The Rule of Three

One could say Margo Smith’s career started with a single key decision. Two more would follow, and so far, these choices have proven to be the difference in her robust legal career.

The first decision Margo Smith made that would set her on the path to becoming general counsel of Marketo—the Inc. 500’s number-one marketing software company—happened only after she heeded some sage advice.

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington (UW), she had tentative plans to enter the university’s law school, which offered her a scholarship. But after hearing about her plan to stay put in the Evergreen State, her half-brother encouraged her to forgo the scholarship, head to the East Coast, and visit some Ivy League schools. Smith followed his advice and eventually chose Columbia Law School in New York.

Smith says it’s the first of three defining career decisions she made. And perhaps, most importantly, it’s the one that inspired two key decisions that followed.

“My half-brother helped me realize that the decision wasn’t about where I would spend the next three years of my life, or student loans versus a scholarship,” Smith says. “He could see that I would have more opportunities coming out of Columbia than continuing at UW. More importantly, I would grow more being on the East Coast in a different environment and with a new set of peers and colleagues.”

The second crucial career decision she made came at the end of her second year at Columbia, when she had to decide where to work her 2L summer. It was no small feat to decide where, because she knew that her choice would likely be her first professional job after graduation. Smith interviewed with several Wall Street firms in the city, but it was a conversation with a colleague who had done his second year summer at a firm in Palo Alto, California, that inspired her interest in the West Coast. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the same firm her colleague had worked at, was having open interviews. Immediately following those conversations and learning about the opportunity, Smith knew it would be the perfect fit.

This was in 1996, the heyday of Internet service providers, and all the action was in Silicon Valley. Netscape was king, and Microsoft had just introduced Internet Explorer. The bubble was expanding. It fulfilled Smith’s need for freshness, excitement, and challenge.

“The summer I spent there, the energy was palpable,” she recalls. “Being an associate in that environment, at that time, was very compelling. I loved the tech clients they served and the types of transactions and opportunities they gave associates to start defining the next era of business in Silicon Valley. I knew I wouldn’t be able to shift away from that.”

Smith stayed with the firm for nearly ten years, focusing on public company securities, compliance, and mergers and acquisitions (her passion) before an opportunity surfaced to pursue a general counsel track at the semiconductor company Verigy. The lawyer who recruited Smith had told her that he would give her all the tools and experience she needed to be a general counsel within five years. What she defines as the third key decision was perhaps the most difficult one to make.

“At Wilson, I worked with extremely bright, sharp, committed colleagues who, over a decade, became my family and friends,” Smith says. “I was happy in my career, had plenty of opportunities, and grew year after year. Leaving wasn’t a decision I made lightly.”

By the time the offer came up, however, she had determined that she wanted to be a “fierce” general counsel similar to the many women she had met over the years with the same role. Additionally, Verigy was a spin-off from Agilent Technologies (itself a spin-off of Hewlett-Packard) and was being taken public. To Smith, the idea of working on that was enthralling.

As it turns out, the lawyer who mentored Smith and forecast the general counsel role for her had been right with his prediction: she was promoted to the general counsel role in less than four years. “Now I was the GC of a public company in Silicon Valley,” Smith says. “It was an opportunity I felt I had earned, but without him, it would have been much harder to come by.”

In 2011, after she oversaw a tricky merger transaction that involved three public companies, Advantest bought Verigy, and Smith was back on the job market. She joined media and marketing company QuinStreet, which put her back in the digital realm. After a year, she received a call from a former colleague about a general counsel position that had recently opened at Marketo.

“He said, ‘I know you’re not really looking, but this is a special company, and I think you should go talk to them,’” Smith recalls.

Marketo was in an exponential phase after an initial public offering. The company was looking for someone who could build a legal team and help scale with the company. As she had so often in the past, Smith left her comfort zone behind and entered the unknown. She got her M&A fix when the company was sold in 2016 for about $1.8 billion. Marketo was a private company again. It may have changed her role, but in a way that she has more than enjoyed.

“I was wondering at first if the role as general counsel of a private company was going to be enough, but it is. So much of the work with a public company revolves around earnings, SEC reporting, and public company governance, and that’s off my plate,” Smith explains. “I’ve been freed up to take on more of a strategic role and a broader role in many respects. I spend a lot more of my time working hand in hand with the CEO and other members of management on driving the business. Some people didn’t expect me to stay, but I decided to see what the next leg of this journey would look like, and I’m really glad that I did.”

“I spend a lot more of my time working hand in hand with the CEO and other members of management on driving the business.”

And to think, it all began by taking a single piece of advice.