Leading the legal function at a startup that operates in a highly regulated industry, such as FinTech, can be arduous.
You not only need to keep pace with the ever-changing regulations for navigating legal risks but also put forth a commerce-driven mindset, all at the same time. Most first-time GCs in FinTech startups find it difficult to strike the right balance — Juliette Thirsk, Head of Legal at Peach Payments, shared how she has been approaching it with us.
“I joined Peach Payments at a time of aggressive growth for the company, and the legal department needed structure. I was tasked with optimising the legal function, to begin with.”
Peach Payments was Juliette’s first stint working in-house as an attorney with a FinTech startup. Before joining Peach Payments, she primarily worked as a commercial attorney at law firms and specialised in private equity, ESOPs, and company structuring.
In a conversation with SpotDraft, Juliette sheds light on her experiences transitioning from working at law firms to an in-house role, top challenges in streamlining legal at a fintech startup, and advice to other GCs and heads of legal in the same boat.
Transitioning from a law firm to an in-house role
“The transition was incredible. Earlier, I catered to multiple clients, and now there is just one client I am required to focus on. This is a unique opportunity for me to be extremely productive.”
Juliette’s first objective at Peach Payments was to identify gaps in the system and build necessary functions to streamline the legal department.
“Although I was a general corporate and commercial attorney, I did not have payment or deep FinTech company experience.”
Before scaling the legal function, she wanted to learn more about the industry.
“Context is everything. I am still learning about the industry, and I will continue learning for the next few years at least.”
Identifying gaps: first 30 days as the Head of Legal
Juliette wanted to understand where legal was lacking in the past and what they needed from legal going forward. And who better than stakeholders to answer these questions?
“Until and unless you sink your teeth deep into business operations, you won’t understand what needs to be done and when. So, I spent my first 30 days meeting stakeholders, understanding the finance business jargon, and building relationships.”
These conversations helped Juliette understand two things -
- The most critical pain points that stakeholders had
- The company's vision
Juliette then devised a plan of action to address those pain points with a commerce-driven mindset.
The first thing that Juliette did was operationalise the contract pipeline.
Setting up contracting processes: from chaos to order
“We process contracts in bulk - rolling out HR contracts, NDAs, SLAs, and corporate partner contracts.”
Peach Payments uses contract templates to process contracts, most of which are drafted by the legal team. However, the absence of a proper CLM system makes it difficult for the team to have clear visibility into how many contract requests come in and how they are being signed.
“Another problem we face in contract management is version control - different departments may be using old templates and rolling contracts out manually. We want to implement a CLM solution to have better visibility into our contract pipeline, especially when our business is scaling in different countries.”
Apart from implementing a CLM solution, Juliette plans on setting up a well-defined approval matrix wherein every contract gets a sign-off from the legal team. And for that, function building within the legal team is essential.
Building key legal functions to support growth
Peach Payments is continuously growing its customer base across geographies - and there are many challenges with that:
“Owing to our operations in multiple geographies, a lot of work our team gets is on the lines of contracting and compliance. We are also required to be extremely familiar with licensing requirements of the countries within which we plan to expand. Understanding licensing and applying for the same considering all compliance requirements is a major part of what we do.”
To begin with, Juliette plans on building a dedicated compliance team and hiring a privacy officer.
“Over the next two years, I will hire for more roles depending on the business requirement and our GTM strategy.”
Advice to GCs and Heads of Legal in FinTech startups
It has been nine months since Juliette joined Peach Payments, and in this time frame, she has been able to structure the legal function quite effectively.
“The legal function at Peach Payments is a continual work in progress. We have identified the major gaps we want to bridge, and we are working toward building a lean legal team and leveraging new technologies to do so.”
Juliette has great advice for GCs who are rolling up their sleeves to join FinTech companies.
#1 - Keep up with the rapidly evolving technologies in FinTech
The FinTech industry, in general, is subject to rapidly evolving technologies. However, related regulations are slow to catch up. To ensure their product/service is compliant, GCs need to be familiar with the market.
“With rapidly evolving technologies, the legal framework tends to lag behind. Whenever there is any amendment in a related regulation, you should be able to suggest necessary changes to the product team to ensure compliance.”
#2 - Form relationships with local law firms
As a GC, you might not be familiar with the local laws of all the countries your company has expanded to or has plans to expand.
“In such cases, you should look at forming relationships and partnerships with local law firms who are not only familiar with the law of the land but can also help you set up operations and have relationships with various stakeholders, from accountants to compliance specialists to the regulators.”
#3 - Be transparent and showcase Legal’s contribution
Most of the work that legal teams do is intangible, and therefore, it is not easy to showcase value. Juliette suggests that GCs should be transparent.
“You need to tell stakeholders what your team is up to. Otherwise, leverage tools such as CLMs to showcase how your team has contributed to closing deals effectively.”