Scaling a legal team at a fintech involves finding the right balance between hiring specialist and generalist lawyers. How do you do it? GoCardless' deputy GC, Caroline O'Connor, shares her thoughts.
Legal at GoCardless is a small but well-established team across several countries - we have lawyers in Australia, France, and the UK who cover everything from negotiating sales deals and helping with supplier deals, to marketing requests and contracting across territories.
When you’re working in a business that’s heavily regulated, like GoCardless, you need to be strategic with when and how you hire legal specialists to manage regulatory specific issues.
Being a generalist means you have a broader understanding of legal tasks, which is useful when you’re joining an early stage scaleup; the business needs a lawyer with an agile, ‘can do’ mentality, who can navigate risk and enable growth. But there are many benefits to having a specialist lawyer on your team. A specialist hire with deep knowledge in a particular area can be useful when it comes to scaling beyond your jurisdiction, or keeping up with issues in a heavily-regulated industry like fintech. They can save you time and money on outsourcing that work.
It’s not quite as simple as just pulling the trigger. Hiring a specialist depends on timing and strategy. If you bring a specialist lawyer into a small team, you’re reducing its flexibility - and we all know in-house lawyers are expected to do more with less. So how do you know when and how to hire?
Lawyers need to be proactive about how they add value to the business, so look ahead at what the company-level priorities are, and make sure legal aligns with them
With a small legal team in place, it’s only natural that you outsource specialisms. GoCardless, like most fintechs, is a heavily regulated entity, so we use external counsel with specific regulatory expertise if we need particular advice on compliance, or want to resolve issues around regional specificities in our contracts, for example.
But there will come a point where you decide to hire a specialist in-house to tackle these issues full-time - and it’s important to look at spend when making this decision. Spend is usually the main driver towards hiring the company’s first lawyer; and similarly, the growing cost of working with external specialists is typically what prompts you to consider bringing a specialist in-house.
This plays a big role in determining who you hire - and when. If you’re spending a lot of money on external counsel, that cost will add up over a period of time. Once you start reviewing that spend regularly over an annual period and you can see that the cost of hiring a specialist in-house is going to be the same, or cheaper, it’s an easy decision to make.
As you expand into new territories, the legal processes you have in place right now might not apply universally. Laws vary between jurisdictions, and with a language difference, there’s also the risk of mistranslation. You need to be aware of what you’re up against when your business is expanding to a new region - a specialist can help you address these differences.
Employment law is a great example. I deal with as many day-to-day employment issues as I can, but anything that requires deep knowledge and insight I outsource to employment law specialists.
For example, from a contractual point of view, laws in Germany are vastly different to what we’re used to in the UK; when it comes to negotiating contracts under German law, you need a specialist who can lead the process and advise on drafting, so contracts are as enforceable as possible. At GoCardless, our lawyer in Paris collaborates with external French employment lawyers to localize our documents, because French employment law varies to UK employment law.
These are the points that help determine when you should hire a specialist - but to really solidify your decision, you need to:
Lawyers need to be proactive about how they add value to the business, so look ahead at what the company-level priorities are, and make sure legal aligns with them. Investing in a specialist isn’t just about current spend, but also the objectives of the business in the long run. Looking ahead, what legal expertise will you need to enable that growth?
If your business is planning on scaling internationally, then you need to consider the legal queries that will scale alongside your target market. Does it make sense to have specialists that can ease the workload? Is there anything that can be outsourced to free up legal’s time for these major projects? And then more specifically around industry concerns - what’s the regulatory body equivalent in that country, and how do you ensure you’re meeting all their requirements? Will you need specialists to resolve those issues?
Getting buy-in to hire a specialist lawyer is often hard. You have to demonstrate a clear return on the investment, because that lawyer won’t be working on broader legal issues in the business; as a specialist, they are constrained to supporting their area of expertise. Make sure you communicate openly and honestly with the leadership team - the efficiency of the legal team will impact the wider business, so it’s important to voice this and back up your opinions with data on how this specialist hire can make a valuable difference.
The legal community values specialists; if they’re good at what they do, previous partners are happy to recommend them to others and showcase their work
Keep an eye on where your lawyers are spending their time, whether you record this through a ticketing system, a spreadsheet, or even just a note on your laptop - it’s important to keep track as it will help you determine your next hire. Also keep a lookout for trends in the market; if you’re noticing that the financial sector is facing a lot more enforcement actions, then you may want to start thinking about hiring a regulatory lawyer. Stay one step ahead of the problems arriving in the future, and you’ll save yourself a ton of time and worry!
When hiring a specialist, you obviously want someone who has deep knowledge and expertise in their chosen field - they need to be at the top of their game for the task they’re being hired to do. The best place to find specialists is through your network. The legal community values specialists; if they’re good at what they do, previous partners are happy to recommend them to others and showcase their work. International rankings such as the Chambers Directory can serve as a good indicator too, but I find that my network is the most reliable resource. Reach out to other GCs, legal leaders in the fintech space, and even the external lawyers you already work with. The chances are, they’ll have good recommendations of lawyers they’ve collaborated with in the past, and can point you in the right direction.
LinkedIn is great at showcasing lawyers’ connections - and this is important when you’re looking at regulatory specialists. Yes, they may be the experts when it comes to regulation - but what makes a lawyer go from good to great is the way they can help with facilitating conversations, anticipating upcoming legislation, being a part of consultations, and so on.
You want to hire lawyers that have a positive relationship and a strong profile of previous work with regulators, so you know you’re getting the maximum return on your investment - and adding value to the business as it continues to scale.
To find out more about how to thrive as a fintech GC, download 'The fintech GC survival guide' and discover how better legal processes can enable growth.