This article features highlights from episode five of our podcast, The Abstract. You can listen to the full conversation here.
David Lancelot, a seasoned legal professional, began his career as a General Counsel for a fintech startup in the vibrant city of London. After a stint at Baker McKenzie and almost 5 years as GC for QVC UK, David embarked on a decade-long venture at eBay.
During his time at eBay Classifieds, he served as the VP and Global Head of Legal, working closely with the executive team on international expansion, compliance, and navigating the intricacies of mergers and acquisitions. He also nurtured a team of 25 talented individuals in his time there.
“Axiom contacted me and told me about a gig at eBay where they needed somebody to support an international part of eBay, the eBay Classifieds Group, which was a collection of classifieds businesses. It was like Craigslist, but if Craigslist was run by competent people who cared about their customers and tried to make money.”
Let’s delve into David's wealth of experiences and wisdom to explore a thought-provoking theme: The evolving landscape of the legal profession and the disruptive forces that are reshaping it.
Navigating tech booms and crashes as a tech lawyer
“In 1999, I was taking technology transactions classes at the University of Florida's Law School. So, I had always wanted to be in tech, and it was super nascent. When I got to London, I looked for those kinds of jobs, and because it was the dot-com boom, there were a lot of job options in tech.”
David's passion for technology was clear, and when he landed in London with his British passport, an exciting opportunity opened up for him.
“I ended up getting a role at Magex, which was funded by NatWest Bank and Intra Trust, both of which have venture capital from Goldman Sachs, and an investment from Paul McCartney. The business was intended to allow media companies to encrypt content and sell it safely over the new internet. Unfortunately, Napster came along, so the business didn't really work out. But it was an interesting education in becoming a lawyer for a start-up very early in my career.”
Here's where things get even more interesting. The actual general counsel hired for the role, a partner from a top-tier law firm considered part of the Magic Circle in the UK, pulled a disappearing act and deemed the venture too risky. That’s when David went from being a mere legal assistant to the general counsel of Magex.
“I really had no idea what I was doing. But it's a trial by fire; you’ve got to figure it out. The biggest learning in this role was to use money wisely. And then, an ex-consultant suggested that this is a great place to learn how not to run a company. And I took that forward forever; you can learn from both sides of the coin.”
When the dot-com bubble burst, it hit the job market hard, leaving David to navigate uncertain waters.
“Because of the dot-com crash, I ended up going back to school and did an LLM in technology law at the University of London, which was fantastic. I met some great people, including a partner from Baker McKenzie, who brought me into Baker for a year, before their technology practice crashed because of the dot-com crash.”
David was once again unsure of what to do next. But he didn't give up.
“This was the third time in three years. I just went back to the people that I knew who were at legal job agencies, and that was a pretty small group in the UK at that time. I contacted them and said, ‘Hey, I'm back. I'm available for work.’. It took a few months, but one of them eventually contacted me and said that there was a contract gig, just a couple of months, at QVC.”
The impact of a first legal hire on tech companies
From hanging notes near the copier to doing basic tech work as a contractor at QVC, David found himself filling in the shoes of the first in-house legal professional at QVC, eventually becoming the GC.
His time at QVC allowed him to witness firsthand the inner workings of a retail company and the role of legal counsel in supporting its operations.
“QVC is a huge television shopping brand. At the time, there was no e-commerce, especially in the UK. So, it was a great opportunity to get into distance retail. I found a closet full of old computers, emptied it out, and made it my office. Then I sat there for the next five years. I was deep in the business.
From that, I got my sense of being embedded with the business as well as QVC’s fantastic culture. They were humble and organized leadership training for relatively junior people. And I got some great training on vulnerability. That's one of the things I took with me: Showing your people that you make mistakes.”
After his tenure at QVC, David embarked on various adventures, including working on the Obama campaign as a voter protection lawyer. Following his campaign involvement, he traveled the world with his wife before deciding to settle in the US.
“I thought, I've been away so long, I need to do a refresher. I did not trust that I could practice law in the US. So, I went back to school. I went to Santa Clara University and I could only make it through one semester on campus. That was fun and interesting. They had some good courses and excellent professors, and it was a very tech-heavy place in the valley.”
During his studies, David received a job offer through Axiom, which presented him with an opportunity to support the eBay Classifieds Group, an international part of eBay encompassing classifieds businesses.
“eBay had very limited legal support. I was a contract lawyer who was being paid by the business. So, I had to prove my value enough that they would hire me full-time, which I did. Then I had to prove my value enough that they would let me build something more than just me, which they clearly needed.”
Maximizing efficiency, minimizing costs: Transforming legal functions on a global scale
David notes that companies often underestimate the value of having in-house legal professionals who possess a deep understanding of the business and work closely with the leadership team. Having a legal function embedded within the organization can provide invaluable insights and foster stronger collaboration between legal and business teams.
“Companies are not advised by their law firms that it's better to have somebody in-house who really understands the business and is embedded with the leadership team, because it's not in the best interests of the law firm.”
Navigating the challenges of global legal operations
In the process of building an in-house legal function at eBay, he realized that navigating global markets poses unique challenges for a legal function.
“At the time, eBay was expanding to newer markets. Doing business in Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, maybe going into different parts of Asia, is a very challenging environment.”
Building an in-house legal presence in different markets requires careful budgeting and resource allocation. David adopted a strategic approach by starting with cost savings.
“Initially, let’s say the company was spending $100,000 in Canada. We decided to bring a legal professional in and cut the external council fees by at least 80%. Then the company can reinvest that and get the ball rolling. It's a virtuous cycle, where you take the low-hanging fruit, the savings from that, and then with a vision and plan, reinvest that into continuing to scale the function. And over time, we put lawyers on the ground in a number of countries.”
Over time, David and his team successfully established a strong presence in multiple countries, with lawyers who had in-depth knowledge of local markets and acted as business co-leaders.
Scaling the legal function as a business unit
Rather than adopting a traditional approach of simply adding more lawyers to address legal challenges, David emphasized the need to scale the legal function like a business unit.
“What we tried to do was instill a sense of scaling the legal function like a business unit. At eBay Classifieds, we built a centralized commercial contract function associated with the eBay legal ops function and used that to take in a massive contract volume. We had roughly 4000 deals a month, just on Salesforce. Under that, we had hundreds of revenue deals that had to be reviewed from countries all around the world.
I initially thought, ‘We can't do this, it's impossible. There's no way that we can have a central point that reviews and deals with all of this stuff, however we're going to deal with it, for Denmark, Germany, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and even Argentina.’ They wanted to deal in their local language and local law. In a few years, we pulled together a system for dealing with all that volume effectively and in a scalable way.”
The goal was to free up lawyers' time from low-value tasks, enabling them to become strategic business partners and leaders within their respective markets.
“There was always a goal to get rid of the low-value work that's repeatable and is not being done as effectively as it needs to be done, while moving up the chain until I found lawyers in different markets who were business people with legal skills. We were very successful in doing that. It was my proudest moment there; having these great people shine.”
Using data to build trust with business leaders
According to David, to scale legal like a business team, one must first work towards building trust.
“As business co-leaders who happen to have a legal skill set and are managing a function like a business unit, I would build trust with the CFO through quantitative metrics after trying to understand what was moving the needle for the business. In a lot of cases, it was contracts. To gain the trust, it was important to track how effectively and quickly we were helping the business close deals without wasting time NDAs, MSAs, and other repeatable stuff.”
David suggests working on extracting data on legal spend and expressing in a graphical form how it compares to business revenue.
“The one metric that I love is legal spend over time versus revenue. The spend may go up, but it won't go up nearly as fast as revenue. Finding a group of companies, getting the data on who works there, how much they spend on external counsel, lawyers per billion, etc., is a difficult task. But once you put that hard work in, you can show your legal leaders what your total legal spend versus revenue over time versus benchmarks was. That's the kind of thing that makes your CFO smile.”
Once trust is established, it becomes easier to have meaningful conversations with the CFO about resource management. David highlighted the need to demonstrate proper management of resources such as time, people, money, and technology.
“I would walk up to the CFO and give him a brief about my vision for the legal function. One was to have legal professionals from the countries we were working with so they could speak the language necessary to conduct business. For instance, we had a huge volume in Germany. Our two biggest businesses were in Germany. Once we hired a German-speaking lawyer, it helped us centralize 60-80% of the total volume. The German businesses were efficiently managed with the right resources.”
If you start leveraging data, as David suggests, to build trust and effectively manage resources, your legal team can demonstrate its ability to contribute to the company's strategic goals.
Legal ops: The engine room of the legal function
When it comes to the legal function, we often forget that, just like any other business unit, operations plays a crucial role in driving efficiency and effectiveness. David highlights the shift in perspective that has taken place over the past two decades.
“The way we look at the legal function has changed dramatically over the 20 years that I've been practicing law. We've gone from being an in-house law firm that doesn’t think like a business unit to being a modern, effective in-house legal function that tries its best to use resources as effectively as possible.”
One of the key drivers of this shift is the recognition that scalable processes and technologies are essential. In the same way that a marketing or strategy team wouldn't just ask for more people, legal teams shouldn't solely rely on hiring additional lawyers.
“The engine room of the legal function is legal operations. It adds value to the function by dealing with so many parts of in-house lawyers in a scalable manner. Instead of hiring a new lawyer, it’s best to build a process or workflow and have a contract management system that's integrated into all of your business processes.”
David suggests not relying on lawyers to take care of operations. Rather, bring in professionals with these project management skills.
“Most lawyers aren't operational experts. They're not project managers; they don't have that kind of training. If you bring people who can do that and build a function, it gives the in-house legal team the opportunity to have some headspace so they can think about vision, mission, strategy, context, product, and become great business co-leaders.”
It's important to note that the shift towards legal operations isn't just about saving money or speeding up processes. It's about creating an environment where the legal team can thrive and excel as strategic partners.
Overcoming fear and championing change in the legal landscape
Change can be intimidating, especially when it comes to gaining the support of business stakeholders. However, David emphasizes that opening our minds to change is crucial for growth and success.
“The common thread is building trust with other people in the business whether it’s the lawyers or the business people. I had the real honor to have strong business leaders at eBay Classifieds and QVC. They gave me the opportunity to build something which was relatively innovative, an approach to lawyering that was relatively innovative.”
To drive change effectively, it's important to provide quantitative reporting and factual evidence to demonstrate the value that new ways of doing things can bring.
“I built trust with quantitative, factual reporting to Finance, Strategy, and the CEO, as well as working hard and proving my value, while owning my seat at the table. Doing that requires an enormous amount of effort. It’s important to have a vision and go to your business leaders with the metrics showing how they align with the business strategy.”
David also points out that enthusiasm plays a crucial role in driving change within internal teams by inspiring others to support proposed changes. At the same time, it is important to note that when introducing new changes or technologies, team members may commonly experience fear regarding the potential risk to their jobs.
“When you implement new technology or processes and tell your team that you’re going to take 40% of what they do and do it in a way that's way faster and more effective, the automatic reaction is, ‘You're taking my job.’
In that case, I help my team understand that we’re just doing this to become the creative and innovative in-house lawyers we can be while co-leading business. The simplest piece of advice I could give to anybody, in business or otherwise, is to create that headspace; Take a step back, open your mind to the possibility of doing things in a more modern and effective way.”
Taking small steps and focusing on areas where change can be successfully implemented is a practical approach. By identifying a specific region or department where innovative ideas can be tested and proven effective, it becomes easier to gain support and build momentum.
“Focus on a place where you can win. That's what we did with this contract management stuff. For us, it was the UK or Australia at the time. They were all about it, and it was a very innovative environment. So, we did it there, and it worked great. And then they become your evangelists, right?”
When lawyers have more time to partner with the business, participate in strategic discussions, and evolve as leaders, it becomes evident that the changes are working.
The rise of legal operations: Could GCs eventually report to legal ops leaders?
Disruption is not just limited to legal technology. Legal operations as a profession has been gaining momentum, although it still has room to grow in terms of recognition and seniority.
“Legal ops didn't exist as a profession 15 years ago. It is now a relatively well-formed group of responsibilities, but it's still, in many places, not as respected as it should be. It's almost like in-house legal when it was in its development, where there was no training. There’s no clear instructions about what you should do as a legal operations leader.”
David points out that legal ops encompasses more than just the legal function. It acts as a bridge connecting different departments within a company, such as sales operations, marketing operations, and finance.
“As legal ops grows, thanks to AI and tech, it will just continue to be more valuable to a business. Operations is much more than legal. It connects legal to business functions like sales operations to the marketing operations function or to the CFO directly. They can see your system, you can see their systems, and then you can tweak and accelerate the business. As Megan Nedermeyer said [yesterday at CLOC], legal operations should, for most general counsel, be the first hire. You should have some form of operations as early as possible in a modern, effective in-house legal function.”
Exploring the synergy between GCs and legal operations
In the context of general counsel and legal operations leaders, David came across an interesting notion from someone he knew: the idea of legal ops leaders managing the GCs themselves.
“While I don’t completely agree with the notion, having been a general counsel myself, I think it's disruptive. The legal tech space and the innovation around legal operations is the most disruptive and innovative part of the in-house legal sector at the moment. It’s good to imagine the possibilities.”
David also expresses how the transition from a business person with legal skills to a COO or even CEO of a company isn’t a huge leap.
“It's all about project management while being effective and efficient in managing process policies and technology. It’s not so much that the general counsel reports to the legal ops leader but to the person who does the job of leading the legal function. Leadership is the key skill, and business leadership involves operations. You can have a great idea, but if the ops falls down, the business will not succeed. So, ops is the future.”
Legal operations is a nascent yet promising profession that holds great potential. The future lies in embracing this change, acknowledging the importance of business leadership within the legal domain, and leveraging legal operations to drive efficiency, effectiveness, and success throughout the organization.
To listen to more of David’s insights on thriving as a lawyer in the changing business environment, check out the full conversation on The Abstract.