In this series of interviews with legal's key internal clients, we learn all about what effective collaboration looks like, what 'excellent' looks like, and what ultimately they want from their legal colleagues. Read the whole collection here: Enabling The Business
Donna Murray Vilhelmsen is the Chief People Officer at Trustpilot. Trustpilot is a leading online reviews platform. Before scaling the people function at Trustpilot, Donna was VP Human Resources at Cowi.
Before you worked with lawyers, what was your perception of them?
My group of friends were all law students back when I was at university - I thought them a smart group of people who work super hard and had a strong work ethic.
They were also rather black and white in their thinking - smart people with strong opinions, often giving binary answers, like “here’s what you can and can’t do.”
That meant they offered a high degree of certainty and integrity. At times, perhaps too much over-engineering - lawyers seemed like they wanted to de-risk issues as much as possible.
How has your perception changed?
The swim lanes are clearer in a big organization; in a large enterprise, your focus is narrow, whereas in a scaleup your focus broadens, as you’re required to wear multiple hats.
You’re expected to be flexible, and your proximity to the business and the customer feels closer. As scaleup employees, we get more balance and perspective and breadth in our roles, due to the growth of the company.
In a startup, everything is scrappy and stuck together with gaffer tape. Then you go through a phase of growth, and you need to professionalize
How often do you work directly with legal, and on what kind of tasks?
I’ll work with legal on:
- Board-related tasks
- Executive hiring
- Anything around our stock plan
- Compliance issues
- Employee relations issues
We would also partner closely with legal on large, one-off projects like an M&A, or major organizational changes like a workforce reduction.
The most important partnership for me has been having their help when it comes to professionalizing the organization. In a startup, everything is scrappy and stuck together with gaffer tape. Then you go through a phase of growth, and you need to professionalize.
That’s a cultural and operational transformation, and the partnership and influence legal has had has been really important.
Our VP Legal is even-keeled, pragmatic and balanced ... I feel like I’m getting his point of view transparently and authentically
What soft skills do you think are important in a legal team?
Transparency, the ability to collaborate, and balance - by which I mean listening as well as talking, and finding the landing zone for a decision.
For example our VP Legal is really even-keeled, pragmatic and balanced in how he handles issues. In any given discussion, I feel like I’m getting his balanced point of view transparently and authentically - it doesn’t come with hysteria or drama. That’s super valuable.
What can legal do to enable you to enable your team or your business to grow?
Last year we hired almost 500 people into the company. In the early stages you rely on humans intervening with knowledge stored in their heads - changing from that to a scalable, repeatable, non-human-dependent model was key.
Legal helped us set that up operationally through:
- Strong contract templates
- Clear processes
- A firm establishment of roles and responsibilities
That enables us to deliver a high-integrity, high-quality employee experience.
And what would poor collaboration look like?
It would mean an absence of a healthy dose of pragmatism, and an environment where the answer is always no. Everything would be over-engineered to reduce risk, which would be really restrictive.
Legal and the people function couldn’t do our jobs without each other so avoiding situations like these can make all the difference to both teams.
Want to hear from other C-suite leaders on how they interact with legal? Read the collection in full: 'What the business wants from legal in 2023'.