It definitely wasn’t the plush office that enticed Kristin Sverchek to take the general counsel job at Lyft Inc. in November. Her workspace — a simple Ikea desk and swivel chair — is no different from anyone else’s at the San Francisco startup.
Sverchek has no office — and little privacy. When she needs to make a confidential call, she grabs her cellphone and walks down a flight of stairs to the parking lot next door. There, beneath a large Lyft billboard, she can speak without being overheard.
Lyft, through a mobile app, connects people who need a ride with a Lyft member willing to drive them. The Lyft fleet is made up of private vehicles, each festooned with a large hot-pink fuzzy mustache.
The car’s owner, who carries $1 million in extra insurance provided by Lyft, is compensated by passengers who pay a suggested "donation." The service operates in Los Angeles and in Seattle.
Lyft, which has raised $21 million in venture funding since 2007, also operates Zimride Inc, which uses Facebook to connect drivers with passengers willing to pay for a ride. Zimride claims more than 350,000 regular users, many of them on 125 college campuses. (Sverchek runs legal matters for both companies, but said she spends at least 90 percent of her time on Lyft.) Its name was inspired not by company president John Zimmer but by the impromptu ride-sharing that chief executive officer Logan Green often observed while in Zimbabwe.
Lyft, an alternative way to get around cities, has drawn the wrath of San Fran­cisco’s taxi drivers and the attention — including a $20,000 fine and a cease-and-desist order — of California’s Public Utilities Commission. The taxi drivers claim Lyft is operating an unregulated, illegal cab service and poaching its customers. The commission lifted the cease-and-desist order and fine it issued last year while it reviews whether and how services like Lyft should be regulated. A decision is expected by July 1.
When Sverchek joined the company as general counsel, Lyft had 35 employees. The headcount is now 50 and growing rapidly, with a handful of staffers in a new Oakland, Calif., office and others in Los Angeles and Seattle.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
Sverchek, an in-house department of one, reports to Zimmer and Green, and a meeting might involve wheeling her chair over to their desks for a chat. She devotes about 90 percent of her time on Lyft matters and the rest on Zimride work.
Lyft’s outside corporate counsel is Silicon Legal Strategy, Sverchek’s former employer. It handled the March acquisition of Cherry.com, a San Francisco-based on-demand car-washing service. The terms of that deal were not disclosed.
Lyft’s patent work goes to Van Pelt, Yi & James of Cupertino, Calif. Royse Law Firm of Palo Alto tackles tax work. Pran­ger Law Group of San Francisco oversees Lyft’s trademark work, while Greggory Wheatland at Ellison, Schneider & Harris of Sacramento handles regulatory issues. Daniel Rockey in Bryan Cave’s San Francisco office does Lyft’s legal research and writing.
Sverchek is grateful that Lyft doesn’t face any litigation, and she’s carefully monitoring its tangle with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees the city’s taxis, and the state’s regulators, who have the potential to quash emerging services like Lyft.
"They understand that we provide options and we’re encouraging competition," she said. "The transportation systems are regulated monopolies and not in the public interest. I wholeheartedly believe the [Public Utilities Commission] gets that. I think we will change the transportation landscape. I feel I’m part of something bigger than myself."
She said she’s not spending much energy mulling whether the agency will take such harsh action. "Part of being a startup is you have to be an eternal optimist," she said.
As Lyft expands its service into additional cities, Sverchek expects to encounter additional regulatory hurdles. She plans to hire another lawyer by the end of the year — ideally, one comfortable in a startup environment. "There are going to be so many growing pains," she said.
With her experience counseling startup founders, Sverchek was concerned that she would be on call perpetually. She leveled with Green and Zimmer before taking the offer: " ‘I see what times you guys are sending emails,’ " she told them, " ‘but I’m not the type to work until 11.’ They got that, and they respect that."
Sverchek knew she’d be challenged as Lyft’s first in-house counsel. In a typical day, she might be consulted on regulatory issues, trademark and patent matters, contract questions, intellectual property and vendor agreements.
"Essentially, I’m switching practice areas all day," she said.
She’s become adept at thinking on her feet, which she credits to her moot court experience in law school. "I do get asked a lot of tough regulatory questions," she said. "Now I have to be prepared to talk in a very ad hoc way."
She also was selected for her knowledge of government-relations matters, she said. She is asked to meet with state and local legislators, but she expects to soon hire a specialist to take on that aspect of her job.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Sverchek majored in molecular and cell biology at the University of Califor­nia, Berkeley, graduating in 2004. She received her law degree in 2007 from the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
Following graduation, Sverchek spent about a year and a half at Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian, representing technology companies. When the firm let her go amid recession cutbacks, she began picking up contract work with Silicon Legal Strategy, a boutique firm serving San Francisco startups.
Zimride was one of the clients. Sverchek met Zimmer and Green in 2010, when she represented investors in the company’s first round of financing. She began working with Green and Zimmer more often, and last fall, they asked her to join them. The offer gave her pause. Content as a partner at Silicon Legal Strategy, she wasn’t looking for another job. "It was hard, but ultimately, I felt this was such a unique opportunity, and I’d regret passing it up," she said.
Sverchek and her husband, Tom Sverchek, a physician assistant to a cardiologist, like to hike, picnic and enjoy San Francisco’s diverse restaurants. An ardent trivia fan, she tried out for the game show Jeopardy! in March in Sacramento and is waiting to hear whether she’s been selected.
LAST BOOK AND MOVIE
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard, about the assassination of President James Garfield. The last movie she saw was Django Unchained.