Why smaller is beautiful for some corporate lawyers
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In-house lawyers at smaller, disruptive companies have many terms to describe their work, but “relaxing” would never be one of them. They often have to be involved in every aspect of the business, and in some cases, may be the sole lawyer.
“It’s certainly not something to go into if you want an easy life,” says Lucy Vernall, general counsel at London-based Funding Circle, the peer-to-peer lending marketplace, which was founded in 2010.
For the right type of lawyer, however, the work can be fulfilling. Tasks for a general counsel in a smaller business may include bringing new ideas into a rapidly growing enterprise, advising senior colleagues or contributing to business development.
For Alfonso Monroy, general counsel at Bitso, a Mexico-based cryptocurrency exchange, the transition was from a big law firm providing legal advice to companies, including Bitso, to working in-house at a single company. He enjoys being involved in Bitso’s commercial strategy. “When you’re external counsel you get paid and that’s it,” he says. “Here you can participate in business decisions and be part of the management.”
“You muck in and get your hands dirty,” says Tom Bullock, general counsel at ATP Media, the global sales, broadcast production and distribution arm of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the global sporting group.
Michelle Fang, chief legal officer of US-based Turo, the peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace, agrees: “I have to do a great job at being a lawyer, but there’s so much more to do when it’s all hands on deck in a fast-growing start-up.”
For Mr Bullock, who previously worked amid thousands of lawyers at law firm Allen & Overy, the first big adjustment had come when he moved to Onside Law, a boutique law firm specialising in sports, before joining ATP Media.
While ATP Media now has about 40 employees, the number was half that when he joined. “You go from having a PA to not having a PA, you do all your own drafting and there’s no print room,” he says. “So you become much more self-sufficient.”
At ATP, while much of Mr Bullock’s focus is on protecting and managing broadcast rights across many territories, he works on a range of topics across the business. “You have that close relationship with everyone in the business — from heads of departments to people at the coal face,” he says. “You get a deep understanding of all facets of the business and what goes into making it tick.”
Increasingly, this means acquiring a deep understanding of technology. Bitso’s Mr Monroy says: “With technology, the markets are moving really fast, so you have to step up your game.”
When the company is a relatively young organisation, another adjustment for lawyers can be colleagues’ age profile. “There were a few people that had more grey hairs than me — but not many,” says Ms Fang about her early days at Turo.
This means colleagues often turn to the general counsel for advice that is not limited to legal matters but touches on everything from business development to health and safety. “You’re surrounded by really bright young people but they have no experience,” says Ms Vernall.
If working in a smaller or fast-growth company can be stimulating for a senior lawyer, the benefits go both ways, since the experience of in-house lawyers can be helpful to a young company as it expands.
While most employees in such organisations focus on launching the next product or service, a general counsel can take a long-term view and identify where most value is being generated and where the biggest risks lie.
Lawyers who have previously worked in firms representing very big organisations often have valuable networks. Ms Fang says: “I can help make connections or facilitate meetings that might have been more challenging to set up.”
Of course, working in-house at a smaller, disruptive business is not for every lawyer. “You need to have a level of confidence, because you will be thrown into situations that will be outside your comfort zone,” says Mr Bullock. “And you do need to be commercially aware — you can’t be a ‘lawyer’s lawyer’.”
Ms Fang stresses the importance of being flexible, entrepreneurial and able to tolerate risk: “If you’re the kind of lawyer who writes checklists and makes sure each thing has been done before launching a new market or product, then a small, disruptive, fast-growing company is not a place for you.”
Loss of work-life balance is also something to consider since smaller companies, certainly in the early days, may have little budget to hire much outside legal advice, and rely heavily on the general counsel.
However, like others, Ms Fang finds the excitement of the work makes up for the long hours: “It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do.”
Fast movers: the top lawyers at five companies that are making a name as disrupters
General counsel and company secretary, ATP Media
Tom Bullock became ATP Media’s first in-house lawyer in 2015. Part of the senior management team, he played a key role in completing a pioneering deal to live-broadcast all live ATP Tour matches on the Amazon Prime platform. He also led a corporate and tax restructuring in 2017, involving a diverse shareholder base of governing bodies, billionaires and not-for-profits.
Other than your current chief executive, which CEO would you like to work for? “Steve Jobs. [He was] not afraid to fail and at the same time had the courage of his convictions to stand behind his belief in his products.”
General counsel and head of government affairs, Lazada
Gladys Chun has presided over the expansion of the south-east Asian ecommerce company’s legal team as Lazada scaled up and moved into new markets.
The business was acquired by Chinese ecommerce group Alibaba in 2016, and is exploring retail concepts such as gaming or live-streamed concerts in the online store — dubbed “shoppertainment” — or combining online services with offline experiences.
Best piece of advice you have received? “Ask yourself three questions: what do you have, what you need and what will you give up?
Vice-president and chief legal officer, Turo
As the car-sharing platform’s first legal hire, Michelle Fang has built a diverse team that ensures the legal function reflects its customer base. In January, Ms Fang wrote an open letter signed by more than 170 general counsel that pressed law firms to improve diversity among their staff.
Other than your current chief executive, which CEO would you like to work for? “Reshma Saujani, founder and chief executive of Girls Who Code. Ms Saujani is a very bold and inspirational leader. Her organisation is doing amazing work advancing opportunities for girls and women in [science, technology, engineering and maths] fields.”
General counsel, Bitso
Alfonso Monroy joined Bitso, Mexico’s first bitcoin exchange, as general counsel in 2018, helping the company adapt to a regulatory environment that is constantly changing and developing.
He is regarded as one of the most experienced fintech lawyers in Mexico, and has helped the start-up to navigate ambiguous or conflicting regulations governing crowdfunding, payment services providers and cryptocurrencies.
Best advice you have received? “Dedicate enough time to get things done without avoiding the greatness of living your life.”
General counsel, Funding Circle
A former boutique law firm managing partner, Lucy Vernall helped prepare and lead Funding Circle, the peer-to-peer small business lender, through its initial public offering in 2018. She introduced a global risk management and corporate governance framework in order to steward the business through its early days as a public company.
If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you do instead? “I didn’t think I’d be in the legal profession as long as I have — making the move in-house has kept me here, and the culture we’ve created here . . . I’d probably be at another innovative fast-growing company.”
Profiles compiled by RSG Consulting researchers and FT editors
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