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The path to GC and beyond - Episode 2 with Sarah Binder

In the second interview of our InView webinar series, our moderator David Lancelot (CLO and EVP of Advocacy at LawVu) was joined by Sarah Binder (Head of Legal, Trust and Safety and Insurance at Lime) to explore some of the biggest lessons she has learned on her unique career path.

If you missed our webinar, you can catch the full replay here.

How did Sarah get here?

Sarah’s route to a legal career was somewhat circuitous. After initially studying history and politics at the London School of Economics, where she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree, no obvious career pathway emerged. So, she pivoted, opting to return to university, only this time to the University of London where she completed a legal degree. 

What captured her imagination was law’s symbiotic relationship with the business world. “The way that the law governs and drives every part of business was compelling to me - I became a corporate attorney because I wanted to be part of bringing those two things together,” she says.

Sarah’s first job was with international law firm Clifford Chance (she worked in both their London and Abu Dhabi offices), and it sparked her interest in helping companies achieve their business goals - whether it involved resolving a dispute, executing a transaction, or launching in a new country. She says that working for clients who operated globally and the challenges that resulted from being in that environment was incredibly interesting.

Upon her return to London from Abu Dhabi, Sarah moved from corporate law to in-house. For six years she worked for British Telecom, starting out as an M&A lawyer – “I was pretty junior” – and eventually becoming General Counsel of Plusnet. Other companies she has worked for include Pizza Hut Europe & UK, where she held the positions of GC and Chief Development Officer, and Yum! Brands. In May 2021 she joined Lime, the world’s largest micro-mobility vehicle operator, where she now heads up the legal, trust and safety and insurance arm of the business. She is also on the company’s executive team. In 2022 she moved to San Francisco where Lime is headquartered.

Lesson 1: Be part of the business

“You have to be able to understand what it is that the business wants, and think about how to enable that.” 

Sarah is adamant that if lawyers make the move from private practice to in-house, they need to realize they are a part of the business, and that they have a unique role which often requires them to look at it through a different lens. For example, an in-house lawyer must seriously consider the risks involved in any proposed product launch. 

Sarah’s philosophy around how to provide legal advice and run a legal function is that it must be tailored to suit the company you’re working for at the time. Her advice for anyone starting a new role? “Listen, listen, listen.”

“You want people across the business to be telling you what they’re worried about, what they’re excited about, what they think, what the things are that would stop them from achieving what they want to achieve.”

Once a GC has that information they can confidently say, “This is where legal can help you.”

Sarah stresses that many factors must be considered - a lot depends on the company’s business plan and on the industry it’s part of. 

“You absolutely need to be a business person first. It’s very important to bespoke the way you’re going to operate, to function - to show up as a counselor to the business you’re in and to understand their goals.”

Sarah also describes herself as a coach in the business when it comes to risk tolerance, saying that GCs need, to some extent, to coach their internal clients and their business through things that they may not have considered risky because they haven’t understood another side of it. 

“You must have a benchmark from which to start from, and then you can start to understand where you think there’s more risk that requires your attention. In most of my roles, over time I have recalibrated the things I focus on. I spend a lot of time coaching my teams to make sure they are doing the work that really matters.”

All attorneys know there will always be enough work to keep them at their desks past midnight - and then some. Getting everything done is never a realistic target. And Sarah says that while it is sometimes appropriate to hire more resources, it is important to be ruthless about what you prioritize, understand the criteria against which you’re making those decisions, and make sure that they’re objective, data driven, and can be explained to the business.

“You have to coach your business about the things that they should or shouldn’t care about. And you must also coach your teams about needing to have that approach. My sense is that you’ll never get it all done and being pragmatic and ruthless about what you focus on is the most important thing that you can do.” 

Lesson 2: Communication is key

While excellent communication will always be important, it’s become even more so since the pandemic when people were forced to work remotely – a situation that post-Covid has become the norm for many workers. The change in how and where people work means that team leaders must increase the amount of time they spend communicating their messages and strategies, and ensure that their messaging is clear so that they don’t create a breeding ground for misunderstandings. 

“My advice is that, however many times you think you need to communicate something, triple it.. Do that and you are probably getting close, but you can never explain things too much. I read a great book by David Novak called Taking People with You - his argument is that you don’t really have anything if you haven’t taken people with you. You don’t have the commitment, you don’t have the focus or the vision, and you don’t have the innovation.

“At Lime I’ve certainly learned that there is nothing more valuable than spending time communicating to your teams and your people on what and why you are trying to do things and where they fit into it… If you don’t have everybody underpinned and pointing in the same direction, you continuously have to keep recycling the communication of who we are, what we stand for, and what we are doing. So, taking the time to do that thoughtfully and authentically – and three times more than you think you need to – is how I approach communication.”

Lesson 3: Expand your horizons

“Being prepared to put your hand up and say, ‘that sounds interesting and new and I think I would learn something from it’ – that was what led to me to work overseas.” 

While working offshore wasn’t initially on Sarah’s to-do list, her advice is that if you’re offered such an opportunity, make sure to grab it. She says that global careers are possible, due in part to an increasing occurrence of global problems. These days issues don’t sit in just one jurisdiction; no one - courts, regulators, and media - works like that anymore. 

According to Sarah, living and working in a foreign country broadens one’s horizons on every front and it’s an opportunity not to be missed, especially early in your career when you are likely to have more flexibility, i.e., no mortgage or school-age children to take into consideration.

“That breadth of experience where you’re able to say, yes, I’ve dealt with something similar in another country when in a previous role is helpful. And I found being an expat super fun. It was an incredible experience and I absolutely loved it.”

Final words of advice 

Understanding your business, understanding the industry it’s part of, knowing the numbers – all those things are important. And it is crucial that lawyers come to terms with the need for them to know the numbers – and quickly.

Sarah says that at the start of her legal career the idea of data, numbers and efficiency applying to lawyers wasn’t considered pertinent. As far as the legal profession was concerned, they dealt with words rather than numbers. How times have changed.

“Lime is a very data driven business and it’s made me very data driven. If everyone else is talking in a data driven way you can’t be a function that doesn’t talk the same language. You have to be able to talk the language of the business.”

Talking the language of the business opens the communication channels: it’s a confidence booster.

“For anyone who is sitting there thinking ‘but my business is different, I don’t know how I would quantify that,’ I promise you that you can quantify it because any number is better than no number at all.” 

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