Bay Area Corporate Counsel of the Year Conor French is not an easy man to catch. It’s no surprise that Funding Circle’s general counsel is busy.
Funding Circle has raised $373 million to use technology to “shake up the small-business lending space,” and Conor’s decisions could impact the future of both the financial and legal industries.
Conor agreed to meet me for coffee to discuss his passion for the law and his dedication to helping small business owners.
Below are the guidelines Conor has created to succeed as a GC at one of the most successful startups in the world.
1. Connect, then lead.
“I live by a philosophy of connect then lead,” Conor said. “In order to be an effective leader in my role, I need to have a frequent and rich rapport with the rest of the Funding Circle team. I have to understand their range of strategic objectives and help anticipate critical decisions that will need to be made.”
“Uncertainty inevitably accompanies innovation and growth.”
At first, when Funding Circle was small, Conor could create a “frequent and rich rapport” with most colleagues by simply sitting in his chair. “I was sitting with the head of product, head of engineering and the sales team,” he said. “We were all within shouting distance, so it was pretty easy to remain in sync.”
Now that Funding Circle has more than 200 U.S. employees, and many more globally, he said it requires much more effort to ensure that he remains connected with the entire senior leadership team and abreast of their objectives.
“If I’m viewed as a trusted advisor who fully understands our business, it’s much easier to influence the team toward solutions that better serve legal as well as commercial needs.” He added, “legal cannot be the last door on the left. Especially in a highly-regulated industry, we have to be deeply involved in most strategic company decisions.”
2. Be “made to do more.”
Yes, “made to do more” may be on Funding Circle’s new logo, but Conor said that excelling as a GC in today’s world entails far more than being a good lawyer.
“You need to embrace your full role as a leader,” he said. “Legal expertise may be your baseline, but increasingly your value-add comes as much or more from general executive and business skills such as driving strategic initiatives, managing people and projects, optimizing systems, and communication and consensus-building.”
“Leadership means playing a key role in stewarding company culture.”
Leadership also means playing a key role in stewarding company culture. For Conor, he takes helping set the tone for Funding Circle’s corporate culture and citizenship as seriously as anything else he does.
“GCs have an incredible opportunity to ensure their companies act responsibly and with integrity in everything they do.” He adds that “getting this right can truly make a difference in people’s lives every single day – not only for our customers and the people they employ but also for Funding Circle’s employees and society as a whole.”
3. Be adaptable.
“Taking zero risk means that a company won’t move forward,” Conor said. “Our board determines our company’s risk appetite and it’s senior leadership’s job to make sure key decisions are consistent with it. Almost always, that means balancing many non-legal factors such as uplift or cost or efficiency.”
“General counsel in a rapidly-evolving industry need to be agile and diligent in recalibrating around the company’s strategic priorities as they evolve,” he said. “It’s the only way to stay on top of protecting the business while preserving its velocity and growth.”
Developments in Funding Circle’s business strategies may be driven by a variety of things, such as shifts in customer preferences, market conditions, technology or data availability. However, they can also come from new or changing regulations. Conor said that his team also needs to also be adaptable in its approach to a regulatory framework for FinTech that is complex, uncertain, and subject to change.
“Both state and federal regulations and priorities are constantly changing,” he said. “We need to engage regulators from Sacramento to Capitol Hill about FinTech – the opportunities and challenges in the space – while at the same time chart a course to thrive within the regulatory environment we’ve got.”
“Taking zero risk means that a company won’t move forward.”
4. Create thoughtful, repeatable and defensible processes.
Because FinTech is still so young, Conor often has to make judgment calls about how to handle legal questions when there may not be a law or rule that is directly on point. Uncertainty inevitably accompanies innovation and growth, but there are ways to manage its impact on the business.
“Even if we’re not 100 percent sure what approach to take where a law may or may not be applicable or is challenging to interpret in the context of FinTech, we can look at the guidance and policy reasons behind the law. Then, we can look at what we’re trying to do through a lens of ensuring alignment with the company’s values and principles,” he said. “That helps us devise an appropriate process for handling an issue that is consistent with the spirit of the law and our principles and can be used for any similar issues going forward.”
Conor said that having a record of these processes, the decisions they produce, and the reasoning behind those decisions is also helpful when someone asks why something was handled a certain way or feels it should’ve been done differently.
“There’s a lot of pressure on legal not to make mistakes at all companies, but the pressure is heightened at a company like Funding Circle that is growing fast in an extremely high-stakes regulatory environment,” he said. “There can rightfully be much higher expectations around getting things right.”
5. Educate the business on what legal does and educate yourself on what the business does.
“I want the Funding Circle team to know that not everything in legal is mysterious,” Conor said. “In fact, very little is.”
“GCs in a rapidly-evolving industry need to be agile and diligent.”
To that end, Conor and his team write regulatory round-ups and policy papers and distribute them throughout the company. They also hold Lunch & Learns and other presentations, during which they share information about the public policy environment and other key legal and compliance topics.
“If we can get all of our colleagues to better understand Funding Circle’s legal responsibilities, our entire company will approach commercial decisions with a more holistic view of what they need to consider,” he explained.
In addition, Conor cares deeply that every lawyer learns and understands the big picture of the business and the industry in which Funding Circle operates. “We simply can’t succeed in strategically supporting the company unless we’re able to view legal or regulatory implications through the lens of desired business outcomes.”
6. Commit yourself to the highest value uses of your time.
“There are a lot cheaper personnel in the world than lawyers, so a major philosophy of mine is to make sure that my time is spent as wisely as possible,” said Conor. “If someone else on my team can own it, I shouldn’t own it. Period. There should be no exceptions.”
Like many lawyers, Conor struggles at times with delegation, but he’s realized time and again that the time you invest in your people is always worth it. “Effective delegation and empowering the people around you isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s imperative for general counsel to keep pace with the needs of a growing company.”
“Effective delegation and empowering the people around you is imperative.”
Conor tries to get everyone on the legal team, including himself, to think about what they can drop from their plates instead of only what they can add.
“As the business grows, and people’s responsibilities grow with it, people trap themselves by continuing doing a bunch of legacy things without revisiting whether those things are still appropriate for them to be doing,” he said. “It’s where a default setting of personal accountability, so valuable elsewhere, can counterintuitively undermine your performance and professional growth.”
Conor said that letting go of something may require handing it off to another colleague or changing how it’s done, but frequently it also means letting a prior task or meeting go altogether.
“If it takes more than 10 seconds to explain why the task is important to a core company objective, it probably doesn’t need to be done,” he said. “Move on to something that matters, and don’t look back.”
7. Recruit people willing to get nerdy.
Conor takes tremendous pride in having assembled a talented, versatile and high-performing legal team.
“I wanted quick learners who are energetic and intellectually curious,” said Conor. Those qualities are more important to him than direct experience or prior knowledge.
“General counsel need to murder drama.”
“People who are intellectually curious, genuinely committed and agile learners will ultimately be able to develop any necessary expertise,” he said. “You can become what the company needs if you’re capable and committed to doing that.”
The alternative may be an employee whose years at a law firm have made them inflexible. “Coming from a rigid framework at a law firm where you’re used to working on discrete issues or areas of law with specific relationship dynamics and hierarchies can really hold some people back if they’re not careful,” he said.
8. Be the mellowest general counsel ever.
“General counsel need to murder drama,” Conor said.
Conor believes that a big part of being an effective leader is remaining calm and composed – even when dealing with challenging situations.
“A senior leader who is consistently mellow and unflappable can be very powerful in setting the right tone for the business,” he said. “That can be especially true during crises.”
And Conor’s secret weapon? Reggae music.
“My wife’s family lives on Guam, and I realized that when I returned to the office after a Christmas full of beach volleyball and reggae on Guam, I was very calm and composed – even when I was dealing with pretty stressful developments,” he said.
“A senior leader who is consistently mellow and unflappable can be very powerful.”
Reggae music helps Conor maintain his sanity during even the most hectic days.
“When I’m putting out fires at work, I’m definitely listening to reggae,” Conor added. “I’m also very committed to taking reggae mainstream in the GC community.” (He’d be happy to share a playlist with anyone looking for an ear-pleasing and effective way to maintain poise under stress…)
And one more tip?
“Hard times require furious dancing,” he said (quoting the poet Alice Walker).
9. We are who we’ve been waiting for.
Conor’s career in law was inspired by the civil rights lawyers of the 1960s. He said they taught him that making a difference starts with personal empowerment. He didn’t know anything about “corporate law” when he went to law school.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that becoming a corporate lawyer represented an important journey of personal empowerment for me and opened many new avenues for impacting communities around me,” he said.
After four years at Latham & Watkins, Conor left big law behind to build Indego Africa, a social enterprise that provides women artisans in Africa with the tools, opportunities and support they need to successfully run their own businesses.
“Hard times require furious dancing.”
“There is continuity in my work at Indego Africa and Funding Circle in terms of a mission to help entrepreneurs succeed,” he said. “At Funding Circle, we’re helping get safe and affordable capital into the hands of thousands of American small businesses that desperately need it.”
Conor said that returning to the legal industry after starting a nonprofit was an opportunity to bring together twin passions of social entrepreneurship and law. He was back to a core legal function but still helping build a company that empowers people.
“I get to go into work every day and contribute meaningfully to creating jobs and unleashing economic growth for the next generation,” he said. “That means I beat the alarm clock most mornings.”
“If you look at my career trajectory over the next 50 years, that’s what I hope you’ll continue to see: perhaps in and out of law but always applying my skillset as best I can to create better opportunities for people and communities all around the world,” he added.