Neil Murrin is the General Counsel at Trainline. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'.
Do you remember when you first heard the word ‘coronavirus’?
I first realised the seriousness of what was happening when we travelled to Sri Lanka in February 2020. Areas were going into lockdown all around us, the situation was getting worse, and people were wearing facemasks in the airport and even on the plane. I then sat down and read the Imperial College Report in full and began to realise the threat to the EU and the UK, and possibly to our business.
When things started to escalate before the first lockdown, what were your initial concerns and priorities as a GC?
My first thought was for the team and the wider staff. Then I moved into operational mode, checking all contracts, exploring impacts on supply chains and considering the impact on our customers and how we could help them. The legal team was amazing in handling the volume.
We’re a lean, agile team because we’re part of a lean, agile organization. Our working structure really came into its own in lockdown
How did that contract work feel different during the pandemic?
It felt more like a big due diligence in a transaction. This time, we were trying to understand the impact of customer volumes suddenly dropping - are there volume commitments in contracts, for example? If we didn’t have. trains to sell tickets for, what impacts would that have on the contracts we had agreed?
We also had a reverse situation when it came to contract boilerplates - rather than looking at our contracts and thinking, ‘I wish we’d spent more time on a boilerplate’, we had undergone a retemplating exercise a few years earlier to make sure that they were all up-to-date and really well thought through. We benefited from having a good contract management system that meant our contracts were searchable and in good shape.
What I found reassuring was that our supplier community was really understanding and easy to work with, and didn’t automatically turn to scrutinize our contracts. It really felt like a community pulling together rather than people trying to win points or gain an advantage. That was really heartwarming.
How were your team able to support customer comms and risk management?
Those were the two biggest immediate concerns as the crisis took hold - how to manage customer communications and risk management. Particularly when travel restrictions kicked in, one of the points of focus was clearly around the number of customers who had booked tickets.
We had to try and communicate what we knew about the restrictions, and then help guide those customers through the process of getting a refund or changing their dates. We have a contact center in Edinburgh where we had to then provide support for them to deliver the right messaging to the many customers who were phoning up. And the call center was inundated with questions and emails.
At the same time we had to liaise with the industry - we sell tickets on behalf of operators, so making sure we were aligned with the operators and acting together to give the best information we could was paramount. And of course this was changing every day, both in terms of the restrictions and what we were able to do with our customers.
How did you find the adjustment to remote working?
I think it did take a bit of adjustment. The meetings all moved online and you get used to that transition quite quickly, but the single biggest thing that we heard internally was that losing those water cooler moments were the hardest parts of remote working.
Communication just took a lot longer without those ad hoc moments. I think it certainly demonstrates how adaptable lawyers can be and how they can learn things really quickly. I certainly made changes for the better in how I dealt with the team – speaking to people in their bedrooms and kitchens with animals and kids all over really gave me an insight into the human side of management and I feel I’ve grown as a manager as a result.
And what about the huge volumes of tasks? Was that an initial challenge to manage?
We’re a lean, agile team because we’re part of a lean, agile organization. We’ve always worked at full tilt. Our working structure really came into its own in lockdown. Now we were all remote, it was difficult to know as a team where we spent too much or too little of our time, and where the spikes were coming from.
My remote management tool helped me understand workflow and capacity of the legal team. I could share that with other people in the business as a real visual representation of the work we were accomplishing with our 13-strong team.
It was like playing ‘whack a mole’. The minute you thought you understood the restrictions, they changed again
What were your main priorities in supporting the business? How did they differ from what you’d planned to be doing in 2020?
Our main priorities were supporting a lot of frontline staff in our contact centers and our communications team who were dealing with huge travel refund requests and ever changing travel restrictions and travel issues. Ticket sales were severely reduced so there was more focus on using the time to continue developing great products to help with the return of rail when it happened.
For example, looking at flexible season tickets and passing on government communications became important workstreams. We’re expanding rapidly in EU countries and there should have been more activity in that expansion. We can see that rail travel should bounce back and digital is becoming a really popular channel now for buying rail tickets - it was even evident from the easing of the first lockdown.
How did you keep up with the constant changes to which countries were admitting which travellers?
It was like playing ‘whack a mole’. The minute you thought you understood the restrictions, they changed again – so we developed a really good virtual, cross-functional team who were agile in responding quickly to the changes and communicating them to our customers.
Did you find yourself relying more on outside counsel? Or was it more about internal focus and prioritization?
I’d say 80 per cent of it was the internal team bringing together lots of disparate information into one place and having this virtual project team, who focused solely on two questions: what have we heard? And what do we need to do next?
It was a similar way of working to our IPO: working through a ton of information and firing through requests quickly. You just have to keep on meeting and communicating as often as you can, as if you’re in the middle of a deal. That was the approach we took and it required a dedicated team and lots of focus.
We were able to use that muscle to address the pandemic - which is a far more unpleasant condition, of course, but effective in terms of our response. I was so proud of the reaction of the team and the efforts they made to really look after our customers.
You need to break out of just being a GC and really lean into any area that needs support, whether that involves legal expertise or not
How did you support the leadership team with its priorities?
I was really impressed with how the executive team pulled together to manage all aspects of the lockdown - in particular, the regular communications with staff and the focus on wellbeing. As part of the team, you have to remain really optimistic but also support each personally. You need to break out of just being a GC and really lean into any area that needs support, whether that involves legal expertise or not.
What do you think are your key learnings from the past year?
As a manager you really have to understand the full person that you manage, not just the professional person you see at work but also the ups and downs of their personal lives.
The lines between work life and home life have blurred. We all want people to feel that they’re productive but there are things in our personal lives that can impact that - whether that’s having kids climbing over you or deliveries arriving and disrupting your meetings, or all of the challenges that we’ve had of being at home. And it’s important for managers to address this and remain open and understanding to it.
It seems that the exit from this pandemic isn’t going to be overnight, but rather with small steps - how do you see legal’s role in being ready for the bounceback?
Not that I would wish us to go back through this but as a legal team we are coming out of this even stronger than we went in. We’ve spent so much time communicating and sharing that we feel closer as a team and have had more time discussing how we work together and individually most effectively. If we can get through COVID as a team, we can get through anything.
Neil Murrin is General Counsel at Trainline. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'. Download to hear more stories from GCs at high-growth companies, navigating a year like no other.