Jason shares his journey to becoming GC at Serko, building a legal function from scratch and his advice for those looking to become a GC.

Jason Hawthorne

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to becoming a GC?

I joined as a solicitor at Russell McVeagh in 2007 in their corporate team. It was a fantastic training ground for me with lots of talented lawyers to learn from. While there I spent 4 months or so on secondment at Fonterra. I really enjoyed that, it gave me a taste of what an in-house team looked like and that massively accelerated my drafting ability and commercial contracts experience within a fairly short period of time.

When I moved to London in 2010 it was extremely hard to find a job as none of the law firms were hiring. I thought I’d leverage my experience to move into an in-house role so I joined ebookers.com, an online travel agency which was owned by Orbitz.com, a household name in the U.S.

ebookers.com had 8 offices across 12 jurisdictions but the legal team had only ever supported the head office operations in the UK. So I worked with the Legal Director to establish a centralised legal function for all European markets that was connected to a larger global function based in the U.S. That was a lot of fun and taught me a lot about business partnering and influencing, not just with the business but with colleagues overseas.

After establishing myself there I was given the opportunity to become Legal Director fairly early in my career – I was 29 years old when appointed to their Senior Leadership Team.

Expedia acquired our Group in 2015 and I worked with them on a USD$1.6 billion acquisition and merger of two large tech companies.

In 2016, my wife and I made a plan to come back to New Zealand to raise our boys and I had 6 months in London before we set off. I left Expedia to go contracting and joined the Google legal team. It had a very mature and polished legal function the size of a large law firm with different legal departments globally, and they were quite innovative in terms of their use of technology and work practices – they had their own custom-built legal tech for contract management and Agile methodologies with sprint cycles for work allocation.

When I came back to NZ I had enough legal leadership and legal experience to pitch myself for a General Counsel role but a lot of the GC roles were for listed companies and I didn’t have much listed company experience. So I joined Spark’s corporate legal team which was a fantastic learning experience for me. I was able to immerse myself in corporate, listed companies and governance matters, in a really well established team with talented lawyers that I had a huge amount to learn from. While there I was given the chance to step up and lead the corporate team as maternity cover.

When the role at Serko came up, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get back into travel technology and establish a new legal team and function.

I’ve been privileged to work at some pretty cool places and with some very talented people and see how a range of legal functions can operate in different ways, which I think has been massively valuable.

What do you love about your job, and what is unique and great about working for Serko?

I love the complexity of the travel tech ecosystem, the diversity of work and the pace at which the ecosystem evolves, creating new opportunities and challenges. I love the ability to develop and evolve not just the legal function but the way that the legal function interacts and partners with the business as the business changes.

Can you tell us a little about your team, how you have gone about building it up – how many people, and what makes it tick?

The first thing I did was some analysis and audit of where the work was coming from, the drivers for that work and its value to the business. I also investigated areas where legal work wasn’t being done to see if it should be done. I could then understand what resources and capabilities I would need for the team and how I might be able to use technology solutions to reduce or accelerate some of those workstreams.

The team has evolved a lot since then, as has my role. For a couple of years I moved into a Head of Commercial role before being appointed General Counsel last year.

We have seven on the team now: myself, a Company Secretary, EA, two Senior Legal Counsels, a Senior Risk and Compliance Manager and a Data Protection Officer.

We’ve used SHIFT for a variety of roles – risk and compliance, governance and legal. SHIFT resources helped to roll out a new risk and compliance framework, which our legal team wouldn’t have had the capacity to do. Often we have faced gaps between permanent roles or capacity constraints as the business was expanding. Having the ability to go out to a panel of talented lawyers and parachute someone into the business to help us accelerate and run fast while juggling other stuff has been massively helpful for us.

Do you use legal tech or other tools to make engagement with your customers seamless?

One of the things with trying to establish a new legal function is that there are no templates, a lack of established legal policies and processes and no allocated legal budget. So an early move was to subscribe to Practical Law Company (PLC), an online template and knowledge resource. It gives you access to thousands of template contracts, internal policies and guidance notes for points of law including GDPR and privacy aspects. It’s a whole suite of off-the-shelf documentation to build your own legal and compliance framework with a knowledge repository of sound external advice.

Early on, there were a lot of low-value contracts coming into legal like NDAs that were consuming a lot of time without adding much value. So I immediately started looking for a contract automation system.

I was able to bring on a contractor who was in the process of starting his own legal tech business and the two of us conducted a procurement exercise where we scoped and evaluated legal tech products in the market. The one I chose (Juro) was a system intended to easily configure simple legal documents for an automated contracting process. We went from 70% of our NDAs being redlined to less than 3% of NDAs being redlined. The configuration was such that people could request the creation of an NDA and complete the full contracting process with zero touch from legal. All documents were signed on approved legal templates and stored in a centralised repository with full audit history.

Supporting contract documentation like our Data Protection Addendum and Sub-Processor Lists has also been shifted online through use of our website and the customer-facing knowledge base used by the business, leading to greater standardisation and less redlines.

We also use Confluence as an internal knowledge sharing tool. It allows us to connect the dots on contracts and other matters we’ve advised on, leveraging work from previous team members so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

What is your top tip for others on their journey to GC?

There are a lot of really talented lawyers and highly capable Senior Counsels in NZ but not a lot of legal leadership or management roles. To make the transition between Senior Counsel and Head of Legal or General Counsel it’s often less about subject matter expertise and often more about your ability to provide leadership and innovation within the business while also influencing and managing stakeholders.

It’s often not enough to be really good at your job, you actually have to help and guide others to do better in a way that makes the people around you succeed. I think what that comes down to is a focus on business partnering, stakeholder management and influence through thought leadership and innovation.

Don’t just focus on getting a contract out quickly and effectively. Think about: how could you improve the templates? How could you improve the contracting process itself? The ways of working? Ask yourself how you can demonstrate leadership and innovation within your role to help the rest of the legal team and help other parts of the business work with the legal team more efficiently.

I think if you can demonstrate how to manage senior stakeholders, how to partner with them, how to provide innovation to make the legal function itself better and the organisation’s use of the legal function better, you’re on your way to demonstrating that you’re not just a good lawyer, you’re a good leader. And you don’t need direct reports for that.

Jason Hawthorne – General Counsel, Serko