Dream job? Perhaps. If it weren’t for the sexual harassment allegations that launched a two-firm investigation into the company; the U.S. Department of Justice and state investigations into the company’s use of regulator-skirting software; and the recent loss of top executives and directors. And those autonomous vehicles? Key technology is the centerpiece of a contentious legal fight over alleged trade secret theft that pits Google’s self-driving car subsidiary Waymo against Uber. There’s also apparent tension in the legal department itself, where Uber fired two lawyers who reportedly made unauthorized contact with outside counsel.
We spoke with private practice attorneys, in-house counsel, legal professors and recruiters and asked them: What questions should Uber’s next GC ask before taking the job?
Uber’s new general counsel will report directly to recently promoted chief legal officer Salle Yoo, whose new position appears to involve less hands-on legal work. The new GC will handle “day-to-day direction and operation” of legal and regulatory matters, according to an internal email from CEO Travis Kalanick to Uber employees.
Yoo will focus on “equal pay, increasing diversity in our business, and building a strong cultural foundation for the future of Uber,” the email said, offering a somewhat enigmatic description of Yoo’s new position. Uber didn’t respond to requests for comment about its GC search.
1. How much in-house control will Salle Yoo have after her promotion?
Recently retired Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom intellectual property senior counsel James Brelsford, who was previously general counsel to Mforma Inc., a computers systems integrated design company, and SanDisk, a manufacturer of data storage devices, said any potential candidate should ask how, exactly, Yoo will influence and direct the legal department.
Brelsford said it is unclear, from Kalanick’s email, what role Yoo will have in overseeing the legal department. That could lead to the new GC having a boss who is making decisions for a team with which she doesn’t interact, Brelsford said. Brelsford said a major recruiter asked him about the then-vacant Uber GC job about five years ago, but admitted he “misread” the business, thinking he’d spend much of his time speaking with taxi commissions and state transportation regulatory authorities.
Brelsford said he doesn’t regret passing on the job. The company’s style, he said, is a bit too aggressive for him.
2. What can you really do at the company?
Brelsford also said the potential GC should know what level of experience the company is looking for in its new hire. If the company is looking for a junior-level GC who will handle day-to-day legal matters, like reviewing contracts, and not larger business-driven decisions, that GC might get blamed for any of the company’s potential lingering compliance problems, Brelsford said.
“I’m going to be a junior GC and when the next illegal spy program comes out, I was never at the table and never had any influence, but I get blamed because I’m the head of legal,” Brelsford said jokingly. “Boy, that’s a hell of a job.”
3. Executives are leaving Uber. What’s the future of the company?
One lawyer in the ride-sharing industry who spoke with us anonymously—their employer did not grant them permission to speak on the record—said any candidate should think about what the recent departures of key executives might mean for the future of the company.
In March, Uber’s president of ride-sharing Jeff Jones and the company’s vice president of maps and business platform Brian McClendon both left the company. At the time, Jones told the tech publication Recode that “the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber.” Jones could not be reached for comment. McClendon said he “left Uber to move to Kansas and get involved in politics. It had nothing to do with Uber’s problems.”
Recode reported in May that Jim Callaghan, Uber’s general counsel of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, was leaving the company. On May 30, Josh Mohrer, manager of the company’s New York operations, announced his planned departure, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, following the company’s announcement that it had underpaid New York drivers since 2014.
Despite the turnover, Uber told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that the company had narrowed its quarterly losses, putting “us on a good trajectory toward profitability.” Uber board member Arianna Huffington told reporters in March that “the board has confidence” in Kalanick.
4. Will there be a reporting structure, or can you build one, where management will listen to my legal advice?
Peter Henning, a professor of law at Wayne State University who writes white-collar columns regularly for The New York Times, said the new GC should clarify how much power they will have in steering the company.
“My job is to represent the company, not any individual, so how can we ensure that I have access to relevant information and a ‘seat at the table’ in major business decisions?” Henning asked. A lawyer trying to steer a company that doesn’t listen to its legal department will only create more legal issues, he said.
5. Are you comfortable with uncertainty?
Miller Sabino & Lee legal recruiter Stacy Miller Azcarate, who has placed candidates at Silicon Valley tech companies, said clients should know if they are comfortable working in a department where there isn’t always a clear answer to legal questions.
“Uber is creating an entirely new regulatory environment, and they’re doing for transportation what Airbnb did for lodging,” Azcarate said. She said the new GC can be expected to take control of the company’s regulatory framework and working with local and foreign government agencies to push the company forward.
Azcarate didn’t sugarcoat the expected job responsibilities: Coping with mounting litigation, sometimes hostile regulatory environments, and managing a growing legal department. She said candidates should think about how that environment might feel—exciting or scary?
“For some people, they thrive on [uncertainty] and it motivates them,” Azcarate said. “For some people, it’s debilitating.”
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