With the promotion in May of Salle Yoo to chief legal officer at Uber Technologies Inc., the ride-hailing giant is in need of a new general counsel. The yet-to-be-named GC will arrive as the company is dealing with an onslaught of crises and a series of top executive departures, including that of former CEO Travis Kalanick.
Corporate Counsel asked a number of top current and former in-house attorneys what kind of experience they think it will take to step into the general counsel role at the San Francisco-based company and whether they’d hypothetically take the job. Some of the lawyers expressed enthusiasm about such a career opportunity, but many also offered caveats for the next general counsel.
Uber did not immediately respond to request for comment on the GC hiring process.
A Strong Stomach
“I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment,” said Eric Laptook, the former U.S. general counsel for Takata, who left the troubled airbag manufacturer early this year. “Uber’s got such an array of interesting issues and challenges, and, I imagine, really smart people. It’s an industry leader. These are the kind of things I look for in a GC position. The position probably requires a strong stomach and a personality to match.”
While some might express concern about stepping into a role as the No. 2 lawyer reporting to Yoo as CLO, Laptook said that isn’t a dealbreaker for him. “I don’t have an explosive ego,” he said. “As long as everybody understands my mission, my role and gives me the clear lane to do that.”
“I’m sure there is enough to handle in that organization,” Laptook added. “It would probably be helpful [for the next GC] to check their ego at the door.”
Legal Department’s Stature
Allen Huang, deputy GC at Virgin America, said in a LinkedIn message to Corporate Counsel he’s “certainly curious” about the GC role but would need to know there is “a true interest in culture change from the top.”
He’d also need a thorough understanding of “what the legal department’s role and stature is at Uber,” how it operates, how much control it has over the company as a whole and when it would ever be considered at fault for things that go wrong at the company.
Huang finds it odd that despite all the high-profile firings and departures, Uber’s legal department “seems to be unscathed.”
“At all companies [where] I’ve worked, the legal department is never a driver of corporate culture, but always has significant input on the compliance culture,” Huang said. So, he finds it “surprising that harassment, Greyball [the company's supposed use of a regulator-skirting software] and other bad activity became so notable that they were beyond the legal department’s control.”
“Normally, the legal department would prevent those things from happening, or would take an active role in mitigating those activities so that they don’t become such public embarrassments,” he explained.
Banning the Bro Culture
Aisha Christian, former GC of online apparel rental service Rent the Runway and founder and GC of finance startup Bigtooth Ventures, said in a message she would take the job—but improvements in workplace culture at Uber would be essential.
“To create and sustain a culture of legal compliance and mitigate the ‘bro culture,’ you need a strong CEO and board that implicitly care about the law and not just ‘if we are caught…’” Christian said. “And of course a GC with the same ethos.”
Christian warned, though, that the new general counsel will no doubt have to deal with the “public scrutiny of Uber … some may say venom” so “a mistake could mean congressional hearings, not just a typical lawsuit.” She said that for Yoo’s replacement “success is far from assured.”
Looking for Experience
Olga Mack, general counsel of tech company ClearSlide, said that the Uber GC job is appealing because “lawyers provide a lot of leadership and support during times of crisis.”
However, she doesn’t think she’s exactly the type of candidate that Uber is looking for. Mack anticipates that given Uber’s situation, the company is likely considering higher-profile candidates who have led a large legal department in a public company—with bonus points if they led the company through an IPO.
Mack added: “There’s a 70 to 80 percent chance the next GC will be female. She’ll probably be someone in her 40s or 50s, probably not in her 30s, because they’ll be looking for someone very experienced with legal operations experience.”
An Interesting Opportunity
For one general counsel in the tech industry, who asked to remain anonymous to preserve their working relationship with their current employer, the Uber general counsel role would definitely be an “interesting opportunity” to consider.
“I sort of compare this to booking on an airline that just had an unfortunate airplane crash,” the general counsel said. “Those are the companies that tend to now be most vigorous about a particular issue. [At Uber], I think new folks coming in will have a strong mandate to change the culture in the company.”
One area of concern might be whether the company will be as successful as it changes in the future, the GC added. “It sort of did things and checked the rules later,” the attorney said. “Does changing that impact its growth going forward?”
A key question that would need to be answered ahead of taking the job is who the CEO will be, the in-house lawyer said, adding that the person who takes on the GC seat will likely need “global experience dealing with regulators and also [experience] managing a good-sized legal function.”
Company That’s ‘Changing the World’
A veteran general counsel working in the tech sector, who preferred not to be named in order to preserve relationships in the industry, said it would be a tempting opportunity for many because Uber is a company that’s “changing the world.”
The GC added: “Six months ago, I would not have said that, but now that’s changed.” The GC cited leadership shifts at Uber and the roadmap provided by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s 13-page document of recommendations on how to move the company forward after allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination within its ranks.
“I wouldn’t go to a place like Uber unless they were really committed to a wholesale change in the way they thought about integrity and compliance,” the GC said. “You’d have to really feel like there’s trust and an alignment for an approach and that the legal function would really be respected.”
The tech industry vet similarly said it’d be important to know who will replace Kalanick and that it’d be helpful to know who the company’s new chief financial officer will be and what the relationship will be with Yoo. “With the right answers to all those questions, I think it’d be a great opportunity for somebody,” the lawyer said.
GC v. CLO
Another veteran GC who has worked at multiple tech companies and requested anonymity to preserve relationships with colleagues in the industry said that Uber carries enough weight to perk up any potential candidate’s ears.
“Uber is a highly successful and interesting and innovative company, with a vast number of challenging legal and regulatory issues. Anyone who said they wouldn’t at least take a closer look at it, given the opportunity, is probably lying to you,” the GC said.
But, according to the attorney, the position isn’t all it seems, at least on paper. The source said that the open role might be for a “general counsel,” but the job description is more for a deputy or associate general counsel role.
“The general counsel position is typically the senior legal voice of the company and the person who builds and represents the legal department, both externally and with senior management and the board of directors,” the GC said. “This position isn’t that.”
The source pointed out that the GC position at Uber still reports to Yoo. And that creates another wrinkle, the attorney said: an environment where a candidate is tasked with coming in and cleaning up a legal department where the lead is stepping aside.
“That’s a red flag,” said the veteran general counsel. “I don’t have any inside knowledge of the issues at the department, but it seems the person responsible for building it up is now walking away from it and handing the reins to someone else for day-to-day management.”