Lessons I Learned in Law

Scott Yelle on venturing outside of your comfort zone

January 12, 2023 Heriot Brown Season 4 Episode 7
Lessons I Learned in Law
Scott Yelle on venturing outside of your comfort zone
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law Scott Brown speaks to Scott Yelle, Chief Legal and Compliance Officer at KingMakers where he has also been Interim CEO. After leaving corporate private practice at Olswang in 2009 Scott moved in-house holding senior positions at WorldPay and Sky Sports before becoming General Counsel and building the Legal and Compliance function at Sky Betting and Gaming for over 5 years.  

Scott shares some of the lessons he learned in law including:

·      The more your career in law advances, the less it becomes about the law. 

·      Progress your career by seeking out different types of work in-house. Stretch yourself into different areas, beyond your comfort zone. 

·      Try and offer concise, proactive, simple advice where you can. Make your voice heard to help the business or organisation forwards. 

Scott also explains how he made the transition from lawyer to company interim-CEO, and how he felt when stepping up to take on that role. 


Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment

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Scott Brown  (0:02)

Hi, I'm Scott Brown, and this is Lessons I Learned in Law, the podcast brought to you by Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. We're a specialist in placing lawyers in fulfilling careers in-house. On each episode of the podcast, I'm fortunate to be joined by a leading mind from the legal profession, and they share their top three lessons that they've learned from the legal career or from their career elsewhere that they've applied to their career in law. We hope that these give you an insight on the direction that you could take in your own career, and you finish each episode feeling inspired and with a new view on what lawyers can achieve. So my guest today, I'm delighted to be joined by Scott Yelle. Welcome to the podcast, Scott.

 

Scott Yelle  (0:45)  

Thank you very much, Scott. Pleasure to be here.

 

Scott Brown  (0:47)  

Great to have you. To give our listeners a brief overview, Scott has 18 years of experience practising law in a number of international jurisdictions, the UK, Canada and India, for high profile mass market consumer facing businesses. He left corporate law after practising at Olswang, and he moved in-house and has held senior positions at WorldPay, Sky Sports, before becoming General Counsel and building out the legal function and the compliance function at Sky Betting. Most recently, he's Chief Legal Officer and Compliance Officer, and he's also held the position of interim CEO at Kingmakers, which is an African focused sports betting and entertainment company. We're looking forward to hearing more about that background, Scott. But if you don't mind, we'll kick off with lesson one.

 

Scott Yelle  (1:34)  

Thanks, Scott, it was interesting to sort of reflect on things and opportunity when you when you asked me to join the podcast. So it's been an interesting exercise to think of lessons good and bad

 

Scott Brown (1:43)

Good, cathartic? 

 

Scott Yelle (1:44)

Yes, exactly. And sort of in no particular order, I think the one that is most relevant for me at the moment that I often think about and speak with other senior lawyers is, you know, the more that your career advances in law, the less it becomes about the law. And as a GC or senior lawyer, your role develops within an organisation really to be common sense adviser in a sense. And I think this is important in a number of ways. One, it provides you with a diverse interest point and evolution of your career. But it also gives you opportunity, and allows you to pivot into other areas, if you so choose, because it gives you that that wide spectrum. And I guess I'd caveat it in a sense that, you know, my experience has largely been in medium sized enterprises, largely private enterprises, unlisted sort of big corporates. So, you know, it would probably be a different experience, if you were working at a really large PLC or a bank where you're maybe more structured and have less flexibility. But I often joke with other senior lawyers now, and we say, Look, we're not even lawyers anymore. And we're in our job. And that can be quite uncomfortable for people who've done that their whole career. And they know that's what their career is predicated on being a good lawyer dancing, having legal skills and not being your, your kind of clear swim lane, there's one obvious route to it is that you become a manager. And a lot of your time is spent on managing people and developing them and bringing the best out of them, which can be a tricky transition for lawyers, they are not necessarily trained to be the best managers, particularly if you are coming from maybe a private practice experience to an in-house experience where you have less need to do that.

 

Scott Brown  (3:30)  

Was that the point… Is that the point you became a manager, did the penny drop where you didn't feel that you were advising less as a lawyer?

 

Scott Yelle  (3:38)  

Yeah. And that's part of it. I think that was part of the journey, where you were trying to help people who were within your team to be able to give the best advice or ask the questions and be almost like on the receiving end of the advice or the say, the contractor what they're doing and, and put yourself in the shoes of the business or the executive and say, you know, what does that mean? How does that help? Or, you know, what is the risk here? So, so there was that, but I think the other broader sense is, you know, you are asked to as an in house lawyer and a business lawyer to understand the business generally. And how do we want to get to where the business objective is. And of course, there's legal elements to and you're asked to make sure that you are the governor of the legal risks and exposure and transactional basis. But you're also expected and I think what's enjoyable, and why a lot of people go in house to have a view on the wider strategy of the business, what direction should we be taking, because as a lawyer, you have a privileged position of being across lots of areas of the business over your career, you'll experience all sorts of transactions and issues that perhaps other people at the kind of top table don't have as much breadth of exposure to and often you might also see it on either side. If you're in a private practice, you might be on the flip side of what your company is trying to achieve. And so you can I think there's a real strength to be able to bring that to the table. And I am asked in my business now to be that voice of objective common sense, I suppose. And that's what they're looking for, rather than, Oh, yeah, well clause six point c, sub numerate two says this and asked to kind of just respond to a direct legal question,

 

Scott Brown  (5:19)  

Sort of advising through the risk, what sort of risk profile and risk of a deal?

 

Scott Yelle  (5:24)  

Yeah, and I think the reason why it's important, and why I say it's kind of a lesson, I suppose, is, when I was more of a junior lawyer, and when I first had my kind of senior position, and setting up that table, I found it hard to I don't know if it was confidence or see that as my role to speak up when it wasn't a conversation that was just directly related to the legal piece. Yeah. And so I was hesitant to do that. Because one, you don't want to expose yourself, I think naturally as a lawyer of not having the answer or having the view on things. And so you would do that by delving into an area that maybe is not your specialism, I did get that feedback. And it was something that really sort of resonated with me was, Look, everything that comes out of your mouth doesn't have to be strict legal advice. You know, that's not what you're here for. And don't be afraid of that. I was afraid of that. That everything I said it would be relied upon. This is legal advice, you know, it's gospel. And they said, Look, we just want to hear your view on things and your opinion and accounts and do that more. So I think when you're building your career, I think it's important to sort of flex your muscle on that and think about that early on, because otherwise, particularly stay at one organisation for a long time, you define yourself as probably just the Legal Adviser. And so if you want to pivot into something else, or have a wider role and say, commercial, or some other opportunity, it's more hard to do if you've always just been, we'll call you when we do talk about the contract.

 

Scott Brown  (6:45)  

Yeah, was that a lawyer or a non-lawyer that encouraged you to have that voice?

 

Scott Yelle  (6:51)  

It was very much an ILO. So I was the only lawyer, that kind of table and that leadership team. And I thought, you know, okay, I've got my role, I understand it, I'll speak up when there's a legal point of view spoken. And it was both the CEO at the time, and also, one of the commercial directors said, Look, you know, you got to speak up more, you got to engage, and don't be afraid to do X, we want to hear from you. And I really changed, you know, quite frankly, my enjoyment of the role, and being a part of the business and sort of having a more fulfilling position and career. And something I've really kept, kept to kept in my mind, and when I change roles to another company, because I did find it difficult at that prior organisation, you know, to my earlier point, because I hadn't carved that niche out for me. So it's like, when you go to a meeting, and you don't say anything, and you're in a big group, and the longer the meeting goes on, you haven't said anything, it's more difficult to say something, and be a part of it. And so I felt like that was the case, in that role, it was harder to then step out of that show. Whereas in next roles and stuff, I've made sure from the get go, you know, I want to be involved in that conversation. And then it's a much easier and natural way to operate.

 

Scott Brown  (8:01)  

You obviously managing and have been managing teams of lawyers, how do you encourage them to show those qualities and advise on a common sense basis?

 

Scott Yelle  (8:09)  

It's a good question. And it's not, it's straightforward. And that easy, because you do have to make sure that you're covering your primary function, for sure. Yeah. And that has to be covered. And then you also have to, I think, through experience, know when it's appropriate, also, to sort of hang out, you don't want to be the happy guy, that table just says everything all the time just to be to be heard. So it's striking that balance. And I think the way to do it is, you know, even on just a one on one scenario, if you're in a team, and you're taking instructions from a commercial colleague or whatever, ask the questions, you know, drive deeper, kind of have a two way conversation rather than we can. We can, as lawyers rely on just sort of taking instructions and actioning them, rather than you're looking for the bigger picture and understanding how it all fits in and, and don't be afraid to give your view of why, you know, something that may not have been thought of and what might be an opportunity. So, yeah, it's something I do really try to instil in, you know, becoming a kind of broader business lawyer within an organisation.

 

Scott Brown  (9:16)  

When you remove it making that switch from practice where you were primarily a corporate lawyer, did you want to do a corporate role in house or did you want to do something broader? What was your thought process at that point?

 

Scott Yelle  (9:28)  

Yeah, I was very clearly did not want to just be a corporate lawyer. And for me, that was what really interests me, and even from the outset, I knew I did corporate law as a what I thought and I think he has a strong foundation for becoming, you know, ultimately a general counsel or a business lawyer, and having both the rigour of the role but the drafting skills, understanding how corporations work, but I have to say when I was a practising candidate originally and in the corporate department, it was much more of A commercial corporate role. And so you did a breadth of sort of business like suppose for, for clients. When I came to the UK toes Wang, I didn't appreciate it was much more sort of specialised or differentiation between commercial and corporate. So I found myself just doing corporate deals, and largely kind of property back corporate deals. And I, I just didn't enjoy doing, you know, deal after deal. I always felt like, I was missing out on the fun of the businesses doing their, their bit and kind of advising them and they're going off and, and securing some sort of deal or buying something. Yeah. So I always wanted to be on the other side. So the big part of me leaving was, I knew that a transactional lawyer wasn't what I always wanted to move more into a commercial, broader, kind of role.

 

Scott Brown  (10:47)  

Right? It wasn't, as we see all the all the time, either that you've just described yourself where a corporate lawyer wants to move into something broader. But on the same side, we speak to a lot of corporate lawyers who want to move in house, we want to do transactional work. And we're forever trying to upsell them the opportunity to do more commercial or a broader position, because it's going to your career trajectory is probably looking a lot healthier than being siloed into that transaction, not purely transactional function. But like you said, the foundations that you get, as a corporate lawyer, are great, and very transferable.

 

We'll move on to lesson two, if you don't mind.

 

Scott Yelle  (11:33)  

Yeah, sure. So I think the second one for me is to sort of really progress your career and to give you options, I think it's vitally important that you seek out different type of work, once you get in house, and you use that opportunity to have a multifaceted group of people that you can work with or learn from, and really stretch yourself in terms of different areas, you know, to the point of your comfort zone might be corporate law, but if somebody comes in, and it has to do with insurance, or property or litigation, you know, take advantage of that and sees that work. And I've heard a few people say, you know, my career, oh, that's not my job. And I'm a lawyer, I shouldn't be doing that. And, to me, I think that's a, that's a big mistake. And obviously, capacity is an issue. And obviously, you've got to balance priorities. But in my mind, if someone comes to you with something that, you know, there's that opportunity, we find ourselves, I suppose, in a lot of ways in house teams, I think people will resonate with as the last port of call for sort of Lost Souls of work. So where else is gonna go, I don't know, let's head to the legal team. And they can figure it out for us. And sometimes you do get, you know, you get crap. But you have an opportunity to learn stuff, work with other people in the business you might not be able to work with. And for me, that's making the experience of it because, again, going back to being you know, a trained lawyer. So I had a sort of real life example, where I left private practice, as we talked about, I was a bit disillusioned, you know, I didn't go to law school to be a corporate transactional, or I went to do was say about public policy and sort of civil service and things like that. And I sort of strayed from that quite a bit. And so I said, Fine, I'm gonna pack it in. And I moved to India, to work for a microfinance company that was at a time but burgeoning sort of industry. And I felt was a really good way to sort of get back to what I originally had envisioned I'd be doing but use skills in corporate and commercial work that I had learned along the way. And it was about getting investment from funds, large international funds into northern India, and vice versa, dispersing money to entrepreneurs. So, all great, good, good, no kind of London law firm salary, but I was going to change the world that the twinkle in my eye. And I got over there. And I had my blue sports coat and my chinos and I showed up the real kind of casual Friday attire sort of at the time, and, and was clearly a fish out of water. And I was basically like, Okay, guys, I'm here, what do you want me to do? You know, I'm a lawyer, I'm eager, and they hadn't had an in house lawyer before it was kind of a startup, smaller kind of grassroots organisation. They had, they had no idea what to do with me. And I had no idea what to do. When someone wasn't feeding me work. And I there was very slow deal flow, because it was kind of 2009 the banking crisis was still sort of imploding. And it was a real lesson for me was a basic disaster because I ended up you know, kind of doing some precedents and was really bored and about six months I just left really sort of disenchanted but the kind of lesson from it was, seek out work. You know, I the skill set you need to be a good in House lawyers is different than where you're trained to be as a lawyer where you receive instructions and then do the task or give advice. It's about how can I add value Where can I do it and really seek that out in a way that, you know, sometimes makes you uncomfortable. Because also people, people, you know, in businesses are often uncomfortable with lawyers, I don't know if that's the best way to put it. But they're used to that relationship too, I got an issue, I've got a problem, I'll speak to the lawyer, they'll solve it, they'll do something for me, as opposed to being more collaborative, and finding bits. So I think that's what really sort of rocket fuels your career and houses, and why people will go and houses to be able to have really diverse work that they don't sit back on the corner and get fed it, they go get it and they go be involved in it.

 

Scott Brown  (15:39)  

Define the function because no one business is the same. But it's rare for someone to or a company to have a rule book or a playbook as to exactly what the legal function does. So surely, the bet the most interesting stuff does come from where you're going out and finding it and building relationships and adding value, like you said,

 

Scott Yelle  (15:57)  

Yeah, and it does, it helps again, your identity, and Persona within an organisation by being not just, Oh, we've got a legal issue, we should call Scott up, it's like, we should invite him to the meeting, because he's going to add value in other ways, and it's going to get involved in and drive stuff. And, you know, I think, again, the sooner you can kind of do that and get a reputation and feel for doing that, the better for you within that organisation and opens doors for you to do that. So

 

Scott Brown  (16:28)  

how long did the stint in India last? 

 

Scott Yelle  (16:31)  

Yeah, so I had turned into, I was going to be there about a year. And I ended up working six months and then travelling for six months and ended up being more beach and music festival for six months. And then I came back to the UK and I worked for the Salvation Army for another six months doing in their legacy department effectively if people left money to the Salvation Army, then it was sort of a litigation to fight to make sure that they retain that money. So it was I tended to do things kind of extreme. Because after that, I then became a gambling lawyer. So I started, yeah. Back and forth.

 

Scott Brown  (17:10)  

Give and take.

 

Scott Yelle  (17:12)  

Yes, exactly. So that was my year for good, though. So like to look back on it. 

 

Scott Brown  (17:17)  

I’m sure people have probably had longer bouts of food poisoning in India than six months! Are you back in Canada after that, or, have you been UK based?

 

Scott Yelle  (17:27)  

I was a bit of a lost soul. So I wasn't sure where it was going to go. And I came back to the UK then. And then that's when I started working at RBS and then Sky which directed my career from there and went through Sky Sports and met my wife at Sky as well. So that cemented me in the UK

 

Scott Brown  (17:42)  

An ex pat, nice

 

Scott Yelle  (17:45)  

That piece of finding interesting, divergent different route that might be out of your swing zone. And that's it. You know, we mentioned before, when I was doing the interim CEO role that never would have happened if I hadn't kind of tried to position myself and then seen as, as not just a lawyer at the current company, and I'm at so it kind of sets you up for if you're interested, I think it sets you up for a more diversity of interesting career as a lawyer, but also gives you an opportunity to test yourself and other parts of the business as well. Lesson three, is less of a lesson probably a bit more of an observation. And again, it was, you know, in the recent so up until about six weeks ago, I was I was interim CEO of the company I'm at now and it wasn't expected. It was sort of thrust into it, our founder left and we needed a permanent CEO, but there was clearly going to be a gap. So I was put in place and stepped up to acquire a diverse organisation of over 700 people across five different international offices with a lot of decisions that hadn't been made that needed to be made and things that were troublesome it not the least to be part of a leadership team appear in a leadership team, almost literally overnight, then their boss and some difficult conversations around resourcing and how things would work. So one of the things that was really interesting was in a very rapid transition was not to be the general counsel anymore and to be the CEO. And you know, how you reflected on the needs of a legal team and a CEO from that position. And you know, it was about one it was about actually being a general counsel is legal is a hard complex job. And one of the things I didn't miss about not being the lawyer anymore was that you know, you're at meetings and as a CEO, you're making decisions and you're being fed into with decision points and you take a view and then at the end of the meeting you say often say the lawyer Okay, is seven is 10 action seven are yours and go transact that, and you realise that you don't miss that element of it. But, but you do really appreciate someone in that position who can, you know, look as a CEO and people is, you know, you don't have all the answers when you're running a business, and people might think you do. But you don't you need people to give you really concise, proactive often, and simple advice to help you along on what you're going to do. And it's that kind of mindset that I think you need to bring to the table and be because you do have a viewpoint that is relatively unique, I think it's a lawyer, and you need to be heard. And it's helpful. When you're running a business to have that that voice. The other thing I think that comes out of it is, you know, we hear that you hear this law as a lawyer going up as be commercial, be pragmatic, you know, don't hold things up. And there's there is absolutely truth to that. But it's for me, that's a real challenge, because being a commercial lawyer doesn't mean not doing your job and raising points. And, and but also you don't want to, you don't want to stagnate the business objectives for the soak for the sake of legal theory, or unnecessary kind of point scoring, perhaps or whatever it is. And you kind of have that debate, to be completely honest, as when you were sitting in the kind of business sense or commercial CEO or whatever it is. There's sometimes if that was, if there were no load lawyers involved in this, would we be any worse? There's that sort of esoteric debate I have in my head about, sometimes you can really get down the path of over egging it, go placing it where you're probably not doing anybody or your business any favours by that. And it's about taking a when you say commercial for me, it's about knowing when's enough, when you need to push more. And when you know, you move on and say, it sounds bad. But this is good enough. This is this is the deal speed, balancing the risk. I don't need to really be over this, and we need to just get it done.

 

Scott Brown  (22:10)  

Yeah, yeah, I hear that a lot. What was it like that day, then that you had to that you found yourself in the decision making position? Like in that first leadership meeting? How did it feel having the power to make those decisions? And was it very different?

 

Scott Yelle  (22:24)  

Yeah, it was very different. It was, it was really hard. If I'm, if I'm totally blunt, you're quite vulnerable. When you're, when you're a lawyer, and you've got your team and you're relying on other people in that sense, you at least have the experience or background that you can, you've got better for a sniff test. And you probably have done the work before that you can say that's not quite right. And have you done by this, when you're not operationally complete, relying on the CTO, or the head of finance, and all these people to give you information or answers, you might serve a decent barometer of sniff test, but you are really exposed and relying on these people on the rest of your team in a way that you're not in, in, you know, your skill set. So it was quite daunting. The other elements of you know, having to deal with which were revenues and targets and hitting that which you don't normally have to deal with as a lawyer was a challenge. We had some quite we've got some, you know, quite sophisticated shareholders who were quite demanding a lot of my job was really steadying the ship so it was going out and, and balancing that what I really did enjoy the probably the biggest thing I enjoyed was, I really enjoyed which again, lawyers don't often get to do was to be the was the kind of employee comms and be almost like a cheerleader for the company. And that was a big part of it was going around meeting people listening to them. And then, you know, being that almost booster about what was what was good, but also what was bad with the company doing town halls, and I really enjoyed that element of it. It was went to my head, but it was a fun opportunity. On the leadership. Yeah, yeah, exactly. But I think you know, for lawyers who are looking to do different roles, it is daunting, and it's a step change, but the legal profession does set you up with so many great skills to move into other commercial roles. And when I asked by quite blank, that sort of board who appointed me, you know, why did you point me I'm not operational. The reasons that came back were, you know, clarity of thinking, safe pair of hands, you know, trust that built with both the shareholders and directors and the rest of the team. As a lawyer, you tend to be more, I suppose, objective, you don't have as much. I don't know if skin in the game is right, but you're not. You're typically not driving for resource or in the same kind of way that say we made the commercial versus a finance person or whatever it might have, where you can step in and kind of balance those things better and you're used to balancing risk and people and projects. So yeah, the obvious gaps are probably an operational one and perhaps, you know, technology and that's where you need to rely on people,

 

Scott Brown  (25:01)  

Do you think those qualities are you being the ideal person for that role? It was that symptomatic or in terms of the state of the business at that point in time and the state of flux there was in a lawyer's as a safe pair of hands that you mentioned that or clarity of thought. Do you think it was as a result of that? Or I guess I'm thinking what organisations are more likely to look at lawyers, as CEOs or potential CEOs and in the making?

 

Scott Yelle  (25:28)  

Yeah, I think I think that's right. It was, I think lawyers are naturally quite adept at picking up the pieces and settling things that are maybe not exactly right. And probably as a generalisation, certainly, probably in my case, the that was the kind of ideal scenario where you, you come into bring a safe pair of hands and balance. And you know, to be honest, in life, people asked me, you know, have you got the bug? Do you want to do this again, and somewhere else? And I'm not sure I'm joined back being in my other role. If I were to do again, I would certainly do it a smaller organisation to start with, and the less probably complex, but certainly the natural, traditional kind of legal view and skill set is quite adapt to that your company wasn't in crisis, but in a scenario where you need some stability in that place. I mean, everyone would be different. But certainly for me, that was that was a big part of it.

 

Scott Brown  (26:29)  

Yeah. So I've been asking all my guests this series, final question, which is, what lesson Have you learned during your career that you wish you hadn't learned? Looking with hindsight? And if you could put the genie back in the bottle? What would that be? 

 

Scott Yelle  (26:43)  

Yeah, well, we were joking earlier about CEO as views on what lawyers are really like, and the need for them. Parking that aside, then, I think, for me, it was when I was a junior lawyer, and I touched on it before, it was very instilled in me. And I think it was because of the Canadian law firm, I was quite serious and formal, it was very instilled in me that you had to be very careful about everything you said, and be very serious as a lawyer, and everything that came out of your mouth was going to be seen as advice. And I think that, you know, going in house, I think that, in some ways, inhibited, you know, my progression or development as an in-house lawyer. And as I was talking about before, and people were, you know, the feedback was, you don't have to be like that. Don't take yourself so seriously. Yeah, come out and use your intellect and opinions. And don't be afraid of if you're, if it's wrong, we're not going to hold you to account for everything you say, as it is. It's some sort of formal opinion on things. So I wish you know, in hindsight, that's something that took me quite a long time to understand and correct.

 

Scott Brown  (27:52)  

Yeah, unlearn. Yeah, yeah. Perfect. Well, thank you. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for joining me today. Scott. It's been great chatting with you and giving your lessons. Thank you for sharing those

 

Scott Yelle  (28:02)  

Pleasure, really great speaking with you as well.

 

Scott Brown  (28:08)  

That was Scott Yelle, who is Chief Legal Officer at Kingmakers. Some great lessons there that he shared from his time at the outset of his legal career, which are really applicable to junior lawyers. And then the stuff that he's learned more recently, where he went outside of his comfort zone and into that CEO position at Kingmakers, which sounds like a fascinating experience and has really taken a lot of useful insights back to being in his position as CFO in an operational role. 

Accidentally, this series does have a whiff about it of people who have left the profession for one reason or another, to pursue other things outside of law, and Scott's flurry into being a CEO is running in that theme. If you enjoyed that conversation with Scott, then why not check out an earlier episode from the series with Mollie Stoker. Mollie is now at Ocado Retail. However, earlier in her career, she stepped outside her comfort zone and saw things from a different perspective when she worked for a business development team and flourished in that position, but ultimately went back into a legal role. 

You can search for that episode and more on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and all those good listening platforms, or head over to heriotbrown.com/podcast. Remember to be a good listener and hit that subscribe button and share it with your network. There's some great insights that I hope are really resonating well and we're getting some fantastic feedback. So leave us a rating, which also helps out if you have any feedback, or you'd like to appear or you know someone that would be a great guest for someone for me to talk to, then drop me a line to scott@heriotbrown.com or come and connect with me on LinkedIn. As always, thanks for listening. See you again soon!