James Hanratty, head of legal at Trainline, on his role, technology and the reality of working in-house
James, firstly – can you tell readers of The Brief a bit about yourself and background?
As head of legal at Trainline I manage a team of five in-house lawyers providing legal support to the business across all functional areas and, more recently since we have commenced an international expansion, across all territories. As for background, I trained and qualified into the Commercial, IP and IT team at Travers Smith before moving in-house to Trainline - initially as legal counsel in 2009. I was promoted to head of legal in 2013.
What’s your average day like?
A constant prioritisation/time-management exercise! Like most in-house teams, we have more than enough work to fill the day so focussing the most suitable resource on the ‘right’ matters is a daily headache. Increasingly, we are looking to harness business data to drive our behaviours as a team and operate more like a commercial business unit than a traditional legal department.
As an online business (the consumer website and mobile apps received an average of 20.8 million visits per month last year) what are the biggest legal challenges you face?
One of the joys of working at Trainline is the culture of fast-paced innovation and product delivery. However, from the perspective of the legal team, one of the challenges is delivering legal support in a way that compliments and does not add friction to that process. Becoming truly integrated with the business is key in this regard so that the drivers of innovation see us as part of the overall business team rather than a mere back-office function. I like to think we are doing well with this but it is always a challenge to get it right.
The international expansion creates new legal and regulatory issues for the business. Being on top of these issues and helping design the expansion in a way that accommodates such issues is an increasingly important part of what we do.
Another important area, which will only increase in importance under the new regulations, is data protection and data security. It is vital that we work closely with the IT security team to seek to ensure that there is a consistent and coherent approach to data protection/security from a technical and contractual standpoint. In addition, providing regular data protection training to the business is a key part of our knowledge-transfer workload.
How is the legal team structured and do you also work closely with external firms?
The starting point is that each team member focuses on a particular business area or product. This is important to ensure that each business unit knows its ‘go-to’ legal contact and also to help foster the legal/business integration I mentioned earlier. But it would be boring if no-one did anything outside of their core area. So, each team member takes overflow work from others; areas of focus change from time to time through organic changes and to meet career aspirations where possible. We try to handle the vast majority of BAU legal work in-house and our external spend has decreased over the past few years whilst the demands of the team have increased. As you might expect, any M&A or other strategic work is handled externally. And we have leaned heavily on local jurisdictional experts in connection with the international expansion.
The rail industry is often criticised by passenger groups for its punctuality, quality of service & ticket prices. Do you think that’s justified?
Quality of service and punctuality are areas over which we have very little control as a third party retailer. However, in terms of prices, Trainline has largely built its consumer business on being able to find some excellent fares for its customer; particularly those booking in advance. In any case, ticket price is only part of the story: the way in which a ticket is received by a customer is a hugely important part of the customer experience. Whether that is receiving a ticket to a smartcard or directly to a mobile device, technology has the potential to revolutionise ticket purchasing and fulfilment. Trainline is leading the industry in many initiatives to develop this technology with the ultimate aim of helping the customer save time, money and hassle.
What’s next for the business?
We have recently been acquired by KKR which represents a big expression of external confidence in the business. We do not expect that the acquisition will dramatically change the strategy of the business which is largely focussed on leveraging technology - particularly relating to mobile devices - to ensure the customer experience of the ticket purchase process is as hassle-free as possible (no more cardboard tickets please!). However, we are also doing more and more to assist in the journey experience itself through the provision of even more useful information such as live departure/arrivals times and telling customers what platform their train is on.
We envisage a time in the not-too-distant-future when all tickets will be purchased via, and delivered to, mobile phones. In the international arena, we have recently entered into distribution deals with some of the major European railways such as Deutsche Bahn in Germany and Trenitalia in Italy. The aim is ultimately to become for the European rail market what Trainline has become for the UK rail market.
You worked at Travers Smith until 2009 so what made you move in-house from private practice?
The simple answer is that I spent a few months on secondment at Trainline and loved it. The analogy I have heard before that I think best describes the difference between a private practice role and an in-house role is that it is like moving from an event spectator to an event participant. For the first couple of years after moving in-house I would respond “I’m a lawyer” when people asked what I did.
For the past few years I have responded “I work for Trainline” as it feels far more relevant than the professional training I have received. I think the differences between in-house and private practice are greater than many people realise. It is important for lawyers moving in-house to know that they should expect to be seen as an employee of their business first and a lawyer second. The reverse seems to be true in private practice.
What do you think are the main benefits for a company that employs an in-house legal team?
The main three would be: (a) true integration with and understanding of the business; (b) the ability to receive advice quickly, pragmatically and economically; and (c) the alignment of interests with its provider of legal services.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone looking to develop their career in-house?
Know what you want. Some in-house lawyers would prefer to be a functional expert operating in an in-house environment. If that is you, then look for organisations (typically larger) that can offer this. In a relatively small in-house team such as ours no-one has the ‘luxury’ of being siloed, which is exciting for some but may be terrifying for others.
The other main learning for me is that you need to shift your mind-set to align better with the business strategy and approach. In a data and technology driven business such as ours I would not be taken seriously if I could not utilise data to make decisions or deploy technology to become more efficient. That is something I have had to learn. I used to think that lawyers were measured solely on the quality of their advice...