Every week at Crafty Counsel we focus on getting to know more about one of the members of our in-house legal community. This week we speak to Natalie Salunke, General Counsel at Zilch. Zilch is a buy now pay later service, where users receive a virtual Zilch card, which they can use at most online stores.

Natalie is a member of several advisory boards including OneNDA and LexSolutions. She is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Law.

Community Spotlight with Natalie Salunke, General Counsel, Zilch
Community Spotlight with Natalie Salunke, General Counsel, Zilch

Non-Traditional career path

Natalie became an in-house lawyer upon qualification in her 20s and has headed up legal departments for the past 10 years. She took on her first Head of Legal role when she was 27, two and a half years after qualifying as a lawyer.

At the time it was unusual for a junior lawyer to head a legal department, but things are different now, she says. “You’re seeing a lot more fintechs and startups being more open minded about junior lawyers or mid-level lawyers that they’re happy to employ at that level.”

Moving in-house

Natalie’s career started as a trainee solicitor at Taylor Wessing at the time of the financial crash of 2008. She qualified in 2009 and “hoped to be an M & A lawyer, but after the markets crashed, corporate work dried up”.

Natalie found a role at Travelex and her experience there set the scene for the rest of her in-house career. Her approach from the start was about demonstrating the value she was adding to the company.

“In a very junior role in an in-house legal team, I was already thinking quite progressively for a legal function, because back then we didn’t have legal ops, we didn’t think about legal tech, we didn’t give it that sort of status,” she says.

“But some of the projects I was looking after, like the contracts database, I didn’t just see as an administrative task. I thought more strategically about it. So even then it was like, well, what data points do you want to capture?”

Natalie says she looked after some of the areas at Travelex that had not been prioritised, for example the marketing department and technology contracts relating to Travelex’s websites. This made her popular at the company and set her up for her next role, which would be the Head of Legal at Venda, a company that provided digital commerce solutions for their customers. In 2014 Venda was acquired by Netsuite, a world leading cloud software solution. Natalie was the Senior Corporate Counsel & Regional Director for Netsuite until 2015. Natalie then became the European Counsel for Enterprise until 2017. After that she became the Vice President and Head of Legal at Fleetcor. She then became the General Counsel at Havn SuperApp before taking on the role at RVU as Head of Legal in 2020 and was in that role until May 2022 when she moved to Zilch. Natalie says she has taken on roles at a number of different companies for her personal development, instead of staying put in one role for a long time.

“My career has been very varied because I’ve continuously got that mindset of wanting to grow. And I don’t think just having experience in one sector necessarily gives you a good perspective on things. I really enjoy getting to know a new business and taking some of the skills and experience I’ve gained in terms of how to run a legal team and flex it to the new environment”, she says.

Before her recent move to Zilch

Natalie joined RVU in 2020 to head up the legal function as the company scaled up. RVU is a group of online businesses that aims to empower consumers by helping them compare financial products and home services. She headed up the legal function and put in place various processes, which included some legal automation and improving data capture and processing. Natalie enjoyed working on several acquisitions while at RVU, which includes the acquisitions of comparison web service, Confused.com, and Mojo Mortgages.

What she particularly enjoyed about the Mojo acquisition was that her legal team could build the legal function at the start-up from scratch, “it is a really cool company in a really cool space and has made me and my team feel more like fintech lawyers, rather than pure technology lawyers.”

Favourite part of working as a General Counsel

Natalie’s favourite part of the job is supporting her team. She is on the advisory board for the O-Shaped Lawyer and believes in “putting the human back into law”. She says “I really like law as a discipline because it’s quite interesting, but I think it’s quite a difficult profession and it hasn’t always been accessible. I don’t think it’s always the most female friendly world.” For Natalie it is important to be a role model for those entering the profession “I think seeing people that are female at the top who aren’t necessarily queen bees or emulating masculine behaviour and people that aren’t necessarily white is important. So, I’m half Indian, which I think some people can recognise and hopefully will make them feel like there may be a place for them” she says.

Natalie sees it as a responsibility for those in the “privileged position of being in a senior legal role” to “pave the way for others”. She says it is important to make the profession attractive for diverse candidates and to make a wide range of young people see it as a possible and sustainable career choice.

Natalie prides herself on her ability to create a world class legal function that provides a safe space for others in her team to grow, to make mistakes and to flourish.

She shares how she has helped paralegals in her team qualify and join law firms. “They’ve qualified and become very successful lawyers. So that to me is one of the biggest privileges of being able to manage a legal function, it is the opportunities that you give to others to grow and become the lawyers or legal professionals that they want to be.”

Passion for mentoring

Natalie shares how she has always been passionate about mentoring others. “I’ve always mentored throughout my schooling, even at university and continue to mentor law students now and get them into that ecosystem, empowering them to feel like they can do it. Empowering them to be themselves.” She encourages aspiring lawyers to be brave, to be trailblazers.

Something you are proud of in your career

It is creating the opportunities for others to enter and thrive in the legal profession that stands out as a highlight for Natalie. She says at law firms, there are set routes into the profession, which there aren’t necessarily in-house. So, creating those opportunities for aspiring lawyers has been a big win for Natalie. At Venda she became a training principal so that she could start providing training contracts for aspiring lawyers.

When Natalie worked at Enterprise Rent-A-Car it became clear to her that the contract management function wasn’t “fit for purpose” in the way that it existed and so she started calling the team “legal and contracts”. She wanted to create opportunities for members of the team to qualify as lawyers if they wanted to. She wanted to create the “head room and space” for them to grow in their careers. “I started to create more of a training programme” explains Natalie. All the members of that legal and contracts team either qualified as lawyers or are still training.

Natalie encourages fellow in-house lawyers who head legal departments to help paralegals qualify as lawyers and says the new route to qualification should make the process easier.

The Solicitors Qualification Exams (SQE) and Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) will replace the traditional route to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales. The current regime, which includes taking the Legal Practice Course (LPC) followed by a two-year training contract will be phased out completely by December 2032.

One of the biggest challenges of your in-house career journey

Preparing Venda for sale before NetSuite bought it was one of the biggest challenges in Natalie’s career to date. Part of the challenge was around being in a company that was struggling with cash flow before being acquired. Natalie says she thinks it is something many legal teams must deal with in start-ups and scale-ups. What do they do if the businesses are not making enough profit and running out of funds? In a situation like the one she was in she says it is important that the CEO, CFO and Head of Legal stay on in the company until it is acquired. She says going through a shaping experience like that is something she’ll never forget.

Unique talent or hobby?

During the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 Natalie took up paddle boarding. She says it has always been something she wanted to do “I lived in Cornwall as a kid. I didn’t do it then, but it’s been a dream of mine. I didn’t realise you can actually paddleboard on the Thames.” She joined a local club in Kew and trained and qualified as a coach. Natalie now teaches people how to paddle board.

A cool thing in Legal?

A cool thing for Natalie is that some law firms and law schools are “investing in courses that focus more on human skills rather than just the technical skills.” Natalie says there is an acknowledgement that “if we want to make it a more sustainable profession, we need to treat people with more respect”. She says the shift in focus to supporting people’s mental and physical wellbeing and allowing them to bring their “whole selves to work” will hopefully mean the legal profession will be more “diverse and varied” because it will be more attractive to a wide variety of people.

Advice to your younger self?

Natalie would’ve backed herself more. She says she experienced insecurity early in her career when she was let go after completing her training contract at Taylor Wessing when the markets crashed. She also worked with difficult partners at the firm, and she “questioned her ability”. She says “even if you aren’t a seasoned lawyer, there is still a place for you to add value to a business”. She says junior lawyers shouldn’t underestimate the value of “being helpful and getting stuff done, being organised and bringing your perspective to the table”.