The new network for internal legal teams at rapidly scaling technology companies will be launched next month.
Sarah Irwin was the first legal assistant at Irish start-up Tines, joining the firm just after a Series B fundraiser saw the valuation soar to $300 million. Knowing it was time for new blood, the board of the fast-growing tech company told founders Eoin Hinchy and Thomas Kinsella to stop redrafting documents themselves and find a head of legal affairs.
But in the first week on the job, Irwin realized that without an internal legal team or senior manager, she had nowhere to turn if she had questions. She also knew how to change this for the better: by starting a community of in-house technical general advisors.
“There are huge global networks like the ACC [Association of Corporate Counsel]† There is another one in the US called TechGC which is very US focused. And I realized we needed one in Ireland,” she said. “So I thought: okay, I’ll take care of this myself.”
‘I’m looking for people like me who want to use legal technology to gain efficiencies in scaling tech companies’
– SARAH IRWIN
And so Irish Tech General Counsel (ITGC) began what Irwin called “lukewarm” among other heads of legal affairs at start-ups operating in Ireland. This included the recently minted unicorn Flipdish, London-based fintech Revolut and native Irish success story Fenergo.
“I realized there was probably a small group of us who might go out for a glass of wine every few weeks,” she said. “And the more I stuck out the feelers, the more I realized it was probably a slightly larger group.”
This formed the basis of Irwin’s decision to create a supportive peer forum for ‘innovative’ heads of legal affairs at Irish technology companies. And Irwin emphasizes that “innovative” is a qualifying word, because she’s not looking for lawyers who aren’t forward-looking.
“Not the kind that see legal as a cost in silos, or the ‘Department of No’ that has a lot of friction with sales teams,” she claimed.
Irwin says, “People like me who want to use legal technology to gain efficiencies in scaling tech companies. And they see themselves more as a strategic business partner than someone who lands deals at the end of the day and then says no.”
Irwin has been a lawyer herself for 13 years. She trained as a barrister in London, then moved to Ireland in 2014 and obtained a cross-qualification as a barrister. In her eight years as a corporate lawyer, she treated technical clients in a variety of industries, from AR and gaming to healthcare and life sciences.
“Instead of conveying messages in a pessimistic way, I am very solution-oriented,” she said.
‘There is work to be done to normalize people’s internal careers at an early stage’
– SARAH IRWIN
ITGC will be celebrating a formal launch evening in Dublin next month, but it’s already creating a buzz among the community.
“The moment I announced it on LinkedIn… it caught fire,” Irwin said. “I was approached not only by heads of legal affairs, but also by in-house technical lawyers at all levels.” And so ITGC welcomes everyone who works in the legal world at a technology company.
Irwin was also approached by law students and interns who were excited about the idea of plunging their careers into technology, but were put off by the more conventional career paths opened up to them during their education and training.
†[Universities] sell to you [the idea of] stay with the same law firm and become a partner there,” Irwin said, noting that this journey could take decades.
“We now know that millennials will change jobs every five years unless they are properly encouraged to stay. For Gen Z, it’s apparently every two years or 18 months. It is now normal to have a ten-year career with work in four, five, six different places and possibly even different jobs.”
Irwin wants to help future qualified legal professionals realize that there are opportunities that fit this new world of work. “I realized there’s a job there to normalize the internal career path for people at that stage, and also leverage the network to guide them,” she said. “Especially people from underprivileged backgrounds or underrepresented minorities and so on – just to open doors for them.”
‘With all these fast-growing tech companies in Ireland, we need to be more ahead than we are’
– SARAH IRWIN
Whether through Slack chat, meet-ups or knowledge-sharing lunch and learning, Irwin is determined that the Irish community of technical general advisors must come together and take it to the next level to compete with Silicon Valley. This is necessary to remain relevant in a “totally transformed technology landscape” in Ireland, with six unicorns and many more budding entrepreneurs seeing funding success.
“With all these super exciting, rapidly scaling technology companies, we need to be more ahead of the curve than we are, and that helps us do our job better,” she said. “We have the knowledge here. We just don’t have the same organizational level.”
ITGC will also serve as a support group so that those with internal functions, which can often be a one-person team, do not feel isolated in a high-pressure position subject to intense scrutiny.
It’s clear that Irwin brings the same positivity to ITGC as she does with her day-to-day work. And while acknowledging that lawyers are often unfairly given a bad reputation for stereotyping, she is excited about a growing global movement where internal legal teams are strategically further integrated into a firm and not hidden.
“We’ve seen that since the explosion of legal operations and legal technology came on the scene two years ago, companies like Ironclad and contract lifecycle management software companies like them,” she said.
Irwin sees herself as the representative of this movement here in Ireland, and from her day job at Tines she has the full support of the business leaders. “They really support me as a leader and ambassador of the company. And they all think this is a brilliant idea,” she said.
The group launch at Dublin’s Huckletree promises food, drink and a chat by the fire. “I hired a DJ, so it’s going to be funky, cool tech vibes instead of stuffy law, because we’re the opposite of that.” The event also supports UNICEF’s appeal for Ukraine.
“The default position no longer has to be the global head of legal department based in the US just because that’s the largest market. We’re finally on the map now,” Irwin said.
“It’s really nice that Irish qualified lawyers are getting that opportunity because, as I said, status and salaries are all defaulted by the US. It doesn’t always have to be that way,” she added.
“With Tines and other Irish tech companies scaling up massively, we now have the opportunity to capitalize on that.”
The Irish Tech General Counsel launch party will take place on Thursday 7th April at 6:30pm at Huckletree D2. Those who wish to attend can register their interest on the ITGC website.
10 things you should know straight to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, the overview of essential sci-tech news in Silicon Republic.