Embracing Risk: How Uber GC Salle Yoo Defines Her Career
When you first enter Uber’s San Francisco headquarters, the buzzing of activity and achievement gradually swells all around you. It’s exactly what you would expect from a company whose size has more than doubled each year since its launch in 2010, delivering services in over 72 countries and 425 cities worldwide, and disrupting an industry that has been stagnant for decades. As Uber employees energetically zoom by in feverish conversation, Uber’s General Counsel, Salle Yoo, stands out as a centering force of calm, reason and thoughtfulness – an exterior hiding what’s clear as soon as she begins speaking: Yoo is a dynamic risk-taker.
The only word to describe Yoo’s first job in-house is “revolutionary.” Yoo has tackled some of the most intricate and complex legal issues across a multitude of both US and international jurisdictions, faced uphill litigation battles, and redefined the idea of risk. While, undoubtedly, Yoo’s success can be attributed to a variety of “right moves,” it is fundamentally defined by two characteristics.
1. Asking the Right Questions
Yoo’s journey with Uber began with a simple question: what’s the worst thing that could happen? In Yoo’s thirteen years at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, her practice was an unusual mix of litigation and regulatory. She represented companies in California Public Utilities Commission proceedings but was also on the trial team that represented an airline in an insurance coverage case arising from the events of 9/11. Yoo wasn’t looking to leave her firm, but one weekend in April 2012, as she was juggling the competing demands of a birthday party for her young stepsons and the litigation needs of a new client who wanted to file a writ of mandamus on Monday, she became, in her own words “ripe for the picking [to go in-house].”
“The truth is that I didn’t actually know what Uber was when this job was first presented to me. That has been the cause of quite a few good laughs over the last four years,” says Yoo. Like all startups, Uber had an uncertain future and Yoo would leave the security of a law firm to join as its first lawyer. What really convinced Yoo to take the plunge despite the risk was asking herself the right questions.
Yoo says, “I read the job description and it was quite the mix of legal knowledge and surprisingly, I met every bullet point. I felt like the job was actually describing me better than I could.” While she wasn’t sure of everything the job would entail, she was excited at the opportunity but a bit unsure of leaving law firm life. “Lawyers are generally fairly risk-adverse. When I thought of leaving my law partnership for a start-up, it seemed pretty risky. But I decided that the real question in front of me was, when is the next time I’ll get an offer to be GC of a tech company?” Yoo says. “And more importantly, the right question was what’s the worst that could happen to my career?”
When Yoo took the job, she realized that, like her, Uber was about taking risks. The company is constantly pushing boundaries and changing the status quo. “One thing that start-ups believe is that standing still is moving backwards.” Managing legal risk while helping her company push forward as fast as possible has been instrumental to Yoo’s success. Yoo has reiterated and perfected the art of asking the right questions — even if they’re deceptively simple — in her four years at Uber.
2. Defining the “General” in “General Counsel”
As Uber’s first General Counsel, Yoo defined what the position meant to her and to her company. “When I first took this job, I had this idea that the ‘general’ in General Counsel means something more akin to an army general,” Yoo says. “But as Gordy Davidson (Fenwick, LLP), my outside counsel soon pointed out to me, ‘general’ actually means being able to broadly tackle any issue, whether familiar or not, in a thoughtful, business-oriented, and efficient manner.” As Yoo became more comfortable in her role, she realized how to put this into practice. She explains, “Ultimately, in a fast-paced startup, in order to succeed as General Counsel you have to focus on three things: growth, scale, and speed. You cannot let one fall off or the other two suffer greatly. All are critical for a company in high-growth mode.”
General Counsel often come from law firm backgrounds and are trained that it is critical to be a master of one’s craft. The transition to in-house can be quite treacherous, as a General Counsel’s success often requires being comfortable with the idea that they are the master of nothing, but must spot the issues in almost anything. “One of the most amazing things about becoming General Counsel of a company on the forefront of making legislative changes and completely revolutionizing an industry is the liberty to take risks,” says Yoo. “I’ve stopped counting the number of times the answer to a problem has been ‘well, it’s never been done before, but let’s figure out a way to move forward!”
In Yoo’s world, the word “risk” seems nearly synonymous with revolutionary. Both in the decision to join Uber and in her commitment to get incredibly comfortable with being uncomfortable, Yoo is reimagining what the traditional General Counsel role of “managing risk” is all about. As her department continues to expand, perhaps Yoo’s most long-lasting legacy will be having trained an entire cadre of lawyers to look at risk in a completely new and unique way. As she has pushed herself far outside of her 2012 comfort zone, she is also leading by example and embodying the very notion of fearlessness.
This article was originally published by Above the Law.