MLaw students get a glimpse into in-house life at Amazon

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Photo courtesy of Katie Raymond

By Jordan Poll
U-M Law

U-M Law alumnus Bob Kimball started his legal career as a litigator at Sidley Austin LLP before transitioning in-house at IBM and RealNetworks Inc. Then he found his way to Amazon, where five years later, he is vice president and associate general counsel as well as chief legal officer of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Kimball—along with Amazon attorneys and MLaw alumni Robert Harmon and Tad Kaburaki —returned to the Quad to talk with students about day-to-day life as an in-house lawyer for the Seattle-based e-commerce and tech giant.

“Amazon is unique in that its lawyers are very deeply involved in the actual business,” said Kimball, outlining for students what he viewed to be the most significant difference between in-house lawyering and practicing as a law firm associate.

“What we try to do is set up a team where each lawyer has a set of businesses. The people in those businesses are the clients for whom the lawyer is responsible and with whom they will work day-in and day-out. From product design and strategy to marketing and advertising meetings, Amazon lawyers are part of the business team.”

Harmon, senior corporate counsel for energy, incentives, and physical retail at Amazon, added, “One of the great things about being in-house is that you are the general counsel to your business client. Your role is to make sure that their legal needs are met. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have all the answers yourself—just that you know how to get the answers that are necessary.” That’s what makes in-house work so interesting and dynamic, he explained. “Things are changing every day, and it’s exciting because all of your work is coming organically from the business that you’re literally a part of.”

Having most recently made the move in-house, Kaburaki, a product counsel for AWS, gave students insight into his decision to join the company and his experience acclimating to the new work culture.
“When you are outside counsel, you’re there to solve issues, but you’re not really a business stakeholder,” he said. “I wanted to be that invested, which was why I started looking in-house.”

Once at Amazon, one of the biggest changes Kaburaki faced right off the bat was being in a room where major business decisions were being made and being asked to take part in them.

 “At Amazon at least, junior lawyers on up have a lot of responsibilities,” he said, “including giving VPs recommendations on how to proceed with business matters from the perspective of a teammate.”

Lawyers that thrive in-house possess more than “mad legal chops,” explained Kimball, who looks to hire talented, smart, and creative communicators.

“They are articulate writers and speakers that can hold a room even if it is just a board meeting,” he said. “If you’re inquisitive with your clients and you’re asking them about business, learning, being deeply involved, and giving insight both legally and strategically, then you’ve got what it takes.”

To that point, Harmon continued, “When you’re in-house, there is less of a gap between you and the business people who are actually doing the work, which is why we’ve all gotten an MBA many times over. I suggest working with your supervising partners to cultivate such experiences with clients early on in your career to pave the way for in-house work.”

Harmon and Kaburaki spent years working as law firm associates before going in-house at Amazon and encouraged students to consider doing the same.

“I knew that I wanted to go in-house when I entered a law firm,” said Harmon. “But I stayed for seven years because there were opportunities to train my brain to think like an in-house lawyer.”

In response to student inquiries about which fields of study or practice would best prepare them for an in-house career, Harmon added, “Everyone makes the transition differently. If you are interested in corporate law, then go do corporate. If you are interested in litigation, go do that. There are many paths to get in-house. You should follow your passions and let them lead you to where you want to go.”

 

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