Allison Brecher’s road taken: From big law department to a startup
Allison Brecher lived the corporate legal department life for years, and her time was up. She had parted about two years ago with her company, the insurance brokerage and consulting firm Marsh & McLennan. And she says that her whole self-perception was upended. She always thought of herself as an ambitious and successful career woman. Now, Brecher says, she had lots of time to think. Fortunately, she also had a supportive family, friends, and network, and lots of opportunities.
At first, Brecher (center front in the photo above) says that she looked for the same kind of job that she’d just left. But sitting outside in New York’s Times Square nursing a tall coffee, she had a revelation. Why should she just do what she’d done before, a job that increasingly bored her and made her anxious? Why not work in something she cared about, a job that could combine her social consciousness with business? The answer came a week later, when a recruiter called her, telling her about an opening for the general counsel spot at VestWell, a startup in the pension space. After a round of interviews with VestWell management and backers, she was hired. Brecher spoke to us about what it’s like to be the only lawyer in a lean organization, why what they do is important, and how the ability to imagine a different work life paid dividends in personal satisfaction.
The last time we spoke, you were at Marsh & McLennan and I was a magazine editor. We have a lot of catching up to do.
I have an interesting story to tell. About 2 years ago, when we last spoke, I was senior assistant general counsel at Marsh McLennan, and I had been there almost 15 years. About 2 years ago I left. I was at a point in my life when I was done with the large corporate legal department environment and all of the corporate politics that go with that. And I wanted something more meaningful. I wanted a different way of engaging with the business. I wanted a way to make an impact. And I decided that I wanted to look for startups or a small company where I could have a direct role with the business and build something meaningful.
How did you do that?
As I was sitting in Times Square on a gorgeous summer day in July 2017, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. A week later I got a call from a headhunter to interview with VestWell. At the time there were 16 employees and the platform hadn’t gone live yet, or if it did, it was with a few plans and was being tested.
I came in for an interview and I hit it off with our CEO. Originally, our talk was not even legal related. I did a ton of nonprofit work in my spare time. I started a nonprofit, I host a radio show about nonprofits, and we just connected over community service. And six rounds of interviews later, some with investors and other people here, here I am, general counsel.
You sound enthusiastic….
I am happier than I’ve ever been. My company is doing something really incredible, not just in the retirement space, but really for society. I know that sounds very dramatic. But we’re helping to solve the retirement gap. And that ties in with my community service. It ties in with my desire to use my law degree for something meaningful.
When you had your revelation, you had already left Marsh & McLennan?
Yes. And I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. I felt hurt, and my identity had been taken away, that a part of me had been ripped out. Once I overcame the shock of it all, I decided that I was going to use it as a teaching moment for my girls. I have two daughters. They had always known mommy who works and mommy who had gotten promoted and had been successful at work. I was going to turn it around and make it a teaching moment for them. I got them involved in writing a resume, which I hadn’t done in 15 years. I got them involved in preparing for interviews. It was good for them to see how you overcome obstacles and turn it into an opportunity.
I was scared out of my mind and my immediate instinct was to look for a position that was exactly like the one I had just left. I was very close to taking a role at ADT, in the benefit space. I was grateful that I had other opportunities, it was good timing and I know how lucky I was.
I think it’s important to be imaginative and go back to when you were a kid and imagine what you want your life to be like….
It’s very true. Once I worked out my severance arrangement, all these arrangements, and got over the anger and sense of betrayal I was feeling, I used my downtime to, for example, get a privacy credential. Something I’d wanted to do forever but never too the time to take the test and earn it. And literally a week later, to the day, that the recruiter called me. I pinch myself every day that I was lucky to have found something as quickly. But also to find something that is aligned with me, what I want to accomplish, and the legacy that I want to leave for my career. All that aligned perfectly here.
You’re the only lawyer there?
Yep. We’re unusual to have a GC at our stage.
Walk me through the business.
VestWell is an online, cloud based platform that is geared for small and medium-sized businesses for them to start and maintain retirement plans for their employees. Historically, that market of these businesses has been underserved and overcharged by the industry. So if you’re a small business owner, say, a dry cleaner or a medical practice, you’re wearing lots of different hats, you don’t have a benefits department and you just want to do right by your employees.
Before VestWell, they’d have to go a law firm to draft the plan, and a recordkeeper to find the right plan. Or some kind of investment manager, a custodian. All of those service providers are charging a fee.
Enter VestWell. We’re entirely online, for the architect, for the dry cleaner, the medical practice. By filling out a form and answering a question, we can get them up and running in a week or two, and at half the price or less
Who’s given seed money?
Goldman Sachs believe we hold the key to the future of the industry. The Goldman Sachs thing is validating for what we do. The gas in the tank, so we can keep building innovations.
What is your role?
Maybe you should ask what isn’t your role? Seriously, I’m the general counsel and I run the entire legal and compliance operations here. Really everything, I built the whole function from the ground up. I love solving problems and making things easier and more streamlined.
Since you’re the only lawyer, you use outside counsel?
To some degree. Knock on wood, for the first time in 20 years, we have no litigation, no subpoenas, no investigations. So it’s truly building processes from the ground up.
When you say you’re building processes, they aren’t just the “legal” processes, but you’re helping the business too?
Yes. Everything that benefits administration. I work 24/7. I’ve never worked harder in my life, but the payoff and tangible and intangible benefit has never been greater.
Who do you work mostly closely with?
Everybody. But I’d say primarily our CEO, who’s engaged in the legal process. He doesn’t rubberstamp everything I propose. We have a meaningful dialogue. We have a management team whose background is similar to mine. They have decades of financial services experience, came from startups that grew, or from firms like Fidelity or JP Morgan.
Do you have specific legal-only tools that you use?
I don’t use legal tools like Westlaw and Bloomberg. I am part of a network of GCs at startups and we brainstorm with each other. If I have corporate questions or data privacy, I have this network of amazing general counsel. We’ve become a tight knit group.
Are there organized startup GC groups? What groups specifically?
One I belong to is called Tech GC. They have chapters in the main cities and they put on conferences and events. As a solo legal department it’s hard sometimes. It’s just me, and there are no other attorneys to bounce ideas off of. It’s brainstorming and getting a second set of eyes.
Is there any one issue that worries you or makes you think about the most?
Data privacy. We take it extremely seriously here. You can never stay ahead. It’s true in every large business. It’s not specific to VestWell. It was big at Marsh & McLennan. We designed our platform around privacy, so we think we’ve eliminated some risk right off the bat. You always want to stay ahead.