How to add value in Product Legal?

Luke O’LearyLuke O’Leary
Written by
Luke O’Leary
October 13, 2022

As Senior Lead of Product & Strategy Legal at Qonto, I manage a legal team that’s at the heart of our business. At Qonto we’re providing Europe’s leading business finance solution to SMEs, freelancers and entrepreneurs: we’re the one-stop-shop for businesses small and large, an all-in-one solution for your professional payments, accounting, spend management and other finance needs.

Our goal is to energise your business and remove the pain of slow, manual tasks which is so often the case with traditional banks. We’re currently serving over 300,000 clients in France, Germany, Italy and Spain (our four markets today) - this is a great start but with over 25 million SMEs in Europe, the size of the opportunity ahead of us is still enormous. It’s an extremely motivating challenge and our growth over the past few years (both in terms of employees and client base) is proof that lots of others are motivated by it too. 

In this context of exponential growth, building a Product & Strategy Legal function into a team that delivers consistently excellent legal advice is difficult. In this article, I’m going to focus on how to add value as a Product & Strategy legal team and how to build that value into something that will set up your start-up or scale-up for future success.

What is Product Law (and how does it link to Strategic Projects)?

As a Product & Strategy legal counsel, my role is to add value by both advising the Product team on how to structure the fintech products we offer our customers in a way that is legally compliant and crucially, where we have chosen to ‘buy’ rather than to ‘build’ a product (in other words, to partner with another provider to offer the solution, often via their API, rather than develop the product ourselves) to ensure the contract negotiated with that partner satisfies Qonto’s needs and protects us well against future risk.

When developing the future structure of the legal team in 2021 with our VP Legal, Alexia Delahousse, it seemed clear to us that because the products we offer our customers are intimately interlinked with our strategy as a business, the two naturally go together (whether or not we make a decision to buy or to build). That led me to move from a more generalist role, working on a lot of corporate, fundraising and commercial contracts topics, to focussing on Product & Strategy.

What attracted me to Product & Strategy Legal & why do I enjoy it?

The combination of Product & Strategy makes my role extremely transversal, involving daily interaction with senior stakeholders across the business. It also provides great insights into and opportunity to influence/contribute to the strategic direction of the business. It’s a demanding role as you’re really at the frontlines of whether the business succeeds or fails and therefore expectations and standards are high (at Qonto, they're some of the highest standards I’ve seen in my 10 year career).

All of which means that to succeed in the role, you need to not only have sharp legal skills but also a great business head and understanding of negotiation dynamics (i.e. identifying and using all the different bargaining levers you have at your disposal to get the best deal for Qonto while still maintaining good relationships with external partners and internal stakeholders).

This proximity to the business and ability to understand and influence strategy is exactly what I’ve always enjoyed and what I was looking for when I came to join a fintech. I’ve never been a lawyer who just wants to do law or to stay firmly in the legal ‘box’ - the business and investment world has always interested me (I’ve worked at two different times in my career for Morgan Stanley and have dabbled in some angel investment). As Senior Lead of Product & Strategy Legal at Qonto, I get to use my legal skills while also applying my business skills at the same time.

What does it involve on a day-to-day basis?

Depending on the project, we’ll be balancing multi-stakeholder meetings with, in particular, the Qonto Product, Tech, Operations, Strategy and Risk & Compliance teams; meetings with external partners to discuss the solution we’re building together (from a Product, Ops, Tech and Legal perspective); as well as focussed time for incisive legal analysis of a user flow or a contract review.

Being involved as early as possible, as often as possible is the mantra we live by. This means that you need to be proactive in reaching out to the different stakeholders across the business, engaging them on the contract at the right moments to ensure all their needs/concerns are met. And it also means that you need to attend as many meetings as you can which discuss the Product, our Product team’s vision for it and our Strategy team’s goals in the relationship with the partner (if an external partner is involved). Sometimes you won’t have loads to contribute to the meeting but you can’t successfully negotiate a contract or advise correctly on the UI / UX if you don’t have the full context or know the ultimate commercial goal you’re trying to reach.

How to do Product Law well?

So how do you do Product Law well? We’ve touched on it above: being proactive, being involved early and often, truly understanding the business and the commercial drivers behind the product/feature you’re working on (e.g. is it intended to drive revenue growth? Or is it going to drive user acquisition?). But a few more specific points are as follows:

Negotiate tight SLAs

From a contractual point of view, clearly every provision has its value but of particular value are the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that you negotiate. If you’re taking the significant decision to outsource a key part of your business offering to a 3rd party (e.g. to take a few common examples: international transfers, client onboarding, customer support), it’s fundamental to ensure that you have contractual motivations and constraints in place for that partner. No one is perfect and unfortunately, from time to time, partner’s do not always hold up their end of the bargain or have technical issues that affect the availability of a solution for your clients.

In these circumstances, you must have well drafted, tightly defined and sufficiently penalising SLAs to protect your downside and motivate the partner to fix the problem ASAP. Typically these will be 1) service credits/fee rebates with a % differing depending on the gravity of the problem; and 2) termination rights for repeated breaches. However, in all cases the partner will serve up an SLA that is generous to them and not clearly enough defined. It’s our job to point out those imprecisions and negotiate an acceptable deal for Qonto.

Get involved early & often

I talked above about the importance of understanding all stakeholders’ needs. Two things we’ve started doing at Qonto to improve this, is to involve the Product & Strategy Legal team 

  1. from the very beginning of RFP (Request for Proposal) processes to select a partner for a new feature and 
  2. ensuring that we participate in the Value Analysis (VA) and Value Engineering (VE) phase (the terms we use at Qonto for the work done by Product and Tech to scope and size a project). 

These two steps are in their early phases but they are quite powerful ways to ensure that legal risk is identified and addressed early on and contractual commitments are in sync with the product you’re building, to avoid causing issues at a later stage.

Build a social bond

Another key to understanding all stakeholders’ needs and indeed a key to succeeding in building value as a Legal team full stop, is building trust with your colleagues. I find it’s really important (and fun!) to be sociable, to get to know your colleagues and take the time to have coffee/lunch/drinks with them. The combination of shared personal experiences and then living through intense projects at a hyper growth startup like Qonto provides an extremely powerful working relationship.

You need to ‘get’ the business goals

Finally, being attuned to your company’s wider business goals will allow you to place the projects you work on a context and understand when and where to focus your efforts. Practically for me, this means regular discussions with our VP Legal who sits on the executive committee as well as regular check-ins with our VP Strategy and Product team leads to ensure that I have the global picture to inform my work. It also means analysing the business case created for each product/feature and noting down in my weekly Notion page where I organise my ongoing projects, which initiative each project belongs to (as a business, we have Qonto-wide initiatives that provide our roadmap for the next quarter(s)) and how high a priority it is for the business (we love emojis at Qonto, so this is typically denoted with 1, 2 or 3 flames!).

How do you measure success? How do you learn from failure? 

To measure success, we track the product/feature uptake and upsell (if relevant) after release. We then work out based on that if it has hit our needs and also whether it changes the metrics for revenue and acquisition that we had set in the business case at the start of the feature. Based on user feedback, we can also work out if the product has been a success and/or if there are additional features we could add to it that would increase its success even more.

At Qonto, analysing our successes as well as our failures is an essential part of the Qonto Way - the philosophy that underpins our business. This philosophy is based on the Toyota Production System that many people may be familiar with from books such as The Lean Startup, but it adapts those principles to our specific needs. One of the elements of the Toyota and Qonto Way philosophy that I really like is kaizen (continuous improvement), the idea that each past experience should be a guide for how to do that same thing better in the future.

More concretely, when we’ve had a failure, we hold a PDCA meeting. PDCA stands for Plan, Do, Check, Act and aims at identifying the root causes of what went wrong so we can create steps to mitigate or avoid this going forward. There are many other elements to the Qonto Way but I’ll stop there. It’s been a surprisingly effective tool for our team to increase both our productivity and our quality and, crucially, helps all teams scale at the same speed during our rapid growth trajectory.

That’s it for now. I hope you found this article useful and that it’s given you some new inspiration for how to  add value in Product Legal.