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Sivan Whiteley’s smile can brighten up a room. Not that the room in fintech business Square Inc’s Tottenham Court Road office needs any brightening – its floor-to-ceiling windows comprising two of its four walls take care of that – but it really does cut through a cloudy London day.
Whiteley has been with Square for five hugely transformative years as the business burst out of its home in the US, landing in the UK last year.
As with all tech-led start-up businesses, Square is looking to do things differently. It faces myriad regulatory, intellectual property and litigation challenges.
That, the Harvard Law School graduate and former law firm litigator says, is what makes the business such a colourful environment.
“In litigation, I enjoyed it and it’s very intellectually challenging but it’s also fairly adversarial,” Whiteley says. “Even in areas where I was just advising the business rather than going to court, it felt like I would advise them and then not know what happened with the advice. So I knew that I wanted to go in-house.”
Whiteley reports directly to Square founder and CEO Jack Dorsey – the man who created social media platform Twitter with Noah Glass, Biz Stone and Evan Williams in 2006 – acting as company secretary alongside her duties as general counsel. The saying goes that success breeds success so it is hardly surprising that someone with a CV like Dorsey’s would be impressed with Whiteley’s.
Graduating from Harvard Law School magna cum laude is a strong way to kick off any career and would have certainly helped open legacy Bingham McCutchen’s door for her to qualify into the now-defunct firm’s litigation practice. Between November 2002 and August 2007, Whiteley worked as a litigator, though she found the practice was not compatible with the direction in which she was looking to take her career.
First in-house stop: eBay
A change in tack saw her move from being a private practice litigator to an in-house commercial lawyer at eBay before taking on an associate general counsel role with ‘clean tech’ company Better Place for three years. Whiteley joined Square in March 2013, roughly four years after the company was founded.
“During the couple of years I was [at Better Place] I learned things I’d never done before,” reflects Whiteley. “Things like managing an IP portfolio, raising venture capital and just doing new things. Throughout my career I was piecing together a ton of new things and then in 2013 I joined Square. It was still a small company back then and so we did everything. Whatever came in, we’d prioritise and tackle it.
“As we grew we got more and more specialised but I continued to seek out opportunities to do things I’d never done before. Through doing this, by the time that Jack [Dorsey] asked me to take on the role, I felt I was ready.”
Economic empowerment for SMEs
At the moment, Square’s penetration into the UK market is not huge by any stretch. The business is mostly focusing on smaller retailers and offers two key products: the Square reader – a small card reader for taking payments – and the Square stand, which houses an iPad and includes the reader. A great deal of Square’s work is focused on making sure those small to mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) do not miss out on payments and, more likely, are using Square’s tools when they process them. Whiteley says the goal of “economic empowerment” is key to Square’s mission statement and the business wants to be the main provider of this.
The SME pays a 1.75 per cent charge on all purchases and the remaining amount lands in its account the next working day. Square says there are no minimum fees or long-term contracts, making it an attractive proposition if you are at the very beginning of your journey.
Key to its goal, and the legal function’s role therein, is the division of lower-ranked lawyers to head up the legal challenges faced by a certain product.
While many businesses prefer to organise lawyers along jurisdictional lines, Square’s counsel team – how its legal team is referred to in-house – is arranged along product lines. It is not an especially innovative approach, but it does bring a noticeable linguistic difference to the business in the way that fintech start-ups seem to specialise.
Tech-focused legal advisers
As a result, this is where Square’s external counsel proves its worth. Whiteley turns to a raft of tech-focused firms for her legal advice. Osborne Clarke partner and head of its financial institutions group Paul Anning works on regulatory issues, Taylor Wessing partners Jonathan Rogers and Mark Barron offer commercial and product advice, while Bird & Bird partner Guadalupe Sampedro is the go-to lawyer for privacy counsel.
“They’re great partners to work with because they know the market and what’s expected,” says Whiteley. “Even though we don’t have a huge footprint in the UK, we know we’ve got them to lean on for advice and guidance. It’s all done on a relationship basis and when we bring issues to them they’ll call in another partner to answer our questions.”
Square’s aim of economic empowerment for its sellers is certainly on message. With Dorsey’s backing and a near decade-old business, Whiteley appears to have the perfect platform to continue that vision.
Sivan Whiteley: CV
Reports to: CEO Jack Dorsey
2013-present: Square Inc (general counsel and company secretary)
2009-12: Better Place (associate general counsel)
2007-09: eBay (commercial and product counsel)
2002-07: Bingham McCutchen (associate)
Industry: Financial services
Size of legal team: 100 (including paralegals, lawyers and legal tech professionals)
Main external law firms: Bird & Bird, Osborne Clarke, Taylor Wessing
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