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Helene Godin

Founder and CEO of the By the Way Bakery

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Audible GC calls ‘audible’ starts bakery

I never even had a lemonade stand”

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Within the vast and rapidly growing universe of attorneys who have transitioned out of the practice of law into successful careers in business there is a sub-category.   It is small but very interesting.  These are attorneys who actually enjoyed, and in some cases loved, practicing law yet they chose to pivot in their professional lives to follow a completely different path. 

Helene Godin, the founder and CEO of the By the Way Bakery, is a wonderful example.

For those who may not be familiar with By the Way Bakery, please give us a snapshot of the company.

I started the bakery in 2010.  I quit my job as an attorney after 22 years of practice.  I had pretty much done everything I wanted to, short of sitting on the Supreme Court.  But Ruth Bader Ginsburg got the under-five foot seat, so I wasn’t really in the running.  I had worked in a large law firm, a medium sized firm, my own firm, and several large corporations. I was burnt out.  I was totally and completely fried.  And I was working so hard, that at the time, there was no opportunity to even think about what I wanted to do next.  So, I quit my job with zero plan.

Were you a baker?  Or had you worked in a bakery?

I didn’t know how to bake.  This was not ‘Oh, I love making cookies with my kids. This will be so fun.  I’ll turn it into a profession’. That rarely works out.

So, you don’t know how to bake, you are going to open a bakery and because it’s not challenging enough you decide you are going to only bake gluten free and dairy free products?

I first picked gluten free and vegan because I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible and capture as many potential customers as I could.  But then I decided to concentrate on gluten free.  Since I didn’t know how to bake anyway, I might as well learn what I think is going to be the next trend.  I got lucky and rode the right wave.  Everything moved very fast.  I quit my job in May of 2010 and opened the first By the Way Bakery in May 2011.

Did you have a job in business prior to going to law school?

I never even had a lemonade stand, so no, not at all.  And that’s why in that year, I really had to teach myself not just how to bake, but how to format a spreadsheet, how to run a cost analysis, how to do marketing, how to design a storefront – a storefront that would be replicable should the business take off.

The financial aspect is obviously critical.  One of the things we are doing at ex judicata is offering this kind of training for transitioning lawyers, most of whom, have no financial experience.  Our course “Accounting for Attorneys Transitioning to Business Jobs” has proven very popular for this reason.  Did you take a formal course of any kind?  How did you come to your business knowledge?

I’m still winging it some days, but overall, I just sort of figured it out. I mean, it was a small, keep in mind, I didn’t open with $5 million in gross revenue.  I opened hoping somebody would show up.  So, there was plenty of time to learn.  Things can grow organically.  I didn’t need an MBA when I first opened my store in Hastings on Hudson.  Over time, I learned the skills I needed through experience.

What was what we call ‘The Moment’ for you?   Do you recall where you were and what you were doing when you made the fateful decision to change the course of your professional life? 

Yes.  My last job was at a great company, and I worked with really smart people.  I’m a workaholic.  You give me a metric and I will exceed it.  When I told the general counsel that I was quitting, he said: ‘Of course you want to quit.  We gave you the work of two people. We never thought you would actually do it.  Let’s dial down the job so it’s much more manageable.’ I said, ‘No, thank you’. 

But right before I went to talk to the GC, I called my husband.  It was 7:00 in the morning, and I was standing next to the fax machine (because it was 2010).  I said ‘I’m done. I really don’t want to do this anymore’.  And my husband said, ‘That’s great because I’m kind of done with this, too.’  He had only one request while I figured out what I was going to do next – ‘I love going grocery shopping at the end of the day and preparing dinner based on what’s fresh.  Would it be okay if I continued making dinner?’  My answer was a definite yes!

I know in your background you crossed paths with Amazon.  And, that this a road you chose not to take.  Tell us about that.

I was the General Counsel at Audible for 3 years.  I had a hunch early on that someone was going to buy the company during my tenure.  If not Amazon, then some other company.  I started organizing all of the relevant documents shortly after I arrived, creating a spreadsheet with a summary of every agreement, and putting things in place for an acquisition.  When the CEO finally called me into his office to tell me that Amazon was going to issue a tender offer, I told him ‘I’m ready to give outside counsel all of the materials for due diligence on a memory stick tomorrow.’

It was just an unbelievable experience for me because I knew nothing about M&A.  At the conclusion, the HR representative on the Amazon acquisition team said to me, ‘You know, you’re exactly the kind of person we want at Amazon.  We’d love for you to stay in your role as general counsel, but we’d also like you to become general counsel of two other subsidiaries.  And of course, you’ll have to fly to Seattle every six weeks. But don’t worry, you won’t lose any time, because you’ll take the redeye and it’ll all be great.’  Having worked with the legal team on the deal and having seen just how intense they were (they made me look like a slacker), I said to the HR rep, ‘Thank you for the offer, but I’d be dead in six months because I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.’ 

Do you recall the time and place when you concluded ‘this is actually going to work’?

You know, one of the things that keeps me moving forward is the fact that I’m always looking over my shoulder wondering what could go wrong and when?  You know, this may not work even 11 years in.  What can I do to do better?

Because you loved the craft of lawyering, I have to imagine the kind of career advice you would give associates might be quite different than one who left the practice because they didn’t like being a lawyer?

You have to think really hard before giving up your law career because once you quit, my understanding is that it’s pretty hard to go back.
But that said, if it’s not for you, that’s okay.  It’s better to write off the $250,000 or whatever you put into your law school degree than to be miserable for decades.

When attorneys say they don’t like the practice of law and want to do something else the law is often only part of the reason.  So much of it can come down to who you work for and the culture that surrounds you.  It sounds like you were again lucky here in that you started in a supportive environment with a mentor?

Yes, I was very fortunate.  I joined a firm that was primarily known for banking and real estate.  There was one outlier, Stanley Rothenberg, whose areas of practice were entertainment and intellectual property law.  The first day I started Stanley needed extra help on something.  It was a complicated copyright question.  I had my legal pad and my pencil and I’m writing out my memo.  I got up either to go to lunch or to grab a

book from the law library.  I come back and Stanley is standing at my place reading my memo.  He said, ‘you missed the point.  I never should have given this to you.  What are you doing?’   And I can’t believe I had the audacity to say ‘That’s a draft.  Let me finish it.   And when I’m done, I think you’re going to agree with my analysis’.  He did.  And I got to work for him exclusively for the next six and a half years.  So, I was lucky because he was a wonderful mentor, he gave me a lot of responsibility, and treated me with great respect.

Did you have any mentors on the business side with the bakery?

You know, over the years I’ve hired a few consultants, and it’s never worked out.  In the end I wound up teaching them.  I’m very tenacious and I’m a really good student, which I learned from being a lawyer.  I spend an enormous amount of time researching.  I’m not afraid to ask myself hard questions, which is also something you learn as a lawyer. To dig deep and then deeper to get the answer.

Helene, thank you so much.  Please keep the wonderful products coming.

Thank you.

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