This short Q&A was featured in our March edition of the DisruptiveTech newsletter. If you would like to receive it, please click here.
Kolvin Stone, partner and head of technology, Fox Williams, spoke with James Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer & General Counsel at Ziglu.
Q1. What advice would 2021 James give to 2016 James?
Five years doesn’t seem very long ago. Looking back a bit further, I’d probably tell myself not to sweat the small stuff, to expect the unexpected, and that things generally work themselves out ok in the end.
Q2. What are biggest challenges you’ve faced and how did you over-come them?
The biggest challenges have tended to be a business problem but with a people issue at the heart of it. Sometimes you need to dissociate the two parts, or at least handle them differently. You handle the business problem with professionalism and pragmatism, while handling the people issue with empathy and compassion. When I was less experienced, I tended to react or rush to do things quickly. As I’ve matured, I definitely spend more time reflecting and considering before acting. That has helped me.
Q3. What’s the most helpful piece of advice you have received as a GC?
It’s not exactly advice, but the most impact on how I approach my work has come from working closely with CEOs and board members, observing how they operate, understanding how they think and listening to how they handle things. The best advice I have received is to trust but verify and not be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something.
Q4. How do you see the role of the inhouse lawyer evolving with the ever-increasing use of legal technology and process management tools?
There is a place for both, but it does mean lawyers have to be open to work differently. Lawyering can be such an individual activity, we all approach problems and work a little differently. Many of us also have a bias towards perfectionism. We need to be ready to embrace more standardisation and commoditization so we can spend our time on more valuable and impactful matters that require more thought and analysis.
Q5. What is the most helpful lesson you’ve learnt in the journey from early stage to a more mature business and how did your role change?
At an early stage you need to be able to operate with a lot of ambiguity and change. You need to prioritise ruthlessly to mitigate the biggest risks and be ready to handle anything and everything. Your role is about building the platform from the ground up, helping the business put in place the structures and governance to guide decision making and designing solutions which are scalable. Alongside you, you will need external lawyers you really trust, who can execute at the same pace as you, don’t deliver ambiguous advice and frankly make you look good.
As you move towards a later stage, external stakeholders’ expectations (regulators, investors, suppliers, independent board members) about things like governance and process get much higher. Things can’t just be good enough anymore, they have to be really good. So be prepared to bring on board more specialist skills and experience into the team and focus on how you improve operational processes and support the business in optimising governance. At this point you may need to bring on different types of law firms with more specialist expertise who can give assurance to your stakeholders.
Q6. Any recommendations for reading, watching, joining or attending for the inhouse lawyer at a fast growth tech company?
Network with GCs and other lawyers in this space. The great thing about this space is that a lot of GCs look to their network for recommendations when hiring and let their network know about job opportunities before they are public. So make your profile and interest in tech known.
If you are working in a disruptive tech company then there are a lot of networks to join. Many of us reach out to our network for help, not for legal advice, but for help about how others have approached or solved a problem. At the senior end there is the Disruptive GC Network with a membership of over 100 GCs. Other tech platforms are building communities of lawyers in this space.
If you are interested in reading what the people in these businesses are reading, then try one of these: