GC Fireside

Becoming a High Performing People Manager

Irene Liu
August 17, 2020

In house counsel constantly face challenges managing people. This shouldn't be surprising given the competitive structure of law school and big law which does little to incentivize collaboration and team-building. To get more insight into ways lawyers can better manage people, we asked Irene Liu about her current role at high-growth tech firm, Checkr, where she has been building out a legal team.

What are current legal challenges at Checkr?

One of the best parts of this growth has been the increasing opportunities for me and the company to share our company’s mission with our customers and employers. Given that I oversee our legal, policy and customer education teams, I can help shape and share our company’s story and mission, which is to build a better future to improve understanding of the past. As part of our mission, we support fair chance employment and we are a fair chance employer -- more than 5% of our full-time employees are people with criminal records. To further our mission, we also create and provide educational resources to facilitate fair hiring practices for all employers and build technology to compile fairer and more efficient background checks. I’m proud that our team of compliance counsels, product counsels and customer education team can all play a critical role in bringing our mission to life.

One of the interesting challenges is staying on top of ever-changing laws and regulations in the background check industry and communicating these changes back to our customers. The background check process is highly regulated. In fact, the FCRA is enforced by two government agencies, both the FTC and the CFPB. So we (as well as our customers) need to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and multiple state “mini-FCRA” laws. We’ve managed to stay on top by partnering with the best FCRA external counsels, building a robust group of FCRA compliance experts in-house, and expanding our customer education teams to help build easy-to understand content and videos to help our customers understand the laws. While this has been a challenge, our legal team has been able to add incredible value to the business and our customers by keeping them abreast of the latest legal developments.

Has government experience been helpful in house? 

I’ve definitely taken the path less traveled by starting out my career in the federal government. I am a public interest attorney by heart and love leveraging my government experience in legal roles in-house at tech companies to make a positive impact. And fortunately, my government experience has been incredibly useful and beneficial in my tech in-house roles. It has defined how I approach compliance and our work with regulators and policy makers.  

To truly stay ahead on compliance, I believe GCs need to think and go beyond meeting the minimum requirements of the law. With each product feature, GCs should proactively think ahead and build product features and processes that not only help your company stay compliant but also help your end users and customers stay compliant. At Checkr, we build product features to stay compliant with FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) obligations and take the extra step to figure out how we can help our customers meet their compliance requirements. For example, we have built stand-alone disclosure and authorization forms in our background check application offering for our customers given the number of class actions for this FCRA violation.  Even though the stand-alone disclosures are customer’s FCRA compliance obligation, we built the feature to provide such disclosures to help our customers avoid the class action fate suffered by McDonalds, Delta Airlines, Frito-Lay, 7-Eleven, and others.

Similarly, from a policy standpoint, I believe GCs should proactively engage and meet with relevant regulators, especially if your products are regulated. As TechGCs, we know that new regulations can potentially make or break the success of your business and your company’s new innovative ideas. So I strongly advocate at Checkr the importance of getting ahead of any issues before you’re approached by a regulator and proactively engaging with regulators. You can use the opportunity to introduce your company and your products, and potentially vet your products, influence new policies and programs, or explain how certain laws do or do not apply (or should not apply) to your product. I’ve written about these proactive government engagement strategies in my Thomson Reuters series on how to knock on government doors.

What advice would you give lawyers building out their team?

People are your greatest assets on your team so as you build out your team, treat them with respect, show your appreciation, and let them know you have their back.  Invest and mentor your team members. Spend time 1-1 time with them to learn about your team member’s short term and long-term goals and find out their interests and strengths to explore where the individuals’ talents and interests overlap with business need. And remember, no one likes to be micromanaged. So give your team members space to execute and use you as a resource for any questions or escalations. And get to know them on a personal level. Learn the names of their kids, spouses, and even pets!  

Don’t forget to also prioritize building your team culture. Share laughs, “happy Fridays” and happy hours. Be open and receptive to feedback and spend time every six months (at minimum) on team exercises to build a highly effective team. I utilize our quarterly team offsites to conduct exercises and games to not only bond as a team but help the team self-reflect, identify areas of strength and areas for improvement, and discover additional ways to add value to the organization and find ways to support each other.  

Finally, lead by example. At Checkr, our core values include Grit, Transparency, Humility, Ownership, Connection. We hire our leaders and team members based on these values and even factor the embodiment of these values in our performance feedback. These values are incredibly powerful traits you too can leverage and embody as you build out a team:

       1. Grit- Hustle to raise the bar, persevere through challenges and learn from failures.

       2. Transparency- Be open and trust each other to communicate the good and the bad as it relates to doing our best work.

       3. Humility- Be respectful and put the success of your teams over your own.  

       4. Ownership- Strive for thoughtful impact, and hold yourself accountable.

       5. Connection- Genuinely care about each other and understand that our people are our power.

How would you advise a laweyer transitioning in house for the first time?

I would advise them to be patient, flexible, and open to different industries and opportunities at various tech startups. Startups typically seek lawyers willing and able to tackle new industries, laws and the unknown. They’re also looking for a lawyer who can roll up their sleeves, be a business partner, speak in plain English, and appreciate and tolerate risk. If all the above sounds interesting, I’d advise networking with startup attorneys to get to know the startup landscape and start applying! And to remember, it only takes one offer so keep your chin up and don’t be discouraged by rejection letters as startups tend to have lean, mean legal machines.

Irene Liu
Irene Liu is the SVP & General Counsel of Checkr, a provider of modern and compliant background checks for global enterprises and on-demand startups. At Checkr, she oversees legal, compliance, policy, and customer education teams. She is also a regular speaker on topics ranging from government engagement strategies and risk management to AI, data privacy and security. She is a frequent writer and contributor to the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute and writes a blog series on “Using Your Platform for Good.”