On May 20, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Intelligence Squared hosted the third Newt and Jo Minow Debate, “The Electoral College Has Outlived Its Usefulness.”
Myra Pasek (JD ’90) opened her keynote address at the 2019 Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center (DPELC) Annual Conference by explaining that she doesn’t take her career too seriously. “I’ve always known that both work and school can be really fun,” she said. But those sitting in the audience of Lincoln Hall were ready to take her advice quite seriously. Pasek, the 2019 Distinguished Entrepreneur Award recipient, has had a career that many young lawyers dream of — after years at big law firms, she made the switch into the world of tech startups, working at high-profile companies like Tesla and Impossible Foods. Today, she is General Counsel at Ouster, a San Francisco company bringing 3D sensors to the masses.
While working at startups can seem exciting to young lawyers, Pasek emphasized the importance of her early training. “Going to a big firm is a way to hone skills and get experience you need in a really short time,” she said. “That’s important for young lawyers to realize. It might be fun to go to a startup right away, but you need that training.” It wasn’t until she’d spent more than 15 years in law firms that Pasek realized she wanted to transition to a startup. And not just any startup, but specifically Tesla, which she first learned about on a 2007 Vanity Fair cover that mentioned “souped up electric sports cars.”
“I was absolutely enamored with this company,” she said. “When I saw the article, I was like, ‘this is green and glamorous. How much better does it get?’” Taking on the role of Associate General Counsel at Tesla – one she got after eagerly pursuing the company – was a crash course in start-up lawyering. “I learned very quickly that as good of a lawyer as I was trained to be, I had to not be as rigid about eliminating risks as I would have been if I were an outside lawyer,” Pasek said. “My job was to get stuff out of the way and figure out what risks I had to worry about. I had to figure out what would happen if the worst happened, and when that worst would happen.”
One of the key tasks for lawyers at many startups – especially the ones Pasek has worked at — is to simply clear the way so that visionaries and can focus on their visions. Oftentimes, that meant helping her CEOs, who were scientists and engineers, to navigate the sometimes grey areas of law. “The law is a human-made endeavor,” she said. “It’s permeated by humans and their failings. It’s about persuasion. It’s about bias. It’s not necessarily about facts. It was my job to help [Elon Musk] navigate through the mysteries of illogical and unpredictable human behavior.”
After nearly six years at Tesla, Pasek moved to Impossible Foods, which develops plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy products, and later to Ouster, which makes lidar sensors that, as Pasek put it, “see the environment like the human eye – except anything the eye can do, lidar can do better.”
While working at tech companies is exciting, Pasek made clear that the job is also extremely complicated. “It’s my job to make sure our technology does not get stolen, that I don’t miss anything, that there isn’t some clause in our contract that by mistake gives away our IP. And the frustration is, if I do my job well, it looks like I’m not doing anything. It can look easy, like there were no problems for me to avoid in the first place,” she said. “One of the big differences between what I do now and working in a law firm is that everything is my problem.”
So why does she do it? “I hear a saying a lot that bothers me,” Pasek said. “That saying is: ‘Nobody on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time working.’ I feel sorry for people who, on their deathbed, feel like their life’s work was so meaningless that they wish they’d spent less time doing it. On my deathbed, the question I want to be asking isn’t ‘did I work too much?’ but ‘did I work on the right things?’”
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