How to create a successful in-house legal function in high-growth companies

Feb 3, 2022

Reading Time: 11 minutes

In this post, we discuss the role of in-house legal teams in the complex environment of high-growth companies. We cover common challenges, where to start as the first in-house lawyer, balancing enablement vs risk management, building and maintaining relationships during rapid scale, who to hire and when, and finding work/life balance.

We include the advice of three experienced in-house lawyers who have thrived in this high paced environment:

  • Matt Vaughan, former General Counsel at Xero and current Executive Adviser at LawVu;
  • Rosanna Biggs, former in-house lawyer at eBay and current General Counsel at Linktree; and
  • Kate Sherburn, Head of Legal at Who Gives A Crap.

Much of the following is relevant for all in-house lawyers and their teams. Whether you’re working for a high-growth company yourself or simply wish to connect more with your business, we hope you find some tangible takeaways.

Challenges associated with high-growth companies

Being the in-house counsel for a high-growth company certainly has some exciting opportunities and challenges. 

Linktree is a content-sharing platform — if you’re an Instagram user, you’ve probably seen a Linktree link on a profile. Linktree has over 20 million users ranging from your average Joe to big corporates like Red Bull and high-profile users, such as Elton John, the Royal family and Playboy, which gives you an idea of the variety and types of situations it deals with.

Linktree completed a funding round in 2021 for $45 million; it also recently hit a milestone of over a billion visits in a month. And from a team perspective, when Rosanna Biggs joined around March/April 2021, there were about 60 people. By the close of 2021 it was closing in on 200, with the plans for 2022 to more than double.

During Matt Vaughan’s time at Xero, it scaled from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand people and opened up offices worldwide. Over the years, Matt has seen how the world operates with other startups in growth phases similar to Xero’s and has worked with many Australian and New Zealand companies pushing into the US, most recently with LawVu. 

Kate Sherburn has now set up the in-house function in two companies. Her current company, Who Gives a Crap (WGAC), is a profit-for-purpose business, making products everyone buys, like toilet paper and tissues, and donating 50 percent of profit to charities. The ultimate goal is that everyone on earth will have access to a toilet and safe water by 2050, and so far, WGAC has donated over AU$10 million to that cause.

Growth is so essential to WGAC because to solve a massive problem like global sanitation; you need more than just a few million dollars of donations.

Scale exists in many environments and not just in that crazy kind of West Coast, Silicon Valley world. 

The benefits of working in high-growth companies

Regardless of your job title, working in a high-growth company simply isn’t for everyone. 

For lawyers working within high-growth companies, the perks come when you get to experience the agility and speed to market that these often small or scaling businesses can achieve, providing a sense of feeling connected with the work you do as a leader.

In addition to that, the work you do assists in bringing products or services to market. Rosanna provided one example when Linktree experienced its first user generating a living wage from their income on Linktree. Moments like these are more frequent in high-growth companies and can bring home the impact of the work in-house legal does and how you can really build something meaningful.

Day one of being an in-house lawyer

When you join a high-growth environment, typically, you’re the first lawyer that the company has had in-house. 

It’s tempting to start with many grand aspirations — to set up the team how you want and implement all of the core processes and systems you like. That may be okay for the first week or so because nobody really knows what legal does in a business that’s never had a legal department before. They don’t know what a General Counsel does. They might think of Suits or other programs on TV, or think that a lawyer handles contracts and maybe some litigation, but they don’t actually know the touchpoints you might have. 

Once team members in the wider organization have taken stock of the situation, they might realize there are a million things they’ve done previously that they probably should have checked with legal on.

So you begin trying to balance all of that reactive work. Your Slack or email lights up like a Christmas tree. You’re trying to make sure that the company’s in a better place and that you’re adding value, but you’re also setting up a legal foundation.

You’re essentially creating a department from scratch, which can be one of the hardest challenges. It requires you to manage your time and ensure you’re able to actually carve out time to do some of that strategic thinking in laying the foundations, rather than always chasing your tail and dealing with fires and putting them out as you go.

You also have to define the role and process for how people should work with legal — how to engage and when to engage, what the parameters are, etc.

Kate entered a startup environment when she arrived at WGAC, where most people hadn’t worked with lawyers before and the few people that had often hadn’t had great experiences. To just come in and take over was never going to work. So instead, Kate initially spent her time getting to know the business — how it worked and where legal would fit in.

“You almost need to come in with an attitude that these problems were there before; you’re not going to solve them all in the first week.”

You can’t provide legal advice in a vacuum.

If the businesses’ first in-house lawyer comes in and starts trying to tear up what everyone is doing and rewrite it all, you would be very, very quickly pushed to one side.

Building relationships becomes incredibly important to understand the business. Kate created a Legal 101, where she explained what in-house legal teams do and what they could come to her for, and that it didn’t need to be a legal question necessarily — legal can help out with broader things as well.

How to strike the right balance between enabling the business and managing risk

As in-house lawyers, we want to ensure the business achieves its goals, and we want to enable those outcomes. We don’t want to be roadblocks. But there are inevitably times when you also need to slow things down. 

Building trust with the business can help strike a balance — through great relationships and relentless execution, by finding ways to navigate the tricky problems. But occasionally you’ll run into a brick wall. If you’ve built those relationships, those conversations can become easier.

Some ways to build trust include just being visible within the organization, including something as simple as being visible in Slack channels that aren’t necessarily related to legal at all. The business can then see you as one of them, rather than as somebody in a legal ivory tower that they go to get their final sign-off. For Rosanna, she focused on getting upstream in the process to build trust, joining planning meetings, and operating more like a legal business.

By working in this way, you can start to embed legal by design rather than an after-the-fact check. There may always be a bit of healthy friction between the business and legal though — ‘healthy’ being the keyword here.

You achieve this by adding value and facilitating what they want to do, and by having those trusted relationships, you can have those difficult conversations when they inevitably come up.

 

How to balance short-term and long-term goals

You certainly have to think about the landscape today, but the landscape tomorrow matters too. There’s a fine art to getting the business to buy into the long-term strategic goals traditionally seen as legally focused.

Take GDPR compliance as an example. Rosanna and her team recently did a big push to try to socialize the concept amongst the business and get buy-in to make it a company OKR and not just something that legal works on.

“Actually really doing that educational piece on why we’re doing it and what the solution will be and how much better things will be once it’s done; rather than ‘here’s the work that we need to do’.”. – Rosanna

By getting that company-wide OKR buy-in, Rosanna and her team got the concept of GDPR and the terminology around it regularly discussed in an all-hands forum, with different teams having to contribute to that work.

“Bring them on the journey… talk about the solution rather than the initiative.” 

How to get buy-in while scaling?

When new employees are starting every day, it can become hard to continue to build strong relationships, particularly with those who are working remotely.  

Being available and having an open-door policy is crucial, but so is the need to ensure you’re being efficient in the way you communicate and connect with people. 

Slack, as mentioned earlier, makes life easier because you can be prominent without having that one-to-one connection with every single person in the business. Loom videos are another example of presenting legal advice where it’s maybe too complex to summarize in a Slack message.

WGAC even uses a tool called Donut, where every couple of weeks it randomly allocates a couple of people in the business and you have a chat.

“You have to over-communicate and almost over-exert yourself and your presence because there is no in-person, there’s no water cooler chat, or there’s less of it.” – Matt

By constantly communicating to the business and explaining the context, people will also start to pick up on legal concepts and share them with their own teams. 

Kate gives an example of advertising: “Now I’ve worked so much with our creative team in relation to reviewing marketing materials, they often start picking up the issues before it even comes to me. And then, as new people start in their team, they pass that on to their new team members. So it’s not always on me to have to provide that education piece.”

Legal technology can play a huge part in educating the business. If you have some frequent flyers asking the same question over and over, you can preempt this with a knowledge base. 

Alternatively, you might experience frequent requests that aren’t fully baked. An intake process that is configured to your business can ensure that all requests are submitted in a predetermined format and passed through to your legal workflow software into a unified format.

Connecting with key stakeholders

In terms of connecting with internal stakeholders, the leadership team is an obvious one for determining strategy and getting buy-in on some of the legal initiatives. Other internal functions may include the partnerships team, brand and growth teams, or product and engineering teams. 

And that’s one of the privileges of the in-house lawyer’s role, says Rosanna  — with such a holistic view of the business, we bring a really unique perspective, enabling us to step outside of the legal box and offer commercial and critical thinking.

Having a holistic view across the business and building relationships with all the different teams enables those tricky conversations to be had and ensures we’re pushing the business in the right direction by being the voice of reason. The in-house lawyer is sometimes the only person who knows what the other hand is doing and can really pressure-test the initiatives the business comes up with.

So you’re the first in-house lawyer in your high-growth business. Who do you hire next?

With so many high-growth businesses operating across borders, it can be really tempting to hire an employment specialist as a second cab off the rank. And that might be suitable, but it might also be too early to have a specialist. 

For Kate, they rescoped the role to look at a more generalist lawyer, which ended up being the right move for WGAC, “The way we approached it was more about attitude than specifically the skills they already had because legal skills can be picked up. I mean, you have to have basics obviously, but you can build on those. Whereas an attitude is something that can’t really be taught.”

When you’re the first lawyer in a startup, you deal with everything, says Kate, and so you need to be able to dig into things that you haven’t done before and have the confidence to start that process and to know when you need help.

A second legal hire in a startup could be someone who is willing to pitch in, give things a go, who has the curiosity to find out more information, has an appropriate tolerance to risk but is also someone who can also acknowledge their limitations. 

Rosanna’s founder and CEO gave her this advice.“Your first few hires — you have to absolutely love them because they are going to be your trusted 2IC. They are the people that you will grow the team with.”

Rosanna now has two legal counsel and a team that can pick up a ton of different things.

There may come a time when you may need a lawyer with a specialization on your team, for example, if your business is going deep into payments or if privacy is particularly relevant, but that will depend on the company you are working for. 

Suppose you can manage to bring in generalists for your first couple of hires. In that case, you can give them the opportunity to upscale and own certain areas, complete extra qualifications and really develop themselves. 

Even if you end up hiring specialists, curiosity and an eagerness to learn will always be critical for in-house lawyers.

The ideal external counsel

In these high-growth companies, it is often a truly global exercise when building relationships with outside counsel.

The spectrum of issues is so broad, and it’s so expensive if you just go to a large multinational, multi-state firm. So what is an ideal external counsel in a high-growth environment? 

One example of a challenging cross-jurisdictional issue is tax accounting. When you don’t have specialists within the business who are tax-focused or accounting focused you can end up wearing all of those different hats and pulling together complex guidance. 

Finding an external firm that truly understands the business will help immensely. Rosanna has sent a firm a promo code to create Linktree accounts to make sure they’re correctly using the product, understanding the complexities and the different elements they might need to give truly specialized advice.

If you don’t have other people within your team to bounce ideas off, having a good network of in-house lawyers can be vital. When you’re looking for external counsel, particularly if it’s an area you haven’t worked in before or it’s in a country you haven’t worked in before, reaching out to your network can be incredibly beneficial and save a lot of time as well — not just for firm recommendations, but for common issues experienced by other high-growth companies. We don’t all need to spend money on external counsels trying to figure out the answer to similar issues, such as equity schemes.

Having a central pool of resources as well will help you scale. The business will inevitably have similar issues again and again, so saving advice to a knowledge base will inevitably come in handy — you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Finding work/life balance in such a fast-paced environment

In fast-growing businesses, there’s always something that’s urgent and a business priority. 

But recognizing the signs of when to switch off and rest will ensure you make better decisions and perform more effectively in your role.

Rosanna, Kate and Matt advise that sometimes you just have to make that hard cut-off point in the evening and say, “you know what, I will look at this again tomorrow”.

Sometimes, going back to somebody and communicating a new deadline is better for the business and your own health.

It can also be tricky when you really love your job and the business you work for. But even then, it can take over if you let it. 

If you neglect to prioritize yourself, and don’t take time for yourself, then you aren’t going to be good for anyone.

Conclusion

The challenges for in-house lawyers in high-growth companies are many and varied. However,  the role can be incredibly rewarding, with the ability to significantly impact the business and connect with different functions and people within an organization. 

If you find yourself in this environment, we hope the above has been interesting and valuable for your own high-growth journey. 

LawVu is the first truly connected legal workspace for in-house legal teams. It provides a unified suite of productivity and collaboration tools that empower legal teams to connect with their work, team, and the wider business so that they can focus on enabling better business outcomes.

Recent News & Articles

In-House legal Department Whitepaper - LawVu

A platform approach to legal operations & digital transformation

Legal operations has been in a state of transformation for some time now. It has become an area of strategic imperative with 61% of legal departments now employing at least one legal operations professional. Download the whitepaper to learn how taking a platform approach will transform your legal operations strategy.