In a high-growth in-house environment, when time becomes such a blocker that you need to expand your legal team, what kind of hire should you go for? In this series, we look at the different options, and share the insights of real-life tech GCs on why they chose the role profile they did.
A qualified generalist lawyer, who gives advice and deals with various commercial legal issues.
Tom Luk, General Counsel, Peakon
Why did you hire a legal counsel?
I hired a paralegal into my team first, followed by a legal counsel. Both were on the plan and I had wanted to hire both at the same time, but it was more a question of making hires as and when good people were available, so the candidate roadmap drove that process in that we had an exceptional paralegal that had received multiple offers in the process. I thought it would’ve been easier to take both on at the same time when it came to ramping them up, but in the end it worked out really well as there’s plenty to do.
What are the specific skills and qualities that a legal counsel brings to the business?
I chose to hire a legal counsel based on the specific needs Peakon had at the time. To set some context, I come from a SaaS background, so I had a rough idea of the scalable processes that I needed to build for a high-growth SaaS tech company like Peakon. In my first few months at Peakon I was scoping the lay of the land and understanding the business’ specific needs. Before I could implement, I knew I needed the headcount that would be required to execute to a high standard. The minimum I could see as scaling that framework effectively was a legal counsel, a paralegal and myself.
A lot of the volume we were seeing, and would be seeing more of, was sales contracts, so I needed someone who could come in and own that process, which would also free me up to do more of the strategic and operational general counsel work. I was also looking for someone who could grow with the business, because a couple of years from now, the headcount is forecasted to increase dramatically, the business and legal team will have evolved, and ultimately that ability to grow with the company as we scale up is important for retention.
The other option I considered was a contracts manager, but ultimately I went for a legal counsel because they can do more. One of Peakon’s core values is “be more”, so it was nice to be able to align with that and bring in someone who can be a good commercial in-house generalist and more. They not only own contracts, but can get involved with all the other legal stuff that comes up in a disruptive SaaS company like ours - whether that’s data privacy, product advice, employment advice, and day-to-day legal matters.
"We have a fairly lean legal team, and in the fast-growth, disruptive environment that we work in, you need to be able to seamlessly interact with all parts of the business"
How did you benchmark the candidates?
I had a rough idea of what I was after - it included being 1-3 PQE, GDPR experience, someone who could grow with the company, with good City training, experience of an in-house secondment, all the usual requirements that make up a strong in-house candidate; but personality and attitude are more important than anything else. In the end we hired a direct candidate, but we did benchmark using a trusted external recruitment agency for indirect candidates and also to get good coverage of the market. The specific legal skills can be taught, but personality and attitude can’t, and in line with the way Peakon hires, we were rigorous in terms of finding that culture fit. Our finalist candidates had to be interviewed by the CEO and CRO too, and all three of us had to agree to make the offer. We have a fairly lean legal team, and in the fast-growth, disruptive environment that we work in, you need to be able to seamlessly interact with all parts of the business.
Are there any disadvantages of choosing a legal counsel?
I can’t really think of any - you could say that cost is one, as it’s a harder budget ask. We were fortunate when hiring, in that we had very high-quality candidates, some of whom were coming from top city firms. Hiring legal is an expensive ask though - in this environment everything needs to be framed as enabling growth. I’m lucky because I have a CEO that ‘gets’ legal, and asked me what I needed to get the job done. I prepared with a slide deck and presented the plan on how to effectively scale legal, based on business needs and forecasted data, to show that this hire would support that plan and the business.
Are there qualities that legal counsel have that are well-suited to high-growth tech businesses?
We focused heavily on personality to make sure the candidate was well-suited. A typical private practice lawyer would drown in a business like this - you need to find the right personality for it to work. Our successful candidate was Magic Circle-trained and is an excellent cultural fit, we were lucky to get her, and it’s had an additional upside, because that corporate training instils really good behaviours, and as we scale, some of that mentality helps with the rest of the business. It makes sure that we keep our bar set high; ‘excellence always’ as our CRO might say. Candidates with that background have logical thought processes, and a natural ability to create structure.
Where do you go to find good candidates for legal counsel, and what do you ask them at interview?
To check off the legal skills side we did a legal assessment, testing their drafting skills and so on. But once we were happy with that, the heavy focus was the individual themselves and their personality. Through the whole process, they spoke first to our recruiter, then with me twice, then a final round that included our CEO and CRO.
What kind of approach do you take to training and development if you opt for a legal counsel?
For me it’s reasonably simple - I was in their position not that long ago, so I encourage hires to do all the things I’d have done in their position. That means signing them up to useful memberships, sharing the best training materials, and encouraging them to go out and find training schemes and projects they’d like to pursue, because we’ll always support those. Investment in people is a key theme here - we’re a people business - so we really insist and support the fact that recruits go out and find ways to develop themselves. We’re also building out our people team (which includes a training and development team), which gives me support as a manager.
Legal counsel too senior? Get the lowdown on hiring a paralegal from Habito's VP Head of Legal here.