Interview: Cristina Chirica
Cristina-Chirica
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Posted Thursday, April 22, 2021

Cristina Chirica is a corporate partner at M&H, LLP. She counsels angel and institutional investors, as well as early stage and established companies, in a variety of corporate and intellectual property transactions, including entity formations, equity and debt financings, general corporate governance, strategic investments and asset sales, technology and licensing agreements, and mergers and acquisitions. During her time at King Hall she worked as an extern for the United States Bankruptcy Court, a legal intern for the IXYS Corporation, and a law clerk for Wagner, Kirkman, Blaine, Klomparens and Youmans, LLP.

 

How did your work evolve at M&H from an associate to a partner?

As you become more senior, you receive more management and administrative responsibilities. When you first start out as a junior associate, a lot of the work you do is what people would consider the “grunt” work, such as due diligence. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities to take on more complex projects, because at M&H you have those pretty early on, but when you initially start out, you have less responsibility because you’re still learning, which makes sense. As I’ve moved up the ladder, in addition to my regular work assignments, I became the go-to person for junior associates, so I had to learn how to delegate to them, review their work, and provide feedback so they would learn from me in the process. Side note: delegating is actually not as easy as it sounds! You also gain more independence in completing assignments once you have a solid understanding of the law, and you start managing clients with little or no involvement from the partners. That’s when you know you are doing a good job – when the clients don’t even cc the partner on emails and come straight to you. 

Partner life is demanding, but manageable. There are times when I still feel there aren’t enough hours in a day to get through everything, but I think that’s just part of being in a service industry. I make myself available for my clients the moment they need me, and I get the job done right away no matter the effort involved. Being responsive is key in preserving relationships. Then there are other times when I have a much better work-life balance and I can control my schedule a lot more, which feels great. I won’t lie, it’s nice when you finally get to this point!


I read on your bio that you work with both early stage companies and more established companies. How do the two differ?

Well, working with smaller companies can actually be more involved. But it also depends on company management. A start-up founder who is a first time entrepreneur may need more guidance than someone who is a serial entrepreneur. A CEO who already had an exit and is working on a second or third company knows the corporate language, how business terms play out in practice, and what mistakes to avoid. A thirty minute conversation with someone who is relatively new to entrepreneurship might take only five minutes with someone who is more experienced. 

But regardless of whether management is experienced or not, working with early stage companies is all about managing transactions and contracts that allow them to hire competitive employees, develop product offerings, generate revenue, and grow. It’s quite exciting to witness a start-up that you helped incorporate become successful and get acquired or go public.

With larger, more established companies, you’re coordinating with a lot more people. If in a smaller company you interact mostly with the CEO or CFO for all corporate needs, in a larger company you will probably have more contact with the company’s in-house counsel or business representatives, and you would reach the CEO or CFO only during more involved projects, such as financings or acquisitions. Larger companies also tend to have more internal processes that have to be followed, and a hierarchy of individuals and committees that must sign off on decisions, which can sometimes slow things down. Unless it’s a merger, in which case everyone works around the clock to close. With such larger companies, it’s important to understand what business terms they look for in deals, to become familiar with their internal procedures, and to work within their established guidelines.

Another thing that’s different when representing larger companies is that the transactions tend to be larger in value, and as their counsel, you often have more leverage when negotiating terms, given the influence and size of your client. Smaller, early stage companies don’t usually have the same control. So when representing smaller companies, I find that I have to lean on my negotiation skills a bit more, while finding a good balance between pushing for certain terms and not creating a hostile business environment. The last thing you want as a corporate lawyer is to “kill a deal.” And I think that when both sides have lawyers who are reasonable in their approach, everyone benefits. Whether it’s representing small or large companies, or even investors at that, I believe that good (transactional) corporate attorneys also understand the business dynamics in a transaction because the goal is to get the deal done for the client.


How does the business relationship evolve as you build stronger connections with your clients? 

It’s as if you become their business partner in a way, and not just their lawyer who provides legal advice on specific transactions. For instance, if they want to hire someone for an executive role, they might ask for contacts within your network. If it’s a startup looking to hold its series A financing round, management may ask for suggestions on suitable investors in their space. You really become a connector for them once they trust you and have a good relationship with you. That’s a really fulfilling part of my job. 

 

I imagine that now that you’ve become a partner at M&H, there’s more of a focus on business development. What’s something you’ve learned from that experience?

I think something I’ve learned is how important it is to figure out your own style.

For example, I now know that I’m the kind of person who likes to meet with clients face to face and get to know them a little bit. When you first make partner, you may receive advice on how to go about business development, but I think you have to approach it in the way that feels most natural to you. I found that I genuinely enjoy meeting new people and surrounding myself with individuals that exude positive energy, so I gear myself toward organic interactions and introductions, meeting people at events, taking people to lunch or coffee, keeping in touch with them, things like that. Also, if your current clients are pleased with your work and like you as a person, they will probably refer you to others if the opportunity arises. 

Other partners may approach business development differently. They might create content, write articles, speak at events, or just rely on referrals from existing business relationships. Overall, if you are looking for long term, successful relationships with your clients, make sure you like them and they like you, it really has to go both ways. 

 

Are people generally receptive to meeting up when you’re a partner? 

Yes, generally they are. I think it’s actually easier to set up meetings now than when I was a senior associate. There wasn’t much of an obligation to do business development as a senior associate, but the firm encouraged me to network because they wanted me to succeed. M&H rewards hard, quality work and dedication to the firm and its clients, so the partners will guide associates on their path to partnership, if that is the desired outcome. 

 

What advice do you have for students looking to take a path similar to yours?

Find the right firm for you. The work can be quite stressful, so if you’re stuck in a negative place, it can be very unproductive for you. Luckily, the environment is very collaborative at M&H, with no competition between associates and no “politicking,” which is another thing I’m grateful for. Make sure you join an organization where you can see yourself grow. Don’t stay in a firm where you see clear, consistent bad messaging. Always pay attention to red flags and don’t be afraid to do what’s right for you. 

I think it’s also important to figure out what kind of people you enjoy working with. I say that because different partners have different personalities and attract different types of clients. And once you realize which clients you mesh well with, you will be able to focus your efforts on effective business development and cultivate lasting relationships. The worst experiences I’ve had could all be traced back to people, so gear yourself toward working with individuals you can learn from and enjoy being around.

On that note, it’s also vital to find good mentors. They can speed up the learning process for you, especially when you’re first starting out at a firm or in a new role. I still turn to my mentors when I need a trusted opinion.

 

Any advice on coursework for students?

Hmm, take opportunities to have hands-on experiences. I wish I took more practical courses in law school to help me understand how legal concepts are applied in practice. Boutique firms such as M&H also place a lot of value on experience outside the classroom when hiring.