Ahmed Badr did not want to be a lawyer. A self-professed ‘huge geek’ at school, he was never happier than when sat a computer doing some programming or web design. ‘You would never find me playing football,’ he reflects. Initially, Badr studied medicine, which he admits ‘was more of a family thing than a me thing’. His dad was a doctor, his mum was a nurse, which led a young Badr to feel compelled to the same fate.
But he soon he realised he had no interest in it, and opted to do a business degree instead.
‘It felt like the opposite of medicine’, Badr says. ‘Medicine was totally vocational, whereas this was very non-vocational. I wanted to run my own business.’
This decision proved to be pivotal to Badr’s future in-house career. But upon graduating, Badr applied for a few vacation schemes at law firms. ‘They sounded interesting. A bit of business in the corporate world – it seemed challenging and fun.’
He ended up doing two: one at Lovells, and the other at Allen & Overy (A&O). He was soon hooked: ‘I found the A&O one quite engaging. Everyone seemed nice and they looked like they were having a good time, albeit a bit stressed. They ended up helping me with a conversion course and then the LPC before finally offering me a training contract. I was very lucky.’
Badr originally held ambitions of being an IP lawyer, as he thought it would be a natural marriage between his tech interests and new-found legal knowledge. But there was a problem. ‘I actually found it quite boring! The engagements were super long.’ To emphasise his point, Badr recalls that during his Lovells vacation scheme that the firm was working on some IP litigation relating to BlackBerry. When he joined A&O, the partner working on the BlackBerry matter had left Lovells to also join A&O, bringing the litigation with them. Badr quips: ‘In the meantime I’d done my conversion course, LPC and some seats, and it was still going on! It was not for me.’
He instead qualified into A&O’s project finance practice, doing deals for airports and similar infrastructure projects. The work was interesting but ‘super intense’. ‘It was deal after deal after deal. You had that involvement for the deal and then never saw anything again. I didn’t particularly enjoy only seeing a small glimpse of the business.’
This, combined with the repetitiveness of the work and late hours, led Badr to an epiphany: ‘Although the work came and went in cycles, the long hours during the busy periods made it hard to sustain life both in and outside of work. Those were the turn-offs. Looking around, I thought “do I really want to be here in a few years’ time? What am I trading off?”’
He knew that his next role had to align closely with his passions. Thankfully, throughout university, Badr had helped a friend who was running a property search website called Nestoria. The friend had decided that he did not want to run the business anymore, and offered the reins to Badr. Coincidentally, at the same time Badr received an offer to join Microsoft’s in-house legal team.
He says: ‘It was two totally different paths: One closely aligned to the tech side, and the other quite aligned to tech but more legal. I wasn’t quite ready to leave legal.’
Badr describes his time at Microsoft as ‘a great segue into in-house’, as the environment was not too dissimilar from the bustling offices of A&O. And while it was an interesting shift in working dynamics, Badr still had a global network of 600 lawyers to rely on for support.
That is not to say there was not a learning curve: Badr recalls one early incident: ‘I remember writing my first advice email at Microsoft and my manager coming over and saying: “We need to have a chat about your email”. It was like my old A&O internal advice emails. It was very long, it had all the detail in there, but didn’t draw any real actionable conclusions. It was a lawyer-to-lawyer advice email, not something that the business could take and action. It taught me a lot about how to be an in-house lawyer.’
Badr says he learned a lot from his stint at Microsoft, particularly due to its position in the UK as a ‘licensing and sales machine’, which taught him many things he would carry onto his next role.
After two years in the role, Badr’s contact at Nestoria popped up again with a job recommendation. He had seen Passion Capital, a venture capital firm, advertising for a lawyer role on Twitter. Badr recalls: ‘I had no funds experience whatsoever but thought I would have a chat. I got through to the final round but they decided (quite wisely) to go with someone who had funds experience. I probably wouldn’t have been very good in that role.’
The partner who interviewed Badr said he would keep in touch if any new roles came up, something which Badr took simply as a ‘thanks, but no thanks’. But he kept to his word, and just a couple of months later he pointed Badr in the direction of payment collection fintech GoCardless. His interview process was memorable: ‘They weren’t actually looking for a lawyer at that stage, so I was kind of helping them scope the role while going through the interview process. I got to the final stage and the CEO was saying: “I don’t think we need a lawyer, why are you here?”, which was interesting. We’ve matured a lot since then.’
Nonetheless Badr was able to convince the chief executive of his necessity, and he soon realised that the company ‘ticked a lot of boxes’ for him: ‘GoCardless is a very product-driven company, it thinks about the tech first. It wasn’t very hierarchical, and there was a load of stuff I could get my teeth into as the first lawyer in a space that’s very heavily regulated. I jumped into it not really knowing what to expect.’
It turned out that Badr had jumped into the deep end – building out a legal function from scratch over a frantic six years during which GoCardless was subject to multiple funding rounds. Each one representing a testing period of due diligence and potential structural change. When Badr joined in 2015, GoCardless had around 40 members of staff, compared to a hugely increased 650 today.
‘When I joined, I remember we had celebrations because we’d helped businesses collect $1bn total, now we’re collecting around $25bn every year and that’s doubling every year,’ Badr says. ‘GoCardless has been the most stressful six years I’ve ever had. I needed a lot of stamina to continue going through that change.’
For the first six months of Badr’s tenure, he was the only legal presence at GoCardless – a period he describes as ‘longer than it sounds’. But soon enough he was joined by a paralegal, before the core legal team steadily grew over the years to eight lawyers spread across the UK, US, and France. According to Badr, the eight lawyers in his team are all generalists, although he is looking to drive more specialism soon with the imminent hires of both a corporate and regulatory lawyer.
Since March, Badr has seen his role expand to chief legal and risk officer, which has widened his remit and the number of teams he is responsible for. There are six teams under him: regulatory compliance, financial crime policy, legal, privacy and security risk, fraud and financial crime operations. GoCardless is soon to add an external affairs team (which lobbies the government for regulatory change among other things) as well as a dedicated risk team to handle the company’s risk register.
‘That’s a wide span of control, and not a super-efficient way to run the organisation’, Badr confesses. As a result, the legal and risk team will be slimmed down to four core groups with many teams merged, such as fraud and financial crime operations.
In terms of external counsel, Badr reports that GoCardless tends to seek outside advice for areas of law that would be ‘impractical internally’. Corporate advice in the US, employment and IP counsel (not just because Badr finds it boring) are some of these of areas.
There is no formal panel arrangement in place, and overall Badr takes a relaxed approach to his selection process: ‘There’s a range of factors: yes, there’s price and expertise, but also “Do I want to work with this person?” I’d rather have the 1B lawyer than 1A if I’m going to form a good relationship and enjoy working alongside them.’
GoCardless also shines an ESG spotlight on its prospective law firm advisers, in part due to the fintech’s net zero initiative which requires it to look through its supply chain and analyse its carbon footprint. Badr himself is also co-chair of Fintech Delivery Panel’s diversity work stream, underlining his own commitments: ‘It’s not just “who’s the best lawyer?”’, he insists.
Looking back on the legal work Badr is most proud of from his time at GoCardless, he points to the legal contributions towards the company’s recent international expansion. He comments: ‘When I joined we were a UK company, serving UK customers, collecting from their UK customers. It was all nicely contained. Since then we’ve added the ability to collect in eight countries, and we can serve customers in upwards of 40, and we have offices in five countries. All of that requires heavy compliance involvement and dealing with local regulatory requirements.’
But perhaps the biggest source of pride for Badr and his team came from successfully lobbying the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) to remove a ‘loophole’ that allowed other payments companies to ‘block-in’ their customers. He says: ‘We weren’t happy with that. Not just commercially, but because it was just wrong.’ After two years of lobbying the PSR, the rules were changed and the loophole was closed. ‘It was a really exciting opportunity to move the market in the right direction.’
As for his management philosophy, Badr asserts that he is not a micromanager, as he ‘couldn’t even if I wanted to be…I will never be an expert in all the areas we have to deal with.’
Instead Badr is primarily focused on outcomes – trusting the people he has hired to do the work and using data to measure performance. He dryly compares this to his law firm experience: ‘Progression at a law firm is like: “You’ve been here two years, congratulations. Oh, you’ve been here 15 years? You’re really senior. Congratulations”.’
As for the future, Badr predicts more international expansion, which will coincide with the growing global prominence of open banking. He says: ‘We want to jump on that and be a leader, but the regulation is not yet developed and it’s not co-ordinated globally. You’re often trying to thread a very thin and moving line across many different countries. We don’t want to develop ten different products, we want to develop one product but there isn’t one single piece of regulation globally.’ The newly-established external affairs team is primed to engage governments and regulators on the topic, to make them look at things ‘in a more aligned way globally’.
Overall, is the stress worth it? Badr concludes: ‘Notwithstanding the fact it’s been the most stressful job I’ve ever had, I’m still excited to be here. If we slow down or lose momentum that’s maybe when I’ll start to get an itch again, but until then, assuming I can keep my stamina up, it’s a good place to be.’
At a glance – Ahmed Badr
2010 Trainee and Associate, Allen & Overy
2013 Attorney, Microsoft
2015 Head of legal, GoCardless
2018 General counsel, GoCardless
2021 Chief legal and risk officer, GoCardless
GoCardless – key facts
Size of team eight in core legal team, 45 in wider legal and risk function
External legal spend Over £1m
Preferred advisers Allen & Overy, Bird & Bird, CMS UK, Davis Wright Tremaine, Fieldfisher, King & Wood Mallesons, Osborne Clarke, Gunderson Dettmer, Skadden and Tapestry Compliance.