Lyft Corporate Counsel: ‘We’re Partners’

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

In 2018, the role of in-house lawyers is rapidly changing from that of a discrete legal department to an integral part of the business team, especially at technology companies.

Whitney Hudak, corporate and commercial counsel at Lyft, shares her perspective on how the landscape is changing for lawyers to work with other executives at forward-looking companies.

Hear more from Hudak at the Bloomberg Law In-House Forum on June 27 in San Francisco, where corporate counsel from Fortune 500 businesses and lawyers from top firms will gather to discuss evolving expectations, leadership, cybersecurity in the age of big data and litigation.

What’s emerging as the role of corporate counsel in 2018?

It’s extremely important to have an extensive knowledge of the business or product or service the company is selling, as well as the company’s goals to anticipate the business needs, and at the same time providing counsel.

We absolutely consider ourselves partners, not necessarily members of the business team, but partners, and convey that. Sometimes attorneys can be seen to be hurdles for business projects, but we want to support and provide guidance for their goals and the company’s goals, and communicate legal guidance in a way that makes sense and clearly and directly conveys why they should have a vested interest in avoiding any legal pitfalls.

It’s good to understand the company’s—and even certain departments’—tolerance for risk when providing counsel. It won’t change the analysis you’re providing, but it may change the way you deliver that analysis or guidance. What’s important is to avoid coming back and saying, “No,” or “The exposure here is extremely high.” Instead, we’re saying, “Here’s the risk, here’s the low/medium/high way to approach this,” depending on their risk tolerance.

Really low-risk to low-risk would be what legal prefer you to do. In law and technology, we see things in gray areas, we see some areas where if your risk tolerance is really high, and if you did pursue it, you may receive a cease-and-desist a week from now … if we have a really litigious party that sends a nastygram.

It’s about communicating guidance in a way that is truly palatable to your internal business partner and providing them with actionable takeaways so that you’re not just speaking in legalese, but understandably in a way that makes sense to them. So you’re not just saying “No,” or “Exposure on this is really high, come back with something else.” If that’s the case, then you’re training them to not come back to you, they’re not going to want to come back and hear “No.”

It’s also a way to be creative, at least providing a couple of examples on that risk scale. You can look at this initial idea, and say, “Perhaps if you tweak it, if you come back…”

How might the approach to in-house lawyers be different in Silicon Valley, which is home to so many startups?

When a company’s in its infancy the last thing they’re thinking of doing is hiring attorneys. They’re building a product, they’re hiring engineers and salespeople, and want to bring a product to market as soon as possible. Then after some capital, then they may think of hiring a general counsel. But if they’re able to put the resources into that [lawyers] early on, it is really beneficial for the company in the long run.

What about diversity in the modern company? We’re certainly seeing pressure for it throughout companies and legal teams.

More than ever before people are choosing to do business with companies whose values they respect and admire and are aligned somewhat with their own. That’s allowed us to be successful, because our values are so core to our business—that’s just something we always led with. Particularly when other companies problems came to light, it allowed us to succeed—it just highlighted how strong Lyft’s values are.

Lyft has a long-standing track record of action in support of communities we serve, including supporting the ACLU, to standing up for pay equality and racial equality. The #Metoo movement has brought about important issues that need to be addressed, and Lyft is committed to doing our part.

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The Bloomberg Law In-House Forum is a key opportunity for corporate counsel and law industry leaders to gather insights and discuss the challenges faced by in-house counsel in addressing regulatory compliance, managing internal issues, and dealing with the increasing need to play an integral role in achieving overall business goals.

The Forum will feature a thoughtful interchange with other in-house leaders on how today’s corporate counsel must increasingly take a leadership role in the business’ overall strategy, while continuing to manage key legal department responsibilities.