What happens when the property market stops overnight? And how did Zoopla’s legal team support the wider business and its customers through these challenging restrictions?
Amelia Guilfoyle is the General Counsel at Zoopla. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'.
Do you remember when you first heard the word ‘coronavirus’?
In February we were hearing more and more about coronavirus, and then I remember, in March, wondering whether it was safe to hug or shake hands. We were discussing it at a team lunch one week, and the next week the lockdown was in force.
When things started to escalate, what were your initial concerns and priorities as a GC?
My initial focus and the focus of the team was on what we could do to help ensure business stability and careful risk management through what felt like a fairly unpredictable time.
This included basic things like checking supply contracts and insurance policies, and making sure we were close to the executive team on their key decision points. But we were also conscious of helping the business - so business continuity in practice for us meant ensuring the commercial teams had our input for big projects and access to key customer contracts that were under negotiation as the first lockdown hit.
The next big task for us, once the dust had settled slightly, was to help our commercial team roll out fee-free period offers to our agents to help them through lockdown on a fairly massive scale. This represented the equivalent of a £30 million investment in our agent partners so was definitely a cross-team effort.
“It’s not unusual for legal to be pulled into these issues. What was unprecedented was the volume of tasks, timescales and context of an uncertain world”
Was there any specific information coming about what would happen with the property market?
Initially, I don’t think there was really any separate approach for the property market - with the first lockdown, everything was closed. We worked to make sure we had as much information as we could, particularly about when house viewings could start again.
The housing industry as a whole made the case to policymakers that property sales contribute greatly to the local and national economy - not just for those buying and selling, but for solicitors, removal firms, surveyors and everyone else involved in the process. As time progressed we also supported our commercial teams on innovative partnerships, to help alleviate some of the issues faced by our agent customers - including a partnership with FocalAgent, a virtual viewing platform.
As the crisis unfolded, how did 2020 differ from the work you’d usually be doing?
Honestly, the whole of 2020 involved so many new types of work that I’d never had to tackle before. In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown announcement, our executives went into crisis management mode, firing out questions and bringing us in to advise; and then after a few days we were able to move from that reactive mode to planning and proactivity.
In the beginning, it was crisis management and business continuity but from a completely different angle than you are used to considering. For example, what happens to our insurance policies for offices when those offices are empty? We also had a whole host of supplier arrangements to reconsider and in some cases rebalance.
I don’t think there’s ever been a situation, including the financial crisis, where absolutely everybody was scrutinising their force majeure clauses. We were asked to give opinions on that issue early on, and to advise our lender banks on contract stability.
Having said all that, it’s not unusual for a legal department to be pulled into these issues at an early stage. Contracts and the law touch everything in a business; from leases and insurance through employment, commercial issues, suppliers, security, lending - everything has a legal element. What was unprecedented was the volume of tasks, the timescales involved and the context of a pretty uncertain world.
“Contract terms that you’ve considered to be boilerplate suddenly become not boilerplate at all, and in fact important”
Did the focus change as 2020 went on?
We found that when the pandemic started, the world stopped for a short time - but then it carried on, and we still had lots of the general inbound matters that a legal department has to deal with every day. But it felt like a much higher volume, with even quicker turnaround times required - which I hadn’t thought possible.
The pandemic was an overarching theme that meant you’d be looking at things from a different point of view. We’re quite generalist as a team, and we’re used to turning our heads to things that aren’t related to our respective backgrounds as lawyers, but during the past year it seems like everything’s been coming from crazy angles and in crazy volumes and with so much complexity.
Issues that might previously have been low-risk suddenly became heightened. When you live through events like this, as a lawyer, contract terms that you’ve always considered to be boilerplate suddenly become not boilerplate at all, and in fact important.
What kind of changes did you make to manage the increase in volume and complexity?
We had ongoing initiatives to change how we worked and move towards self-serve in various areas, but projects like that often take time, and all of that came shuddering to a halt. Going forward I’d like us to be more proactive and use resource more intelligently.
One consequence of the last year has been legal’s involvement with many more teams, and many new people - due to increased volumes and the variety of issues. The visibility of the legal department, and our relationships with people around the business have definitely improved.
What was your role in helping the business react to the changes in demand in the housing market?
We worked hard to support Zoopla’s customers, working closely with our commercial and customer operations teams. We undertook various efforts to alleviate pressure on customers while recognising, that we’d build longer-term partnerships with them.
We supported our commercial teams on the fee-free periods for our agent customers, which took a lot of effort to draft and then to help implement. It was a tremendous team effort between legal and commercial teams to get everyone contracted on the new terms.
Getting the wording and those packages right meant reacting to constantly changing market sentiment, which meant long hours and analysis. But as part of that thinking, we had the expectation that the market would recover, and quite quickly - which it did. We had already predicted a release of pent up demand in the property market when the Brexit issues were settled, and the lockdown, followed by the Stamp Duty holiday, added to that.
"This year we’re looking at making sure we more than ever enable the business rather than delaying it, giving them tools to self-serve, so they don’t need to come to us every time"
What do you think are your key takeaways and learnings from the past year?
I think the past year has shown that you can never really assume that something won’t happen, just because it never has. But you can’t lawyer like that - you’d end up never finishing the contract.
I also feel like I know the businesses in our group from bottom to top now, having seen it laid out and exposed by such a unique crisis, and having been able to get to know so many more of my colleagues.
What about remote working?
That’s been a game-changer. We’ve always been quite flexible about where and when people work. But the past year has opened that up on a much bigger basis, with the business embracing an Everyday Flex programme from top to bottom, forever, regardless of lockdowns.
Having that recognition from our executives that people work in different ways, and by embracing that you can get the best out of them, is great for talent retention and acquisition.
How do you see legal’s role in being ready for the bounceback?
This year we’re looking at making sure we more than ever enable the business rather than delaying it, giving them tools to self-serve, so they don’t need to come to us every time - freeing us up to manage risk in a more strategic way. I’m so proud of our team in terms of the firepower we delivered but where I want us to be by next year is a proactive team looking at overall strategy, never blocking, and always enabling the business.
Amelia Guilfoyle is the General Counsel at Zoopla. This interview is an excerpt from our eBook, 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'. Download for free now.