 10 o'clock. And then I'd make the changes and then go home. And it was just terrible. I mean, it was so awful. And I got to the point where I literally started crying, and I couldn't stop. And I cried for three days. And in my head, I couldn't leave because I'd only been there six months. And in my mind, well, that's not you know, I'm a good student, I'm a good worker, you know, I need to work a year here before I could quit. And what I learned is what a terrible decision that was, I should have quit way sooner, because it really affected me for a long time. And so I think you have to learn to protect your mental health as your most valuable asset and treat it like that treat it like the crown jewels. And, you know, just really, really be proactive and don't let these kind of made up rules about what we should do or not do their jobs. control that.


Scott Brown  (13:32)

Yeah, I think it's a great tip. And the anecdote you shared is probably one that's all too common with solicitors practising everywhere. When you're in that moment, was there anything you did to push back? Or you did differently? Now? If you were to give advice to them? Oh,


Laura Frederick  (13:47)

yeah, so much. So I do now, because then I felt powerless. And when you feel powerless, and I needed the money, I didn't have a lot in the bank, I couldn't afford to lose my job without another one. You know, it was like the whole world was crashing down on me. But part of it was because I was so attached to how my life was supposed to be, I was gonna get a job, I would work there for a year I'd make this money I'd have this in the bank, I'd you know, all these things that I had in my head that I would have. And because I was so attached to that outcome and that existence, I couldn't respond in the moment to changes which was a very toxic, abusive partner. And so I think the biggest advice if people find themselves in that is let go of that attachment to this life that you're trying to force happen. Because sure, I could have kept my job and my income, but at what cost and when you're so attached to an outcome and you're I didn't have control over this partner and how she treated me so letting go a little bit about making your life better. Eat this and do a little bit more where you're following in the general direction. But understanding there's going to be, you know, sometimes you're going to have to pull over and exit for a little bit and then get back on the highway. And that's really, really important for new lawyers to keep that in mind. And I was like that too. I want to get a job in the big city, I want to make a tonne of money. And it's you just have to keep monitoring yourself at what cost and that there's other ways to make money beyond just that path.


Scott Brown  (15:31)

Yeah, when I was a lawyer in practice, I found that looking at senior associates that weren't treating Junior associates that well, or partners that were in treating Junior associates that Well, I, I never thought I want to be that guy. I'm wondering if you felt I'm working my way to get there. And I don't want to be that person.


Laura Frederick  (15:48)

Yeah, no, for sure. And I think for that, I mean, I, there were other partners who were normal, I'll say, and reasonable, good people who didn't treat us that way. So I saw that it was different. And the other problem with that was the firm valued this partner because she brought in a lot of money. And they didn't care that she was destroying people's mental health. And they knew it was happening. And it happened with other associates before me. And it just wasn't right. Luckily, these days, we have a movement away from that. And I think there's less tolerance for that kind of, really, I mean, I would almost say emotional abuse of people who work for you, just because there were lawyers, just because they're in a big firm doesn't allow them to treat you that way. And I think that there's still some of and there always will be, but I think as a movement, generally, we're seeing a little bit less tolerance.


Scott Brown  (16:44) 

Yeah, no, I think there's, I think the last couple of years certainly has accelerated that as well. So long may it continue. So you worked at Tesla, what was that like?


Laura Frederick  (16:54)

I loved it. I loved it. It's not for everyone. It's a very intensive kind of place. But the thing I really loved was everyone who worked there, like literally 99.9% of people were the most amazing professionals that I'd ever known that it because it had a high especially when I was working there from 20, end of 2016, to beginning of 2019. It had, it was the most difficult job to get or company to work for at the time. And so the calibre of people who applied were just tremendous. So I love that I loved it was a very flat organisation, they didn't have bureaucracy. And so I mean literally didn't have bureaucracy, you could call anybody you needed, I didn't have to ask my boss's permission. And that boss asked that boss's permission, you just reached out and then we also didn't have a lot of supervision. So I was trusted to work with my internal clients get the deals done. And I love that autonomy and that freedom to really, you know, do great things. So it's for me, I do say it was like my best in house job because of the quality of the people primarily.


Scott Brown  (18:10) 

Yeah, from the outside. And it was great. A great organisation. So yeah, fantastic. So you are you in Austin is that home for you?


Laura Frederick  (18:19)  

Yeah, yeah, I had moved around a little bit over the years, or a lot I should say. I've lived in 13 cities since I graduated law school, and lots of different places in the country and around the world. But Austin's my was my favourite place. So this is where I am now. 


Scott Brown  (18:37)

Yeah, nice. It certainly sounds like it's on the up from everything I hear. A lot of tech and everything relocating there.


Laura Frederick  (18:44)

Yeah, it's become… I lived here in the late 1990s, as well, when it was very small. And it's become a big city now. And it's still great because it has a particular kind of vibe to it. So the city slogan is ‘Keep Austin weird’. So it embraces kind of that weirdness and approach to everything. But you know, I think over time, I'll probably end up going someplace smaller, just because it is very congested and busy. And I'd like a quieter environment at some point.


Scott Brown  (19:26)  

We'll move on to lesson three


Laura Frederick  (19:29)

For sure. So my lesson three, and maybe this is the most important at a personal level, which is therapy is by far the best investment you can make to achieve career success and happiness. And I saw my first therapist at age 42 because I was too busy. I was… you know, had my kids, I had a busy career working big law, working busy jobs. I didn't have time for therapy. But what happened was as life progressed, and things got more complicated, I started having problems in my marriage, I started struggling with balancing my kids and work and all the demands that were on me, especially once you kind of start getting out of that junior associate role, and you're moving up the complexities of your role and how you relate to others is very different and much more dynamic than when you're a junior associate or lawyer just taking kind of directions. And so I didn't know how to deal with all that. And I did my best. But it felt overwhelming. And I didn't have tools to deal with pressure, I didn't have tools to deal with everything that was going on around me. And I sort of stuck my head in the sand and just kept going. So what happened then, and what I see happen with others, is when you take that approach to your life when you just power through, because that's what lawyers do. You know, we outwork everybody. So I was trying to outwork everybody in my life, and I'm like, I'll just make it happen, I'll just keep going. And it just things get messier and worse, and you don't make decisions because you don't know how to make a decision. And you're so afraid of what's coming next. So what I found was, once I started therapy at age 42, it was tremendous, because I suddenly saw, first I started to see the other people around me much more clearly, and understand them and understand the dynamics that I was working in way better than I ever had before. But even more importantly, I understood myself and I understood how I was approaching things with a lot of this kind of baggage that we all bring to our lives from growing up or whatever kind of habits that we formed in our relationships. And so by untangling all of that, I learned how to control my life, I learned how to, I can take people in and I can take people out, I learned how to set boundaries, so that I was no longer a victim of my circumstance, I was in charge of my life creating a life. And that empowerment that came with that is so critical to career success for one because knowing what you want, not just what you're supposed to want, oh, I'm supposed to want to be a partner, I'm supposed to want to have this big house. But therapy helps you figure out what you actually really, really want. And then you also look at what you're capable of. Because again, as lawyers, we're like, I'll just work through, you know, if I work 80 hours a week, I can make anything happen. And we can because that's we're used to that. But this therapy, what therapy does this kind of sit back and say, Well, let's look at what you really want, and what your values are and your goals, not just at a superficial level, but a very kind of personal level. But even more important I learned, you know, the, the tools I needed for happiness. So I can say like it, I spent a lot of years very sad, but not realising I was sad, I was just kind of going along. And it wasn't until I got to therapy and kind of achieved this next level of happiness through that. I was like, Oh my God, if only I had done this earlier, but I think learning for example, the core concept of boundaries. And really becoming an expert in boundary setting is such an important thing for your career. Because usually what happens is the junior lawyer doesn't have good boundaries, or the mid-level lawyer. And so they just take all the work no matter what. And then they don't do a good job, or they burnout or whatever. And so learning how to manage your boundaries, and learning how to have those conversations with people that want you to do something. That's not something you can do. Those are hard conversations. But with therapy, you really get a lot better because you're so much clearer about everything when you're in when you go through that process. 


Scott Brown  (24:05)

Yeah, I think therapy, the majority of our listeners are in the UK, it’s probably not a term that we're that familiar with or something that we have maybe embraced in our professional life versus coaching, I think. So is it, what are the differences between, what do you view as the differences between therapy and coaching?


Laura Frederick  (24:24)

Yeah, coaching is really up to me as a career coach, there's somebody that is talking to you. I mean, not a superficial level, but a lot more high level about, Okay, what's your options? Which kind of job do you want? Which way are you going to go and kind of helping you make those decisions? Therapy is going, at least in the US, is sitting down with a therapist, a psychologist, and you sit and you talk about some of the ways that you're approaching your life, your problems. So I might go in because I'm having a conflict with somebody and we start talking through “Well, where's that coming from?” Or, you know, what are you trying to achieve. And by diving in deep, I love the analogy of it's like a bundle of yarn. And imagine you just…somebody, you know, took a bunch of yarn that was laid out and just put in a ball and threw it in a basket. And it's just knotted in a bundle and that's kind of how our brains are, I think, because we've got all these competing things, we've got bad habits, we've got our parents, as our parents influence on us, their bad habits, we've got all this stuff kind of mixed together. And with the therapists, we slowly work through it. So for example, I never thought I saw myself as a victim, I was a very powerful person highly paid, you know, highly respected. But in talking with a therapist at a very deep level, I really saw, I could see that I thought I was a victim of my circumstance. And once I saw that, and we talk through why that wasn't true, that I did have choices that I could make different choices that I've made. And with that came all this power, because I was like, Oh, you can, you know, you can make these fundamental big choices and change everything about my life. I didn't think I could. So at least for us, when we talk therapy, that's it's talking with the psychologists really helping you work through. I mean, whether it's trauma, or just regular life, we all can use some help. 


Scott Brown  (26:32)  

Yeah, no, it sounds it sounds great. It's I just think it's less I think it's less common in the UK is perhaps something that's developing. But yeah, it sounds like an amazing tool for self-awareness. And in terms of giving you that self-awareness. Fantastic, Laura. So I've been I'm finishing the show. I'm sorry to spring this on you. But I'm finishing the show in series four by asking guests, if they had one lesson that they've learned that they wish they hadn't learned. Could they name that?


Laura Frederick  (27:00)  

That's a good one. I think the lesson I wish I had learned was parenting a child with mental health challenges, is that you know, I've become an expert in that, because I've got that life experience. And it's a challenge, especially if you have any listeners out there who are there as well. So I think that's something I wish I would have never had to learn.


Scott Brown  (27:25)  

Yeah. Sounds tough. Well, Oh, yeah. People with those challenges might be reaching out to you. So if someone wanted to grab a copy of the book, or, or learn more about yourself and how to contract work, then how could they find out?


Laura Frederick  (27:39)  

Yeah, so the website’s howtocontract.com. And, but I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn. So it's probably the best way for people to find me. So I post a contract tip every day with one of my cartoons. And I've done that going on over 800 days in a row of doing that. But the tip is only part of it, then we start chatting about the subject. And this isn't just us lawyers, this is people around the world, because so many concepts are similar. So LinkedIn is a great place. I love connecting with everybody. So reach out and connect with me. And then my books available right now on Amazon and a couple other places.


Scott Brown  (28:16)  

Great. And then before we came on you were you're talking about something, a big event in the diary?


Laura Frederick  (28:22)  

Yeah, so we've got contracts con, which is our annual conference for how to contract and it's a really a training extravaganza. And it's two days of all practical real world. actionable, no fluff training. And that's going to be in February. We're doing it live in person in Miami, and virtual from anywhere. So, more information on the How to Contract website if you're interested.


Scott Brown  (28:49)  

Great. We'll share a link to that anyone in any of UK listeners. This needs a reason to get to Miami. There you go. Yeah, exactly. That winter sun. Sounds nice. Well, fantastic. Thank you. Thanks for joining us, Laura, it was great meeting you and finding out a bit more about yourself and your story. Thanks for sharing your lessons.


Laura Frederick  (29:10)  

You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.


Scott Brown  (29:16)  

That was Laura Frederick, CEO of how to contract and LinkedIn extraordinaire. Go and give her a follow on LinkedIn for daily tips on contracting. You'll really get some great insights and really valuable information there to learn. 

For more Lessons I Learned in Law, hit the subscribe button, leave us a star rating and review. Go back and check out some of the episodes from previous series. 

If you enjoyed my conversation with Laura, then I think you would love the chat I had with Tanya Lovell in series two. Tanya worked as a general counsel at Unilever UK, but she's now a careers coach. She has pivoted in her career touching on some of the similar points that Laura made in today's episode about therapy, coaching is all about self-development. So it was great to hear Tanya's insights into that. You can search for that episode on Apple podcast, Spotify, and all those good podcast listening platforms or head over to heriotbrown.com/podcast. 

We made it to number 14 in the podcast charts for careers last week. Let's push those ratings and get us up there into the top 10. If you've got any feedback, or you'd like to appeal on the podcast, then drop me a line scott@heriotbrown.com or come and connect with me or Heriot Brown on LinkedIn. See you again soon.