Laurence Wilson

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He describes himself as “misguided.” But considering his accomplishments, Laurence Wilson is anything but. Currently standing at the helm of the legal department of Yelp, a wildly popular social networking site launched in 2004 that allows members to review restaurants and other local businesses, Wilson was referring to his decision to pursue a history and chemistry undergraduate degree, which he received in 1995.

“I thought I would be a scientist,” he says. “But I soon realized I hated the white-coat lab life.”

It was three years before he made it to law school–first taking a gig as a legal assistant at Morrison & Foerster, then traveling to France and eventually teaching in Mexico. It was when Wilson began to miss his stint as a legal assistant that he decided to go to law school.

Despite the fact that a law firm was what got Wilson interested in law, as a lawyer he has never worked in private practice. Instead, he took a much less-traveled road than most recent law school grads–not only did he go in-house, but he focused his sights specifically on startups. And for eight years, he has built a career on achieving that goal. After graduating, he worked for a handful of startups in San Francisco before landing at Xoom, an online money transfer company. He made his way to the top legal spot at Yelp in 2007.

Q: How did your legal career progress after law school?

A: Although my legal assistant experience was good, I knew there were a lot of miserable [law firm] associates out there. I didn’t want that. I had an interest in business and technology. So I veered off the traditional path. Rather than going to a big firm, I networked myself in-house and took a different route than most recent law school grads.

Q: Tell me about the work you do as GC of Yelp. What types of issues are you and your team usually working on?

A: We have about 280 employees now, and we are continuing to grow quickly. Everything is going extraordinarily well with the company.

Until recently, I was the only in-house lawyer. And I would see a wide range of work. There are a lot of issues with Web 2.0 companies, including leasing issues and a whole range of traditional legal issues that come up with any company of this size.

We recently did a product launch with Facebook and Twitter. It’s another way to get our content out there. And it’s a great way for the Facebooks and Twitters of the world to get more content on their sites.

Q: What’s it like being the only in-house lawyer at a startup?

A: We are just now hiring our second lawyer. And since I have been the only lawyer here since starting two years ago, I am very excited to double the department. But I would say being the sole attorney was both challenging and freeing.

The biggest challenge is when you don’t know enough, and you don’t have someone right next to you with in-depth knowledge and experience to discuss issues with.

Prioritization is essential when only one person is handling all the
legal issues.

Q: What are the advantages of working at a startup?

A: I like to think it is the best job in the world. I am probably missing out on the resources and the fancy marble bathrooms they have at law firms. But they are probably missing out on our kegger- and dog-friendly office.

In the startup world, we really try to cultivate relationships with folks in similar positions. For example, there are eight of us or so at tech startups that get together for lunch regularly. We have an e-mail list to bounce ideas off of each other. It is a fantastic resource.

Q: What do you think makes your legal department unique?

A: We help the business move quickly, without hesitation, in any direction it wants to go. That’s critical for any startup. I am less risk averse. I have to be.

There are business opportunities in taking risks. Startups are a great environment to make that happen. It’s much different than a traditional in-house experience at a big company.

Q: Yelp really seems to have taken off in the past year or two. How has that affected your work?

A: It affects my work in the velocity and breadth of issues. A whole host of issues come up when you have 22 million people visiting your site every month plugging in reviews. Since I joined, Yelp has more than doubled in its review volume.

Q: Has Yelp been involved in any litigation?

A: We’ve been pretty lucky so far. The biggest cause for concern is when a business owner looks to the courts to deal with a bad review. A lot of that stuff is just threats. When it turns into a lawsuit, it’s often small business owners with small claims. They aren’t usually looking to start a big blockbuster case. But there are a lot of those small ones that I constantly deal with.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: I’ve alluded to time and resources. In the startup environment, by definition, you have fewer resources. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And if you find creative ways to get things done, that usually means getting things done faster.

Q: What do you like most about the work you do?

A: When I wake up in the morning, I know I will work on a problem I have never seen before. I’m not sure you can say the same thing if you do, say, asbestos litigation. For me, any random issue can come up on any given day.

Q: What advice would you give a lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a startup?

A: You must possess the willingness to take the risk to work in an environment that has less job security. You have to shed the golden handcuffs of large law firm pay. There are a lot of opportunities to start in an industry you are interested in and build the relationships with the people who can help you make that happen.

Q: If money weren’t an issue, what would your dream job be?

A: I would love to run a small neighborhood restaurant or sandwich stand. I would serve crepes or Vietnamese sandwiches.

Q: What is your favorite restaurant?

A: Kokkari–a high-end Greek restaurant in San Francisco.