In our Spotlight series, we introduce interesting individuals from the legal profession. In this article, we’re talking with Johannes Leipold, the Chief Legal Officer at Norlys Energy Trading.
Johannes Leipold is a legal generalist who believes that technology will profoundly change the legal profession. His career path has taken him from working in the international energy markets to developing a company from the ground up and finally ending up in a position that he truly loves.
Johannes initially became fascinated with law after taking a school course on Economics and Law. He was convinced that he would eventually become an attorney for criminal law – possibly inspired by his grandfather, who was a policeman.
At the same time, his older brother had started studying medicine and the books he brought home on human anatomy caught Johannes’ interest. So, the young man had to make a choice in between two major interests: medicine or law.
As he had to serve in Germany’s (at that time compulsory) army or civil service, Johannes decided to take a chance to try out working in the medical sector.
“While doing my civil service at a hospital, I learned that taking care of patients actually takes a lot of empathy and patience – I see myself as being quite empathetic, but patience wasn’t my strongest suit at the time. So, while my brother’s profession still fascinates me today, the work experience helped me to make the decision to pursue a career in law instead.”
In Germany, law students are required to study civil, criminal and public law. Despite his early interest toward criminal law, he found himself steering away from it.
After graduation, Johannes did his mandatory clerkship and eventually his final bar examination in Germany. After that, he moved to Lemvig, a small, 7,000 people strong town close to the west coast of Denmark.
“During my studies, I spent a year in Denmark. I simply fell in love with the country and later with my Danish wife. So, I combined both love stories by moving to Denmark. Denmark has a fantastic, caring society that wonderfully takes children’s freedom into account, for example. And having a balanced family life was always an important priority to me.”
“I got to enjoy the best of both worlds.”
When he moved from Germany, Johannes had already landed his very first job in Denmark. His wife’s local bank had by coincidence learned that there was a new budding lawyer coming to town and decided to engage him.
“When I was still a student, my wife’s bank wanted me to work part-time on their financing arrangements concerning renewable energy in Germany – a field that I knew little about at the time – but getting such a great possibility served on a silver plate was simply too good to ignore.”
“When I moved to Denmark, I ended up working 40% of my time for the bank and 60% for a Danish/German law office. Professionally, I got to enjoy the best of both worlds already in my first job: Being an in-house attorney while constantly taking on new diverse challenges in a busy law office.”
Tipping his toes into the energy sector turned out to be a career-driving decision for Johannes. He was soon headhunted to a full-time position in an energy trading company.
“Back then, the energy market and related legislation in Germany was undergoing major changes. I got to do pioneering work on contracts for the newly emerging possibilities in the market – eventually I saw my work being re-used and developed further quite widely in the market by different competitors and law offices. It was really exciting to be one of the first to offer a legal solution to a new market possibility and see this solution flourish and develop as quickly as it did.”
By now, Johannes’ interest toward criminal law had completely disappeared. He was deeply fascinated with the energy market and the fact that knowledge far beyond his legal education was an absolute necessity in order to give appropriate legal advice.
And the next surprise move was just around the corner.
“My new mission: Help to build an energy trading company from scratch.”
In 2020, Johannes had decided to change to another company. He had already signed an employment agreement with an established trading company when he was approached and asked if he would be interested in building an entirely new energy trading company from the ground up. As lawyers rarely get to build businesses from scratch, Johannes jumped on the opportunity.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my career to pick up the phone and tell my new-found employer that I would not join their company after all, due to the new opportunity to build something from scratch. The energy market is small, so you really need to consider what you do and how you behave, as the word spreads quickly. Luckily, the reaction of the company I had turned down was very understanding and positive, which I am still very grateful for.”
When Johannes started to help build his current company – Norlys Energy Trading – there were 11 other colleagues with different educational backgrounds working from a meeting room in a hotel for the first 3 months.
“We rolled up our sleeves, got to work and figured things out as we went. We had a shared vision of a company where it is fun to work and where the employees have freedom to create a marvelous setup that really makes an impact in the energy markets.”
“As good as that sounds, reality holds a lot of surprises for you, which you cannot plan for and not everything is equally fun: everyone needed to pick up work and tasks, which we were not necessarily educated for or had prime knowledge of.”
From basic things like getting their own WIFI setup to work to ordering computers and finding suitable office space, the team also had to start making business cases for the Board of Directors, work with cost-forecasts and setting up a first version of a secured cloud architecture.
“Some of the things we did in these early days would probably be laughed at by the experts we today have with us. But you feel very much alive when you come to work and see that a lot of things lined up with gaffa-tape are being resolved and matured to a sustainable level and later on to top class solutions by the new people and specialists you hire – it makes you feel proud and humble at the same time. I would not want to miss this experience for a second.”
Three years later, Norlys Energy Trading has grown to 190+ professionals from a wide pool of nationalities. The company is a major player in the European energy markets with ambitions to expand globally.
“I’m a legal generalist working in the energy sector – and I have the best job in the world!”
Today, Johannes is the Chief Legal Officer at Norlys Energy Trading, working on the strategic direction of the company and the legal function, besides working on international contractual matters and other more classic legal advice.
His tasks include much more than pure legal work: an important part of his daily work is identifying potential problems the teams at Norlys Energy Trading might meet on their journey to conquer new markets.
“We have a very versatile team of super smart people like meteorologists, data scientists, energy traders, business and software developers. All these specialists have their own focus and even their specialist language. With more than 20 nationalities, cultural differences also come into play. Understanding, gathering and translating the issues all these groups meet on their way to find excellence is equally important as writing the contract, that in the end determines our relations and obligations towards a customer or trading counterparty.”
Often the job as legal counsel requires to listen to everyone, to learn and eventually create mutual understanding within the different teams.
“Sometimes it takes 10 meetings and someone playing the dumb one that needs things to be explained like to a 10-year-old. As legal counsels, we must be happy to take that role if it contributes to a general understanding of the issues that are at stake.”
“We are trained in identifying problems and then leading them to a suitable solution – this is the general concept of every legal education worldwide – and this ability is at the end one of the big differentiators for in-house counsels: When you first aim to understand the business and then help the business to grow from a position of understanding, you will never need to justify why you are there.”
“Technology will inevitably and profoundly change the legal profession.”
With a small legal team, efficient legal processes and tools are a top priority for Johannes. During his career, Johannes has seen technology take steps forward and buzzwords follow one another.
“Technology will inevitably and profoundly change the legal profession. However, legal technology is nothing new – it has been around for more than a decade at least, it just did not have this single major breakthrough that would question how the legal sector works and functions.”
Too often, the typical reaction from the community is to downplay, regulate or forbid new innovations, such as the recent buzz on generative AI models such as ChatGPT. The legal profession’s reflex is to try to protect the status quo.
“So far, we haven’t really seen super-sophisticated solutions that really do big things at overcomable prices – there’s nothing out yet that threatens the entire legal profession. However, with recent developments, it’s only a matter of time when AI starts spitting out good contracts, for example.”
“The legal community will be challenged by these developments intensely and the answer is not to restrict tools that potentially threaten jobs done by human beings today. The answer is to redefine and find the work in which AI and other technical solutions are not good without human touch.”
“Embrace technology to enable automation, streamline processes and cut manual repetitive work.”
Johannes believes that legal professionals will always have their work cut out for them. Their skill-sets will evolve as the profession starts to work with and develop digital solutions.
“I am sure that our profession will develop new job roles: software developers with legal backgrounds, data scientists who know how to crunch legal data, knowledge data officers are examples of new roles from the top of my head.”
“As in-house lawyers, we have to justify costs and do more with less. We need to embrace technology to enable automation, streamline processes and cut manual repetitive work. And in order to do so, we cannot rely on solving today’s problems with yesterday’s methods – we need to have interest in taking the driver’s seat to develop digitally and we need to do it fast.”
According to Johannes, getting going with technology depends on the company and the challenges it is working with.
“An easy place to start is taking digital signatures into use – international surveys show that this is being done by a mounting number of companies. From there, you can move on to smart contract management systems or at least a contract archive – it is quite unbelievable how many in-house colleagues still struggle to have a contemporary system to help with this task.”
Another hint from Johannes is to think of how the entire contracting process in a company should flow. There’s no need to overhaul all your existing tools – even the regular Microsoft Office suite allows taking baby steps toward automation, for example.
“Look for partners who are hungry for developing new things, getting better, finding the extra edge.”
“There are few one-size-fits-all solutions. All solutions will come with some upsides and some downsides. So, you need to have a clear strategy of what you want to achieve, and where you are able to compromise. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince, so to say.”
“At Norlys, we tested 20+ contract management systems before choosing Zefort. One of the driving factors of choosing Zefort was the passion and proper attitude of the people behind Zefort we could observe during our vetting process. We needed a partner that is and remains “hungry” – hungry for developing new things, getting better, learning more, finding the extra edge, that will make the company and its offerings irresistible for many years to come.”
“So, if you are just stuck with a salesman who rarely knows anything about the product other than price and basic functionality and who is by no means interested in understanding your specific needs and applying them to the possibilities of the solution at stake, be very cautious.”
Connect with Johannes Leipold on LinkedIn
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