What’s it like to be the first lawyer at a startup?

James, our head of legal, talks us through his experience of becoming the first lawyer at Cuvva.
By Team member, 13/10/2022
3 minutes read

I joined Cuvva after our big Series A raise. My first thought was: this is a company which has been growing rapidly for some time - how should I get stuck in, and what difference can I make?

I spent my first few weeks learning the business, talking to stakeholders and really trying to understand their roles. You can’t be a good startup lawyer if you don’t genuinely understand the business model. Anyone starting out as the first lawyer needs to take the time to speak to as many people throughout the business as they can.

Cuvva hadn’t had a lawyer on board before. This meant that when I joined there was the slightly daunting task of looking at the legal work that had backed up, and working out what other matters hadn’t been on anyone’s radar yet.

Some of this work is administrative, or operational. Like moving from historic spreadsheets of hundreds of options to a self-serve platform. They’re not necessarily tasks that you’d see a private practice lawyer doing. But that’s a key part of being the first in-house lawyer: you need to muck in and start creating effective processes from the ground up that are going to help you scale.

As the sole lawyer you’ll get involved in a wide range of matters across the business. In my first year I was involved in running our options scheme, fundraising via a convertible loan note, negotiating new contracts, navigating through potential litigation, setting up a new corporate group and getting into our pricing model, to name a few… It’s a challenge but it’s a rewarding one and probably what most appeals to a lawyer looking to make the move to work for a startup.

Something I’m really keen to show to everyone at Cuvva is how a lawyer can be a great business partner and help the team get their projects and deals done with confidence. You can’t be a bottleneck as a lawyer in a startup. You never want the team to dread having to talk to Legal.

Developing that mindset is hugely important if you want to be a good startup lawyer. It’s about taking a risk-based approach, understanding the business model in-depth and giving clear choices to decision-makers – and doing it fast. Deliberating over a lengthy answer isn’t much use. You need to have a concise way of, say, telling stakeholders what really matters in the deal you’re negotiating. It’s a different mindset to how you would advise a client in private practice. The experience I gained from a brief stint working in the insurance industry and from running my own business has been enormously valuable in helping me to think that way.

Getting this right is satisfying. In my first few months at Cuvva I negotiated a Distribution Agreement with a new carrier. Having that carrier on board was always going to turbo-charge our growth, but from a legal perspective it’s good to know that we’ve negotiated a far better deal and protected ourselves along the way.

One particularly daunting aspect is the range of questions you can get from all areas of the business. That fear of the unknown is something you’ll have to live with. As a private practice lawyer you might have to be trained to be a bit of a perfectionist and to always know the answer. But you just can’t be like that as a sole in-house lawyer. It simply isn’t possible to be an expert on everything. You might not know the answer, but you might still be the best person to deal with it.

You’ll also need to work out what you should be doing, and who you should be talking to. There won’t be another lawyer there to show you the ropes. You need the self-discipline to direct yourself - and to involve yourself with other teams. You can’t run an effective legal function if you aren’t thinking ahead and pre-empting risks and opportunities. Legal shouldn’t be a function that people only turn to after something has gone wrong.

Constant learning, humility and getting stuck in are vital traits for the first in-house lawyer - but often just being a nice person to chat to goes a long way too!

Team member