Life After Corporate: Leila Kanani, CEO & Founder, Intermix Legal Group

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Do you have an entrepreneurial idea that you just can’t shake? Leila Kanani recommends pursuing it. “Lawyers are all, as a group, very risk averse,” says Kanani. “I’m not in that group. My advice is to quit your job and go after any idea you may have. Take the risk. Your fallback is that you can always go back to your corporate job.”

Kanani speaks from experience. After spending a decade as an associate in BigLaw firms in DC and Atlanta, she now runs her own company in Chicago, Intermix Legal Group, that helps professionals achieve better balance between work and family. She left her position last March as an intellectual property attorney at Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox to launch Intermix.

Her goal in starting the company was to help attorney parents keep their skills sharp and their resumes current if they’ve opted to leave their firm to focus on family life. Kanani’s company helps match these parents with project-based work with law firms and corporate legal departments. Participants in the program work from home, choosing their own projects and hours.

“Intermix is really an answer for all those women that leave these firms and then think, ‘Now what?’” says Kanani. “Why let their hard earned skills and education go to waste just because they choose to stay at home?”

From Experience to Idea

When Kanani left her previous firm, she did not initially know exactly what kind of company she was going to form to help lawyer parents, though she knew that was her target demographic. Though she was not yet a parent herself, she wanted to work part-time but didn’t know how to go about it. So she started her own practice while she continued to explore the idea.

At one point, Kanani needed to find some experienced freelance attorneys to help her firm with some rush projects. Despite contacting five different agencies, none could provide attorneys with the experience level and skill set that she needed. So she turned to her own network for relief.

“After having so much trouble myself finding someone experienced, I figured there had to be a better way of finding these skilled attorneys for short-term projects,” explains Kanani. “Talking to other mom attorney friends made me realize that there are many experienced attorney parents with highly specialized skills who have left or were thinking about leaving, and who were looking for flexible work — and so Intermix was born.”

Taking the Plunge

It’s rarely easy transitioning from corporate to entrepreneurial life—particularly when you’ve been successful at your job. After studying computer science at Georgia Tech, Kanani took a software programming job at Accenture, and then started studying to take the patent bar, while at the same time applying for law school. After passing the patent bar when she was only 22, she then attended American University Washington College of Law in the evening part-time program and simultaneously took a full-time position as a student associate with the firm Finnegan Henderson at age 23. In her role, she worked with major clients and top attorneys in the field of intellectual property (IP), and after she graduated, she stayed on with Finnegan as an associate.

“It was a huge accomplishment to be at the best firm in IP at such a young age,” says Kanani. “I was making a lot of money and having my law school paid for while I was enjoying my work; it was really a dream. I was able to live a really nice life as a young, single person in DC, and have interesting work.”

She rounded out her decade in BigLaw by moving to Atlanta and joining Fish & Richardson P.C. for three years, followed by a nearly two-year stint back in DC at Sterne Kessler before forging out on her own.

But despite the challenges of leaving a successful career, Kanani emphasizes the importance of making a clean break when you’re starting something new. “Working full time at a job and trying to start something else is near impossible,” she says. “I had an idea and I thought, I can try this out and see what happens. Worst-case scenario: I have over a decade worth of amazing experience; I can easily find another job at a firm or in-house.”

Enjoying the Difference

As an entrepreneur, Kanani is reaping the benefits of a more flexible schedule and the same type of work-life balance that she wants her clients to experience. Now working from her home office, she feels more disciplined and efficient than she did during her years in law firms, with more time to spend on personal interests like painting and photography since she works virtually. Additionally, as she and her husband plan to start a family soon, she looks forward to the time when her work-at-home arrangement will allow more time for her kids.

“When I was at a firm, I was often driving long distances to work,” she recalls. “At work, we had billable hours requirements, but there were so many distractions that took away from that. So it was much harder to bill hours being at the office, then in a home office with no distractions.”

Kanani remarks that because of the added billable hours challenge and with the many office distractions, her previous positions required working a lot more—including on weekends and late nights. “My work/life balance was really just all work when I was at the BigLaw firms,” she says.

Staying Strong

One thing that many “transitioners” experience when making the switch from having a boss to running their own business is that not everyone will be encouraging. Some are more comfortable with the devil they know than with trying something new — particularly when they don’t understand it.

“Don’t let people discourage you,” says Kanani. “They may say it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to take so much time. None of that matters. And don’t let competition discourage you. Instead strive to be better than the competition. That has always been the way I think about what I want to do. How can I do it better than what is out there already?”