In-house lawyers show entrepreneurial flair

In-house lawyers resemble entrepreneurs, driving their businesses forward with their own innovations
Maria Varsellona, chief legal officer, Nokia © Aapo Huhta

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Innovative businesses, new or old, require a different kind of in-house lawyer. Across the diverse range of companies represented in this year’s report, general counsel are making technology central to how they work and are often more willing to take risks.

In-house lawyers in new businesses are not only adapting to the opportunities of emerging technologies and industries but are creating them. Lawyers at five-year-old fintech company Crowdcube, for example, have helped launch and grow the crowdfunding market in Europe. Over the past two years, they have developed mini-bonds to allow the public to fund small businesses through debt and created due diligence processes to attract professional investors such as venture capital funds to co-invest alongside the public. Crowdcube general counsel Paul Massey says: “The legal team has been central to opening up that market, as many key questions big investors like venture capitalists had were legal ones.” The platform has raised funds for more than 400 businesses or projects from more than 300,000 investors.

Compliance and legal staff are important to the company’s growth and Mr Massey now works more closely with the business’s customers, the entrepreneurs, to support them from initial fundraising to an exit. Crowdcube had its first exits last year as car hire company E-Car Club was acquired by Europcar and Camden Town Brewery was bought by multinational brewing group AB InBev.

While lawyers have traditionally been valued for their expertise, this new generation of in-house lawyers has more in common with entrepreneurs. Mr Massey and his team look to the latest technological advances such as blockchain to spot opportunities for new products. They also have an influential public role, shaping regulation and raising market confidence.

After building legal teams at eBay and Skype, Robert Miller joined video game developer King Digital Entertainment as general counsel in 2012 as part of a legal team of two. The creator of the mobile game Candy Crush Saga has since grown rapidly: revenues of $160m in 2012 jumped to almost $2bn the following year. It now has half a billion users and Mr Miller’s primary task has been to build a high-performance legal team to support this expansion. When hiring, Mr Miller says: “Engagement and motivation are most important: I focus on smart lawyers, but the real key is that they have a passion for the business.”

The top-ranked teams this year come from larger, more established yet innovative companies going through transformations.

Hewlett-Packard’s legal department managed the separation in 2014 of the technology business into two Fortune 500 companies, using deal-management tools developed by its mergers and acquisitions team. The new Hewlett Packard Enterprise legal team now focuses on more complex work by adopting a “light touch” approach to customer contracts. This means lawyers manage the highest-priority risks in a deal only, rather than focusing on the details.

Meanwhile, computer maker Dell’s legal team has developed “Smart Risk-taking”, a programme to provide guidance for lawyers to take a less conservative view on legal risks, encouraging them to use data and exercise creativity.

View the ranking tables
Most innovative law firms 2016
FT 50
Most innovative: European in-house teamsMost innovative: In-house operational change
Innovation in Driving Value for ClientsInnovation in General Legal Expertise

Innovative general counsel

Winner: Maria Varsellona, chief legal officer, Nokia
Receiving an outstanding review from her chief executive, Maria Varsellona helped lead negotiations to buy Alcatel-Lucent, realising value from that transaction much earlier than expected through elegant legal innovation.

Maaike de Bie, general counsel, Royal Mail
With a progressive, tenacious and personable leadership style focused on changing the culture of the legal team at Royal Mail, Maaike de Bie aims to ensure her team are business advisers with vision.

Thierry Buytaert, general counsel, Ageas Group Legal
Thierry Buytaert was instrumental in arranging a final settlement with creditors of Fortis, the failed bank, after an eight-year litigation, while managing 10 divestments and eight acquisitions in Europe and Asia.

Bart Gombert, European general counsel, Bain Capital
Bart Gombert is Bain’s first European general counsel. He adds consistency without bureaucracy and has created a transaction road map that gives colleagues access to guidance at different steps in a deal.

Galit Gonen, senior vice-president and general counsel Europe, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries
With a strong focus on intellectual property rights disputes, Galit Gonen builds effective teams that add competitive advantage in battles with other firms.

Paul Massey, general counsel, Crowdcube
Paul Massey has helped the fintech business scale up by introducing new products and runs a legal team that can also charge for its services.

Robert Miller, chief legal officer and corporate secretary, King Digital Entertainment
Robert Miller has built another top legal team that supported the company in its $7.2bn New York listing and more recently its $5.9bn acquisition by Activision Blizzard.

Mollie Stoker, general counsel UK, Lucozade Ribena Suntory
Mollie Stoker’s can-do style has helped build a highly visible and well-regarded legal team from scratch. She sits on the board of the new soft drinks company.

Charlotte Taggart, general counsel, Cabot Credit Management
Charlotte Taggart is described by her chief executive as high energy and creative. She has built the legal team as revenue generators and helped the company to become the first Financial Conduct Authority debt collector.

Benedikte Leroy, vice-president EMEA, legal counsel, Dell
Established an internal innovation programme that generates and celebrates new ideas. Changes to contract processes and its Smart Risk-taking scheme have helped save more than 20 per cent in costs.

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