Moving into new jurisdictions is often a task that could benefit from months of consideration. You’re unlikely to have that at a scaleup - so how do you survive and thrive as your company goes global?
Alexis Alexander is general counsel at Liberis. This is a chapter from our 'Legal for scaleups' eBook, featuring legal leaders from some of the world's fastest growing companies.
I joined Liberis as their Head of Legal in 2018. On my first day, we talked about launching in the US - all 50 states - in 12 weeks’ time. The scale of the project was incredibly daunting, but I didn’t have time to dwell on the what-ifs. I rolled up my sleeves, dived into the work, and within two months, Liberis was available across all the states in the US.
Within another three months we launched in Sweden and Finland… and now we are actively applying for licenses in Germany, the UAE, Croatia and the Netherlands. When you’re working across so many jurisdictions, at such a rapid-growth business like Liberis, you need to see the big picture. Here are five lessons I learned along the way.
“There’s no time for perfectionism - to prevent getting snowed under legal work entirely, it’s essential to establish your areas of focus”
1. Pick your battles 💪
A lawyer’s work requires deep analysis and deep thought - we have to take the time to consider the advice we’re getting, and there’s a danger of getting caught up in that approach when you’re working at a scaleup. When you scale internationally, you need to establish your core risks, and make the business aware of them. Make sure you distinguish the high-risk tasks from the low-risk tasks - the latter should be options you can tolerate ignoring and amend in the future if necessary.
You have to constantly pick and choose your battles - for example, how much do you want to look into data protection within a specific jurisdiction? How does this task play out against the rest of your workload? Is it as important as regulatory advice you might need? There’s no time for perfectionism, so to prevent getting snowed under legal work entirely, it’s essential to establish your areas of focus.
Working in-house at a scaleup requires a different mentality to private practice; at a law firm, it’s essential to get everything right, whereas in-house, you need to be content with getting as much as possible right, honing in on those points that are priorities for the business.
2. Create an international checklist ✔️
Risk varies depending on the product - if you have a SaaS product, regulation might not be your first priority, like it is for us at Liberis. If you’re in recruitment, HR will be your focus. I received some amazing advice from a fellow general counsel, who told me to create an international checklist. This is a two-page document consisting of high and low-level risks in the expansion project.
It also allocates responsibilities across the business - in a new location, what does each team need to do? Does the business need an office? Do you need a subsidiary there? And who is involved in ensuring these tasks get accomplished? It’s a great way to align the business on the risk factors involved, and mitigate as many as possible from the outset.
It’s also important to think about regulatory factors and employment law in the target market; if you’re deploying your product in the region, do you need to hire people there? If you do, what are the relevant laws? Depending on the product, IP could also be a factor, and finance teams need to consider the structure of tax laws in these new jurisdictions. It can get overwhelming, which is why the international checklist can keep all relevant stakeholders in the loop and act as a plan of action.
“When you expand internationally, you need to think about admin tasks as much as the legal tasks, and focus on how you’re going to ensure those tasks are managed efficiently”
3. Outsource the admin 📂
Outsourcing can be challenging in and of itself - especially if you’re expanding across multiple regions at the same time. You need a local law firm to help with regulations, and you end up collaborating with so many different firms that it takes up a massive chunk of your time. At one point I was working with four different law firms, which distracted my focus from the core legal issues.
Scaling into the US was a massive learning experience, and it shaped how I approached future expansions. I embedded a mindset of outsourcing admin work, so I could focus on the core high-risk areas and evaluate those with key business stakeholders. With each subsequent project, I ran a request for proposals (RFP) process to identify a firm that could externally manage all our global expansions and regulatory protection, instead of interacting with a local firm for each region, from California and Texas across to New York.
I had external resource that distributed the proposal, distilled information in an easy-to-understand format, and built a platform where they could upload and manage all this information. When you expand internationally, you need to think about admin tasks as much as the legal tasks, and focus on how you’re going to ensure those tasks are managed efficiently.
4. Balance your workload ⚖️
The bad news: there’s no clear-cut answer on how to balance your workload. The good news: you can establish your priorities based on experience, and fall into a rhythm that suits you. Liberis is a financial services business, so I know that our key issues are always going to be regulatory - are our activities regulated? Do we need a licence? Do we need to set up a branch in the area? You have to ask yourself some key questions, and identify points of urgency in the answers. That’ll help you drill down on the details.
It’s important to remember that what you need, and what you get, are often different! When you’re expanding internationally, you need a big legal team to help you carry the workload, but more often than not it’s the GC and a paralegal bearing the brunt of the heavy lifting. You have to work with what you’ve got and be smart about the way you approach the task - the RFP process is a good example of this.
You can - and should - engage the business to help you achieve your tasks. If you’re applying for a regulatory licence, you could align with the project manager to retrieve all the company information. You have to work as a team with the wider business and dive into the project together to ensure you’re leveraging the resources you have - your colleagues. Most in-house lawyers would say they’re under-resourced, so the key objective here is to be creative with your ways of working.
“Not everyone can handle the expectations that come with being a scaleup GC. It takes a particular kind of person to enjoy it - but if you do, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else”
5. Overcommunicate 💬
Never underestimate the amount of explanation you need to provide to the wider business. Sending a note about legal advice through the business isn’t helpful - you need to educate in an action-driven way to get other teams on board with your priorities. This is also relevant within your own legal team - asking the right questions and being crystal clear about the scope of the project is essential. Make sure you emphasize your timeframes as well as the project objectives. This is an iterative process; I learned from my first experience, scaling into the US and have since refined my skills over time. You learn what the important questions are, as well as how to operate with different teams.
Going global is a daunting task for any lawyer single-handedly managing legal at a scaleup. It’s important to think, but I would advise against thinking too much! Sometimes you just need to focus on getting it done. Draw up a checklist, identify your priorities, establish a strategy, and set up a timeframe. Think carefully about what would harm your reputation, as that’s your most valuable asset. Engage the business; as sole counsel, you’re going to need help. Once the business is aligned, you’re halfway there.
Not everyone can handle the expectations and reality that come with being a scaleup GC. It takes a particular kind of person to handle it, and even to enjoy it - but if you do, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.
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