James Sullivan

Embedding an operations mindset: James Sullivan, Monzo

Scaling legal
June 9, 2020

If your scaleup hits white-hot growth, processes that aren’t robust will break pretty quickly. How did Monzo create a mindset that led to frictionless, scaleable legal operations?

This is a chapter from our 'Legal for scaleups' eBook, featuring legal leaders from some of the world's fastest growing companies. Download for free now. 

What is an operations mindset? 🤔

It’s tricky to summarize what this mindset entails - at its simplest, an operations mindset looks at legal as a process. Yes, legal is a profession, it’s regulated, and there are many professional obligations, but the work you’re doing as a lawyer is part of a bigger process.

Lawyers can sometimes lose that vision amongst the day-to-day legal work and we tend to think what we do is special; we want to offer answers in an instant, but struggle to originate the answer and explain why and how we reached that outcome. We provide an individualistic service, but an operations mindset is about creating standardization and consistency across the wider business, and seeing yourself as part of the overall workflow.

It’s understandable why some lawyers would struggle to embed this mindset; it all goes back to how law schools and firms train their lawyers. We’re not trained to be systematic as much as we’re trained to be professional experts who can dive into a problem and extinguish the fire. We might think about how we could perform better, but enabling this mindset allows us to analyse how we could perform differently.

Why is an operations mindset so important? 🎯

When you’re scaling a business, you need to find methods with current tools and processes to avoid reinventing the wheel each time, or solving the same problem over and over again. When you’re scaling as fast as Monzo, with tens of employees and tens of thousands of customers joining each week, this is even more critical.

Having someone ask you where the standard NDA is once a week is a great example of a problem you should solve once and never again, rather than constantly answering the same question. An operations mindset can help you automate processes and think about streamlining the unnecessary tasks in your workflow and solving problems in a way that allows the business to self-serve.

It’s important to embed an operations mindset at the earliest stages of a business as possible. The fintech sector is a great example: when companies initially receive a license, regulators want them to innovate, succeed and increase competition, so they are given more latitude to take risks. If they’re lucky, the customer base will skyrocket as they scale, and the fintech will become quite prominent.

At that point, all those initial ways of working aren’t as effective and can start to break; the service is 80% viable and needs iteration to reach 100%, and regulators expect the business to start maturing their risk framework. So the team needs to change their processes and mindset, which can be difficult to do at this point because the ways of working are so ingrained across the company and it takes real time, effort and pain to change.

The ultimate arbiter of your success is the business - they’ll measure your success by your ability to improve current processes and support their wider objectives

How can you adopt this mindset? 👥

It’s important to place all your preconceptions aside and approach this with an open mind - changing mindsets takes time, and there’s no immediate solution that resolves how your business should approach certain processes. Think in bitesize chunks and establish a solution that addresses the root of the problem, instead of the short-term. Achieve small wins and acknowledge success.

As with so many challenges, hiring the right people can help enormously. A legal operations specialist can establish, develop and own these processes, making that mindset extend out into the rest of the company beyond legal. This kind of hire doesn’t necessarily need a legal background, of course: what matters is their mindset and their ability to own efficient processes, regardless of their background.

It’s also important to remember that the ultimate arbiter of your success is the business - they’ll measure your success by your ability to improve current processes and support their wider objectives. Legal must be open to asking for and receiving feedback, and aligning with business objectives from day one.

Create, build and scale your world-class legal team - download the 'Legal for scaleups' eBook now.

The benefits of an operations mindset 👍

Lawyers struggle with being objective about outputs and producing measurable data. Their goals tend to be subjective and qualitative, revolving around “best in class” or “improvements” to certain techniques instead of measurable, objective data. An operations mindset can help teams approach problems from a data-driven perspective and think in a quantitative, measurable way that will have benefits on the wider business. This process of thought makes it easier to collaborate, as both legal and the business’ goals are aligned around numbers - revenue being the most obvious.

The operations mindset ensures that legal involvement is streamlined and efficient, right down to the minor details - requests are no longer brakes on the business, because legal is a useful, approachable resource that allows teams to self-serve. This improves the perception of legal overall and you move up the value chain. You’re no longer a team that says no and slows down the business - you’re a strategic business partner delivering solutions rather than simply giving advice.

The challenges of an operations mindset 👎

With a project of this scale, challenges can go hand-in-hand. Here are a couple of challenges you might face when embedding an operations mindset in your team.

Transparency at scale

Many fintechs adopt a value of transparency - but transparency can be difficult to scale. With more people in the business, there’s a greater chance of creating information silos or the volume of available information can be overwhelming. It’s important to focus on consistency and standardization; if you can achieve both factors then you’re approaching problems in the right way, with a system that is transparent and ready to scale. Empowering teams to self-serve is also an effective solution - offering an opportunity for teams to answer their own questions in a public forum is always going to be more transparent than teams coming to you for a one-off answer communicated in a private channel or email.

Getting a team to work together in a consistent way requires effort from leaders and lawyers alike - especially when the change won’t yield immediate results


Getting people to commit to change is a massive challenge - changing behaviours is difficult, and can be a painfully slow process. You may start conceptualizing ideas, but without a solid commitment from the team, the end goal will involve a mountain of work on your part. It would be easy to give up and revert back to your original methods, but it’s important to get ahead of the challenges and plan ahead for this period of frustration - in change models this is known as the valley of despair.

Getting buy-in from the wider business is essential for this reason; if you invest time and energy in something that people don’t perceive will solve their problems and improve how you help them, it’s going to be hard to change their minds. Lawyers’ workstyle is typically individualistic, so getting a team to work together in a consistent way requires effort across the business, from leaders and lawyers alike - especially when the change won’t yield immediate results. Business plans target growth, so getting people to invest time and resource to a project that doesn’t immediately impact that metric can be challenging.

More time, more value ✨

Invest both in your team, and the time taken on the project to understand the problems from their perspective. Your view on the problem is subjective, will miss data points and be driven by your own assumptions and personal biases. Identifying common themes with the legal team before you get buy-in is absolutely essential. Getting everyone in your team involved is always going to yield better results than doing it yourself and imposing a solution on them as a fait accompli.

Your team needs to work together. And keep in mind that embedding a new mindset is not a quick-fix; changing behaviours takes time, effort, and patience - but with an operations mindset in place, your business will be ready to scale with legal as a valued contributor towards its success.

This is a chapter from our 'Legal for scaleups' eBook, featuring legal leaders from some of the world's fastest growing companies. Download for free now. 

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James Sullivan is the Global General Counsel at Bitstamp

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