In-House Counsel Perspectives: Erin Lothson

Interviewed by Kenny Matuszewski

Working as in-house counsel for a company is one of the most coveted roles a lawyer can obtain, due to the work-life balance. However, in-house attorneys have to work in multiple areas of the law, manage and counsel business leaders, and balance budgets. In-house counsel includes attorneys of all ages, practice groups, and experiences. But they all share a commitment to excellence and to guide their companies through any and all legal issues.

Kenny: What is your full title and which company do you work for?
Erin:  Senior Counsel, Product at Uber Technologies, Inc.

Kenny: What area of law did you practice before you went in-house?

Erin: Primarily intellectual property law, and more specifically, trademarks, copyrights and advertising/marketing.

Kenny: Why did you want to work as an in-house attorney? 

Erin: In law school, I envisioned being a partner at a law firm with a successful private practice. Then, once I started practicing, I was intrigued by the many different ways lawyers can add value to their clients, particularly as both a lawyer and a business partner by working in-house.

Kenny: What challenges did you face when you first began working in-house, and how did you overcome them?
Erin: Moving from private practice to an in-house environment presents many opportunities to learn and grow. When I first moved in-house, for example, I was very focused on putting in long hours and learning the business, while also being extremely conscientious about the amount of time projects would take. As I settled in, though, I began to see the broader array of ways that in-house lawyers add value beyond time keeping. So, as my career progressed, how I measure success and impact has moved away from time keeping and more toward subtle measures, such as the strength of my relationships, whether I am accessible to key stakeholders when they need me, and whether I help move projects forward that have an meaningful impact on the business.  In essence, I overcame those early challenges by gaining experience, keeping an open mind, and modeling my approach after other successful lawyers who I looked up to.

Kenny: How has your workday changed after the COVID-19 pandemic?

Erin: This has been a roller coaster year for all of us. I hope everyone reading this is managing as best they can. 

At the beginning of COVID, I was the lead attorney in my office receiving COVID-related updates and was tasked with advising the business as they worked through some tough decisions with less than complete information. That time was very busy and filled with angst. Also, during that period, I hoped we would return to the office in April.

April and May were successful working from home and my perspective at that time was that as long as we all did our part to “flatten the curve,” life would resume as normal in the summer. The days were manageable and thanks to working at a tech company, so long as I had my laptop and an internet connection, I was able to continue being effective. I fully appreciate, however, that not everyone may have had that same experience, and many needed additional equipment, among other things, to work from home.

After moving through that initial phase, as we began to see that working from home would likely be a longer-term prognosis, my mindset changed, and I began to embrace the benefits of working from home. While there are certainly challenges, childcare and remote learning being at the top of that list, I have gained a number of efficiencies. I enjoy saving time not commuting; I feel liberated knowing that I can get work done with my colleagues and team no matter where we’re located; and I have enjoyed spending more time with my family.

That being said, I try and consolidate my work into a standard workday, although I greatly enjoy the flexibility to time shift if needed and/or working at non-standard times in order to bring projects to completion. If there have been any upsides from this pandemic, employer flexibility has been one of them and Uber has been a leader in offering support to its employees.

Kenny: Before joining Uber, you worked for several years at Groupon and in several different roles. How did working at Groupon prepare you for Uber?

Erin: Groupon was a wonderful work environment that provided me endless opportunities to learn and grow. Smart people, fast paced work, and the ability to expand my skillset positioned me well to thrive in an even faster-paced, innovative environment at Uber.

Kenny: A common misconception is that in-house attorneys do not need to network. Why is networking still important for in-house counsel?

Erin: As attorneys, what we offer to our clients and our employers is our skillsets and our reputations. Networking helps build your reputation.  By expanding your circle of contacts in the practice of law and among clients and even adversaries, you’re able to build your personal brand and trust within the profession, which has meaningful staying power and can benefit your company in many ways.

Kenny: One way you network is by serving as President Elect of the Intellectual Property Law Association of Chicago (“IPLAC”). Why did you decide to take on a leadership role in IPLAC?

Erin: I have been involved with IPLAC since I began my career in Chicago. Over time, I grew to recognize more names and faces, and I continued to volunteer for projects, first in small ways and then in more impactful ones. My service with IPLAC started with Vice Chairing a committee, then taking over as Chair. I then moved to serve on the Board of Managers before serving as Secretary. And more recently, I have continued to serve in Officers roles, including next year when I serve as President.

I was thrilled to have a leadership role with IPLAC for two reasons:

First, to be an example for others that you don’t have to fit a certain mold to lead a bar association, whether your career is non-traditional, in-house, or your practice is varied, there is a place for you if you want it; and

Second, to make a meaningful difference in the bar association and the Chicago IP community.  I believe most people who pursue public service and volunteerism in any form strive to leave their organization better than they found it. For me, I believe I can make the biggest difference by expanding the ways IPLAC serves the Chicago community.  For example, making room at the table for more women and minorities, promoting young leaders and sponsoring their success within the organization, and approaching programming and community contributions in a forward-thinking way are some of the areas where I hope to have the broadest impact.

Kenny: Over the years, you have also helped elevate IPLAC’s programming and used technology to improve IPLAC’s processes and ability to recruit new members. How can bar associations adapt to the challenges posed by the modern practice of law and COVID-19?

Erin: This is the question all of us seek to answer!

I believe the key to success in times of volatility is meeting people where they are. Not where we wish they could be (in person!) or where we think they may be (TikTok anyone?) but whatever mode or medium is easiest for them to use.

Google’s Gmail is the best and most widely used free email service. Given that most people have a @gmail account (and many employers use Gmail as an email platform, including Uber), IPLAC has embraced using Google’s suite of products, including Google Documents and Sheets for collaboration and Google Hangouts for video chat.

Likewise, even though some may be feeling Zoom fatigue, Zoom meetings and Microsoft Team meetings are popular and easy to use.  Also, using social media to stay relevant and have “touches” with your core audience can help your organization stay top of mind, whether it be on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or others.

Kenny: You are also a champion for diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, particularly intellectual property law. Why is diversity important in the legal profession?

Erin:  Diversity is important because we all benefit from it.  Research underscores that companies perform better with diverse leadership and workforces, we make better decisions when we include different perspectives, and the list goes on and on.

The legal profession benefits in all of those same ways and it’s important that we challenge ourselves individually to think about how we can create a more diverse and inclusive environment, wherever we may be at.

By actively encouraging different perspectives–and welcoming them to the table–this naturally creates a space to be innovative, disruptive and creative. When serving clients, managing risk, and advising others who are tasked with making critical business decisions, who doesn’t want to see around corners? Who doesn’t want to think outside the box in order to solve a problem? We all share the same goals as legal professionals and we can also develop an inclusive viewpoint that diversity is a value add to our practices, and that we are missing something critical when decision makers are homogenous.

Kenny: What are some things our readers can do to support and/or create their own diversity and inclusion initiatives, in their law firms, companies, or bar associations?  

Erin: The most important thing to do is lead by example. Be the change you wish to see in the world.

If you are in a position of power, consider what you can do today to sponsor someone in your workplace, how you can incorporate someone new into a project, or how you can influence hiring and retaining diverse talent.

If you are not in a position of power, stick with it because you are paving the way for others and will be in that position one day. Consider reaching out and building a relationship with someone, give someone the encouragement they may need to stay in the practice, or simply let another vent and just listen.

When we think about being forward-thinking and inclusive, this means actively taking steps to include others who may look or think differently from yourself.  If we continue doing what has been done before, our firms, bar associations and companies will be missing a massive opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed.

Kenny: What advice would you give to a young attorney who is interested in working in-house?

Erin: Go for it! Your career is what you make of it–and careers change and evolve over time. Nothing is set in stone forever. If you’re interested in working in-house, work hard to get there and continue the pursuit until you get an opportunity.

Kenny: Knowing what you know now, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?

Erin:  RELAX and have patience! Take a deep breath and have confidence that career development is a long game. My younger self was eager to do “everything” (whatever that is) and do it now.  Looking back, I put a lot of added pressure and stress on my shoulders that, ultimately, was counterproductive.

Now, having a longer view, I would encourage my younger self to have the confidence that if I put in the hard work and effort, and invest in making meaningful and authentic connections, everything would unfold as it should.

Relatedly, I would also remind myself that sometimes careers wind and unfold in surprising ways, and in a manner that one cannot always control.  I would encourage my younger self to be open to opportunities as they arise and not to worry so much about which opportunities and when.  Being a person with good intentions who’s eager to learn and open to new things will place you in the right position for whatever opportunities may come your way, have confidence in that.

Erin Lothson is a Senior Counsel for Uber. She is a chartering lawyer in Chicago for the Enterprise Product Legal group helping to scale Uber’s fastest growing business division, Uber Freight, scale. Uber Freight is transforming the trucking industry by making it faster, more efficient, and more lucrative for everyday people in the transportation industry. Before starting her career at Uber, Erin worked for Groupon as the Global Brand Protection and Enforcement Counsel for APAC.

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