I’m passionate about the connection between business and law having worked for over 30 years as a lawyer advising businesses from start-ups to large multinationals. Even during my time as a lawyer I had to create new areas of business for my law firm, and later on I co-founded a strategic advisory firm (Elixirr Partners), which focuses on business transformation and digital disruption, and a tech company (Collaboration Platform Services), which has created a collaboration platform based on multi-touch technology.
Law does not exist in a vacuum. Lawyers are advisers, and you cannot advise your client properly without understanding their business. You should invest time in understanding your client’s business, not just through research, but by talking to your client about it. If you are better informed, your advice will be more relevant and more commercial. While your client may be a company, your ‘actual’ client is a person. By engaging with them and being interested in their business you will build a better and deeper relationship together.
I think it is important to have practical guidance for how to apply your learning. You would not send a medical student straight into an operating theatre to operate on a patient.
In the same way I think it is incredibly helpful to look at creating practical internships into businesses for law students, to open their eyes to what is involved in running a business – including their own law firms – and to have a better understanding of how their legal training could be relevant to business. Having a law degree does not mean having to be a lawyer.
Conversely, lawyers can help businesses gain a better understanding of the importance of the law if they can present what is important in a practical and commercial way. For example, when working with start-ups, lawyers can act as mentors to explain the process of setting up a new business, how to protect intellectual property and confidential information, and how to commercialise new products or services.
I have been very fortunate throughout my career to have had interesting opportunities to engage with different types of businesses and sectors, to learn from my clients and to be actively involved in developing business. Unusually for a lawyer, I have used my experience to become an entrepreneur. It can be a little daunting at times but very exciting and rewarding. You soon realise that the business world can be much more dynamic and innovative that the legal world. However, my training as a lawyer and the connections I have made has proved invaluable.
For example, in setting up my new technology business with my co-founders, I have been able to contribute to strategy, business plans and pricing models, as well as assist with structuring the business, protecting intellectual property and making introductions to potential investors, customers and strategic partners. My experience of selling legal services has been turned to selling a new technology product. This has helped my colleagues who have less experience of the business world but who have greater experience and expertise in technology and product development. The beauty of us working together in a collaborative way is that every day we are learning from each other.
As a start-up you have to be pragmatic. When I set up Callsign to develop our platform around four years ago, I first met lawyers who were used to dealing with big corporates. They came from the world of risk mitigation, where the approach is to cover every angle and iron out every problem. The start-up world is about risk management, and you need a lawyer who can understand that about your business and have experience of helping start-ups grow. What is useful in certain lawyers is that they can be pragmatic and appreciate that while a contract might consist of risks, as long as those risks are manageable then that is what is required at that point to take you to the next stage. Similarly with intellectual property, they will help you protect the things that are protectable and are the most valuable. We have to be picky on what we spend our cash on, and need to get the biggest bang for our buck. They can point out the risks or downsides and then leave you to make the business call. They can empower you by navigating you through the territory but allowing you to make an informed decision depending on your risk appetite.
A good lawyer is more than just a lawyer. Obviously legal expertise is important, but he or she can also act as a mentor and a good networking point. Whether it is through M&A transactional work, investment work, or general contract work, lawyers come into contact with potential investors, customers or even talented individuals that could be hired. They can act as a bridge for you into lots of different worlds that are useful to you as a start-up.
I’m a big believer in delegation and trusting people with their expertise. I will never be a good lawyer and have no interest in trying. Instead I like to put my faith in the hands of people I can trust to handle legal affairs. But they should know about my business. I would definitely be receptive to having trainee lawyers on secondment as I know the value of hands-on experience as opposed to reading text books. My PhD was funded by BAE Systems, and my time with them gave me a fundamental grasp of the skills and principles of IT security. From there I worked as a consultant at Accenture. It would have been incredibly difficult to advise people on their businesses had I not had the experience with BAE first.