Joining as the first lawyer, you’re likely aware of the mountain of work that greets you. You have to deal with firefighting, building legal processes, standardizing contracts, and much more. But hiring is also a task you need to consider, and getting started isn’t always easy.
How do you do it? How do you go from sole counsel to managing an established legal team?
I initially joined Brandwatch as the first full-time lawyer, before it was acquired by Cision, where I now manage a team of 16 lawyers, alongside the privacy, risk compliance, and content partnerships team. I was also previously the first full-time dedicated lawyer at Groupon UK.
I’ve had to build the legal function from the ground up at both Brandwatch and Groupon UK. I’m also responsible for mapping out the team’s progression at Cision - here are my key takeaways on various stages of the journey.
I spent my first few months in ‘listening mode’, asking as many questions as possible and meeting my colleagues to figure out their pain points
1. Planning early 📅
I started thinking about how I wanted to grow the legal function before I had even joined the company. During the interview stages at Brandwatch, I was mapping out the legal team in my head.
That one-on-one with the business is a great opportunity to ask questions about the needs of the company; what are the problems the business is experiencing? Why are you looking to hire a lawyer? Why now?
When I joined Brandwatch, I spent my first few months in ‘listening mode’, asking as many questions as possible and meeting my colleagues to figure out their pain points.
As I did that I gained a better understanding of my colleagues’ day-to-day, how the business operated, what worked well, and what didn’t work well. From there you can build out your hiring plans to address any gaps or challenges.
The lever that usually determines a business’ first legal hire is contracts; the business might be selling more, scaling faster, or working with larger companies, and suddenly the spend on external counsel, or the time it takes for a CFO or COO to manage business contracts, is too high.
At Groupon, we had a different customer contract per country, and while I was there, we merged the documents so we had one contract that covered every country.
We did the same at Brandwatch to create a singular customer contract, and a singular process to generate that contract. It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to need another lawyer for at least a year or two, and I never felt the need to hire earlier than I did.
This meant I had plenty of time to map out a strong, effective legal function.
2. Building a strong model 💪
When building out a model for the legal team structure, I find it helpful to set a benchmark. When I’m interviewing people, for example, I’ll ask about the legal team and its size at their current workplace.
I’ll map that out against their company revenue, and this information helps me build a mental model of how big our legal department should be. It also helps me when it comes to building a case for headcount - it’s always useful to lead with certain figures, such as:
- Revenue and company size: as the company scales, will we need additional legal headcount to help us manage contracts and legal requests?
- Geographic footprint: if we’re expanding into multiple regions, will we need a specialist in those regions or on the ground support in those timezones?
- Product complexity: is our product in a regulated space? And if so, will we need regulatory lawyers to support on those unique challenges?
Changing the whole legal department requires sign-off - from your manager, and from HR. I map out the changes in a slide deck so I can easily communicate my needs to the business.
I also use Lucidchart to help visualize that hiring plan and the structure of the team. The business lives in Google, so having a tool that connects to Google Sheets, for example, is a great way of making that information accessible.
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3. The first legal hire 🙋
I thought long and hard about who my first hire was going to be, and decided that they should have a really strong background. If you hire someone with a wealth of experience, they can take on as much work as you.
Hiring a paralegal as lawyer #2 can be risky - in terms of succession planning, if you only have a paralegal and you decide to leave the business, then they’re in trouble!
Hiring a strong second lawyer puts the business in a better position should you decide to leave. For me, the perfect candidate was someone who had completed a few years in private practice, and a few in-house.
I think working in a law firm is a great training ground for an in-house role - it’s really intensive, and the skills you perfect from working in private practice are transferable.
It’s important to emphasize to candidates that the in-house role is vastly different to private practice. On a small team, I need somebody who understands in-house life from day one.
4. Looking for specialists 👀
For me, one of the biggest challenges in terms of specialist hires was finding someone to manage legal operations. It’s a relatively new field, and while there are plenty of candidates who have ops-adjacent experience, it can be difficult to find someone who is talented at legal operations and still within our budget.
The other challenging hires are lawyers based in Europe who are fluent in multiple languages. We were recently looking for, and thankfully recruited, a French lawyer who was also qualified in Germany and fluent in English.
It was a really tough hire. Similarly, lawyers fluent in both Mandarin and English are difficult to find - we luckily managed to hire an incredibly talented lawyer who met these requirements, but it wasn’t easy.
For super specific roles, and senior roles, I use legal recruitment specialists like Taylor Root. For our more junior hires I collaborate with the recruitment team, and also lean on my network to recommend candidates or resources.
We use net promoter score to get feedback on both legal and privacy teams, in the same way a software company may get feedback from customers on their product
5. Career development in legal ⛰️
As your team grows, there’s another responsibility that you, as the manager, need to tackle - career development. My team at Brandwatch didn’t have a career ladder, or career development plan in place, as there were only two lawyers. In my current role at Cision, we have a legal team of 16 people, nearly all of whom are lawyers.
I recently collaborated with the HR team to write up a first draft of career mapping for the legal and privacy teams. The HR team has a template for these career maps, which I found super helpful - this allowed me to download a copy and input my own information.
We follow an analogy in the career development sheet, so it’s easier to understand the levels of progression:
The first row offers an analogy everyone can understand, and then we apply that to the role at Cision. The analogy we use is rock-climbing - so what does a corporate counsel, or legal counsel, do? They climb the mountain by themselves. They can handle the medium-to-hard climbs.
As the levels progress, so do the responsibilities - so for example, what does the assistant general counsel do? They guide the team while rock-climbing. They pilot the expedition, and help resolve any unforeseen problems along the way.
This approach to career development really helps me map out progression in a way that everyone in my team can understand.
6. Getting feedback 🙏
We use net promoter score (NPS) to get feedback on both the legal team and the privacy team, in the same way a software company may get feedback from customers on their product. It’s actually one of legal’s key metrics - every quarter, our commercial contracting team asks all of our key internal colleagues to answer a basic net promoter question, alongside:
- Whether the legal team is fast enough
- Whether the legal team’s answers are clear enough
- Any other comments and suggestions
This regular feedback can also inform you on how you should build your team. For example, we collected geographic responses and found out that the EMEA sales colleagues were giving much lower scores than their American colleagues. This made sense; the majority of our resources were in the States!
We then turned our attention to hiring lawyers in Europe and Asia to support colleagues in different regions, so NPS was a great indicator of how to build the right structure of the legal team.
We also run a quarterly employee NPS to ensure that the team has the opportunity to provide formal feedback. It is another critical key result by which I measure my own success in building a well-functioning and engaged team.
Hyperfocus is key 🔑
Hiring is really difficult - you could consider all your options and do your best to mitigate the risk, and still end up missing the hire.
But there are certain steps you can take to give yourself a headstart, such as making sure you’re crystal clear on the reason behind this additional headcount.
This requires a lot of focus and clarity on which tasks are driving value, and how this hire is going to help accomplish those tasks, and that focus can also help you dictate how - and where - to scale.