GCs & the pandemic: Irene Liu, Hopin

Irene Liu, 13 April 2021

“Hopin reached double unicorn status in 18 months” - Virtual events platform Hopin could have been built for this crisis. How did legal help the company adapt to the unique opportunities of 2020?

Irene Liu is the Chief Legal Officer at Hopin. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'.

Do you remember when you first heard the word ‘coronavirus’?

We had heard about it when it was in Wuhan, and we all knew what was happening in China. But then the virus quickly came to the US, and I was at my previous role, also based in San Francisco, when lockdowns started to ensue.

With your lawyer hat on, what was your first concern from a legal perspective?

Once it became real, and the fact that it was asymptomatic and spreading quickly, we as an organization shut down our offices and went remote two weeks before the city of San Francisco even considered it.

From a business and a legal standpoint, the focus was on protecting our employees. There were plenty of other issues, beyond legal, that took priority and we had to step out of our legal work to address those. I was GC at Checkr at the time - we created a COVID emergency plan and committee to actively monitor the situation.

“The challenges were around the volume of work in a hypergrowth company. If you have more customers, you have more contracts, and a greater volume of tasks you need to review” 

You were the GC at Checkr at the time - what were your main priorities when the pandemic escalated? Had those changed by the time you joined Hopin?

I joined Hopin in December, and the pandemic was well underway at that point. But I took my learnings and my mindset and my priorities from my previous company onto Hopin.

When the virus first came to the United States, at that point all of the legal concerns were around how to support employees from a remote working perspective, and those who want to move to different locations, or return home to be with their families, and so on. It was a strong crossfunctional effort between HR, facilities and legal, and others to figure out how we support others during these remote working times.

However, Hopin, in essence, was built to withstand such times. We’re also a virtual company - everyone’s remote, and will continue to be remote post-pandemic. And from a product standpoint, we increased our traction during COVID because we’re a virtual platform.

Both companies (Checkr and Hopin) offer services that became even more critical to manage online as lockdowns were enforced - did that increase your workload in legal?

Hopin reached a ‘double unicorn’ status in 18 months, so the speed at which we’re doing everything is incredibly fast. We were six people in the beginning of 2020, and now we’re at over 400. Legal needed to speedily execute and provide practical advice while also supporting a global workforce under different laws and regulations. These are some of the challenges we dealt with due to our hypergrowth.

“The legal team of any company, (whether it’s COVID, pre-COVID, or no-COVID!) needs to iterate, move quickly, and be flexible to deal with the rapidly changing legal environment”

Hopin’s event creators and attendees have scaled considerably too. Did that jump present any unexpected challenges?

Alongside the jump in users, we completed a funding round and acquired a mobile app called Topi, and a streaming video service called Streamyard. We completed two acquisitions as a company that’s only 18 months old! To support this fastgrowing business, I too had to move fast, and that’s how I’ve been able to hire seven people in my first two months.

The challenges really came around the volume of work in a hypergrowth company. For example, if you have more customers, you have more contracts, and you have a greater volume of contracts you need to negotiate and review. In addition, we need to ensure we have our ducks in a row around privacy, terms of service sales agreements and so on.

For every general counsel or CLO, the first thing you need to do is make sure that legal is supporting the sales engine. So I prioritized commercial deals at first to make sure deals were closing. I also prioritized hiring and revising our existing sales agreements, data processing addendum, terms of service and so on, to make them more readable so they can be easily adopted by the customer.

Exponential user growth is also a privacy challenge. How do you make sure your privacy framework will scale with the business?

It’s about building foundational privacy principles with the business. Once you build the principles, you can scale quickly since everyone can align with them. It’s also important to keep in mind that privacy laws evolve, so our principles cannot be static. For example, even though there was a privacy policy in place when I joined Hopin, we’ve already made modifications to it and plan to iterate on it as needed to reflect the changing laws and our new products. The legal team of any company, (whether it’s COVID, pre-COVID, or no-COVID!) needs to iterate, move quickly, and be flexible to deal with the rapidly changing legal environment - especially around privacy.

How do you balance the long-term planning with current responsibilities around scaling, acquisitions, daily legal requests, and so on?

You just have to prioritize. I have a spreadsheet with multiple ongoing projects led by team members with different responsibilities within legal to set the foundations of our legal team - we have a commercial team member, a corporate team member, a privacy person and a product compliance person.

Every legal team member needs to prioritize as well and, within my spreadsheet, I’m prioritizing tasks by numbers - what are the burning fires I need to extinguish? It takes an experienced leader to know how to prioritize and know which project will be the most important for the business.

Deals are the number one thing you want to keep moving, whether there’s a global pandemic or not. And you also want to make sure the product is compliant from a privacy and compliance perspective. These are two examples of large, ongoing projects that legal leaders need to tackle, over both the long and short term.

"This is certainly a unique and challenging period, but at the same time, my job is to fight fires. COVID is just one type of fire that legal has to fight"

Did you have to make changes in terms of how you worked as a legal team, both with each other and with the business?

The work became more intense, if anything, and often we were working longer hours. People aren’t commuting anymore, they get up and get straight on the computer, and work till later. The change was really the intensity, and you don’t have those natural breaks where you walk with someone to the coffee shop.

How do you see legal’s role in being ready for the bounceback?

This is certainly a unique period, and a challenging one at that, but at the same time my job is to fight fires, and so COVID is just one type of fire that legal has to fight.

And given that the exit from the pandemic is not overnight, we can thoughtfully plan and prepare, unlike the challenge we might face if the world was to flick a switch and suddenly return to a new way of working. We have time to iterate and make sure we find the best legal solutions for the business, as well as our customers who use the platform.

I also think creating communication channels will really bring back the same type of connection - it will never be exactly the same as in-person, of course, but it will at least it will at least lessen that barrier and will help bridge some of the gaps we now face without in-person interactions. The world’s going to be hybrid again, and legal as well as the wider business has a responsibility to keep in touch with each other - so I think virtual communications will be here to stay post-pandemic.

Irene Liu is the Chief Legal Officer at Hopin. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'. Download it today to hear from legal leaders at Hopin, Stripe, Deliveroo, and more.

Topics: Legal operations

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