‘I get to live vicariously through some great entrepreneurs, investors and CEOs’

7 Jul 2020

Colm Rafferty. Image: Maples Group

Maples Group’s Colm Rafferty discusses how he got interested in tech and VC, what Covid-19 could mean for the sci-tech sector in Ireland, and why he’s a slave to the inbox.

Colm Rafferty is an M&A and corporate finance lawyer working with enterprises and investors in the Irish tech sector, among other industries. He is a partner and co-head of the corporate team in the Dublin office of the Maples Group.

Rafferty helped build the group’s tech practice over the last 13 years and is an advocate for the Irish tech sector. He has sat on the boards of Coder Dojo and the Fintech and Payments Association of Ireland, which he co-founded. He is also an active member of the steering committee of Scale Ireland, the advocacy group for innovation-driven enterprises.

‘Many businesses within tech and life sciences have become more attractive as acquisition targets because of Covid-19’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m lucky enough to work with a great team of experienced lawyers so most of my time now is spent on client relationship management, strategic input and project management on transactions, and mentoring.

I’ve always enjoyed going on the journey with an entrepreneur or investor. It’s not all about the money but when you see a founder or an investor make a great return, it is hugely satisfying to see their risk rewarded. I guess as a somewhat risk-averse lawyer, I get to live vicariously through some great entrepreneurs, investors and CEOs who are much braver than me!

Tech is where I’m most comfortable and have the deepest network, but obviously this is a small market and somewhat limited, so I’m involved with lots of other high-growth, privately-held companies in other sectors.

The other area I focus on is advising private equity and venture investors with regard to Irish investments. Private equity has really come to the fore in the Irish market and is driving volume. Many of the private equity deals we are seeing involve tech companies – so that is hitting two of our sweet spots here at the Maples Group.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Unfortunately, I’m a slave to the inbox, essentially using it as my to-do list. Unfortunately, email is an occupational hazard for corporate lawyers when precision of the written word is still at the core of what we do – I’m waiting for a Slack-equivalent for law to make it all far more efficient!

I am pretty good at taking time out for strategic thinking, but the challenge is always implementation. Client service trumps everything so it’s very easy for long-term, value-creating initiatives, marketing plans or process refinement to drop down the list. Perhaps that’s why law as an industry has been slower to adopt new technologies than many outsiders would expect.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Like many professions, talent acquisition and retention is probably still our biggest challenge. Getting the right people in early and keeping them invested in a career with the firm over the long term is our biggest focus.

Economic cycles like a depression or a crash, or the current Covid-19 pandemic, are always tough on professional services but I think, over the longer term, increased competition, relaxation of regulatory hurdles, alternative service providers, AI and the ‘big four’ accountancy firms all have the potential to make life challenging for the traditional model law firm. The Maples Group is a global organisation, which will help protect our business lines and weather economic storms.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Many businesses within tech and life sciences have become more attractive as acquisition targets because of Covid-19. As examples, many security, e-learning, IoT and e-commerce companies are riding a wave and also a long-term trend.

We are lucky in Ireland in that we have a reasonably deep ecosystem of innovation-driven enterprises that I believe will prove resilient and attractive to overseas buyers and investors. Tech can also be somewhat decoupled from the economic cycle and, as we know, most of the big strategic acquirers have significant amounts of capital to deploy.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I came back from studying in Australia in 1996 on a mission to introduce the flat white to an under-caffeinated Ireland! I learnt my trade as a barista with the intent of opening a café – in retrospect, that would have been a great move at the time.

I was broke after coming back from Australia and living at home, which drove me into a quick decision to take a traineeship in a big firm. The deals we were doing leading up to the dot-com bubble really got me interested in tech and VC.

To be quite honest, I had no interest in law and that didn’t change as I studied it. It has only been its application in the real world of business that has really engaged me!

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake was working in a business where selling time was the model. I realised that the important lesson is to sell your expertise, not your time. If you can scale that expertise, all the better.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I think you have to treat each member of a team as an individual – they all have their personal stories and histories, which means that different things will motivate them, unnerve them, make them disillusioned or give them security.

I think acknowledging that and at the same time acknowledging the realities of business in an authentic way is the best place to start. You have to go with your instincts.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

I think one of the biggest problems in the legal sector is that it struggles to establish its own parameters in terms of work-life balance as workloads tend to be guided by our clients and the types of services we provide to them.

That work-life balance issue has a different impact on everyone and I think, as a result, diversity at senior levels in law firms is not where it needs to be. At the Maples Group, we really are committed to creating an inclusive and diverse workplace. We employ 76 nationalities around the world and I think we’re stronger as a result. We also have a 55:45 ratio of women to men working across the group in Dublin, and at partner level over 30pc are women.

But clearly there is still more to be done. It is imperative that we solve the diversity challenge – not just because it’s the right thing but also because it makes business sense and we can all benefit from it.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I actually find my current partners to be the greatest source of insight – they will challenge you, give you a kick, pick you up and share their experiences. The profession has changed so much over the last 20 years that listening to more senior people isn’t necessarily where the learnings are.

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman
  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough
  • Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
  • Disrupted by Dan Lyons
  • I also really recommend The Adam Buxton Podcast, for fans of the format
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Nothing groundbreaking: iPhone, email, Outlook calendar and, of course, a strong coffee! I also try to run as much as possible – it really does clear the head.

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