Lightsource – GC Interview – Nurturing Talent in a Competitive Sector
One of the most important priorities for any company wanting to step up in its global presence, expand its business, and become the best in its services, is to nurture the talent within its ranks, and provide an abundance of support to its employees, in order to see a return on that investment, both immediately and in the long term.
As Chief Legal Officer at Lightsource Renewable Energy, Europe’s leading solar energy company, Dr Ece Gürsoy is in a formidable position to drive such investment in the company, and in such a largely operational business, both geographically and legally speaking, challenges don’t go a miss.
As CLO, what are your main day to day roles at Lightsource? Do you work mostly alone, or as part of a team?
Our current in-house legal team consists of 15 lawyers and at one point had 27 lawyers and trainees. The team works hand-in-hand with departments across the whole business from day one of a project through to completion and delivery. This means that our role starts in the initial phase of any new project or structure that the company is looking to embark upon. We have a good reputation for our quick turnaround of work while maintaining the high quality expected.
While effective management is obviously very important in contributing to maintaining this reputation, I don’t act as a traditional manager. I work with the team every day to ensure that they are well supported – I don’t just leave them with instructions. As a team, I think having a close working relationship built on a good rapport and strong trust is vital for success. Law as a profession doesn’t leave much room for error, so I keep a close eye on the final drafts and make sure I’m always available for questions on complex matters to ensure consistent high quality output and continuity.
The key attributes of a good general counsel are leadership, good communication (internally and externally), strong legal knowledge and a pragmatic common-sense approach. Due to the dynamic nature of the sector, you never know what the day ahead will bring, which helps keep the job fresh. This is obviously not to everyone’s taste, but in order to be successful in our sector you have to embrace it.
I also have a role on the senior management team, so as the general counsel I wear a different hat here. I help to manage potential risk when Lightsource looks to pursue new business opportunities, creating checks and balances within the management team. Like in the case of private practice, you must continue to give world-class advice, but you also need to ensure that it promotes the business. I try to find new ways to expand the company’s position in the current solar market thinking outside the box while still applying legal principles. As a lawyer, this is not always easy, but it’s certainly another management skill I have developed at Lightsource.
What are the dominant legal challenges that crop up, in particular in real estate, employment, IP, competition and commercial law? Do these have complex solutions?
In our business model, our projects are comprised of energy regulatory, property, construction, mergers and acquisition, corporate restructuring, and structured finance aspects. The solar industry is a relatively new sector, so the first challenge was to create bankable structures and legal documentation to support our goals.
Another layer of complexity is the strict regulatory environment we work within, which has been subject to considerable change over the years. As a consequence, you have to develop new legal structures to meet the needs of the business and keep achieving your targets, which requires involvement in various aspects of law – from property law to corporate law and from construction law to finance law.
Our projects in the UK have always been subject to very strict deadlines due to government subsidy mechanisms. As a result, time is always of the essence which puts a great deal of pressure on the legal team and the company as a whole. We are now at the last run up of the connection deadlines, as large-scale subsidies are being gradually phased out in the UK. This has brought fresh challenges to the business as we have again had to adapt our business model while looking at ways to create more value from our existing assets. We are pioneering innovative new large-scale projects in the UK that can operate in a subsidy-free environment by connecting solar power plants directly into the electricity supply of major energy users. With this corporate Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) model, we are bringing the same high-level of technical and development standards, as well as brand-new legal documentation and legal structures.
How important would you say is the need to develop skills and foster the progress of employees within the company, given the sector’s competitiveness?
We believe that investing in young talent is a key element to success. Lightsource is one of a select band of UK companies to be accredited by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to offer training contracts to trainee solicitors.
We hire our trainees as paralegals, giving them an opportunity to learn about the industry and the philosophy of the company, before undertaking a training contract. I believe that a lawyer trained within a company is much more effective as they build an understanding of the business, while developing their skills and knowledge handling the complex legal structures that our projects offer.
We operate in a very competitive and fast-paced industry, so one of the key elements for us is create continuity across the whole team. There is a level of understanding across the entire team on each of our projects, so there are no gaps in service and the work doesn’t stop if someone is away from the office.
From a technical point of view, we continuously review and discuss new legislations and how they apply to our system, so there is a continuous knowledge share which is supported through internal training.
In terms of your legal team, how do you personally make sure every individual’s personal and professional development is accounted for and given importance?
Being a lawyer is very demanding. There is a common view that being in-house is a much more relaxed environment, but this is certainly not true for Lightsource. Lightsource has grown from a start-up company to Europe’s leading solar energy company in a very short period of time. We are not just a developer, we also operate and manage all of our assets once they are constructed and we also undertake all of the financial structuring. It’s not only the management of corporate affairs that the legal team helps oversee, we also provide tailored advice on the complex structure and day-to-day management of these assets. This is why being a lawyer at Lightsource is very demanding!
As a manager, I need to look after my team members and ensure that projects are allocated according to their skills as well as their own interests, as I am a great believer that lawyers should enjoy their role in order to be successful. I always try to create a career path for our lawyers, so they are getting an experience that they feel is rewarding, as well as helping them progress and develop their skills further. Believing in people, supporting them and giving them the right level of workload and challenge without boxing them into the standard PQE levels is really what helps to open up their potential.
How do you, in your role as CLO, help nurture said talent within the rest of the company?
Lightsource consists of very young, but bright and talented people, which our management team really values. We invest in our talent by given them responsibility, trust, guidance and relevant training as they progress. We want to open up their career paths by rewarding their efforts and giving them further responsibility to see what they can deliver. We have some very talented young people dealing with reputable law firms, finance houses, service providers and clients on a daily basis and we are very proud of this. If businesses can provide varied and interesting work, then modern in-house roles can attract the best talent available. We have also created an environment at Lightsource where the whole company feels like one team and the senior management is no different – we all work side-by-side.
How would you advise other business to go about boosting their ranks’ talent and how much would the logistics of that development differ between industries and roles?
Bringing a start-up company to a fully-established and successful company is not an easy task, it took five very demanding years of hard work. As the managers or leaders of the company, you need to show to your employees and your peers that you are putting in 150%. You must lead by example and inspire that same attitude in others you work with. Talent is important, yes, but perseverance, commitment and discipline are also major ingredients to success.
It’s important to be open minded and chase the right opportunities, but it’s also important to get the right support and advice. We get expert advice from our external lawyers, from our financial advisors, as well as technical and strategic management advice. The success of Lightsource has been in part down to our own intuition, experience and knowledge, but ensuring that we have the right information on-hand to make informed decisions.
We take a similar approach to nurturing our talent, by getting to know the people and their strengths, so we can make more informed decisions about their development and training requirements to support those strengths further. Nurturing talent is very much about recognizing the individual you have in front of you and understanding how best to support their growth.
On the flip side, what do you think are the most helpful ways all employees, from legal counsels such as yourself, to engineers and R&D workers, can help nurture the services their company provides?
For any business working in a dynamic industry, I believe that you need your lawyer involved from day one if you want to get the most effective results in the quickest time possible. Can you do this with external lawyers? Of course you can, but to a much more limited level.
In the solar industry, for example, there are many different teams involved with the delivery of a project from a planning, technical, construction and financial perspective. We as lawyers are generally the ones putting all the pieces together to bring the project to life. Your in-house lawyer knows all the legal aspects as well as being someone who lives and breathes your business – this is how you can become a sector leader, through speed and quality.
Legal costs can have a big impact on the overall budget and financial models for projects across any sector, which is why we are seeing more and more businesses swaying towards having in-house expertise with the relevant external support when needed. Having high quality in-house legal support is a real added value to the business – not only from a cost perspective, but also by producing genuine workable legal solutions that are right for the business.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The role of modern in-house lawyers is set to change the legal profession and the way the legal sector works. In-house lawyers are not just lawyers, they interplay across law, regulation, analyzing business problems and providing workable structures for the business. They are sometimes a “fixer,” sometimes the magician that pulls the rabbit from the hat and sometimes the only person with the abilities to bring a project to a successful close by spending long hours in the office. One important point is that in-house lawyers gain a unique position within a company by listening carefully to what the business is saying and understanding the minds of the senior management team as to what they want to achieve.