Salle Yoo, chief legal officer and first general counsel to Uber Technologies Inc., is making plans to leave the company.
Corporate Counsel obtained an email sent by Yoo to her legal team confirming earlier reports that she is stepping away from the San Francisco-based ride-hailing giant.
“After 1,892 days (!) here, the idea of having dinner without my phone on the table, or a day that stays unplugged certainly sounded appealing,” wrote Yoo, explaining that she began thinking about leaving Uber last spring. “And of course like all builders, the idea of building something new from the ground up sounds exciting.”
Tech news website The Information originally reported on Yoo’s departure, citing two sources briefed on the matter, who said Yoo recently negotiated the terms for her exit, including her pay package.
An Uber spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of Yoo’s pay.
The news of Yoo’s exit from the company comes exactly one week after former Expedia Inc. executive Dara Khosrowshahi took over as CEO of Uber.
The announcement also comes days after The Wall Street Journal reported there was a probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into Uber’s “Hell” program, which the company allegedly used to spy on competitor Lyft Inc. The FBI probe is one of several federal investigations into the company.
Yoo’s departure is not immediate. Instead, she will stay with the company until a replacement general counsel is found. “My plan is to continue on until Dara and I have found an amazing General Counsel to lead this team,” Yoo wrote in her email. “In the meantime, I will continue full speed ahead as your chief legal officer and general counsel.”
Yoo’s planned departure follows an exodus of executive brass in 2017, which has included the vice presidents, senior vice presidents and heads of human resources, finance, self-driving, product and growth, communications, engineering and business. In June, the company’s board of directors ousted former CEO Travis Kalanick, the bullish and aggressive co-founder who drove growth since Uber’s inception.
The company is currently missing a chief diversity officer, chief finance officer, chief marketing officer, chief operating officer and senior vice president of engineering. On August 27, Uber announced Khosrowshahi as its new CEO and his first day was September 5.
Yoo joined Uber in mid-2012 as employee number 102 and lawyer number one through a search by legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. Also on the GC short list at the time were former Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom of counsel James Brelsford and former Airbnb Inc. deputy general counsel Darren Weingard. Brelsford said earlier that, when asked by recruiter Bob Major if he was interested in the job, he “misread” the business and assumed the role would include mundane transportation committee meetings in every state.
In her five years, Yoo added roughly 230 lawyers to the legal department, helping Uber expand operations to more than 630 cities worldwide. She dealt with a litany of U.S. litigation such as claims that her company misclassified its drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees. The same issue has dogged many Silicon Valley “gig economy” companies in recent years. Yoo also helped steer the company through a 2014 data breach and cooperated with two, parallel investigations into Uber’s corporate culture and specific allegations about sexual harassment and discrimination.
Outside counsel and direct reports to Yoo rarely speak to members of the media about Yoo’s leadership, citing Uber’s strict rules prohibiting service providers and internal employees from speaking to the press without explicit company approval. However, in 2015, The Recorder spoke to select attorneys who know Yoo, with many praising her ability to grow Uber’s legal department from zero employees to 70 in just three years.
Davis Wright & Tremaine partner Stephen Greenwald, who leads the energy practice that Yoo was a member of while at the same firm, said Uber found the perfect hire in Yoo.
“They were looking for her,” Greenwald said, “exactly her.”
But, this year, the legal department under Yoo took multiple hits, and sometimes Yoo herself appeared to be implicated. According to a New York Times report, Yoo approved Uber’s use of “Greyball,” a software program that helped Uber skirt regulators. Several legal experts called the program ethically and legally questionable. And, according a Wall Street Journal report, Yoo was aware of the company’s decision to knowingly purchase and rent 1,000 defective Honda sport utility vehicles in Singapore that had earlier been recalled.
A former in-house counsel for Uber who recently spoke to Corporate Counsel said Yoo was beginning to lose respect from some of her direct employees near the start of 2017.
When Yoo fired two in-house counsel who independently contacted an outside law firm with questions about Uber’s updated data retention policy, some in the legal department took it poorly, the source said, with a few in-house litigation counsel resigning in protest.
“For most people, that broke a lot of trust we had in the general counsel,” said the former in-house attorney, who requested anonymity to preserve relationships with current Uber in-house counsel.
Despite the chaos, Yoo received a promotion in May to chief legal officer. According to an email sent by former CEO Kalanick to company employees, in her new role, Yoo would “help drive critical company initiatives like equal pay, increasing diversity in our business, and building a strong cultural foundation for the future of Uber.” None of Kalanick’s descriptions of Yoo’s new job included legal work.
At the 2017 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference in July, Yoo didn’t shy away from speaking about Uber’s troubles. She began her remarks by immediately addressing the company’s recent turmoil.
“As some of you may know, we have been going through a period of change at Uber,” Yoo told the San Francisco audience of more than 100 people. “We’ve had a few issues that may or may not have been covered in the press extensively.”
Yoo also talked through Uber’s expansion, her first five in-house hires (all women), regulatory challenges in international cities and how she learned that McDonalds Corp., a partner to the company’s food delivery service UberEats, was an extraordinarily popular takeout option.
And, she recounted a moment in which she was reminded of the difficulties minorities face in attaining equality. Ten years ago, Yoo said, she needed to get on a bus in Manhattan because the underground subways were flooded in recent rains. After asking the driver if the bus connected to another subway station, Yoo sat down and was complimented by a woman on her English-speaking ability.
“I had been educated in the American system. I had finished law school. I was in a law firm on my way to partnership. And to this woman, I was still an immigrant woman,” Yoo said. “This was in the bluest place in the bluest state. This was not a place that was [unfamiliar with] the diversity of our population. And here I was on a bus on Houston Street, being told my English was good.”
Stephanie Forshee contributed to this report.
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