It is one of the world’s fastest-growing companies yet its UK domestic legal team is only six months old. Uber Technologies UK, Ireland and Nordics legal director Matt Wilson arrived in July from Telefónica. In this successful start-up business the infrastructure is having to mature quickly, while also dealing with competition hurdles and swerving collisions with established market competitors.
Uber claimed to have made its billionth journey on Christmas Eve in London. The company, whose app connects prospective passengers to freelance drivers, charging the passenger’s credit card and taking a cut, is currently just five-and-a-half years old.
In early December reports circulated that Uber Technologies is now bigger than any of the San Francisco technology start-ups, including Twitter. According to Bloomberg, it is now valued at about $62.5bn (£43.3bn) worldwide, achieving a 200 per cent year-on-year growth rate. It is little wonder that Microsoft wants a slice of the action, ploughing a $100m investment into the company.
Any general counsel might be forgiven for feeling daunted by such a role, but Uber’s Wilson feels just the opposite. Uber was a challenge he craved.
His mission is to encourage Uber to mature rapidly so that it can knock heads with the big boys and come off unscathed. Better still, he would prefer that Uber avoided scraps altogether. To do that it needs to shake off its puppy-dog image and become a sophisticated market player.
“The business has done exceptionally well,” Wilson says. “We’re not a scrappy start up anymore, we have a global brand and we’re having to grow up really quickly.”
Uber faces challenges from incumbent market players globally. In London the most prominent challenge has come from Transport for London (TfL), which, many commentators believe, is doing its best to protect the market position of black cab and minicab operators.
In October Uber saw off a High Court challenge from TfL over whether its app was legal in London. TfL had brought the case in a bid to have the app declared illegal because it was being used as a taximeter.
Lord Justice Ouseley rejected the case.
“What we are seeing is that our competition is using the legal route to try and protect their market position,” Wilson says. “The taximeter litigation was a good example of that.”
The challenge has not ended there.
In December, Mayor of London Boris Johnson closed a consultation on 25 proposals for minicab regulations that many believe are aimed at stemming the growth of Uber. One proposal is that riders will have to wait the minimum of five minutes between hiring a cab and jumping in – regardless of the proximity of the rider to the taxi. The outcome of the consultation is expected imminently.
Know your business
These are just two issues that Wilson has had to get to grips with since arriving at Uber in July. From day one, he says, the brakes have been off.
“I have never come into an organisation where people were so pleased to see a lawyer,” he explains. “There was a queue at my desk and I had 20 to 25 things on my to-do list by the end of the first day.”
As well as the litigation and liaising with TfL, Wilson has been dealing with marketing and advertising issues, negotiating small claims matters and helping with the expansion of Uber outside the capital. That means dealing with the compliance demands of each local authority in the regions in which Uber operates.
“I have never come into an organisation where people were so pleased to see a lawyer”
“Each local council essentially gets to impose its own rules on top of the core legislation. It’s a heavily regulated business in the UK,” he says.
With such wide and varied legal challenges no two days are ever the same. Wilson spent some time getting to know the business before preparing to build his own team. That went against the advice of his line manager, Uber general counsel Salle Yoo, who is based in San Francisco, and regional general manager Jo Bertram. They both suggested that he took no time in hiring some lawyers.
Nevertheless, says Wilson, “I wanted to get to know the business and put a business plan together for the first six to 12 months. After that, I decided which lawyers I needed”.
Aim to be proactive
The lawyers he hired needed to be all-rounders willing to get stuck into the wider business, Wilson says.
“It isn’t a place where the lawyer is left holding the brunt of the work and the long hours, everyone has to be in it together,” he continues. “You’re part of the business and you feel like part of the team. You may know about the law and that’s your speciality, but everyone is expected to contribute to the wider business. Toe-stepping is part of Uber’s culture. It’s refreshing.”
As a result, Wilson hired two lawyers: corporate counsel Amanda Hammond, who joined from Qantas in Australia; and Slaughter and May
associate Ella Smith.
Wilson says if he is afforded the luxury of making a specialist hire in the next two years it will be to add a compliance expert.
“At the moment there are a lot of areas where we are fire-fighting and being reactive,” he says. “I want us to be able to be proactive, developing processes and structures that will allow us to continue to grow.”
Uber is home to a global team of lawyers with bases in London, Amsterdam, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Chicago, Hong Kong, Australia, India, and Dubai.
Wilson works closely with Uber’s teams in Amsterdam and San Francisco. As well as general counsel Salle Yoo, that includes legal director for Western Europe Zac de Kievit and EMEA head of employment law, Harriet King, both of whom are in Amsterdam.
Wilson admits that Uber has grown in a blaze of publicity. On occasion it has used the PR machine to get its brand out to the public. But now it is time to move on and start communicating in a more sophisticated manner, says Wilson.
“We do need to be innovative and disruptive, but we also need to start telling our story a little better,” he suggests.
“We need to explain who we are and what we do and the real-world benefits of how Uber works and the effect it has.”
He cites one example as being the Uber Giving project that got under way during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis last year.
“In a matter of days we set up an EU-wide collection service using the Uber platform, working in the UK in partnership with Save the Children,” he explains. “Users could click to donate and partner-drivers would collect items to pass to Save the Children.
“I was part of a small team in the UK that helped to organise it. Sitting behind that are contracts with the charity and others. [Tens of] thousands of items were donated. It was a great success but there is risk, and a pragmatic approach is needed.”
Picking a panel
As the business grows so will Uber’s reliance on external counsel. Wilson plans to put together a formal roster of advisers this year.
Currently Wilson instructs a select few firms. These include Hogan Lovells (relationship partner Paul Dacam), Herbert Smith Freehills (competition partner André Pretorius) and, on a regional level, Shepherd & Wedderburn (partner Gordon Downie).
Wilson says Uber will be looking for economies of scale from successful tenderers that may include offers of volume discounts.
Secondees would be considered, but says Wilson, “we don’t always want to pay for that, it has to be an investment on both sides.
“We are well funded but all employees are owners in the business and want to maximise profitability. We are looking for value.”
What is essential, he adds, is that the chosen panel is close to the business. “We need someone who knows the business really well so that they will be the first person I call,” he says.
Wilson will be running the tender along with a newly installed procurement team that has only come to fruition in the last six months.
Just six months into his role, Wilson believes he has racked up experience equivalent to that of two years for a traditional GC. The next six months are crucial for Uber as it looks to override challenges and sustain its growth rate globally. The legal team is central to that vision, and Wilson sits at the heart of that.