Leading with Empathy: FIGS Senior Counsel Devika Tandon Discusses Her Path to an In-House Career on the Lawyers Who Lead Podcast

Sigalle Barness | March 16, 2022

On this week’s episode of Lawline’s Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle Barness chats with Devika Tandon, Senior Counsel at FIGS. Listen to the full interview or read the highlights of Devika's interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability. 

 

 

On Leading in the Law

Empathy Combined with Emotional Intelligence is Absolutely Critical

 

To be a leader in law means to be an empathetic person. I think empathy is absolutely critical in not just law, but anything that we do. Having that emotional intelligence, being able to work in tune with your colleagues, making it easier to build relationships, negotiate effectively, and even just drive success. 

 

On Leading in the Law as an In-House Attorney

Don’t Be a Roadblock, Be a Strategic Business Partner

 

So my role at FIGS as senior managing counsel is sort of the face of legal. So every team will reach out to me when there's a legal question, it could be anything under the sun, right? We have engineering, product, marketing, production, and your design team. And a lot of them are stuck on a question or they're wondering, is this something that we can or cannot do? 

Our role as in house counsel is to be a strategic business partner. It's not to say no right off the cuff. We don't want to be those roadblocks because at the end of the day, we want to continue to drive innovation in the company as much as anybody else. And so having that empathy or high emotional intelligence allows us as leaders in law or in the legal team to be able to think, okay, we have this question that's come from marketing, let's say. How do we work through it? Come up with solutions before we say anything and go to them and be able to explain the concepts, the considerations that you mentioned, or the principles so that they understand it in sort of layman terms versus, you know, we all get caught up, unfortunately, as lawyers in the legal lingo and it can be really confusing.

And in house, you have to be able to translate that into layman's terms and just everyday business conversation with other teams. Otherwise there could be just a bunch of different road blockers. And that's why I think empathy really plays a big role in that, because it allows you to understand what they're thinking or what their thought processes are before you come to them with whatever answer for that question that they've come to you for.

 

On Why Being an In-House Attorney is an Incredible Learning Experience

Learning Different Company Functions While Still Getting to Practice

 

It's actually a really wonderful moment when you are explaining sort of the considerations on the question, because it's not just a learning process for you as a lawyer when you come up with the answer or the solutions or reasons why this cannot work for whatever reason, but it's also a learning process for them. 

That's why I really enjoy being in house, because I'm not just around lawyers all the time. I'm around different business people in the company that are also teaching me about their areas and their functionalities within the company too. So you're sort of half lawyer, half business partner, and also getting to learn different functions within the company while still getting to practice law. 

 

On How Empathy Helps with Innovation and Product Development

Reign in All the Information and Approach with a Solutions-Oriented Mind

 

In law and fostering innovation in house, there are so many different opinions on different products, different policies, on different items that are coming through in the company. With all the cooks in the kitchen, you as an empathetic leader in law can help drive that success by reigning in all the opinions by understanding and approaching the problem with a solutions oriented mind. 

You are trying to understand what the other individual and X team is trying to say in order to drive success in X product. That's why empathy goes across everything that we do. To me, as a lawyer in house, it just plays a different type of nuance because we are consumed by problems every day, we are consumed by different opinions, timelines, priorities. And so that empathy also drives your communication style and that communication style helps drive success because you are able to really understand everyone else who's in that problem together with you.

 

On How Her Values Align with Working at FIGS

“Empathy is FIGS”: Mission Alignment, Focused Purpose, and Social Justice

 

Empathy is FIGS. What we do every single day is for our health care workers, which we've tokened as our awesome humans, because we want them to feel amazing every day that they're saving lives, right? Why shouldn't they feel comfortable? Why shouldn't they feel good and empowered in the clothes that they wear? Just because they're scrubs should not matter. And everything that every single person in that company does is driven through empathy, through innovation, through this complete compassion to help these wonderful, wonderful humans who are helping us every single day. We want to live in a world where we can create an impact where we are driving success and helping and caring for these individuals more than anyone else. And having a bias towards action is really important and that all goes and plays into empathy. All of it. 

For me, social justice has always been a big part of my legal career even before law school and I'm sure a lot of lawyers can attest to that. Social justice is behind all the work that we do because we are doing it for people.

But to me, it sort of impacted where I work, and FIGS is, without a doubt, a company that truly is all about social justice. I mean, we are always helping people. We're always helping healthcare professionals, but also the flip side is what are the initiatives that we can do that can bolster social justice as a whole and so we have donated to multiple different organizations across the board. 

We have a threads for threads program, which provides donations for scrubs and face masks and all of that to different organizations, not just here domestically, but internationally. And one of the more exciting social justice projects that I've gotten to work on has been our new icons grant program, which provided $50,000 to five individuals in healthcare that were changing the game. And we just got to see some incredible work across the board. It was so hard to narrow it down to five. And how do you do that? But we did, we had to, and we were able to give $50,000 towards their debt and change someone's life because they've been changing so many other people's lives and pay it forward. 

So that's just one example of social justice that we've done outside of the donations that we do constantly and we do have an internal culture committee, which I get to sit and be part of which I absolutely adore and love. And we have a specific organization every single month that we want to donate to, or that we do work with whether it's mental health, Black History month, Asian Pacific Awareness month, you name it.

It's really cool. It's completely employee led. We have amazing leaders that'll help build the task forces every month, depending on the specific issue or subject matter. We'll have a mini task force that will help hone in the different strategic initiatives that are happening for that month to get everybody involved and it's always discussed during our team meetings and every month there's some really exciting stuff, whether it's for mindfulness and wellness, whether it's like I mentioned for Black History Month or whichever is happening that month, all employees will get their hands on and start to do something and that's what, we're all about. 

 

On What It’s Like to Be In-House When a Company Goes Public

Energizing, Challenging, and a Huge Milestone for an Attorney’s Career

 

It's really exciting. Going public is really a testament to all the employees and all the passion that lives within FIGS to get this going. And having been in so many startups, that's always sort of the dream, right, of going public. I was just a small part, I mean, we're a growing legal team and I got to learn so much because it was such a foreign area of law in terms of my own corporate experience on what that meant and the level of work that was required and what needed to be done to go public.

So I got to learn from some of the best lawyers, my two bosses, my leadership, and took a lot of work, but that magic of going public or the hope to go public drove us and drove our work to get to that point. But yeah, I think any lawyer who has worked through this process can attest to the fact that it's a lot and when you go public, there's another whole sort of gamut of things that you have to do, which is not easy, but it's a lot of fun. I know this is very broad strokes here…but it is an incredible feeling to finally get to be part of something like that and it is a testament to everybody at FIGS who got that going. So it's definitely a milestone on my resume for sure. 

 

On Going to Law School

Dedicated to Being a Lawyer, But Not Knowing What Kind of Practice

 

I knew I wanted to go to law school. I am not going to sit here and say that I wanted to do it for, you know, social justice or whatever. I mean, of course, that was a part of it. Let's be honest To Kill a Mockingbird is everybody's inspiration at some point, and you want to do some good and law, you think, is that way to do it, which after law school, I don't think is the only way, but it was a great investment from my end, but I really had no idea.

I just knew that law school just was going to open a bunch of doors for me in whether it would be working at a law firm, whether it was policy. 

I was in an international law school. I went to the University of Sydney. I did my undergrad at University of Toronto and I'm Canadian and worked in policy for a couple of years before I had published a paper that had led me to Sydney and I never wanted to leave. It turned out that they were ABA approved, so it just made sense that if I came back, that I was able to write the bar and do all of that fun stuff to practice here. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I can't wait to go back to Sydney.

I just loved law school, I loved the people I met, the friends I made. I mean, it's such a different world. I'm also obsessed with Sydney as a city generally. And so getting to do my law school in a city that I absolutely adored just kind of added a different level to my experience and I got to do a lot of international law work, which I don't know if I would have done elsewhere and got to be part of student politics. It was just all really a great time. 

 

On the Obstacles of Finding the Career She Wanted

The Problem: What Job You First Get Can Determine the Rest of Your Career

 

But I think the problem with law school is that it becomes a question of what's the job that you get, right? Like what do you land in? And that job then determines the rest of your career, right? 

If you're now getting a job at a big law firm and you are now in M&A, right? You are now in that position and in that department, and now you're probably going to stay in M&A for quite some time before you break out or maybe you continue it.

So for me I kept my eyes open realistically and was like, let's just see what the world wants me to be in and what the universe is telling me, as cliche as that is, and just roll with the punches. 

 

On the Power of LinkedIn

Never Stop Connecting, Never Stop Hustling

 

So going to the power of LinkedIn, I used, excuse my language, the crap out of LinkedIn and connected with every single person. I just made a list of companies that I wanted to work for and reached out to almost 560 something people on LinkedIn. Sent connect and like cold call emails. 

I didn't go in with the whole, I want a job. It was more, I want to learn about your work. I want to learn about what you do in your everyday life as a lawyer at Disney or Discovery Channel or wherever it was that I was applying for.

And I will say never stop hustling even as a lawyer today. Like I will continue to network, not just for jobs, but just to learn from people which is what you're really doing, Sigalle, with this Lawyers Who Lead. And I love it. 

From that 500 connects, I sent messages like, I just want to meet up for coffee, I would really appreciate getting to learn more about your work, and out of like 560 something I had about around 200 that connected back with me. And in that two months, I went to over 65 coffees or lunches or drinks or meetings at people's offices. And I will tell you that it was the craziest experience because getting around in LA at that time. Also Uber wasn't as big. It was the best thing that I had ever done, as crazy, as hard as it was and time-consuming because it had built my network that I have today. 

And you know, like I sit here, I don't want to sound preachy in any way and it's not for everybody. I think for me, it was just this drive that I had to make something work because I was in a new city. 

But it's not comfortable, right? Like no one wants to cold call or cold email somebody that they have no idea who it is and be okay with rejection. I think that's also a big part of it, whether it's a law or any other field, rejection has to play a role because you're not doing something if you're not getting rejected and it wasn't easy. Like I had to get out of my shell and just tell myself every day that I'm going to be rejected 10 times today, but that's okay. It's going to happen and it's unfortunate that the legal field is saturated. 

We have a lot of lawyers, but even with that many lawyers in our country, there are still so many creative ways to get positions or find out about positions and a lot of them aren't even listed. How many times I had spoken to an attorney who was like, yeah, there's a role we just haven't posted. And I would love to hire you, Devika, but you don't have experience in X cause we need four plus years of experience or whatever. 

By the way, just on that tangent, I used to ignore it all the time. That's why I wanted to get it in front of somebody, because I was like, I know it's four plus years of experience, but what you really need is someone who's just going to learn and work hard. And that's why doing that networking was even more important because you wanted to show that person that's not what they needed. They needed me, they needed somebody who can do the job. And that was the difference. 

 

On Taking a Non-Legal Job Right Out of Law School

The Chances You Take May Not Be the Ones You Want, but They Can Lead You to Place You Want to Ultimately Go

 

A head of a recruiting company called me and I'm thinking it's for a [legal] job, but it was actually to be a recruiter for the company. And they're like, I think you'd be a great recruiter. Why don't you try it out? And I was like, well, I don't even know. I had done legal recruiting as a job during law school, but not for tech. And so I decided to take a chance. Had nothing to do with the law and for 16 months, I was a recruiter for tech startups and that's what got me to my understanding of the Silicon world, which was growing so much at that time in 2014. And so I got to work with CTOs, and Chief Product Officers, and CEOs of companies that were just building themselves. And I was just enamored by the people, by the passion, by the perks that they were giving.

And then it led me to my first startup soon after that to be in their actual legal team, which was a really cool FinTech company in 2015 and all's history from there. 

I didn't even have a job that was legal coming out of it, which is crazy. When you think about all that networking, I came out with something that was completely the opposite. I wasn't even touching legal except for maybe looking at contracts between the client and the recruiter.

But I think taking a chance on that was the best chance I took because it led me to where I am today and I've been in-house since law school. I was just one of those lawyers that just didn't do the law firm route except for my clerkship programs.

So it's sometimes the chances that you take or not the chances that you want to take, but they lead you to where you are so grateful to be today.

 

On Her First Legal Job

Getting the Chance, Starting at The Bottom, and Making an Impact 

I am so grateful to my first legal position because they did take a chance on me with someone from an international law school, with like a recruiting background at that point. And a shoutout to Janine who is one of the most incredible lawyers I know and is one of my biggest mentors, but she was the general counsel at Zest Finance at that time - now, Zest AI. She's no longer there anymore, but she took a chance on me because I came and I was like I will do this.

It was a contract role. I knew that there was no guarantee that I was going to continue after three months, but I just went in there and was like, I don't care if it's starting from the bottom, I am going to prove to you that I will make an impact at this company and you need me in this team. And you'll be surprised that teams will create that role for you if you have shown up and you've made an impact. 

That was sort of the motivation that I had that I am glad that I came out of my shell for because I would not be where I am today, if it wasn't for those small chances that people took, but also that persistence and that hustle. It's not easy to find a job it's just not, you know. 

 

On How to Get Someone to Take a Chance on You

Demonstrate Drive, Eagerness to Learn, Empathy, and Emotional Intelligence

 

It's that drive and that eagerness to learn. It really is because anytime someone reaches out to me for advice, I'm always there just because I was that person. And so I just have so much more sensitivity towards it, but as long as they're willing to put in the work, of course, right.

I've been really enjoying getting to be a mentor to some individuals. If someone comes to me with that eagerness to learn, there's nothing like it because that motivation, that drive, and that ambition will drive success. 

And you feel good as a mentor, you feel good as who's hired that individual or who has helped that person because that's a reflection of your own self. I truly believe that even if they don't necessarily have the exact experience, if they have some experience in certain things, but have the drive to learn and to pick things up quickly and have the empathy and the emotional intelligence. I mean, that's just a recipe for success in my book. 

 

On Debunking a Common Misconception About In-House Counsel

You’re Never Stuck in One Area: You Can Change Paths

 

It's gotta be the fact that you can't change paths. I went from what? Recruiting to FinTech, to drone tech, to consulting, to corporate, to e-commerce. And it's a misconception to think that you're stuck in one area of practice or one area of law. And mind you, there's obviously certain areas that you have to have experience in, I'm not saying that. But as an in-house counsel, that's been able to move different industries, the skill set remains the same, and I think you can still explore different areas and different companies while bringing that toolbox with you. 

That's one misconception and part of that is don't be afraid to create something that you want for yourself because I've been blessed by wonderful bosses and mentors and teams in-house where if there's something that I want to do and it sounds so out of the ordinary and may not even touch law and may not even have anything to do with it, but I want to work on something, just ask. People think that asking questions may not get you the results, but I always say, keep asking questions and keep trying new things because it changes the course of your own trajectory and your own skill set.

Go for it. Just, just ask the questions, just do it. What do you have to lose? 

 

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.

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