Rohan Paramesh

Lawyer #1: an endless balancing act

Scaling legal
July 9, 2019

How do you find the right mix for a mature legal function? Habito's VP Head of Legal, Rohan Paramesh, has the answers.

Hi Rohan! 👋 Great to have you back.

Thank you, it’s great to be back! 

What’s the latest with Habito?

Things are good - busy as always! It has actually been a particularly exciting time of late as we've just launched a brand new business line - as well as being a digital mortgage broker we now also offer our own innovative mortgage products, having built our own proprietary lending platform in order to do so. I’ve enjoyed contributing towards such an amazing project, and it’s been really rewarding to see it go live!

When it comes to building a team to support this growth, in a tech startup there’s often this tension where you don’t want to miss the opportunity of hiring good talent - is that the same for legal?

To be able to deliver value on time, you need to think ahead. I’ve been thinking more and more about future growth over the last few months - we continue to grow up as a business and as a legal function, but always want to retain the scrappiness and agility that has served us well so far.

If legal is purely a support function then the business need should alone drive the legal function hiring; but if we also see legal as an integral value-driving and business-building asset, then should this be the other way round?

As a general principle, I prefer to lead the recruitment process based on demand, and in the early stages I wasn’t really looking beyond my first paralegal hire. The needs of the business, with regard to legal function support, are ever evolving and I want to ensure that the legal function is always agile enough to support this. In some ways, we’re now reaching a natural inflection point in our evolution, where we’ll need to switch that around and start to think about the composition of a team that has more ‘specialist’ bases covered. That’s really exciting but also requires proper thinking to make sure the function is as valuable to the business as it can possibly be. 

If legal is purely a support function then the business need should alone drive the legal function hiring; but if we also see legal as an integral value-driving and business-building asset, then should this be the other way round? There’s a balance to strike - you can only drive value and be an active voice in the business once you’ve proven yourself to the company and demonstrated that ability in a consistent and lasting way.

Success, to my mind, is largely about how much and how early different teams in the business want to involve you in ideation, early planning phases, out-loud thinking. Yes the legal function consists of lawyers, but lawyers don’t and certainly shouldn’t exist in a separate universe - we can and should be important contributors to generally building a business and mustn’t hide behind any false notion of self-importance or being ‘separate’ - in my view anyway! 

In the early days, adding new team members is all about culture fit. As the company grows, you’ll end up specialising more and more. Do you think your priorities will change?

In my opinion, the fundamental requirement of finding a personality that complements and adds to the dynamic of the workplace is always a must-have. It never changes. You might grow as a function and prioritise differently - specific expertise or experience is much more important later on than it is for your first hire, for example. But however specialist the position is, the personality requirements are non-negotiable for me. You always need to be asking: what will this person add to the business, and how will they contribute within the dynamic of your current team? 

How does it vary with senior roles, as opposed to entry-level positions? 

For more senior hires, like my new team member joining this month, I still want all those culture fit and value add aspects to be in place. The enthusiasm and the personality quirks that make a candidate stand out are all still vitally important, but I'm also now looking for a different kind of specialism and experience in addition to that. 

It’s challenging - do you accept certain sacrifices in pursuit of the right skillset, or hold out for the ideal candidate? Startups typically have fast completion rates in hiring, as they need to get things done in much shorter time-frames. It’s a judgement call, but we were lucky enough that with a lot of hard work and careful process we found the right candidate with the specialisms as well as the fundamentals with respect to personality. 

Startups trend young. Should the legal team be the same? Or do you need some experienced heads, with longer careers in corporate environment? 

No, you don’t need X years of specialist corporate or finance or other particular experience. That’s the short answer, in my view! Sure, your confidence in a candidate grows with their level of and types of experiences - especially if you’re searching for skills like problem-solving, collaboration, communication. You often think those skills come with years of practice, but it’s not necessarily the case. It can also be a natural personality trait - thinking calmly, precisely, and doing so in high-pressure circumstances - as well as a specific mindset and a desire to hone those traits. For me, that’s the most important thing to look for.

How do you approach detailing the risks of joining a startup? Do people realise what they’re letting themselves in for?

You’d definitely be foolish to disguise the risk associated with joining any business that’s only 3-4 years old and hopefully the candidate understands what this entails. You don’t want to try and play down that risk to someone you’re interested in hiring in fear that they might be discouraged - that’s already a sign that they’re possibly not the right person, and won’t be a good fit for the role. Candidates need to understand the jump they’re making and want to embrace it.

Some people genuinely don’t understand the impact of their decision they’re about to make, and you might find yourself sugar-coating the facts to attract them. That’s really dangerous I think - you want everyone to understand the positives of the environment, but you can’t and shouldn’t shield the potential risks.

What kind of life experiences, hobbies, non-work skills etc might be useful for a legal function as it scales?

I wouldn’t say there’s anything in particular I look for as a sign of a perfect professional hire. Some people are completely silent about hobbies and interests outside of work and others are quite detailed. Like international experience for example - people who have and highlight their exposure to different countries, cultures and languages, have often collected some great and really useful experiences along the way, even if the business has no direct requirement for that type of experience at that particular moment in time. And that’s perfect - you’re looking for the person behind the CV, so seeing something that helps accentuate their personality can be really useful.

Thanks, Rohan! Speak to you soon. 

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Rohan Paramesh is the General Counsel at Pixel United

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