There comes a time in every lawyer's career when they reflect on which path to take. Often the routes are thought to be private practice or in-house. Yet, when you're in-house, there are also further options to work with companies from big corporates to small startups.
Having moved from private practice to in-house at PayPal, and now working as General Counsel at scaling gaming company Voodoo, Senay Gurel has some valuable insights into the legal landscape.
Not only does she have a flavor for various legal environments, but Senay also has valuable experience with legal tech and with legal in a leadership capacity.
With this in mind, we were delighted to speak with Senay about her experience and thoughts around how to succeed in-house.
Hi Senay! It's lovely to be speaking with you.
Please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?
Safe. Following my studies, I spent time working as an M&A lawyer working on private equity type deals. Then, as many do, I started to reflect on where I wanted to go and whether this was the career I really wanted for myself.
I really enjoyed being a lawyer but I always felt a slight entrepreneurial frustration. It was like when you finish reading a story to kids and they keep asking “what happened next?”. This is how I felt - I wanted to be a bigger part of the journey, see the whole end-to-end cycle and be a real decision-maker. When you're a lawyer, you're not there to decide, you're there to advise.
So, I always had this frustration and then an opportunity presented itself at PayPal. At the time, I didn't really understand what PayPal was doing but I met the team and knew I had to be part of it! I spent a little less than a decade at PayPal doing various roles, mainly focused on building and executing the business case for PayPal to enter emerging countries.
I had an amazing time but when I reached 130+ countries in my responsibility portfolio, I felt I needed something new. Then, again a matter of karma and opportunity, I was approached for a role where I had exactly the same feeling I had towards PayPal - like love at first sight!
This is when I joined Voodoo. I wasn't a gamer but the intelligence of the business model compensated for my lack of understanding of the product at the time. It's now been just less than three years and there's never a dull day.
Gaming must be an interesting space. What's it like to work in the legal department at Voodoo?
Legal departments tend to mirror the needs of the business, so we started in a very humble manner with just me. The more we grew, the more needs we had so we started to develop a very lean legal team. This is very important to me so that we have very clear ownership of different tasks and to ensure that the internal clients and partners know exactly who to address for different types of requests.
I would also say that there's a common DNA in the team - all of them are lawyers and have made the shift to in-house, most of them for the first time at Voodoo. They all come from very diverse backgrounds (on average, one person has two or more nationalities!). All of them are passionate about the business and we have a very strong, integrated relationship and way of working with internal clients.
In terms of the actual work, we have three different departments. Our core business is publishing so that involves aspects around contracts, IP, and sometimes litigation. Then we have privacy tech which is essentially our DPO which we've internalized. Lastly, we have an M&A department as we're lucky enough to do a huge amount of acquisitions.
Wow - it sounds like there's a lot going on!
Yes - we've managed to remain quite a small team for the number of projects we have. Obviously, we do externalize some of the work but never completely. We like to keep a strong hand on what's going on so we do manage our human resources in a smart manner. Rather than hiring many more people, I prefer to have the right people who spend time on the right things.
You can also get help from smart tools to streamline work - and Tomorro is a good example of this. Your policies can also help you remain lean. We like to use our risk appetite to prioritize work. Is it really something we have to spend our time on? Is there a better way to use our resources? Where do we really add value?
What's the working environment like at a fast-growing gaming company?
We have a very very strong culture. We have strong values that encourage ownership, leadership, uniqueness, and humanity. It's a bold culture that I'm proud of. There's also a lot of creativity in our sector so a culture that stimulates this is important.
And you spent nearly 8 years at PayPal. How does the legal department of a big company like PayPal vary in comparison to a company with around 400 employees?
I believe the legal department always mirrors the spirit and philosophy of the business. You have to have a sense of the culture and identify the risk appetite. At Voodoo, and I imagine at scale-ups more generally, you're more empiric and pragmatic. It's in the company's DNA to try new things so we're innovating a lot.
We're very agile too, whereas more mature companies have longer, more complex decision-making processes. At Voodoo, decision-making is more decentralized so we can move on or readjust things quickly. This drives efficiencies but also creates room for innovation.
It sounds like the legal department is very much part of the wider business?
Exactly. I'm part of the leadership team and thankfully the legal team is seen as a business enabler at Voodoo. I think it's essential to have a legal presence on the leadership team as legal tends to see everything - it's the point of entry and exit for most topics. That said, I'm not a lawyer when at the leadership table; I'm a leader with great insight into legal matters.
Legal is now part of the culture at Voodoo but the idea that legal is a bottleneck is definitely something which, unfortunately, is still prevalent in many companies. It's very outdated and offers no benefit. The more diverse your leadership team is the better.
Definitely! Are there certain skills that lawyers would have to hone in on to embrace a leadership role?
One skill that we don't see enough of is listening. In meetings, we tend to value the loudest voice over the most thoughtful response. When you're listening, you're learning - and there's real value in this.
That's true. You mentioned that you're currently working in a really creative environment too. Could you tell us a bit more about this and your thoughts around creativity and legal more generally, please?
Good question. People tend to think that legal is basically about applying rules but I think it's far from this. It's about making things happen. Rules are one tool that you're using to make this happen, but the rest is problem-solving. I'm a chess player and I kind of view in-house legal like chess - you have all the elements but you have to find a strategy to win.
So, for me, creativity is probably one of the few qualities you can't learn (albeit you can stimulate it). When I'm hiring someone, I try to assess whether they have that hacker mindset that you can't necessarily teach. The hacker mindset is the ability to find a solution in any context.
I love that! Speaking more broadly, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing in-house legal professionals right now?
I think the toughest thing for in-house counsel, especially for those doing the shift from private practice to in-house, is the ability to assess the risk and make decisions based on this. You need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. At first, it feels awkward as you will never have all the elements that you'd like, but this is something you get used to with experience. You learn to make the best decisions you can with the information that you have. Sometimes you might fail, but that's okay - there's learning in failure.
Also, legal's connection to the business is also really important, especially in fast-paced environments like scaleups. You really need to understand the business model as well as the emerging trends and how we can tackle these. For instance, if there is new legislation, rather than seeing it as a nuisance, we should be thinking about how we can create an opportunity out of it.
That's a great way to view it. And to finish off, it's only right to mention digital transformation! What's your view on the role of legal tech?
It's essential. I'm happy to see more companies coming into the arena too. Previously, there were only the big players but, with such a variety of potential clients, more challengers are coming in to serve the diverse demands of the market. I really appreciate the fact that with the challengers like Tomorro you can have a relationship, which you don't have with the big anonymous solutions. This is a good example of competition serving the market.
So, for me, legal tech is a very welcome trend and I think we're only at the beginning.