What's it like to move from a legal to business role?

From lawyer to COO - How Karen Kerrigan managed to do something many in-house lawyers want to do, which is to move to a business role.

Karen, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Moneybox, spoke to Ben White for Crafty Counsel’s podcast, The Crafty Show, and shared how she went from a legal role into operations.

Prior to working for Moneybox, a savings and investment platform with more than 700 000 customers, Karen was the Chief Legal Officer and then COO at Seedrs, the well-known equity crowdfunding platform.

She studied English at Oxford University before commencing her legal training. Karen worked in private practice at Simmons & Simmons before moving in-house.

Here are some of the key take-aways from Karen’s conversation with Ben:

Karen initially wanted to be an entrepreneur

Karen says that her mum and some of her friends were entrepreneurs and that she ultimately wanted to start her own company too.

She approached being a lawyer as a short-term endeavour hoping to head up her own company one day. She started out in financial litigation. She did a lot of work during the financial crisis with the crash of Lehman brothers.

Her first move in-house was to Seedrs as the company’s legal and finance director. Karen saw it as an opportunity to learn how businesses work and could perhaps learn how to do a funding round if she had her own start-up idea. She was at Seedrs for seven years before moving to Moneybox.

Becoming a COO

Working at a start-up gave Karen the opportunity to exercise her skills in different areas of the business. She says anything related to contracts whether in HR, finance, building operations or compliance would fall to the legal department.

As one of the directors she realised she needed to consciously help to build out different departments, she helped build out the HR and finance functions for example. She had effectively started working more in the business side of things in an operational role.

She became the Chief Legal Officer before she took the final step into operations to don the COO hat.

This was after a conversation with the CEO who told her it was perhaps time her title reflected the work she was doing.

Karen says the first 6 months of taking on the COO title brought on an identity crisis and she wasn’t sure what the remit of her role was.

But a walk with a friend made all the difference. After talking it through she realised she wasn’t doing anything different to what she did before and that had been the de facto COO even before taking on the title formally.

Shedding the lawyer title

Karen is the acting General Counsel at Moneybox and still maintains her practising certificate with the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Although she says doesn’t practice a lot of law these days.

She says that the lawyer title holds a lot of weight and comes with years of studying and training so it can be difficult to let that go.

Karen says part of resolving her identity crisis when she took on the COO was to be “comfortable with the fact that the area is ambiguous.”

Karen’s advice to others

Karen advises people to embrace the opportunity to acquire new functions: “If things come up, you are interested in and fall peripherally in your remit, jump at them, don't draw the line around them.”

Start-ups and scale-ups offer a wealth of opportunities for lawyers to better understand different parts of the business and advise that legal teams “lean into those opportunities rather than leaning away from them”.

You can listen to the full episode with Karen’s here: