Lessons I Learned in Law

Francesca Porter on being an airbag, not a seatbelt

August 31, 2023 Heriot Brown Season 5 Episode 7
Lessons I Learned in Law
Francesca Porter on being an airbag, not a seatbelt
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to Francesca Porter, General Counsel and executive team member at Onfido, an AI company who digitally prove people’s real identities using a photo ID and facial biometrics. 

Francesca shares the lessons that she’s learned in law, including:

·      Smart people simplify. The power of lawyers is not only to understand and articulate the legal position, but also to convey a message to key business stakeholders and to drive influence on key risk areas. 

·      To be effective as lawyers we need to be more of an airbag than a seatbelt, helping businesses to grow and scale responsibly in an enduring way.

·      The power of the network is huge - particularly when trying to solve challenging problems at pace, it can save re-inventing the wheel.

Francesca explains what it’s like to work at Onfido, an agile, relatively new tech firm compared to Hewlett Packard where she worked as LegalCounsel. She details how she endeavoured to incorporate best practice from HP at Onfido, without slowing their rapid rate of growth. 

Outside of work Francesca loves to write. She details some of her literary works and the courses she undertook to help write her novels. She also explains how writing outside of work improved her ability as a lawyer, enabling her to be more energised and approach problems in a more creative way. 

Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment


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Scott Brown  (0:02)  
Hi, welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law, series five. This is the OG of legal recruitment podcast. Every episode I'm joined by a top main from the legal profession. And hopefully they're sharing three key lessons that they've learned in law that are aspirational to our listeners and give you a bit of a track record as to how they've got to the position that they're in today. I'm delighted to be joined by Francesca Porter. Francesca, hi!

Francesca Porter  (0:33)  
Hi, excited to be here feeling a little bit like a legal Adele.

Scott Brown  (0:38)  
Oh, well give us give us a song!

Francesca Porter  (0:41)  
Ha, you wouldn't want to hear my singing!

Scott Brown  (0:44)  
Francesca is currently General Counsel at Onfido, which is an AI software business which is focused on biometrics and facial identity. I was reading recently, it's gone through an acquisition, which is very exciting.

Francesca Porter  (0:58)  
Yeah, we only announced that yesterday. Yeah, we're very excited about that. 

Scott Brown  (1:02)  
Amazing has that been full on recently?

Francesca Porter  (1:04)  
It was it was I mean, m&a, like whether it's big, small medium is always really time intensive for lawyers, but also just great learnings and what was acquired, it's a really privacy centric, amazing company with some really cutting edge technology. So we're really excited to see what we can do with that.

Scott Brown  (1:21)  
Nice one. And then the work starts here on the integration. So we'll hear more about Francesca's role. And she she sits on the exec co at Onfido as well, which is a real something that a lot of lawyers aspire to do. So I'd be interested to hear about how that came around and how you support the Exec. But we'll jump into lesson one.

Francesca Porter  (1:40)  
I love this idea, this concept of the three lessons I learned and I had to have a really good think about that the key lessons, the first I'd say is that smart people simplify. That's a phrase that many of us will have heard. But when it comes to law, there are lots of complex concepts. And when you're working in a law firm, you know, getting your head around that technical detail is an amazing discipline. But then when you go in house, being able to take that technical detail and turn it into actionable insights, and concrete stairs is what's really important. So I've seen some absolutely incredible lawyers come up with very detailed technical papers, you know, words of advice, that don't actually have an impact on business. And we had our legal off site recently, and we're talking about the differences between advising and influencing. Now you can give your advice, and it can be perfection. But if nobody's listening, if you're not able to drive changes within the business, and you're not able to influence, then how meaningful Are you in your role. So smart people simplify back to the lesson, the power of lawyers, is not only to understand and to articulate the legal position, but it's to effectively convey a message to keepers and stakeholders that you want to be heard and to drive influence. And the more simple, you can make the message, more data that you can use to substantiate it, and speak in the language of your stakeholders, the more impactful you can be.

Scott Brown  (3:14)  
Yeah, excellent. Where did you first learn that, was that in practice, or in, in house in your roles in house?

Francesca Porter  (3:20)  
I had this interesting conversation recently with this wonderful feeder resource group within our company called all early, and it's all about early career journeys. And one of the questions that came up was around mentors. And we were talking about the importance of mentors and and where you learn things. And I would say that when it comes to learnings, I'm a bit of a beggar a borrower and a thief. You know, I have mentors all over because I look at everyone and try and see how they're managing to be impactful. And with the smart people simplify, one of the most impactful people that I've that I've worked with was a privacy lawyer. And he is ex Google. And he wrote in the Google style of writing. And he was able to Devine very, very complex concepts into very simple one pages that were scalable, getting it out of his head, and effectively onto a one pager that could then be shared on and on and on and on. So that he wasn't just in a corner giving very complex advice. He was conveying a message across a large number of people. And so yeah, it was really through watching his writing style and his impact that I realised you know, there's no prizes on your own house delivering a really complicated summary and showing how clever you are you know, the prize comes from making someone else's job usually your your manager, your boss, really easy because you're you're summarising things in a way they can understand. You can append all the technical detail, that's fine, but but simplify, yeah, allow them to have that key message before they dive into that.

Scott Brown  (4:53)  
Right. And were you always cut out to be an in house lawyer?

Francesca Porter  (4:57)  
My mum was a private practice lawyer, she's a corporate lawyer, and my dad when he was alive was a lawyer as well. And my mom said, don't be a lawyer. But my alternative career options were, you know, at a young age, I sort of looked at being a mermaid, but it didn't seem feasible. And then, when I raised being I really liked biology. And I was interested in, you know, something biology based, but my mum was quick to point out that I might end up studying algae off the coast of Scunthorpe. So having closed off other options, you know, actually the law was an area that I was really interested in as a platform for other things. And I went into it because I actually saw my mum, being an incredible career woman, and really impressive. And we lived in the countryside. And she used to have these kind of businessman coming over at the weekends to ask her for advice on the mergers. She did a lot of IPOs and so on. And I just thought she was really impressive. Yeah. So I went into the law, partly for a lack of imagination. And partly because of that. Yeah, that's a great story. Yeah. And yeah, she thought the riskiest thing I'd done was to take the step from private practice into in house work. But now that I'm in house, actually, I do think I'll stay in the law, because I love the business side and love what we do in house. Yeah. And I love that broader work that you get to be across and how you see that business impact of your advice.

Scott Brown  (6:25)  
Yeah, nice. Yeah, it's good. And it can take you once you're in that environment in that business environment, you're advising on risk and risk appetite, and other other areas which are impactful for the business. So you're looked at as a good operator, hopefully, rather than

Francesca Porter  (6:37)  
We have such a purview as lawyers across so many different areas, that when it comes to joining the dots, sometimes we have those kinds of strategic business insights through the virtue of our function. That's what I really enjoy. And you mentioned being on the executive, that's something I enjoy about being on the executive actually being able to join dots that that I'm able to bring together for strategic insights and to help guide some of our decisions, just through the virtue of being within a legal team.

Scott Brown  (7:07)  
And Francesca's a mum, you're mum of twins?

Francesca Porter  (7:09)  
I am, yeah. And they say there's a very special place in heaven for twin mothers, although I did meet a triplet mother the other day, so she must be going to an even specialer place!

Scott Brown  (7:20)  
Yeah, even higher, even higher. And do you would you advise your kids to be lawyers? What would your reaction be? Compared to your mum's?

Francesca Porter  (7:29)  
I think we all just want our kids to be happy, don't we, we want them to be happy. And hopefully, they will just choose something that makes them happy. I do think any profession where you get that training, and that discipline is a great platform, whether you stay in it, or like you, you go into you go into other things, whether you enjoy your private practices or not like a few people would say that it wasn't a good training. And so, you know, I would not close that option off to them. But I would also just hope that they'll find what that passion is,

Scott Brown  (8:03)  
yeah, we're all on a journey. So it's a journey to get to where you are. So I never regret anything really. But

Francesca Porter  (8:08)  
I'm the same I don't believe in regrets just kind of, you know, Lesson.

Scott Brown  (8:19)  
We'll move on to lesson two,

Francesca Porter  (8:20)  
We talked abit about Onfido. But to talk about the journey that I've been on with them. I started at Onfido when there were 100 people, and I was, there was only one other lawyer at the time, the general counsel. And we were in this office in Covent garden, and it was chaos. But it was magic. There was a galley kitchen and people always burning toasts, so the whole office smelled of burnt toast. There was lots of developers wandering around with no shoes on, just in their socks. And it was a really exciting time. And my lesson that I learned from joining 100 people and seeing the business scale all the way up from 1 million in revenue to, you know, over 100 million in revenue is that as lawyers, you know, to be effective, we need to be more of an airbag than a seatbelt. Right. So when I think about the early days, on Phaedo, I could be pointing out risks in contracts, which I wish I did. But the biggest risk was never getting that business from the 1 million to the 100 million, you know, not not being able to sign the contracts, not being able to ramp losing out to competitors, not being able to fundraise. And so, effectively, you know, as an in house lawyer, you have to have that real holistic vision on everybody talks about commercial awareness. It's a bit of a buzzword, but you really do have to be aware of the very much broader macro environment in which your business is operating. And sometimes you don't want to hold that and growth and that scale back. And you don't want to be a seatbelt. But you do need to build in safeguards. And airbags Yeah, whether it's contractually or in the way that you're building your technology, whether it's in your policy documents, etc, etc. I think it is worth sometimes not blocking things. You know, maybe that's a really thorny, horrible contract, but it was with an enormous logo. Right. And that logo is going to bring on other logos, a little bit like, I don't know if you saw the Spotify documentary. Yeah. Yeah. I think it's episode three, the law where they know their movie. Yeah. Yeah, I know, it made the playlist. Yeah. And they know that if they signed one record label that the others were following, and, and in that situation of being at Onfido, we, when we signed our first enterprise bank, for example, you might want you might need to take some different risk positions to get that over the line, than you will long term. And, you know, it's sort of that understanding the business environment. And as I mentioned, back not a seatbelt. 

Scott Brown  (10:49)  
Yeah. Great, great analogy. Yeah, absolutely. Prior to being at Onfido, you were in house at Hewlett Packard? 

Francesca Porter  (10:55)  
I was, yeah!

Scott Brown  (10:57)  
Is that a different approach within the high growth tech, do you feel?

Francesca Porter  (11:00)  
I mean, it's very, very different business. They did large outsourcing agreements, which are very complex and very challenging to deliver. And you're absolutely right, every business is different in its stage of growth in its products is delivering in the risk that it's able to take, and trying to have your finger on the pulse on understanding the company's strategy. The position that it's in, is really important when you're making those risk decisions. Yeah. And also bringing in the right stakeholders, because there's legal, we can say this is the risk versus the potential reward, this is my recommendation, we can stare away from the rocks, but we don't necessarily need to make the ultimate decision, you know, the CEO or somebody else with more of a holistic vision than we might have, who actually has even more information in terms of serious escalations is the relevant person. Yeah, to make that. And the key difference between onfido and HP was that Onfido is very small and agile. So we can move pretty quickly, we could rip up rule books, and so on. HP had much more governance. So like that they had too weak governance cycles, they had something called a deal assessments tool. And it was it was interesting, moving to Onfido, because there's elements of best practice there that I wanted to bring over. But I also didn't want to slow down this really fast growth agile company. Yeah, yeah. So I had to create something completely new. And we've iterated on that over over the time as well.

Scott Brown  (12:26)  
Yeah. But then still the stuff you must have seen it HP with the best practice? And yeah, what good looks like in a larger organisation is can hopefully bring those practices over as the business grows. I'm feeling

Francesca Porter  (12:36)  
Yes, totally. And Onfido, what was right for 100 people, and 1 million in revenue wasn't right when we were 200 people, and 50 million in revenue, and then the same again, when in the next iteration. So it's kind of a continual evolution to get to the place that you want to be, which is ultimately, when you're a PLC, that you've got these really well documented positions. But even at HP, we had to take unusual risk positions to get some deals. And

Scott Brown  (13:05)  
what did you make of that? Spotify? It's easy, isn't it? And Netflix.

Francesca Porter  (13:08)  
I really, really enjoyed it. I think like, again, we talked about this recently, my legal off site with the team, but there's a few attributes of I think it was Petra, the lawyer,

Scott Brown  (13:18)  
yeah, she had a huge impact on...

Francesca Porter  (13:21)  
She did! And she took on a much broader role than the typical sort of lawyer, which I thought was really interesting. You know, she had an instrumental role in defining their pricing model. Yeah, and what they put behind a paywall, and the film philosophy of an access to music for free, but putting the technology and the really sensitive algorithms and the unique selling points of Spotify, behind a paywall to drive sustainability of the long term business. Yeah. And she then got the buy in from the key stakeholders, from the founders, and then went back to the record labels. And then it still wasn't enough. And they wanted to share in the business and she then negotiated the corporate aspect of that she did a lot of ecosystem building,

Scott Brown  (14:07)  
Yeah, and deal making 

Francesca Porter  (14:08)  
Deal making! Yeah.

Scott Brown  (14:10)  
Yeah, that was cool, actually, I enjoyed that. 

Francesca Porter  (14:12)  
I did, too. 

Scott Brown  (14:14)  
Yes, a huge role. Cool. Is she your lawyer, the aspirational lawyer, fictional or non fictional?

Francesca Porter  (14:21)  
She's one of, for sure!

Scott Brown  (14:21)  
And outside of tech I mean, you obviously had a lot going on recently, but what's your passions outside of work?

Francesca Porter  (14:28)
So I think probably like many lawyers out there, I went into the law because of love of writing. And definitely not recently I haven't I have to admit I haven't had a creative thought since my twins were born but that but but but but prior to my my girls who are now two being born, I did a novel writing course at the Faber Academy, which was just brilliant. I really enjoyed it. And I had actually written one bad book before I did that course and forced, you know, various family members to read it. sort of been told it was not that great, right? So I've got to go, I really gonna undo that, you know, do a course on this, if I if I'm enjoying writing. And so I did it was Wednesday nights and SAS days. And it was, it was really great. I met some amazing people. And I turned up and I thought, you know, we're just going to have lessons and characterization and how to structure a plot when actually you write a book on the course. Right? So at the end, I had sort of finished this this book. And you know, it's much better than the first one, that's for sure. And I had a bit of agents interest, which is, which is great. But yeah, so it is something that I'd like to come back to add to life, think writing, and creative, creative work. But my husband used to say, it's lonely being married to a writer, because I go like, I just go to the library and write this novel all day on Saturday. Yeah, lose like six hours. And then in the world of imaginations, I think it might be a later life thing for me.

Scott Brown  (15:57)
Once the kids are out, yeah, the kids that are running around, not giving, you know, giving you peace that

Francesca Porter  (16:01)  
Exactly! I'm lucky if I've got time to wash my hair these days!

Scott Brown  (16:05)  
I had Abigail Dean, who's she was a lawyer at Google. But she wrote Girl A, best seller. So she was a guest on the on the podcast.

Francesca Porter  (16:13)  
It's interesting, there's quite a few writers, who are also lawyers on the Faber course. And I know that there's been some amazing novels from lawyers who've just taken like a sabbatical to write and so on. 

Scott Brown  (16:26)  
Yeah, it's great. Yeah, definitely got to explore explore the passion and write and when it's when it's writing and words have meaning as a lawyer. So yeah, I guess you sort of get to flex that muscle when you're, when you're drafting or doing doing contracts.

Francesca Porter  (16:38)  
Honestly! But I mean, the weird thing that I would say is, you think doing a writing course on an evening in a weekend would make you sort of, you know, maybe a bit depleted for your legal role in the week, but I found it so energising. And it really made me think in a different way, it was, it actually improved my role, because I was like, using this creative side of my brain that was helping me to approach challenges in my legal role daily in a different way.

Scott Brown  (17:09)  
We'll move on to lesson three.

Francesca Porter  (17:11)  
Lesson three. Okay, so this one, and this may be slightly influenced by me joining a startup. But I think it's an important lesson, whether you're a startup or not. And that is the power of the network. Right? So at onfido, I worked for them fantastic. One of the co founders, and he was the CEO. And whenever I used to go, if we had a question, and I used to go away and spend, you know, big chunk of time researching, he'd say, why don't you just ask your network? I remember thinking to myself, What is this network in which he speaks? It's like six years ago, now, I sort of, you know, a lawyer that's come straight out of private practice, and then into HP. But then I thought about it and and when I left HP, it was after the big corporate separation. And a lot of the legal team in the UK moved off to Amazon, and Google and Expedia and jitsu and secret escapes and these great companies, and they were all experiencing new learnings and similar challenges, like around the time of the GDPR coming out as me, right. And so I actually have a pretty good network. Maybe I will just banned these questions. And as lawyers, and I don't want to generalise, we're all different. Everyone's different, but we are kind of an achiever, self flagellating bonds. And we're also in private practice. You don't you're taught not to ask questions, but to go and research and find the answer yourself. But actually, sometimes it is just way more effective to go to network and say, you know, has anyone got a template precedent for this? Or does anyone have a contact for a law firm in this new Geo? Has anyone had any experience with data protection law in this country? Yeah. And get that shortcut answer that should save hours and hours and hours?

Scott Brown  (19:02)  
Yeah. What has been your biggest win from that? And what do you find the best? The best mode of doing that is?

Francesca Porter  (19:08)  
Yeah, so I mean, tech, GC is just brilliant. I have to go to that with so many different questions. And just templates, brilliant templates that you could spend a lot of money on externally, or questions that are not really that law related, but more about you don't need to know best practices, you want to know what the industry is doing. So, you know, I could ask for a data retention schedule and get, you know, four different templates and pick the one that's most suitable for our business. Yeah. Or I could ask about approaches to state filings in the US because we don't have huge US team and that would be something that somebody would know off the top of their head in the US or kind of, you know, for benchmarking, I can get like kind of 20 responses about how people are approaching, for example, a valuation question and then pick or show the data back to the exec and say This is how other tech businesses right are preaching it. So it's a fantastic. And then obviously just personal network. 

Scott Brown  (20:07)  
Yeah. And how's things been within tech? I mean, we chatted before recording around like Silicon Valley Bank and all that. How is that impacting on your job for that weekend?

Francesca Porter  (20:18)  
It was, yeah. So we do work with SVB. And, you know, actually, I was very sad about that are such great, great team. In my opinion, we're actually in the same building as SVB. Okay. So I was really glad that they managed to get that deal in place. Yeah, we're still working with Dan. I think it's been an interesting time and tech, we are a B2B provider. And a lot of our customers are fintax and challenge banks and tech companies, sharing economy companies, and a lot of our customers have had a really hard time which, you know, flows through. So yeah, it's an interesting time. But it's also an I love that Warren Buffett quote, seeming when the tides go out that you see, he's been swimming naked. What I take from that is that in times of abundance, you know, ever any company can show incline and growth and do well. And in times of hardship, it's really, the winners are often the ones with the discipline, the operational discipline and the infrastructure to be able to survive. So I think like any period of downturn, it's like been rich with learning. 

Scott Brown  (21:25)  
That's important, isn't it and coming out of it stronger? And what's your, at Onfido, what's your plans beyond that, and next things for you?

Francesca Porter  (21:33)  
Well I've still got, there's still a bit of life in me left! At Onfido! Although I have been there for going on six years. So I think in the future, after Onfido, I'd love to move into a similar sector, but a slightly different sector, learn about a new sector, I really passionate about ESG actually just recently went on a great course run by the corporate governance Institute. So being able to work with something that sort of strikes a hot, like a chord, with my heart in the sustainability sector, or renewable energy sector would be fantastic. Keep an open mind. I think, again, being able to work across different businesses and areas is something that I'd be interested in longer term and then potentially being a non exec director is the dream at the same time as novel writing potentially on the Riviera! I won't give up the day job just yet!

Scott Brown  (22:27)  
And mermaiding in your spare time! 

Francesca Porter  (22:29)  

Scott Brown  (22:31)  
Thank you for sharing your lessons. It's been great to learn those and to hear about your journey.

Francesca Porter  (22:35)  
Thank you so much for having me in the hot seat!

Scott Brown  (22:39)  
This week it does feel a bit mastermind sat here, doesn't it, with the lights down? And thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the episode, then there are a host of great guests that we've had over the last four series. Those are available at heriotbrown.com/podcast, a great resource for anyone that's interested in finding out more, so head on over there. I've been Scott Brown, thanks for listening. See you next time.