How on earth do you scale legal process at a company growing as fast as Uber? We caught up with their Global head of legal operations to find out.
Hi! 👋 Who are you?
I'm Mateo Sanchez, Global head of legal operations at Uber.
Great to meet you! When did you join Uber, and how did you get here?
When I started at Uber, legal was 68 people globally, which is a relatively large function by some companies’ standards. Since then we’ve grown to nearly 500. That’s a little misleading because when I joined, there was an office of the General Counsel, and now there’s an Office of the Chief Legal Officer which also includes compliance, safety and insurance. When I joined, as a company, we were fewer than 5,000 people globally. Now we’re more than 30,000. Aside from the rapid growth in the three years since I joined, we’ve also taken the company public, in a short timetable of around five months. It’s been eventful!
In terms of how I got here, I had been accepted to law school and was ready to start. I met with lots of practising lawyers and I found that many of them really didn’t enjoy their jobs, so I moved into legal finance, looking after billing, and from there, I went via two law firms to Cornerstone Research, before I was poached to start legal operations at Uber. So from day one I’ve been building that legal ops function: for a long time we were two people, and now we’re five.
Sounds eventful! So how do you build a successful legal ops function?
We were fortunate in that our previous General Counsel, Salle Yoo, was really supportive of legal operations. She listened to her network of fellow GCs who spoke of the benefits of a legal operations team and was really bought in. Having her support and backing was critical in terms of implementing any kind of policy change, or implementing a new tool.
Legal operations at scale requires lots of change management expertise, and lots of follow-up. This isn’t a function that’s ‘set and forget’ - if you aren’t always following up and understanding usage, clearing out bottlenecks, implementation will fail. We’ve seen that, like any other company - we’ve had policies and tools that fell flat because we didn’t have the bandwidth to focus sufficiently on implementation.
You manage the company’s Preferred Counsel Program - what’s different about this at Uber?
We have a global panel of preferred counsel, and we have panels for the US, EMEA and Latin America. The purpose of the panel is to build loyalty with our firms, but also to give our firms access to Uber (both the company and the product) that will allow them to understand better how we approach things. We want to enable them to be proactive when they advise us, as well as looking to reduce outside counsel spend.
"We require diversity not just in pitching but in who actually staff our matters"
Then a big focus for us is the diversity component. We build that in to our requirements, because we want to push the needle with regard to who is staffed on our matters. It’s well known that a lot of leadership positions are given to white males, and we look to use the power of our program to move the needle there. If we invite a firm over to pitch, they might bring certain people along to show diversity in the pitch, but they’re not the people who end up doing the work. We require diversity not just in pitching but in who actually staff our matters.
It’s becoming more commonplace for companies to require diverse staffing, but I think that Uber’s program is a step up from most of the programs I’ve seen. This strategy began a mandate from our previous GC, and our new CLO, Tony West, has made it a mission of his to push that needle even further.
How do you ensure transparency and good relationships with external legal counsel?
First of all, make sure they stay in touch with the in-house legal team. Often that team is so busy that they don’t have time to do a business review or check up on a matter, and I always suggest when we do RFPs etc that we expect our firms to be proactive in managing their work with us. The in-house team is there to focus on making sure work is being done, but we rarely have time to manage the relationship too much.
A firm that’s super proactive in providing advice, spotting roadblocks before they arrive - that’s the key to a successful relationship. A reactive firm, or one that we have to drive, is not a dealbreaker but neither is it the innovative, outside-the-box partner we’re looking for.
How has legal ops improved the dynamics between legal teams on one hand and the overall business on the other?
One thing I think I've done successfully, which is important for any legal ops leader, is to work cross-functionally with teams like finance, HR, recruitment, and so on. Legal is a function that often suffers with adversarial relationships, but that gets you nowhere. If you’re looking to invest in better operations, finance holds the purse strings, so you can avoid having to jump over hurdles by establishing collaborative relationships with finance, as well as other teams. Legal ops professionals need to be able to work collaboratively and with lots of different personality types. Some of this job is administrative - it’s unavoidable - and if you can’t roll with that, and collaborate with other teams to make it happen, then you won’t succeed.
What do you think are the best KPIs to track for success for a legal function at a fast-growing company?
It depends on what process you’re looking at - it might be a reduction in spend, or a level of adoption for a new tool. Whatever you’re looking to measure, you need to make sure you dig into the numbers and not look too simplistically. For example, if we have a tool that’s only relevant to a handful of practice areas, and is only being used by a small number of people, that might seem like a failure; but if we look closely and realise that they’re using it to avoid spending on outside counsel, that might be hidden ROI that makes it a success.
What do you think the biggest challenge is when it comes to scaling legal process at a company like Uber?
Contract lifecycle management (CLM) is definitely one of the areas where there were issues, and if I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, and fix one thing, then I’d focus on the retention and management of contracts, which could have been done better as we scaled. Now that we’re in the process of implementing a global CLM tool, we’re learning that we might not know where an executed contract is, or it’s in the inbox of someone who’s since left the company. We can find them, but we have to jump through hoops. One of the things that’s hard for us is change management - getting business units to use a different process - they want to get deals done quickly, and trying to put a legal solution in the way is difficult. But you have to get it right - If you don’t, people will just sidestep legal and just do it their way.
"If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, and fix one thing, then I’d focus on the retention and management of contracts"
Uber has a lot of different contractors in a lot of different jurisdictions. How do you manage the legal risk in that kind of contract process?
Scaling onboarding across countries is one of the hardest things to do - some jurisdictions require a wet signature, some don’t accept e-signatures as valid, and so on. The legal ops function doesn’t necessarily have the bandwidth to resolve that, so instead we’ve borrowed one of the business’ IT teams and engaged a third-party vendor to implement the CLM for us, to make sure we have the knowledge to take in each team/region’s requirements. We’re looking for a global solution: we don’t want to end up with lots of parallel workflows. In some cases that’s not possible - for example, Brazil has lots of different requirements and procedures to have a legitimate contract, which might mean we have to create something specific. But we’re aiming for a global solution.
What advice would you have for young professionals considering a move into legal ops?
If I went back in time, I probably would have proceeded to law school. First of all, I never really thought about in-house attorney roles as an option. At the firm I was working at when I took the LSAT, most of the work we saw was employment work. I didn’t even know about or consider the in-house attorney role. Seeing what they can do, I sometimes think it would have been a great option; but a lot of in-house teams won’t hire people without law firm experience, so I would have ended up at a law firm anyway!
I think it’s important to make sure you understand all the different possibilities before you go to law school. If you decide on legal ops, when you’re interviewing it’s really important to understand the relationship between legal ops and the leadership in that company. If leadership takes a hands-off approach - by which I mean they don’t give legal ops autonomy and they don’t engage with it - then you should think hard about joining that team.
Conversely, if legal ops has a seat at the table and has the GC’s ear and their support, that’s a team you want to join. Otherwise you may find yourself spinning your wheels without backing and sign-off, which makes everything harder. Legal ops is challenging, exciting, and different between companies - the day-to-day role might be completely different between here and Apple, for example - but the number one thing to consider is just to understand how leadership views legal operations as a function.
Has your workload changed at all since the IPO?
No, not really. Our CEO is experienced, and his goal was always to take the company public - from the beginning we’ve been upgrading our operations to be ready for that eventuality. Nothing’s changed, expect the expectations that we deliver to shareholders are different to those that investors have. But we’ve been moving in that direction for a while, so the goal is just to continue to improve and have sustainable and scalable processes.
Finally, how do you envision legal tech changing the way Uber functions in the future?
AI and machine learning are the buzzwords in our industry right now. We use some AI tech to process our eBilling, and we’re one of the first companies at this scale to roll it out; similarly our CLM has a machine learning component. I think we’ll increasingly see AI and machine learning receive lots of energy and investment of time because they can take on lots of process work, reducing the need for third-party vendors and additional in-house support. If we’re looking to save money, integrating those types of technology will reduce overhead for the legal team.