Yahoo! is proud of its laid-back West Coast heritage, but don’t be fooled – GC Grainne Brankin is no pushover when it comes to grilling external advisers, says Andrew Pugh
As you might expect of a company that is proud of its San Francisco roots, Yahoo!’s London office on Shaftesbury Avenue is not your typical corporate affair. The reception area is decked out with purple furniture and giant posters of David Beckham, who was signed up as the company’s ’global football ambassador’ in the summer. And instead of the usual corporate fare of biscuits and muffins, you will find sweets.
Walking around the office, the sight of employees dressed in jeans and T-shirts playing table tennis or PlayStation is not uncommon. But behind the laid-back demeanour there is no doubt about Yahoo!’s status as a corporate giant. The Nasdaq-listed company last year posted a turnover of $6.5bn (£4.08bn) and continues to make acquisitions, including Associated Content and sports media company Citizen Sports.
London, however, is no longer the headquarters of the company’s operations in Europe. In 2008 the European end of Yahoo! moved to a new HQ in Vaud, Switzerland. At that point Yahoo! Europe became Yahoo! Sarl (société à responsabilité limitée).
Following the move Grainne Brankin, who joined the company as legal director for corporate affairs eight years ago, became general counsel for Yahoo! Sarl and also Switzerland general counsel. Brankin also has responsibility for corporate, employment, tax and property legal support across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Her 12-strong team is spread across Vaude, Paris and London.
Brankin played an integral role in the relocation. As well as the obvious tax and cost-saving benefits, it allowed the company to centralise its European structure and bring team members previously spread across several countries under one roof.
Brankin handled everything from scouting locations across Europe to asset transfers, HR issues and even advising employees on what schools their children should attend.
Despite the move to Switzerland, Brankin insists the company retains a West Coast spirit.
“We realise that the quality of work someone does isn’t necessarily conveyed in how they dress,” she says. “You can walk around the office and see some people dressed shabbily, but they’re probably geniuses. But it helps that they’re not meeting clients.”
Brankin says Yahoo! is meant to be producing a fun product, which is difficult to do if your employees are having a miserable time.
“We couldn’t do something like ban people from using Facebook,” she insists. “New media is obviously important to us, so that would be ridiculous. We have a corporate policy – that’s probably the difference between now and 10 years ago.”
That said, any external firms expecting a laid-back approach from Brankin are in for a surprise. She has clear ideas about what she expects from outside counsel.
Her chief gripe is with the standard of written communications she receives from external lawyers.
“We’re an international business, so lawyers need to write in plain English and avoid colloquialisms,” warns Brankin. “They also need to avoid writing too much. If you open an email and it’s dense with text then you’ve already lost half your audience. I opened an executive summary the other day and it was two pages long.”
Brankin adds that she does not like lawyers using dramatic language on legal matters.
“This is a business – we’re not saving people from being falsely imprisoned, so you don’t need to spatter your work with words like ’horrific’ or ’unbelievable’,” she points out.
Another gripe is billing.
“In-house lawyers don’t like surprises,” confirms Brankin. “If you say it’ll cost £80,000 and it ends up costing £100,000, we’re in a world of pain. The only way to be a good client is to be a demanding client, which is why we’re loyal. I don’t think it’s acceptable to shop around for every piece of work.”
Brankin does not have a formal panel, but works with a handful of preferred firms that have significant presences across the UK and the Continent. Lawyers she singles out for praise include Bird & Bird partners Felicity Reeve and Ruth Boardman and Latham & Watkins London managing partner Nick Cline.
While the company recently launched homepages in Turkey, Russia and Greece, with Romania, Finland, the Netherlands and Poland coming soon, Brankin says one of the biggest challenges of the past year was appointing a new general counsel in France.
“It involved looking at what the legal function was doing and figuring out how it could be done better,” she reveals. “That’s way harder than restructuring work or IP licensing.”
Name: Grainne Brankin
Organisation: Yahoo! Sarl
Position: General counsel
Reporting to: Europe, Middle East and Africa general counsel Pierre Landy
Turnover: $6.5bn (£4.08bn)
Annual legal spend:£1m-plus
Main law firms: Bird & Bird, Clifford Chance, Latham & Watkins