Once you’ve survived your first few months at a scaleup, you’re likely to realize that reinforcements would be useful. But how do you put together a world-class team?
Ahmed Badr is the Chief Legal and Risk Officer at GoCardless. This is a chapter from our 'Legal for scaleups' eBook, featuring legal leaders from some of the world's fastest growing companies.
Legal is not rocket science. If you spend enough time reading about your legal responsibilities, you will be able to identify the tasks, challenges and priorities to get the job done. And that’s how early-stage startups usually operate, with execs acting as the lawyer as they build out the business. This becomes a matter of capacity - what is the company’s risk tolerance? How long can they ‘get by’ before it becomes necessary to hire a lawyer?
Most businesses manage without legal counsel in their early stages, but the longer they do, the more skeletons they leave in the closet. The role of the first lawyer usually involves balancing incoming work with the destruction of these skeletons. It’s only after a few months that the lawyer can resume their daily legal work and have the space to start looking further ahead.
When I joined GoCardless as the first lawyer in 2015, it was tempting to jump straight into legal firefighting, but I was keen to not get sucked into a neverending spiral of work. Instead, I focused my time on the growing commercial team.
“I wanted to ensure that legal was the grease for the machine, rather than the grit, and that was my biggest priority as the first legal hire in a scaleup”
Prioritize commercial 💸
GoCardless was a huge change for me. Coming from a sales machine like Microsoft, I had seen how an enterprise sales function worked, and wanted to set up the sales team at GoCardless for similar success. I wanted to ensure that legal was the grease for the machine, rather than the grit, and that was my biggest priority as the first legal hire in a scaleup.
I made sure the fundamentals in the contract process were sound, integrating Salesforce with an eSignature solution, complete with integrated fallbacks and editing restrictions. This enabled the sales team to move faster in a controlled and manageable way. Only after dedicating time to the sales function could I focus on other legal tasks.
Talk about hiring 💬
Working at a fintech scaleup involves taking on a lot of roles along your journey. Doing so gives you valuable experience and allows the business to understand your ability to contribute to a wide range of areas. You become an adaptable ‘can do’ lawyer who’s willing to work towards the wider business’ needs and objectives, but this makes growing the team a little more challenging.
My approach to conversations around hiring has definitely developed over time, but when I was the first lawyer, I took an approach that’s probably common and definitely misguided: I worked myself to capacity until I was told I needed additional resource. My strategy centered around showcasing my hard work in order to be ‘rewarded’ a second hire. This worked, but there are less stressful ways to get the resource you need. So how should you navigate the tricky subject of hiring?
1. Look at what you really need.
Usually, transactional and company secretarial tasks are a massive time drain, so hiring someone to address those admin tasks can be easier than hiring another full-time lawyer.
2. Make your first hire count.
The first hire is really important, so you should know what characteristics and qualities you’re looking for in your candidates. For my first hire I prioritized drive, engagement, and smarts over someone with a wealth of experience. The scaleup environment is constantly changing, so I wanted to hire someone who had a positive attitude and could get involved with many areas of the business.
3. Maintain an open, honest discussion with the business.
It’s essential to communicate the legal function’s requirements when additional resource is necessary. The efficiency of the legal team has an impact on the efficiency of the wider business, and it’s important to voice this and demonstrate the benefits of a larger legal function.
The hiring process 💪
The first legal hire matters, so you should be clear on how you’ll hire them before you start. I had two priorities for my first hire: in-house experience and energy.
I focused on candidates that had in-house experience in at least one other role. Moving straight from a private practice law firm to an in-house legal team at a scaleup can be a culture shock - lawyers are going from advising to getting involved; from dealing with one or two clients to handling requests from across the entire business. And especially at such an early stage, my time was so limited that I couldn’t offer opportunities for coaching; I needed to hire someone who could hit the ground running and build on their existing knowledge and experience without too much hand-holding. Now that the legal team is well-established I would definitely consider people from varying backgrounds. We’re more able to influence and nurture a new hire’s way of working.
Energy is also crucial. The candidate must be self-driven and motivated, in order to cope with the onslaught of tasks that come through legal’s door. At a scaleup, no day is the same, so the new hire should care about efficiency, and have a process-focused mindset. If something is repeatable, then it should be automated to save time.
We didn’t use a recruiter for the lawyer hire - GoCardless was lucky to be in a thriving sector that offered great benefits, great culture, and a completely different working environment to private practice. I hired a paralegal six months after I joined GoCardless, and they were happy to dive into admin work, get involved with the wider business, and free my time up for high-value legal tasks. I’m also happy to say that they’re still with us, now a qualified English lawyer and taking on some incredibly challenging work.
“Everyone in the function should feel comfortable working with each other. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best lawyer in the world if it’s too difficult to work with you”
Building out the team 🚀
As the company continues to scale, the legal function also needs to scale in order to match the demands of the business. I started looking at medium and long-term hires when it was clear GoCardless had plans to expand internationally.
I considered drivers for different demands in the team and assessed the workload of the current legal function. How many countries can one lawyer handle? How many contracts? How many product launches? And how can I be proactive about this next hire to ensure legal is ready to manage each project?
With medium and long-term hires, I also considered culture fit - the legal team is a tight-knit group, and with large projects on the horizon it’s important that everyone in the function feels comfortable working with each other. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best lawyer in the world if it’s too difficult to work with you.
There’s a reason some people prefer to work for companies like GoCardless, and it’s usually to do with the culture. Every company has its own feel, and it’s on the business to maintain that environment. In a small team of 40, it’s easy to spot when someone doesn’t reflect the same cultures and values - even at the hiring stage. As you grow, it’s important to retain that focus. Think about culture fit and build consideration of it into your hiring process.
A constantly-changing role 🔮
If you’re a GC looking to build out a legal team at a high-growth company, it’s important to remember that your role will change. My job now looks different to the responsibilities just six months prior; I’ve found that the specifications of the role change with each funding round, and as the business continues its growth trajectory, you feel that change every time it happens.
Your goals and priorities will develop as you hire more lawyers, so your role develops too. I went from being the sole counsel handling everything to being the general counsel that must manage a team and assist the individuals in that team.
It’s also important to establish a network. The more people you can speak to who are experiencing or have been through a similar journey, the better. Everyone has their own stories, and without hearing these experiences you could end up feeling isolated. At Microsoft, I was a lawyer amongst 600 other lawyers, and over 600 other legal professionals. Whenever I had a question, there was always someone I could approach and ask. The same goes for my time in private practice - I had a free-to-access network.
At a scaleup, you’re usually the first and only lawyer for several months - maybe longer. You can’t ask for hardcore legal advice, or tips on how to select your next lawyer from anyone in the team, so it’s essential to broaden your network and ensure you have peers who can support you in your journey.
From being the sole counsel in legal to managing an entire team, building out your function is both daunting and exciting. By planning ahead, growing a network, and maintaining clear communication with the business, you can scale from a one-person team to a legal powerhouse.
Ahmed Badr is the Chief Legal and Risk Officer at GoCardless. This is a chapter from our 'Legal for scaleups' eBook, featuring legal leaders from some of the world's fastest growing companies. Download for free now.