James Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Legal Officer at trading platform Ziglu spoke to Crafty Counsel about the lessons he has learned from working in a number of executive business roles. James has been COO, a Managing Director and completed an MBA while working as General Counsel, he is also a Non-Executive Director on the board of NCM Fund Services, which is regulated by the FCA.
James trained as a litigator with a specialism in intellectual property. He spent around seven years in international businesses in the telecoms sector but felt drawn to financial services.
He joined a financial services company in 2007 where he helped build funds until 2011 when he took on the General Counsel role for the parent company. He completed an MBA and took on the COO role at the business.
In 2018 he moved into FinTech, a sector that he had been following from a distance.
He joined an Estonian platform, Funderbeam, before becoming the Head of Legal at the challenger bank, Monzo.
James was approached about a role in another FinTech and a crypto business. He joined that initially as the Chief Legal Officer but became the COO at the start of 2021.
He took the business through a tumultuous journey from the growth startup phase to a hopeful acquisition by the US trading platform, Robinhood.
What advice would you give to lawyers who are thinking of going in-house?
James would advise lawyers who are going in-house that perfectionism is a trap that should be avoided.
Lawyers tend to focus on accuracy and therefore lean towards perfectionism, but most of the time perfection is unnecessary, he says.
“It’s not your role to identify and fix every single error that exists because there will always be things that are done, sub-optimally or not perfectly, and that’s ok,” he says.
“Your role really is to focus on the things that really move the needle and that could be both helping grow the business and reducing risk.”James Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel, Ziglu
In-house lawyers should instead focus on the work that makes a difference to the success of the business or achieving the goals that have been set for the business for that period.
“Try not to focus your time on the things that make you feel good or comfortable as a lawyer, but don’t really make a material difference to the business,” he says.
Instead of “getting the red pen out” when a contract arrives, in-house lawyers should try and take a different approach by thinking, “I’m not going to make any changes”.
“If you start from the position of, I’m not going to make any changes, then you will tend to focus on the things that really matter as opposed to, I’m going to rewrite this because I think this sounds better or this is more accurate, or this is grammatically more correct,” he says.
“Most contracts rarely get read after they’re signed, they are a means to an end. So, focus on the things that you really need to change because these are potential risks for the business.”
Be a collaborator
The ability to provide impartial independent advice is critical to the role of an in-house lawyer, James says. But while being the guardian of ethics is critical, it should not be done to the point where the lawyer becomes or is seen as distant from the business.
“You still should be a collaborator,” he says. “You still should be someone who can get on with people and get stuff done effectively. I don’t think independence means I need to be in a kind of ivory tower.”
In-house lawyers can occasionally find themselves in a position where they may feel uncomfortable, which can be tricky when you are the most senior lawyer in a company.
In these cases, James would advise an in-house lawyer to approach fellow GCs who may have encountered a similar challenge.
“Obviously, you can describe the problem in an anonymised way but the advice of other counsel is something that I have learnt to utilise more as I’ve become older and more senior. I probably didn’t reach out as much as I should or could have done in my earlier career.”
Producing advice that is actionable is something in-house lawyers should aim to keep in mind.
“So many times, I’ve received a thoughtful and clever note, which tells me all the things I need to know from a legal perspective, but the note doesn’t actually provide the steps that I actually need to action,” he says.
“Lawyering should be part of a process, not an art”, James says.
“At the end of the day, the reason the business has you there is to get stuff done properly and effectively.”
Why did you do the MBA? Did it propel your career into new realms?
James always saw himself in a commercial role and wanted to study for an MBA.
“When I was initially thinking about doing it, frankly, I just couldn’t afford it,” he says.
“I was lucky enough at a certain point when I was in a role change, where the business supported me through the process. It made it much easier to do.”
The MBA was “time-consuming” with every free second focused on having conversations and calls with his MBA cohort, writing papers, and preparing for upcoming seminars or reading.
“It’s hard to do that on top of your job and your life, so you’ve got to be really committed to it and that means you need to be really clear in your own mind why you want to do it,” he says.
“It’s certainly not something that you just do because you feel like having an MBA. You really need to think about why you’re doing it in terms of the value you’ll get out of it and the payback.”
An MBA gives you the ability to think more broadly across the whole business, with a focus on business subjects like marketing, strategy, and finance.
“It kind of brings all these things together and broadens your appreciation of other functions, how they think about business problems and what they bring to the business,” he says.
“It makes you appreciate that legal is just one dial on a machine of many, many dials.”
He says he really saw the value of doing the MBA when he took on his first role as COO. He was able to illustrate to the business that he was pragmatic and understood other areas of the business.
What advice would you give to someone who is overrun with tasks?
Lists play a vital role in helping James focus on what he needs to get done.
“I do tend to risk-score things in my mind and that helps me focus on what’s important and not simply react or respond to the person shouting the loudest that their thing is urgent,” he says.
“You’ve got to be able to resist the temptation not to react to noise and be a people pleaser, and instead be very resilient.”
Make sure that you don’t take on things that are not legal work, he says.
“In-house roles pull you into many different issues and projects. It’s great because it’s interesting and you’re being pulled into the core of the business. But if you’re suffering from a lack of time, then you need to cut out the activities that are not strictly within the remit of your role. As an example, don’t let yourself become an editor of everyone else’s work. I see that happen a lot.”