ITGC: A new community to bring Irish tech general counsel to the next level

25 Mar 2022

Sarah Irwin. Image: Ruthless Imagery

The new network for in-house legal teams at rapidly scaling tech companies launches next month.

Sarah Irwin was Irish start-up Tines’ first legal hire, joining the company just after a Series B fundraise saw its valuation soar to $300m. The board of the rapidly scaling tech company knew it was time for new blood, telling founders Eoin Hinchy and Thomas Kinsella to stop redlining documents themselves and get a head of legal.

But within her first week on the job, Irwin realised that, with no in-house legal team or superior manager, there was nowhere to turn to if she had questions. She also knew how she could change this for the better: by starting a community of in-house tech general counsels.

Future Human

“There are massive global networks like the ACC [Association of Corporate Counsel]. There’s another one in the US called TechGC, which is very US-oriented. And I realised that we needed one in Ireland,” she said. “So I thought: right, I’ll set this up myself.”

‘I’m looking for people like me who want to leverage legal tech to make efficiencies within scaling tech companies’

And so Irish Tech General Counsel (ITGC) began with what Irwin called “lukewarm” outreach to other heads of legal at start-ups operating in Ireland. This included recently minted unicorn Flipdish, London-headquartered fintech Revolut and indigenous Irish success story Fenergo.

“I realised that there was probably a little group of us that would be up for maybe going for wine every few weeks,” she said. “And then the more I put the feelers out, the more I realised it was probably a slightly bigger group.”

This formed the basis of Irwin’s decision to establish a supportive peer forum for “innovative” heads of legal at Irish tech companies. And Irwin stresses that ‘innovative’ is a qualifying word, because she’s not looking for legal experts who aren’t forward-looking.

“Not the kind that see legal as a siloed cost centre, or the ‘Department of No’ that has a lot of friction with sales teams,” she asserted.

Irwin wants: “People like me who want to leverage legal tech to make efficiencies within scaling tech companies. And they see themselves more as a strategic business partner rather than just someone that’s brought in on deals at the tail-end, and then just ends up saying no.”

Irwin herself has been practising law for 13 years. She trained as a barrister in London, then moved to Ireland in 2014 and cross-qualified as a solicitor. In her eight years working as a corporate lawyer, she dealt with tech clients across sectors from AR and gaming to healthcare and life sciences.

Setting the example she wants to see in other legal leads in tech, Irwin is open to automation and software integration. She has a growth mindset and likes to challenge herself by constantly learning new things. She is conscious of end users and thinks in terms of user experience. And she likes to bring her personality to her work, tending towards optimism in a role that is often known for being “the most pessimistic person in the room”.

“Rather than delivering messages in a pessimistic way, I’m very solution focused,” she said.

‘There’s a job to do in normalising in-house careers for people at the early stage’

ITGC will celebrate a formal launch night in Dublin next month, but it’s already creating a buzz among the community.

“The minute I announced on LinkedIn … it caught fire,” said Irwin. “I was contacted not only by heads of legal, but also in-house tech lawyers at all levels.” And so, ITGC is welcoming anyone working in legal at a tech company.

Irwin was also approached by law students and trainees who were excited by the idea of taking their career into tech but were put off by the more conventional career paths drilled into them during their education and training.

“[Universities] sell to you [the idea of] staying at the same law firm and becoming a partner there,” said Irwin, noting that this journey can take decades.

“We know now millennials will change jobs every five years unless they’re incentivised properly to stay. For Gen Z, apparently, it’s like every two years or 18 months. It is normal now to have a 10-year career stretch with work at four, five, six different places and possibly even different jobs.”

Irwin wants to help future qualified legal professionals to realise there are opportunities compatible with this new world of work. “I realised that there’s a job to do there in normalising in-house careers for people at that stage, and also leverage the network to mentor them,” she said. “Particularly people from underprivileged backgrounds or underrepresented minorities and so on – just to kick doors open for them.”

‘Having all of these rapidly scaling tech companies in Ireland, we need to be more ahead of the curve than we are’

Whether it be by Slack chat, meet-ups or knowledge-sharing lunch and learns, Irwin is determined that the Irish tech general counsel community needs to come together and level up to be able to compete with Silicon Valley. This is necessary to stay relevant in a “totally transformed tech landscape” in Ireland, with six unicorns and many more early-stage entrepreneurs seeing funding success.

“Having all of these super exciting, rapidly scaling tech companies, we do need to be more ahead of the curve than we are, and that helps us do our jobs better,” she said. “We have the knowledge here. We just don’t have the same level of organisation.”

ITGC will also serve as a support group so that those in in-house roles, who can often be a one-person team, don’t feel isolated in a high-pressure position subject to intense scrutiny.

It’s clear that Irwin is bringing the same positivity to ITGC as she does with her day job. And while she acknowledges that lawyers often unfairly get a bad rep because of stereotyping, she is excited by a growing global movement that sees in-house legal teams becoming further integrated with a business strategically and not hidden away.

“We’ve seen that since the explosion of legal ops and legal tech onto the scene two years ago, the likes of Ironclad and contract life cycle management software companies like them,” she said.

Irwin sees herself as this movement’s representative here in Ireland, and from her day job at Tines she has the full backing of the company leaders. “They’re really supportive of me as a leader and an ambassador of the company. And they think all this is a brilliant idea,” she said.

The group launch at Huckletree in Dublin promises food, drink and a fireside chat. “I’ve hired a DJ, so it’s going to be funky, cool tech vibes rather than stuffy law because we’re the complete opposite of that.” The event will also be supporting UNICEF’s Ukraine appeal.

“The default position no longer has to be that the global head of legal is based in the US just because that’s the biggest market. We’re finally on the map now,” said Irwin.

“It’s really nice that Irish-qualified lawyers are getting that opportunity because, like I said, the status and salaries are all defaulting to the US. It doesn’t always have to be that way,” she added.

“The likes of Tines and other Irish tech companies that are massively scaling, we have an opportunity to now take advantage of that.”

The Irish Tech General Counsel launch party takes place on Thursday, 7 April at 6.30pm in Huckletree D2. Those wishing to attend can register their interest at the ITGC website.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic