Working In-House: A Conversation with Matt Dornauer, General Counsel of Phusion Projects, ND Law ’08

Welcome to the very first installment of  Lawyer Stories blog posts! Wondering what “Lawyer Stories” blog posts are about? This explains everything.

The first blog post features a discussion I had with Matt Dornauer, General Counsel of Phusion Projects, a 2008 Notre Dame Law grad, and one of the mentors in Notre Dame’s Alumni Mentorship Program.

My Discussion With Matt

I met with Matt in-person at his office in downtown Chicago and we talked for about 45 minutes.

Matt went to Ohio State for college, graduated from NDLS in 2008, and began his legal career at Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago. He got the Sidley job by going through Notre Dame’s OCI process. While at Sidley, Matt participated in on-campus interviews and recruited for the firm.  Matt worked at a firm in Ohio his 1L summer.

Matt began his career at Sidley working in the general litigation group.

During his first year, a Partner in his group asked if he would work with him on a matter in which a client was facing a multi-state attorney general investigation about its products and advertising practices. Matt agreed and soon began working with the owners of Phusion Projects, an alcohol beverage company, where he currently works today.

Specifically, Matt was asked to help his client fight government regulation of their popular alcohol product, Four Loko, which, at the time, contained caffeine.  Over time, the group of state attorneys general increased their efforts to get Four Loko off store shelves. Matt and his colleagues at Sidley worked with various experts to refute the claims that the product was unsafe, arguing that the product was safe under FDA standards and that it was no different than consuming any other combination of alcohol and caffeine, such as having a glass of wine and then an espresso after dinner or a rum and cola or an Irish coffee.

He also appeared before state legislatures, helping the company testify before the California and Washington state legislatures in only his second year at Sidley.

After more than a year of this back and forth with the government and following political pressure from certain members of Congress and media attention, Phusion Projects ultimately chose to remove caffeine from their products. However, following the removal of caffeine, the Company faced numerous products liability lawsuits. As a result, Matt gained tremendous experience acting as coordinating counsel for Phusion in their defense of these lawsuits, leading meetings with Phusion’s local counsel, and directing defense strategy after just a few years in practice.

Over time, Phusion Projects continued to give him more work while he was at Sidley and he soon transitioned from a litigator to more of a generalist, working on various litigation, regulatory, and corporate issues.

As you probably guessed by now, because of the great work he did for them, Phusion Projects hired Matt as its first General Counsel in early 2013.

Matt is happy in his role at Phusion. He gets to work on a variety of legal matters, including complex commercial litigation, corporate governance, commercial negotiations and drafting, intellectual property portfolio management, labor and employment, advertising law, and alcohol regulation.

He really likes working at Phusion Projects because they are innovative and nonconformists. Matt is the only attorney at Phusion Projects (he has one paralegal), so he is constantly challenged by a variety of work. Rather than being seen only as the attorney to “run things by,” Matt has been able to dabble in business and act as a strategic adviser for the Company.

As part of the Company’s executive leadership team, he has the ear of the other execs and is part of the Company’s decision-making and strategy.

As for Matt’s lifestyle, he does his best to have his weekends off from work, although, similar to when he worked at the law firm, he sometimes needs to log some hours over the weekend.

He works hard as Phusion Projects is leanly staffed, but he has time to routinely engage in hobbies like running and biking along Lake Michigan, backcountry skiing, and playing guitar.

Recently, he went skiing in Whistler, and took a few weeks off to get married in at a winery near Santa Barbara (congratulations, Matt!), and then went on his honeymoon in Bora Bora and Hawaii.

He is in both the NDLS mentorship and mock interview programs and is eager to help NDLS students.

If you want to learn more about transitioning from a firm to in-house or hear more Four Loko stories, Matt would be happy to talk to you.

Send me an email at katelynn.mcbride@nd.edu and I will put you in touch.

How Did I Find And Connect With Matt?

I first got in touch with Matt when I asked him to serve as a mentor in our mentorship program.

When I first emailed Matt he did not know who I was and had never heard my name.

I found him online when I google searched for “Notre Dame Law Chicago in-house lawyers.”  I found his email address on My Notre Dame.

I sent him the following email on 8/26/15:

Matthew,

I hope this email finds you well. My name is Katelynn McBride and I am the Assistant Director of Career Development at Notre Dame Law School. I am excited to announce that Notre Dame Law will be piloting a mentorship program beginning this fall to pair Notre Dame law students with excellent attorney mentors. I came across your background, having earned your JD at Notre Dame, litigated at Sidley, and now serving as the General Counsel at Phusion Projects, and I am confident a law student mentee would benefit tremendously from your guidance.

The program will be piloted in six cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, D.C. South Bend, and New York. We are currently looking to build the program with excellent mentors who would like to work with a designated law student mentee and give them helpful career advancement and professional development guidance over the course of the school year.

Are you interested in participating as a mentor in the Law School’s Pilot Mentorship Program?  If so, I will send you a brief survey, which we will use to create your mentorship profile, and then we can get started.

We would love to have you on board to launch this pilot program with a great group of mentors.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Katelynn

Matt replied back the same day with:

Katelynn,

I’d be happy to help. Thanks for reaching out.

Thanks,

Matt

Matt then filled out the survey to join the mentorship program, I paired him with a mentee, and then later heard from his mentee that he had been really helpful and gave great advice.

Knowing I wanted to start this blog feature, I emailed Matt the following on June 9th, 2016:

Matt,

I hope this email finds you well. I was speaking with [name of Matt’s mentee] this morning and he mentioned what a great mentor you have been to him.

He told me more about your work and I would really love to hear about it myself.

Do you have time Wednesday-Friday next week for me to come by your office or a location convenient to you to learn more about your work?

Thank you again for serving as a mentor.

Sincerely,

Katelynn

On June 10th, Matt responded:

Hi Katelynn,

Thanks for the email. More than happy to meet at my office next week. How does Thursday or Friday afternoon look?

Best,

Matt

We scheduled a time for me to meet Matt at his office in downtown Chicago and I had about a 45 minute discussion with him in his office.

Take away from my emails that I made it as easy as possible for Matt to meet with me. I proposed a specific time frame to meet, offered to come to him, and ended my request to meet with a question mark so he knew I was actually asking him if he could do something.

If you are struggling with writing strong networking outreach emails, reach out to a CDO counselor and we can help. Go out and collect as many of your own lawyer stories as you can!

 

 

 

 

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