Yahoo!’s guitar-playing Asia-Pacific GC Stephen Man tells Elizabeth Broomhall about the challenge of keeping up with his high-octane and acquisitive new CEO and the socio-political difficulties of working in certain markets
Working in the legal team of one of the world’s largest internet companies, Stephen Man is rarely at a loose end. The Canadian-born father of two, who was appointed Asia-Pacific general counsel for Yahoo! in 2011 after working with the company for five years, says his biggest challenge in the past 12 months has been keeping pace with the growth and rapidly evolving vision of the company since Marissa Mayer was made CEO last summer.
Despite his hectic schedule, Man says he is – perhaps surprisingly – a strong advocate of lawyers having a work-life balance. Maybe it is one of the quirks of working for an internet company, but, when he’s not travelling or on a call, colleagues say he can be found playing his guitar in his office (though he claims to be no more than a beginner).
He predicts there will be even more work for Yahoo!’s legal team in Asia now that the company has a clear strategy for how it wants to expand. This is a departure from previous years, he says, because of the changes in management.
“There was a period of time when we were between CEOs. During that time, not a lot of acquisitions were done as the company was still trying to find its direction.
“But we are doing a lot now, with the primary focus being on the mobile space and anything that gets us engineering talent to support a fantastic user experience. We’re very much focused now on being a user-first company and getting that audience back, rather than just solely concentrating on revenue.”
Spreading a wide net
Operating out of 10 jurisdictions in Asia, excluding Japan and China where it has minority shares in companies via joint ventures with Softbank, Yahoo! has a group of 30 legal professionals spread across the region. In each market, there is typically a GC and a senior counsel, who are supported on an Asia-wide basis by six regional lawyers.
These include a patent and intellectual property (IP) specialist and a product compliance lawyer, both based in Hong Kong, in addition to a law-enforcement, privacy and competition lawyer in Taiwan, and a content and monetisation counsel working in Singapore. Another regional lawyer who joined the Hong Kong team recently is training in all areas, to encourage interchangeability.
Meanwhile, Man manages the wider legal team in addition to supporting the business operations generally, which he says requires sound knowledge of the company culture. For this reason, as well as to save costs, he prefers to handle the majority of work in-house.
“We try to do as much work as we can in-house. We have very experienced lawyers who know the business and the environment, so quite often we can advise internally.
“To the extent that there is new legislation, we will certainly have outside counsel look at it. If there is overflow work (too much for us to handle), then we will source bits and pieces to outside counsel. Also when we have any M&A, we will work with outside counsel as well.”
Much of the work is commercial, he says, with specific issues such as privacy, IP, product compliance, competition, content, monetisation and freedom of speech cropping up given the nature of the business. Typically, the country teams do the daily GC work, while the regional lawyers help on specialist or cross-border matters. The US legal team is also available to provide support, with its own set of specialists in areas such as privacy and M&A.
Man says: “We have an M&A team based out of our headquarters in Sunnyvale, California. They will normally drive the acquisitions and our teams will help out depending on what country is involved.
“Quite often, we will help source local counsel to do the due diligence and look at local regulatory requirements that our US colleagues would not be as familiar with. And we advise on customs – there are different ways of doing business culturally as well as professionally that everyone needs to be aware of.”
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for the Asian legal team is to support the company operations in the context of very specific political and social landscapes, he says. ”We’ve got a really broad range of countries. Vietnam is always challenging. India has its own sets of issues – privacy, for example, is big right now. Content comes up as well, though we do less in the way of user-generated content than some of the other companies such as Google and Facebook. When you’re operating in countries such as Vietnam or Indonesia or India where some material may be offensive, we need to handle this very sensitively.
“We are also big proponents of freedom of speech, but we need to balance that with operating in countries that have sensitivities, whether legal or cultural.”
Man adds that in the past year in particular, a focus on users has created additional chores: “A user-first policy has meant a lot of changes to the way our homepages look; the way our mail operates; the apps that we’ve developed for iPhones and mobile devices – that has required a lot of work from our compliance teams to make sure that we are complying with the laws in all of the markets where we operate.
“Also I think generally for the Asia-Pacific market, each country is in some state of development and governments are very different, which has meant a lot of work in the public policy arena and keeping up to date with legislative reforms. We also do our best to influence where we can to assist our business.”
Local help, global task
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to getting support from external counsel, the team is often reliant on local rather than international advisers, although it does not have a formal panel.
“I would say that we have an Asian panel of sorts that is an extension of our broad global list of law firms. However, we can use our discretion in Asia because the US won’t have heard of the firms we work with out here.
“Quite often, we will use smaller law firms. So for countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, our GCs have put a lot of time into building relationships with partners and senior counsel in those areas. Quite often, it’s more cost effective and they are really up to speed on the latest developments.”
Firms used in the past include Lee & Li in Taiwan, AMTD in Singapore and AZB Partners and Armarchand in India. On the international side, the company has referred work to Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Deacons and Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong; Clifford Chance in Australia; Simmons & Simmons and O’Melveny & Myers in China; and Bird & Bird in Singapore. All firms used have to be approved by the US team, with typically two or three outfits used in each country.
“Certainly, we’re open to new firms. At the end of the day, we want to get the best advice we can to support the business, so if that means looking at another firm, then we’re not married to the idea with sticking to one.”
The generation game
In the near future, Man expects additional work to arise as Yahoo! looks to expand regionally and develop its portfolio of products. Markets that the company is eyeing for growth or entry include Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, while it wants to develop products in the mobile and e-commerce space.
“These are countries that have huge and young populations, and their first experience with the internet is likely to be on a tablet or a mobile phone – they’re going to skip the PC altogether. This fits well with our strategy to concentrate on the mobile experience, especially as data rates come down and internet becomes more accessible.
“But there are a lot of challenges working in these markets – there are foreign ownership restrictions that may require us to partner up, or limitations on what kinds of services we can offer. Absolutely, there will be a lot of legal work involved – to the extent that we need local expertise, we will need to reach out to law firms within those countries to help out.”
On product growth, Man adds: “E-commerce is a real success story for some of our countries, Taiwan and Hong Kong specifically, and it doesn’t exist for any of our other countries worldwide. So we’re looking to bolster or expand on those areas of our business as well. Local expertise will be important, and understanding the market.”
In an ideal world, Man would like to expand the in-house team, but admits that he could be constrained by costs. He is also keen on having a more formal programme for secondments and internships. ”I would hope to grow the team as the business grows, but I think we need to be more creative in how we resource ourselves.
“We could certainly look more at seconding trainee solicitors or junior lawyers, as it gets us some help on workload and it would be very interesting for the trainee or lawyer seconded.”