Gareth Lambe is sitting in a window seat of a hotel in Dublin 2 when we meet. He is one of Ireland’s most experienced big-tech executives as head of Meta Ireland for nine years but also embedded in the hardscrabble of domestic entrepreneurship, after spending eight years working for Michael Dwyer in Pigsback.com leading the online deals and discounts company in Ireland, Canada and Britain.
Lambe has just finished taking a year off from working and taken on a new role as a strategic advisor to Johnson Hana, the rapidly growing alternative legal services provider.
He also became an investor in the business last year after he had a coffee with co-founder Dan Fox, who convinced him of the potential of his business to grow both domestically and internationally.
Lambe, as a former big-tech executive who dealt frequently with lawyers, could see how Johnson Hana could make an impact. He had also married into the law as his wife Deirdre McKnight is a solicitor, the daughter of a solicitor, and one of nine children, seven of whom went into the law.
“I’m not a lawyer but I’ve worked with many lawyers both in-house and legal firms as well as knowing about it on the personal front,” Lambe said. “I was inspired by the mission to improve lawyers’ lives by giving them flexibility. For clients, we make their lives better too by dealing with that heavy process work that can bog them down. For in-house lawyers, for example, we can help them do more and focus on more strategic work”.
Lambe became an advisor to Johnson Hana around the same time as John Purdy, a co-founder of Ergo, came on board as chair, and not long after Irish big-two-bank AIB made a €10.5 million strategic investment in Johnson Hana to allow it scale. Over the course of our coffee, we discuss how Lambe believes Johnson Hana can disrupt legal services globally, the meltdown and comeback at his former employer Meta, and what might be next for the experienced business leader.
The law was ready to be disrupted
Johnson Hana has 500 lawyers on its roster. “We can dial them up and down on specific projects,” Lambe said. “Most of them are working remotely, and 95 per cent are working fewer than 20 hours a week. It is a wonderful way of being a lawyer that didn’t exist before.” Lambe said that the law was ready to be disrupted and had changed less than some other sectors. “Johnson Hana is innovating around their talent model and their use of data and insights,” he said. “Its specialism is non-bespoke process-heavy work, not advisory work.”
He said he was impressed by its range of clients in the private sector such as Ryanair, Stripe, TikTok, Indeed and LinkedIn. “What also jumped out at me was its government clients like Coillte, the ESB and the Central Bank. Johnson Hana is getting traction and being disruptive in an industry that probably needs it,” he said.
Is Johnson Hana trying to take work from traditional law firms? “It is not competing with big firms on advisory, which is a huge part of what they do,” Lambe said. “It is very specialised, process, non-bespoke work like commercial contracting, data request work etc. I think big firms might see Johnson Hana as a threat as it might move into advisory but that is categorically not the plan. Forward-looking firms will see Johnson Hana as a potential partner, not a threat.”
Lambe said artificial intelligence was something Johnson Hana was embracing, not fearing. “It is a tailwind not a headwind to the business,” Lambe said. “Johnson Hana is already using AI technology. They are probably ahead of many legacy law firms. AI is something we are going to lean into more.”
Lambe said he had hit it off with Fox from early on: “I love his vision around the mission but I’ve also been impressed with how he’s executed. He has for me a lot of CEO traits that are often hard to find in startups.
“A lot of startup CEOs are really focused on the product only but Dan’s very good at looking at the market, networking in industry, understanding macro trends too. That kind of leadership is needed.
He is smart but he also knows he doesn’t know it all and is surrounding himself with more experienced people. He is curious and has that big vision to expand internationally.
“Domestically, there is still a lot of runway in multinationals, pharma and tech but scaling internationally is the big opportunity. Hopefully, I can help Dan with John [Purdy] to do that as we’ve done it before. One of the reasons why business is so scalable is the niche they have is process-oriented non-bespoke work, which is quite common across various companies and industries but it’s also non-jurisdictional. The work they do travels through jurisdictions, so you don’t have a load of complexity like you do with advice. It is one of the things that really excites me.”
Working with an entrepreneur
Gareth Lambe joined Meta in 2011, the year before the business then called Facebook listed on the stock market. At the time, Meta employed 300 people here and Lambe led the company as it scaled to over 5,000 people and became one of the biggest multinational contributors to the Irish economy.
“I have the big-tech experience of scaling Meta, which was huge,” Lambe said. “A lot of the principles are the same whether you are going from 300 to 5,000 people or 30 to 300. As a strategic advisor to Johnson Hana, I hope to help them with everything to do with scaling.”
At the same time, he said working with Dwyer in Pigsback.com meant he understood what it was like to work with an entrepreneur. “I learned a lot from Michael. I was there as Pigsback went from zero to 100 people,” Lambe said. “It gave me a real appreciation of the startup experience.”
“I want to bring the principles I learned to Johnson Hana and help Dan and the team around strategy and especially positioning with multinationals and internationalising,” Lambe said. “As well as helping the business with specific things like hiring and talent management.”
Lambe left Meta in June 2022, a year before it began a series of dramatic redundancy rounds in Dublin including letting go 500 people in May 2023. “People have asked me, did I see it coming?” Lambe said. “The timing of my departure had been planned for two years,” he explained. “I knew there was a bit of a winter for big tech after the Covid bounce but I didn’t foresee the extent of the cutbacks.”
“Having said that, it wasn’t super surprising and the reasons are well documented – overhiring during Covid and a slowdown in advertising revenue,” he said. “Big tech has introduced more discipline around costs and where they invest but, hopefully, the worst is over. It is more the start-up investment environment that I am worried about going into the future.”
One of the big projects Lambe worked on with Meta was the construction of a new campus in Ballsbridge. Meta has only occupied two-thirds of it with the final third to be sublet to another tenant.
“I am not going to lie, my vision for it was for a full 14-acre campus but needs must,” Lambe said. “The decision is not just about cuts. It is also about remote working. I think that is the main reason they are not taking the full campus. Hopefully, they will in time as hiring re-accelerates.”
“Meta’s share price fall was totally unrealistic.”
Lambe said he was confident Meta was now in a strong position. “Meta’s share price fall was totally unrealistic,” he said. “At one stage at the end of last year, the company was only valued at twice annual revenue. That was insane for such a cash-generating business.”
“I’m not surprised that the share price has trebled over the last eight or nine months,” he said. “I have been impressed at how Meta adopted their AI models to advertising work effectively.
“They have become more disciplined. And I think the launch of Threads, Meta’s rival to Twitter, was impressive in terms of the agility and the opportunism the company showed.
“But it’s early days, there’s very little history of incumbent internet service or platforms being supplanted by a new one. Google tried it by launching Google Plus but it failed to supplant Facebook. It’s early days for Threads, but so far I think it’s been impressive. I think there’s a lot of goodwill towards it as well, which is nice to see.”
“I think the trauma at Twitter has probably done that platform and Elon Musk no favours,” Lambe said. “But Mark Zuckerberg is definitely in a strong position. Meta’s share price is back to $300. Mark’s launching new products. He certainly seems to have hit a groove, and he was always a product visionary, but probably didn’t get a lot of the credit for his positives and strengths. I think he has an opportunity to show that now.”
Rollercoaster ride with Meta
After Gareth Lambe finished with Meta, he took a year out. “It is a luxury to be able to take time out,” he said. “I needed it after a ten-year rollercoaster with Meta with two jobs, head of Meta Ireland and vice president of international business planning and development.”
Lambe had given a year’s notice before he stepped down. “I was able to do it in a planned way. I would like to say I did something impressive like learn Japanese but it was about spending time with family, travelling and catching up with friends.”
Lambe tried to go off-grid, cutting down on reading his emails and looking at his phone. He qualified as a chartered director with the Institute of Directors and made some angel investments.
Bounce Insights, a consumer research platform which raised €1.1 million in November 2022, is one of them. He also invested in Kealan Lennon’s Clevercards in May 202,1 while in February 2023, he took a stake in Irish augmented reality start-up Imvizar’s €800,000 raise along with his old boss Dwyer and others.Recharged, Lambe is thinking ahead. “I’ll probably go into a full-time role or project in time but for the next while, I’m enjoying advising companies and investing,” he said.
Hiring, firing and taxpaying: One year at Meta and Google in Ireland