‘The pandemic hit the airline sector hard and fast. We went from really being in growth mode, preparing forward-looking projects and a successful year in 2020, to very quickly having to ground our fleet almost overnight. We then had to deal with the implications of that for the company, which were severe,’ says Rebecca Mills, deputy general counsel of easyJet.
For most companies 2020 was a struggle but the airline sector, and easyJet specifically, was hit harder than most. Dealing with grounded flights, plummeting profits and a high-profile data breach, its General Counsel’s Office (GCO) went into overdrive.
Despite this, the GCO rose to the challenges, including a successful sweep in last year’s Legal Business Awards. The team was highly commended in the In-House Team of the Year category, Maaike de Bie was named GC of the Year and Rebecca Mills was highly commended in the Rising Star In-House Counsel of the Year category.
Meet the team
easyJet’s GCO function stretches beyond the traditional in-house legal team and incorporates regulatory, competition, policy, data protection and cyber security experts, explains Mills: ‘We have several teams that work closely together in a cross-functional way. We each have different areas of specialism that come together. That’s why we do not call it the legal function, because it’s quite a misleading name and it makes people think that there’s 100 lawyers, which there definitely isn’t.’
In fact, the team’s diversity of experience and expertise is a key feature. Says Mills: ‘We all have really different backgrounds; we all have different approaches and ways of looking at life and that is really interesting and valuable. A huge priority for me and easyJet is creating a culture of belonging and a place where everyone can be themselves.’
GC Maaike de Bie echoes that sentiment: ‘I have the privilege to lead a great team and I see it as part of my role to help them be the best they can be. Everyone is different and I start by getting to know the people in my team and what motivates them. I am also transparent and open; I don’t have all the ideas or answers – many of the best ideas and answers are the ones the team members come up with themselves.’
De Bie herself did not grow up with the intention of becoming a lawyer. ‘I grew up in the Netherlands in a very small town, I did not know any lawyers and I only knew what they did from TV.’
Instead it was while working in hospitality in Montreal before university that she first started to consider a career in law. ‘While I was there, I met a lot of people who had defected from the former USSR. They had ended up in low-paid jobs but were highly educated. And although they may have spoken several different languages, because their English was poor, they were treated as if they were dumb. The way they were treated surprised me and I wanted to help and protect them.’
‘I have always been someone who protected the underdog, or the kid that got bullied at school. So this got me thinking about starting a career where I could be doing what’s right by people, and that was the driver that led me to go to law school. And to this day, I am still very motivated by doing what is right – not just answering the “is it legal?” question,’ she adds.
Continuing an illustrious career which has included working at White & Case in New York and London and in-house at leading organisations such as General Electric and Royal Mail, her move to easyJet in 2019 was also driven by these values. ‘The vision, the values and the culture of easyJet are closely aligned to mine. It is important to me to create an environment where my team can thrive and I wanted to work in an environment where this was true overall. Doing the right thing is very much at the heart of decision-making here,’ she says.
An example is its carbon-offsetting commitments, which has meant that since 2019 it has fully offset the carbon emissions from the fuel used on all flights through the support of projects that protect against deforestation, plant trees and drive the uptake of renewable energy.
‘We wanted to do something and it was what we, as an airline, could do for now, and despite the pandemic and other challenges, we have continued with this. We decided to do this, not because anyone was pressuring us but because it was the right thing to do. And we continue to invest and look at next steps to help us decarbonise,’ de Bie explains.
For Mills, her reasons for joining easyJet were similarly values-driven. ‘I really resonated with the brand and what we do as an organisation, which is making travel accessible and affordable for people and that was something that I absolutely connected with.’
She joined easyJet in 2010 as a senior legal adviser, having started her career at Herbert Smith Freehills specialising in IP litigation. But after finding herself increasingly wondering what happened next after she gave companies her advice, Mills decided to take the plunge and move in-house.
The move turned out to be a great one for Mills, who enjoyed working as a business partner to the commercial teams: ‘I’m really interested in businesses and how they work and the commercial side of things and I’m a real people person. I love to work as a business partner and to really understand the individuals and what’s on their shoulders and how the legal function can help them in decision-making and management of risk.’
During her time at easyJet she took a break from the legal offering to work in the company’s development and procurement team as a negotiator: ‘That was brilliant because it gave me the deepest possible insight into what is actually on the shoulders of your business partners and how the company really works, and what were the big drivers of decision-making and success.’
She later took this insight and returned to the legal team as group head of legal and was quickly tasked with growing the team. As the team evolved, she took on the role of deputy GC, now supporting de Bie on ‘anything and everything’ across her wide function.
Part of the evolving roles within the GCO included the need for a head of operations, a role that Helen Lowe would fill in 2019. ‘When the opportunity came up to work with Maaike and Rebecca, it was just too good to pass up,’ says Lowe. ‘It’s a phenomenally forward-looking team with brilliant ideas that I can help to bring to life and for me that was exactly the challenge I was looking for.’
Lowe’s journey into legal ops was not direct. ‘It was mostly by accident,’ she admits. ‘My background is in turnaround, transformation and change. I trained with a consultancy to work with companies all the way through their lifecycle, from statutory audits through to administrations and liquidations, so it was a really interesting and diverse background. I then moved on and got a lot of programme management experience on a massive programme of works based in West Cumbria.’
Longing to move back to Manchester, Lowe initially applied for a finance role which ended up being filled internally, then the recruiter later contacted her with an opportunity to join the legal team at Co-op.
Without a background in law, Lowe did not know initially what to expect from the role: ‘I didn’t understand the concept of an in-house legal team. The organisation had a consumer-facing business handling conveyancing and probate and I prepared as if I was going to be part of that team. I had to quite quickly pivot in the interview, to sort of reshape it and fit with this in-house world that I knew nothing about.’
But she quickly learned that as an emerging role, she was able to mould it to her strengths. ‘It was before legal ops became big here and it was just starting to take off in the US so I didn’t really know what I was going into. But, much like my past in consultancy, I just rolled my sleeves up and cracked on and started to define what this role meant both in itself but also in terms of what I could bring to it and what value I could deliver.’
Now the legal ops community has grown significantly, says Lowe: ‘About seven years ago I was really excited to find five other people that were doing something similar to me and were having the same challenges, for example in trying to bring technology on board. Now there are massive conferences that are well attended with a whole bunch of people who come from legal ops, and it’s really quite staggering.’
At easyJet, the legal ops function has been crucial to the GCO’s growth and evolution, particularly in driving their innovative ideas, says Mills. ‘Helen’s role and her thinking has really helped shape our approach to some of these things, and the team has got somebody with whom they can brainstorm and bounce ideas off and co-create with.’
In March 2020, Covid-19 hit and the growth of the team was put on hold. Overnight, like most companies in the UK, easyJet had to adapt to home-working. ‘When I interviewed at easyJet, people talked about “orange spirit” and you come across it as soon as you walk through the door. There’s nothing quite like walking into the hangar-based offices at Luton Airport,’ explains Lowe. ‘When it really shone for me was when we all got sent to work from home and just the absolute “can do” attitude of every single member of the team.’
But that was just the start of the challenges. Says Mills: ‘We were involved in significant restructuring during that year. The team supported our finance colleagues in raising over £6bn worth of funds, including an equity raise. There were various other financings as well as sales and leasebacks of aircraft. We also unfortunately had to do some restructuring of our workforce. At the same time, we also suffered a cyber breach, which our digital safety team managed and is continuing to manage the aftermath of.’
The team was proactive in responding to the unprecedented challenges, in dealing with immediate impacts as well as lobbying for the opening of travel corridors. Throughout which the team maintained its famous ‘orange spirit’. Says de Bie: ‘In the last two very challenging years there has been a relentless focus on ensuring the wellbeing of colleagues and my team, always with a smile and a tinge of humour, which is very much also the culture of easyJet’.
This is a sentiment that Mills echoes: ‘As a collective it was a year of absolute crisis, we were unbelievably proud of how we pulled together as a team that was right in the centre of that from day one.’
Creativity and crisis
Meanwhile, 2020 also saw easyJet’s innovative panel review. Launched on 17 February 2020, and despite pandemic-driven delays, –the team was determined to make the most of the difficult circumstances and be creative about the process. ‘What we created across the function was something that would give us the information that we needed about who the teams were and how they would work with us. It also meant that it was quite on the hoof in terms of actual delivery,’ Lowe explains.
The novel process asked law firms to prepare a video, says Lowe: ‘This was a really interesting exercise to give us some insight into who they were as a wider organisation. Some were very corporate, and some were very relaxed and went with pictures of them on a beach over the summer, which is exactly what we were after.’
This stage also included delivering advice as if leaving a message on a voicemail. Finally, teams were asked to complete the ‘Himalayas’ exercise, which is a business simulation devised by Harvard Business School, explains Lowe: ‘The idea is that it shows how people work as a team. We sent that during the meeting to each of the law firms that we were interviewing, so they did not have an opportunity to prepare and didn’t know who they needed to bring along.’
‘At no point were we testing their legal advice or their capability as lawyers, as we took that as being a skill they had already firmly banked. We were really looking at who they are, how they worked together and how we might work with them,’ she adds.
As to what makes a good law firm partner, Lowe offers: ‘To me it’s about being commercial, it’s about being collaborative and it’s about being human first. It’s easy to pop off the little cookie-cutter conveyor belt of traineeship and fit into the mould of an expectation, but actually we want to know real people and real people bring a connection to our organisation and get under the skin of things. That to me is hugely important, because that contextualises all of the advice and all of the support that they give us.’
‘We ask our partners to think with us,’ adds Mills. ‘We want firms to help us to think about what’s coming down the track that we might not know about or have the bandwidth to know about.’
‘It’s a strange time for the sector. We are in recovery from the pandemic and we are seeing pent-up demand as people are wanting to get back to normal. However, the terribly sad situation in Ukraine has unfolded and who yet knows how that will fully impact on the sector?’ says Mills.
But she notes that the team is now looking forward with cautious optimism. ‘We are very forward-looking now and are getting back to the strategic priorities that we had before the pandemic, including innovations. We have some exciting new projects that we are working on. Our real priority is considering how we can work smarter and have the processes in place to handle the low-value, low-risk work with minimal effort and input from the team so that they can work on the strategic priorities where they can add the most value.’
In doing so, the team will continue to embrace the ‘orange spirit’ and values, starting from the top. Says Mills: ‘We are really people-first and are hugely focused on people’s wellbeing, and our own wellbeing. The leaders in the organisation – including Helen, Maaike and I – really try to role model that.’
At a glance – Maaike de Bie
1994 Senior associate, White & Case (New York and London)
1999 Senior counsel, EBRD
2005 General counsel, General Electric (EMEA)
2011 Senior counsel enterprise risk, General Electric
2012 Global corporate counsel, EY
2014 Deputy general counsel, Royal Mail
2015 Interim group general counsel, Royal Mail
2016 Group general counsel, Royal Mail
2019 Group general counsel and company secretary, easyJet
easyJet – key facts
Size of team 95, including 25 lawyers
Preferred advisers Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, CMS, DAC Beachcroft, DLA Piper, Herbert Smith Freehills, Knights, Norton Rose Fulbright, Pinsent Masons
At a glance – Rebecca Mills
1999 Legal executive, boo.com
2000 Senior associate,Herbert Smith Freehills
2007 Chief executive, SixandCo (UK)
2010 Senior legal adviser, easyJet
2014 Senior manager, airport development and procurement, easyJet
2016 Group head of legal, easyJet
2019 Deputy general counsel, easyJet
At a glance – Helen Lowe
2002 Internal auditor, The Cheshire Building Society
2003 Audit trainee/assistant manager, KPMG UK
2007 Assistant manager, KPMG UK
2009 Manager, KPMG UK
2012 Consultant, Green Canyon Consulting
2015 Head of operations (legal and secretariat), Co-op
2019 Head of operations (General Counsel’s Office), easyJet