Lightsource chief legal officer: Sun in law
8 July 2013 | By Becky Waller-Davies
Ece Gürsoy, legal officer at solar power generator Lightsource, jumped ship from private practice in search of professional fulfilment – and found it
Ece Gürsoy took a roundabout route to her present role at solar power generator Lightsource. Gürsoy is a Turkish and English dual-qualified lawyer who trained in-house in Istanbul at Hewlett-Packard, worked in White & Case’s Istanbul office and came to her present role through advising the company as a client while in private practice in London following an English law LLM, a corporate and commercial law PhD, a GDL and an LPC – in that order.
She has now been at the renewable energy company for 20 months, after coming on board to establish an in-house legal capacity following her work advising the then fledgling company at legacy firm SNR Denton (now Dentons).
Now Gürsoy heads a team of 10, including a trainee solicitor and a paralegal. Together, they see projects through from the leasing or auction of land to the refinancing of completed developments.
Lightsource buys and leases sites all over the country on which it constructs industrial-scale solar panel plants and so benefits, together with the landowners, from Government incentives such as the feed-in-tariff that rewards producers of green electricity.
Energy tariffs function by rewarding the generator of green energy with a certain amount of money per kilowatt of energy. The industry has become accustomed to Government tariffs being slashed at short notice. Indeed, the Government’s approach to renewable energy incentives, and to the feed-in-tariff in particular, can at best be described as erratic and at worst as detrimental to an industry that, throughout the recession, has managed to grow at a rate of knots.
Gürsoy is at the centre of Lightsource and issues such as tariffs. She and her team are the only ones in the company to see projects through from genesis to completion and even before she joined she knew the company inside out.
“When I was in private practice Lightsource was the client I was working for,” she says. “I knew their venture from the beginning. I worked on all the initial projects, so I’m not coming to a business where I started to learn when I started working here. From the beginning I’ve advised them.”
After completing the initial projects she moved in-house and started piecing the company’s legal department together.
“There was no system so it was something we created from scratch,” she says, adding that in the 14 months that followed she hired 10 staff as the team took on ever more work.
Gürsoy made the move in-house when the company realised it needed an in-house team, not to save cost but to deliver a greater numbers of projects.
“If you have  people in-house you have the capacity to deliver 10 projects in a month,” she says. “There were months we closed 15 projects – a project finance company may have 10 projects a year. And it’s not cut-and-paste work either – each project has its own challenges, each brings another due diligence aspect and each represents six to eight agreements.”
Her enthusiasm to move in-house was prompted by what she terms “a human factor”. An aversion to black-letter law and a belief in what it was doing convinced her that Lightsource was the place for her.
“I never thought of becoming an in-house lawyer and after doing all the qualifications you might have thought I’d have stayed in private practice,” she says. “But moving to Lightsource was a different step. It gave me the chance to do more with the business. It’s a cliché, but you know where your efforts are going.”
The City’s traditionally rigid approach to departments also deterred her from spending a life in private practice.
“When it comes to practice I like variety and at White & Case I had that,” she says. “But in the UK if you qualify in corporate, you either go to the private equity side or spend your career negotiating share purchase agreements day in, day out.”
Now, Gürsoy deals with every issue that crosses the company’s threshold. The business both develops projects from scratch and works with developers to acquire rights to projects. She lists the tasks that comprise each project.
“You first deal with property law to discuss the auction of the land or the lease agreement,” she begins. “Then you need to deal with regulatory law for the feed-in-tariff or renewable energy certificate. For the grid connection point you need to deal with export and import power purchase agreements. Then you deal with share purchasing agreements. Then you negotiate the infrastructure agreements such as engineering, construction and procurement contracts. Then you deal with the operation and maintenance contracts. That’s up to the project delivery, and then you handle repurchasing agreements.”
She gives short shrift to the common assumption of many in private practice that in-house lawyers are looking for an easy life, saying she has never worked so hard in her life.
“People say in-house lawyers don’t have all-nighters and that our weekends are our own, but that’s not necessarily so,” she insists. “Especially if you’re in the development business you’re not a lawyer sitting behind a desk checking pieces of paper for risk – you’re creating the site, and not only for that contract or client as you can imagine from a private practice perspective.
“I need to consider the future of the business and the risk for current and future funders. If I negotiate those contracts only until delivery then I’m ignoring asset management and project refinance. You need to address those from the beginning. It’s a challenge, but on the other hand your mind is always working.”
Name: Ece Gürsoy
Position: Chief legal officer
Reports to: CEO Nick Boyle
Legal capacity: 11
Main external law firms: SNR Denton, Reed Smith
Alison Coates, paralegal, Ecotricity
Just over a year ago I was working as one of Ecotricity’s customer service agents. Now I’m waiting for the results of my final exam to qualify as a legal executive.
I previously worked as a paralegal in private practice and was under the impression that working in-house mainly meant sitting for days on end reading long commercial contracts.
I had no idea just how varied my role would be. One day I can be considering the potential TUPE implications of moving a subsidiary company to the status of a charity and the next, looking at an Advertising Standards Agency complaint raised by a wind turbine opposition group.
Ofgem’s Retail Market Review proposes to make the energy market “simpler, clearer and fairer”. The reforms are likely to cause some industry leaders problems, but as an ethical supplier this is something we
were already working towards.
Our customers are a well-informed group who have chosen us not because we are the cheapest supplier but because they believe in what we do, so any changes to our terms and conditions can’t just meet legal and regulatory obligations.
My year in the customer services team gave me a unique perspective. I learned first-hand how our terms and conditions work in practice.
I am working closely with our compliance team to ensure we meet our regulatory obligations, but also various parts of our customer service function to ensure that any changes address those issues that regularly affect our customers as well as those that affect the people delivering the service.