Jessica Winter is general counsel at U.K. money transfer service Wise. She was formerly the company’s head of corporate, where she took a key role on the company’s IPO in July 2021, which valued the company at £8 billion. Prior to moving in-house, she worked in private practice, including at Herbert Smith Freehills.
Here, she discusses which firms she never wants to work with, her most memorable private practice experience and what general counsels need to do more — and less — of.
How do you prefer to allocate work to your law firms?
We look for a combination of excellence (technical expertise and experience) and clear communication (to both lawyers and non-lawyers at Wise). It’s important that we work with lawyers who can understand the mission focus and commercial priorities of the company. And the best way of achieving this is if our lawyers feel they are an equal part of the team, working alongside and challenging us — the great examples of this end up with our external counsel becoming like Wisers themselves!
What is one thing that will make you never want to work with a firm?
Firms that are not collegiate internally, where I can’t be sure that a particular type of work is going to the person who’s absolutely the best equipped to handle it, whether that’s because someone there wants to “monopolise” the client relationship or it’s a “eat what you kill” model for partners. One of our core values at Wise is customer > team > ego, meaning that there’s no place for ego in what we do. We don’t work with firms that sacrifice quality and candor in favour of big egos.
What’s your most memorable private practice experience?
Helping to IPO Just Eat in 2014. I think that’s when I first caught the technology bug and started down the path that eventually led me to Wise!
What’s something you wish law firms didn’t do?
At Wise, we value open, honest and blame-free two-way communications, even, or especially, when things go wrong or if someone is less experienced or expert at something. And we like the same transparency from our external counsel.
I think even the best firms have “blind spots” where they’re not necessarily as strong as you need them to be (as do in-house teams!). I appreciate it the most when my law firm partners can be honest about that and help us to preempt disappointment and wasted time or effort down the line.
What’s a misconception about in-house teams that you’d like to clear up?
A misconception I’ve come across from time to time is that being in-house means you’re slow or sleepy. I like to think that we have one of the most fast-paced teams out there, a team that can execute incredibly well and keep up to speed with our fast-growing business.
We’re definitely not a typical back office function, and the way that we operate in legal is entirely consistent with how Wise operates overall. We manage and respond to a wide range of teams and issues, across numerous communication channels (Slack, Zoom, email) that are often instant. Our team is responsive, thoughtful, and right there with the rest of the business building and solving things.
What’s the best experience you’ve had with an external advisor?
During our listing, the entirety of which we did in lockdown, we really needed advisors that we could “trust with our lives.” I really felt like we had that with our legal counsel (Linklaters).
What’s your favourite piece of tech and why?
Our product is amazing! It saves me money, helps me pay people fast, and is a joy to look at and use. I work at Wise because I believe in the product – that’s true of most Wisers, actually.
Also, I love that our meeting rooms are all wired up to Zoom – our rooms have fun names like “Cupboard under the stairs” that can really help break the ice at the start of a meeting and get everyone laughing.
What is something GCs need to do more of?
Listen and interpret. I often think of myself as the “translator” between different teams or stakeholder groups at Wise. We lawyers tend to be gifted (or trained) with good communication skills and we have an obligation to use those to bridge miscommunication and drive alignment.
…and less of?
Don’t say “I don’t do law anymore.” At the core of our role there is still the law and the practice of law. We’re actually privileged because often what we work on is helping to make new law, because it’s an unprecedented or edge case. We do ourselves a disservice by playing that down.