Irene Liu, the new Chief Legal Officer at Hopin, discusses how she's building out a corporate law department remotely, even during a global pandemic
Starting a job at a new company often comes with a learning curve. And that learning curve can be quite steep when joining a global, virtual events start-up that is in hyper-growth mode, especially when you are Employee #1 in the law department.
Irene Liu, the new Chief Legal Officer (CLO) at Hopin, a privately held company with a $5.65 billion valuation, knew she had to hit the ground running from Day 1. “I was the first lawyer in, during a pandemic, in a remote environment. We had no other internal counsel in an organization with over 250 employees in 40+ countries,” she says.
Liu immediately began building out her legal team, person-by-person, looking to find not only the brightest talent but also the right cultural fit. Liu says she was keenly aware she needed to hire more lawyers to build up her in-house law department to meet increasing business demands and avoid high outside counsel costs.
As a newly hired attorney, acclimating to your new work environment means you have to learn your company’s cultural values quickly. And that’s very different to do remotely, because you don’t have the opportunities to serendipitously meet colleagues by the water cooler or have a casual coffee. Instead, you must purposefully create meetings with them, which takes a bit of deliberate maneuvering to learn the company’s culture and what is expected from the CLO or general counsel.
“It is something you have to navigate and proactively figure out in a remote setting,” Liu says. “I figured out quickly that Hopin is a ‘no ego’ company that puts the customer first, leading with humility and empathy.” So I needed to hire people who share these Hopin values.
Proving the business case for expanding staff
Liu needed to hire more attorneys, fast. Oftentimes a CLO will have to construct a lengthy memo, detailing the business case for hiring more attorneys since in-house counsel is frequently expected to produce cost savings for the company, especially in a startup. Yet, Hopin was no ordinary start-up. The company went from 6+ employees in early 2020 to almost 500 in a year, and now operates in more than 40 countries. This rapid growth only added to the slate of complex legal matters that Liu’s team would face.
Liu identified five key areas in which she would need attorneys: commercial, corporate, employment, sales, and privacy & security. “For any new legal team to be successful, you want your revenue leaders to love the lawyers,” she explains. “We want to be the ones pushing the deals to close in partnership with the sales team.” She now has a team of nine, which is still growing, including plans to bring in a legal operations specialist.
Liu’s secret to staffing the law department began with herself. She didn’t wait for applicants to come to her; instead, she proactively reached out to her networks for talent referrals. And being a distributed workforce helped her move beyond just considering local candidates from Silicon Valley, where the company is based. “I was looking for top talent with low humility — I was looking for referrals and word-of-mouth,” she says, adding that there is a certain level of effort you must put in if you want excellent lawyers, and it’s incredibly freeing to be able to hire untapped talent in places you wouldn’t otherwise, such as Utah or the Denver suburbs.
Beyond that, her criteria for hiring was simple: Be a flexible, proactive expert in your area of law. She wanted people who are open to change and can “run like water,” meaning they are ready on Day 1. For a start-up, having flexible, easygoing people will make the legal team a better partner to the business and ensure deals close in a timely manner, Liu notes.
Further, it’s important that the legal team can navigate their workflows through various technology tools like Salesforce or Slack. She also recommends having access to a knowledge base that is consistently updated with the latest legal information.
While measuring success in a completely remote environment can be challenging, data and metrics can provide the tools you need to track the success of your legal staff. Moreover, communication with your business partners can ensure you are getting constant feedback about your team’s successes. “Keep your ear to the ground to make sure your executives are happy with the partnership your team is providing,” Liu says. Even if that means the not-so-causal Zoom chat just to talk about individual employee productivity and harmony.
Tactics for building a law department
While every company has its own legal needs and unique challenges, there are a few key tactics to keep in mind if you want to build out your legal teams, according to Liu.
Be a true business partner
Liu advises that the law department should be a partner to the business from its inception. The last things executives want are more lawyers who are “blockers.” She says that even one person blocking the business can hinder your efforts to expand your department when the time comes.
Demonstrate your cost-conscious approach
As the head of a corporate law department, one of your main objectives is to be a good steward of company funds. Before expanding attorney headcount, you should utilize alternative methods to get the work done. This means using technology tools for efficiency and building metrics to show your work. If you have paralegals, use them for some of the workflow to show you are using the most cost-efficient measures before immediately jumping to hiring a full-time staff attorney.
Show why you need additional headcount and find an advocate
Keep using your metrics to later show you’ve reached a capacity point and will need the additional hires. The legal team should be seen as a place of opportunity, not a place critical deals go to die. “If you are trying to expand your legal team, it is important for deals to continue to flow so you have more support from revenue leaders and executives,” Liu says, adding that being viewed as a doer instead of a blocker will help you find the advocacy you need from the C-suite.