Podcast: Alumni @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Jacob Comer, NovaQuest Capital Management
In the latest installment of Ropes & Gray’s alumni podcast series, Alumni @ RopesTalk, asset management partner Jason Brown interviews Jacob Comer, general counsel and chief compliance officer at NovaQuest Capital Management, a leading investor in life sciences and health care companies. Jacob began his career at Ropes & Gray in 2003 as an investment management associate and has since taken on legal, regulatory and compliance roles for a private equity firm, venture capital firm and hedge fund. Now at NovaQuest, Jacob talks about the challenges of moving in-house, interviewing for and accepting a new job during the pandemic, his experience working at Ropes & Gray, and his professional influences. Jacob also discusses what he looks for when engaging outside counsel and offers advice for attorneys considering a move in-house.
Jason Brown: Thank you for joining us for the next installment of the Ropes & Gray alumni podcast. I'm Jason Brown, an asset management partner based in our Boston office. I'm joined today by my friend and former colleague, Ropes alum, Jacob Comer. Jacob was in my practice group when he was an associate in the investment management group back in 2003 to 2012. He's had an interesting career focusing on regulatory and compliance work in-house, and has since made a big move that I look forward to exploring further with him. We are grateful to Jacob for taking the time to join us today for this podcast. So, Jacob, let's start with your past, post-Ropes. What was the most challenging thing about going in-house from a law firm?
Jacob Comer: That's a close one. I think probably the single most challenging thing is the absolute lack of time to collect and formulate your thoughts. I miss the days of being able to say, "That's an interesting question. Let me think about that for a few minutes, and call you back later." Nowadays, I think if I asked for a few minutes or a day to think about it, or a chance to discuss with colleagues, or go get advice, in addition to a quizzical look, I would probably get something more like, "Sure. Why don't you go grab a bottle of water, and then tell me what you think. That's what we pay you for." So, those fast decisions, off the cuff, almost always with imperfect information was probably the most striking change, followed pretty closely by the benefit of the collective intellectual capital of an organization like Ropes that you don’t really understand until you're no longer a part of it. In-house, you’re responsible for knowing everything, whether that's feasible or not.
Jason Brown: Interesting. So, let's move to the present tense. You recently joined NovaQuest Capital Management as general counsel and CCO. Inquiring minds want to know. It's mid- pandemic. You interviewed for a job, virtually. You accept a job, virtually. You relocate. You start a job, virtually. What was that like?
Jacob Comer: Surreal. When I started interviewing for that job, it was February, and people were still traveling and still taking meetings. I went down to Raleigh, and took a lot of in-person interviews. The only real sign of stress down there was that it was supposed to be 19° that night and maybe we’d have some ice, so everyone in North Carolina was freaking out and going home early, which I'm sure is hilarious to anyone listening from Boston. I ultimately interviewed with 15 different people, I think. And it quickly went from in-person, to telephone, to, "Oh, my, we're closing down the office for some period of time while we ‘flatten the curve.’” I was more than a little bit concerned about the ghosted process, wondering if they would wrap it up and wait out the pandemic and that nothing would happen, but to their credit, they kept it moving. I was happy to accept the offer when it came, but by the time they ultimately made a decision from the day I accepted until the day I was supposed to start was roughly two weeks.
We were in pandemic lockdown mode at that point. So, within the lockdown, we had to put our house in Connecticut on the market, find a moving company that was still working, try to get a listing up, and conduct a house sale with people who weren't allowed to leave their houses. We had to find an apartment in Raleigh without being able to go to Raleigh. So, we did virtual tours, and picked an apartment, blind, without having ever seen it, signed a lease, and got all that squared away from Connecticut. We grabbed a U-Haul and spent, I don't know, 12 or so hours driving down to Raleigh with a three-month-old, a four-year-old, a dog, and a U-Haul trailer to a world where literally nothing was open. There were no rest stops. There were no restaurants that you could go into. It was very, very surreal. It was, in some places, given the sheer absence of people, almost like we had landed on the set of that movie, The Langoliers. That was a good life lesson for my four-year-old son. And, somehow, I managed to stay married – a testament to the strength of our marriage right there, I would say.
Jason Brown: Sounds like quite the adventure. So, I know it's still early days, but tell us about the company. How's it going so far?
Jacob Comer: The company is awesome – I like it quite a bit. You were asking me about being in-house before. Previously, I was at a private equity shop that was doing health care services and financial services, and then I pivoted to a hedge fund doing complicated derivatives strategies on digital assets. Now, I'm at a firm that does structured finance for pharmaceutical development. Until April, that was something I knew almost absolutely nothing about. So, it's been a really interesting learning curve: "How does this work? What are the risks? How do we finance those things?” It’s a fascinating organization that has been around for a long time now. They grew up inside the largest contract research organization in the world, and split off about a decade ago. It’s a really great group of folks, the bulk of whom have been working together for a really, really long time now with a lot of interesting work to do. It's a surprisingly sizable firm for Raleigh. I was given to understand that most people who play in our space tend to congregate in the Boston, New York metro, San Francisco metro, maybe a little bit of LA, and Chicago. So tripping over a shop in Raleigh, North Carolina with almost $3 billion under management was a little bit surprising to me.
The work is interesting. It's a whole new niche, a whole new set of investors, but I’ve found ways to add value early on. I've found ways to connect with my colleagues, even though I haven’t yet been in the office with all of them because I've been working remotely since I joined in mid- April, and here we are in December. But like everybody else in the world, I guess we've made do and figured out ways to move forward, but certainly I'm looking forward to being able to see everybody in person, and start working in an office again. And I'm looking forward to traveling again, and meeting investors, and portfolio companies, and other people in the space. I knew I had gotten to the end of my rope on pandemic shutdown when I woke up the other day missing airport lounges.
Jason Brown: It's funny – I've actually had that as well. Never thought I would miss travel, and yet here we are, I kind of do miss travel. So, now let me take you back to your Ropes days. How did you decide to work at Ropes & Gray?
Jacob Comer: It was an interesting decision. I had never spent any time in a big city before. I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia. Charleston's the biggest city in West Virginia, but we have maybe 45,000-50,000 people. And I went to college in West Virginia in another similarly sized town, and then went to law school in a tiny little town in Virginia. So my first summer, I worked for a firm in Richmond, and that was a big city for me. But when the second summer was rolling around, and we're doing those interviews, it occurred to me that I'd never actually gone to a big city or spent any time in one, or lived in one, or worked in one. And, so, I made a point of looking around at different firms in a bunch of big cities, and that was surprisingly tough going. There were a lot of folks wanting to understand why somebody from West Virginia of all places wanted to show up in New York, or Boston, or LA, but a couple of firms took interest and the Boston firm won out.
How I came to choose Ropes was really a function of that summer experience. Ropes was a very different place back in 2002. I think at that point, you still had less than 400 lawyers, mostly in Boston, a little bit in New York, and, as I recall, D.C., and a conference room in Providence, or something like that. And it was I have to say, a fabulously wonderful experience. Boston took some getting used to, but the firm didn't. The thing that was most striking to me, having had the benefit of a first summer somewhere else, was just the sheer quality of work that was available to be done, and the caliber of talent that was available to work with, and for me, that was all the difference in the world.
Jason Brown: Great – glad to hear it. Any favorite Ropes memories?
Jacob Comer: I have lots of Ropes memories, many of which are probably unsuitable for a podcast, but the thing that I most favorably recall is the camaraderie of the early years. It was such an interesting time to join Ropes, right at an inflection point of the growth and expansion of the firm. When I started, it was still a relatively small place where everyone knew everyone, and that made for a wonderful experience, particularly with associates at and around my year. Obviously, we enjoyed professional interaction at the firm, but we also enjoyed the casual interaction after working hours, and just built really strong relationships that endure to this day.
The difference when I have occasion to work with Ropes nowadays versus when I have occasion to work with other firms is palpable. There are folks at Ropes that I can reach out to with real warmth and friendship, drawn on many years, and a lot of those were formed at that time. But if you're looking for a specific memory, I think the thing that I most favorably recall about the early years was the opportunity to stretch beyond your seniority. It was something that I very much appreciated about the firm, and the group that I worked in, and the colleagues that I had. Nobody was much concerned with what year associate you were – it was just, "Can you do the work well? And do you have the bandwidth?" I think the pure intellectual stimulation of those early years, and the ability to really flex into things that were difficult and probably beyond my skillset at the time because people were willing to let you do so, is what really stands out.
I still think back to those days with a big smile because they were formative, professionally. I can still remember getting on calls to negotiate this, that, or the other as a second or third year. So, those early years, those experiences and that faith that everybody put into me, that’s what I remember the most.
Jason Brown: Were there any attorneys at the firm who really stood out to you as influences on your career?
Jacob Comer: Definitely. First off, I'd be remiss in not acknowledging the contribution that you made to my understanding of etiquette around office stationary. I still to this day maintain a desk full of at least half a dozen different sized binder clips – a binder clip for every season. But beyond that, the relationship that I have most frequently quoted throughout my in-house career is with former partner J.B. Kittredge. I worked with him on a number of fund launches, one of which we had made a mistake that got caught late. And he was very cool, calm, and collected under pressure, and helped me run it down with the printer before everything went awry. We were able to handle it with shockingly minimal fuss, but I recall after we got it sorted, he looked at me and said, "Jacob, I've been doing this for a long time. And I'll tell you, I'd rather be lucky than good." I must have quoted the man at least 100 times by now – it's probably my favorite quote from my entire time at Ropes.
The person who’s had the most longstanding effect on my career is John Loder, one of the partners working with me when I was a summer associate at the firm. He is hands down the reason that I ended up working in the investment management group. And he was, in some ways, personally responsible for the trajectory of my career, ultimately. It would be difficult for me to imagine anyone who was more of a joy to work with or was a bigger and better contributor to my development as an attorney than John. And that's beyond his ridiculously large knowledge base and experience set, but simply watching the way that he deals with and interacts with colleagues and clients. Seeing that professionalism in action over time, and looking to emulate so many of the good things that I've seen over so many years, has probably had more direct influence on how I've come to conduct myself as a professional over time than anything else that I could possibly put a finger on. Still to this day, I consider him a mentor and someone whom I still frequently go to for important advice.
Jason Brown: Both of those lawyers were also great influences on me. And I'm thrilled that I continue to have influenced your use of office supplies. By the way, an inside joke, for those of you listening, between Jacob and me. So how do you think your time at Ropes prepared you for your current position?
Jacob Comer: Certainly it prepared me in the investment management space, which is where I've continued to spend all of my time since I went in-house. It’s difficult to replicate the breadth and depth of experience that Ropes has across its client base. You don't necessarily appreciate at the outset while you're at the firm the value of being able to be exposed to so many different groups and sectors and clients doing so many different things until you find yourself in-house being faced organizationally with things that are new to that organization, and being able to raise your hand and say, "Yes, I've done this before." That exposure has given me the ability to weigh in frequently, and allowed for me to develop respect and rapport with the business side and the investors, and that goes a long way. The closer a relationship you can have from a legal perspective, or a regulatory compliance perspective, with the folks that are principally responsible for driving the business, the better off you are, and the more effective you can be.
Jason Brown: So, now that you're in-house, what advice do you have for outside counsel who are looking to get business from you?
Jacob Comer: It's interesting – my view of and my interactions with outside counsel now are influenced heavily by my interactions with clients while I was at Ropes. I find now that the responsiveness in big firms maybe isn't what it used to be. I'm very cognizant from having given up so many weekends cutting my teeth as a young associate, of people's time and their other commitments, and try to be very respectful of that. But what I expect in return is people who will step-up and get things done in a short period of time when it's important that they be done in a short period of time. You’d be shocked at just how difficult it can be to get that base level of responsiveness from some firms nowadays. But also, and probably more importantly, legal decisions mesh so much with business decisions – the two are frequently almost inextricably intertwined. Generally speaking, what I really want more than anything is very knowledgeable, very experienced attorneys with broad exposure to a lot of firms in my space, who can think like businesspeople, and tell me what I ought to do. Now I may or may not agree with that, but a lawyer who can tell me what they would do and why, even if I don't agree, is infinitely more valuable to me than a lawyer who just regurgitates the standards back to me or just gives me a sense of the shape of the playing field. There are a lot of lawyers who can do that very well, but finding lawyers with well-honed business sense, who understand the implications of their legal advice to their client's business, is real value add, and that’s what I want to pay for.
Jason Brown: Super helpful feedback, and something that I like to think we at Ropes also take very seriously. Final question: Could you give us some advice for people who think they might want to move in-house someday?
Jacob Comer: Yes. From someone with quite a bit of experience, I think that often times one of the principal driving reasons for people to want to move from a law firm to an in-house position is this sense that at a law firm you're constantly on call for clients, and if you move in-house, you have a singular client with a more defined schedule, and that will necessarily be a material improvement in quality of life. I suppose there are some in-house positions where that is true, but if you’re contemplating taking on a senior role, I will tell you the client base changes, but the demands don't. It’s a different set of clients. They’re all internal, but they need you just as often. They have a little less patience for answers from you than they do for external counsel. And they're much better at finding you, when you don't want to be found. I actually had a pretty good thing going at Ropes of not being terribly responsive to emails on Sundays as I recall, which, I can tell you, as a GC or a CCO at a busy investment management firm I have found more difficult to sustain. That would be my first piece of advice for sure. My second piece of advice would just be keep up your networks. There are wonderful opportunities in-house, and it can be a fabulously rewarding move. I've enjoyed all of my experiences very much so far, and wouldn't change them for the world. But when you step out, make a point of maintaining those relationships that you've developed with your colleagues because they're simply invaluable down the road. Beyond the friendships, that network of professionals gives you access to expertise that is nearly impossible to replicate elsewhere. So view a move in-house as a transition, not a departure.
Jason Brown: Jacob, thank you so much for joining me today. It's always great to reconnect with you. And I know that our alumni community will be fascinated by your story and your career post-Ropes & Gray. For all of our alumni out there, please visit the alumni website at alumni.ropesgray.com to stay up to date on our alumni, and to get the latest news about the firm and our lawyers. Thank you all for listening.