Tony West, Chief Legal Officer, Uber

After five years at the Department of Justice, where his constitutional review of the ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ paved the way for same-sex marriage, Tony West is now an in-house star on the rise – first as general counsel of PepsiCo, Inc in 2014, before moving to Uber last year.

I was one of these people who actually did not have a burning desire to become a lawyer. I was much more interested in public service, politics and policy, and I decided that I needed to go to law school so that I could have a marketable skill if a career in public service didn’t work out. But I discovered, to my surprise, that I really enjoyed the law.

I spent the first part of my legal career as a federal prosecutor. After I left that, I ended up spending several years at a law firm where I learned civil litigation. But I always harbored my love for public service and so when President Obama asked me to join his administration, it was a great honor and a privilege to go back to the Justice Department, first as the head of the Civil Division (which is the largest litigating division at the DOJ, with 1,000 lawyers) and then eventually as the third most senior official in the Department.

When I was coming to the close of my time at the DOJ, I knew a few things. I did not intend to remain in the administration to the very end, and I didn’t necessarily want to go back to a law firm. When you’re the Associate Attorney General of the United States, that’s sort of like being the general counsel of the Justice Department. There’s a set of skills and talents which are transferable to being the GC of a large company.

It’s always helpful to have the perspective of the regulators and to understand what they are trying to accomplish. I think oftentimes we find ourselves operating in stereotypes – if you’re in the public sector you have stereotypes of what you think people in the private sector are like, and vice versa. The experience of being on both sides of that line helped me to appreciate that there’s actually a lot of common ground and a real opportunity for people to reach resolutions that are mutually acceptable, but also to work together in a very collaborative way.

The other thing that was helpful was the experience of managing a large organization with many competing interests and, of course, one filled with lawyers. Being able to figure out how I could be most effective in that environment was extremely helpful when I became the general counsel of PepsiCo. And it’s extremely helpful to me now.

The learning curve at PepsiCo was steep, because I had never been in-house before. I had never been a business partner before. That made it critical that I immediately learned the business as best I could – and that’s exactly what I did. I got very granular, talking to business leaders and business colleagues throughout the company.

You are forging the law, you are on the cutting edge of creating a legal framework for the gig economy.

There’s no substitute for really learning the business, because your value as a lawyer to your business colleagues is enhanced when you really understand the problems they’re dealing with from their point of view. I think it helps you to come up with more creative solutions, and it helps you to give them advice that is actionable and useful.

That’s exactly what I’m doing at Uber – spending a lot of time with my team, the business teams, and spending a lot of time in the field, in markets like Latin America, which is currently our fastest growing market.

The greatest thing about Uber is that this is a company that is like no other. It offers a job or an economic opportunity to more people around the world than any other company on the planet. That is an amazing reach. This business model is so robust, it is so widespread, it has its reach in so many corners of the world, that you become very aware of the public trust that you have – because so many people rely on your platform to either move themselves or their loved ones from A to B and so many people rely on this platform for economic opportunity. So many cities are increasingly relying on the data we have on our platform to help them make better planning decisions so they can become more sustainable places for their citizens to live and work. To be a part of that, to be an engine for that, and to be able to advise on the development of that is extraordinarily exciting.

The other thing that’s really extraordinary about this place if you’re a lawyer, is that you work on issues which, if they get themselves into the court system, almost inevitably become issues of first impression. It means you are forging the law, you are on the cutting edge of creating a legal framework for the gig economy – and for a lawyer, that is an incredibly exciting environment to work in.

One of the things that being at a company like Uber forces you to do is to look at the existing paradigm, the existing legal framework, and then think very creatively and innovatively about ways in which you can address the basic values that that framework is trying to protect and do it in a way that actually fits the reality of how people live and work.

For instance, something that’s at the heart of our business model is the independent contractor model – the question of whether Uber is an employer of drivers or whether those drivers are independent contractors. We’re all operating within a framework that was constructed for very good reason over a century ago, and the question – can we preserve the values that framework is seeking to protect, creating a safety net for individuals when they change jobs or decide to move to a work environment that allows them to value their time and their freedom and liberty and flexibility? – can’t be a false choice between flexibility and having an array of benefits or a safety net that will help people retire with dignity, that will protect them when they get sick. Being a part of really pushing that conversation and creating a new legal paradigm that fits today’s reality and today’s economy – being a lawyer at Uber gives you the opportunity to play a very significant role in that.

You have to think of yourself as a counselor and partner who can provide legal advice.

One of the things I’m most proud of here at Uber is that we were able to resolve what was our biggest private litigation, the Waymo case, so quickly. I think the fact that we were able to resolve that and the way we were able to do it not only demonstrates that we’re serious about turning the page on the way things operated and that we are serious about striking a new tone, but I think it also creates a path to greater collaboration and co-operation with a company that, just a month ago, was a big adversary.

One of the things I’m most proud of at PepsiCo is that we were able to really enhance our position as an ethical business leader while I was there. I’m excited about bringing some of the innovations and approaches that we developed when it comes to compliance, ethical leadership and integrity in the way that we do business from PepsiCo to Uber.

The other thing I’m proud about at PepsiCo is the work we did to enhance diversity in the legal profession. We were able to create incredibly diverse legal teams, because we know that when we bring diverse voices around the decision-making table we can make better business decisions, and I look forward to doing that here.

Particularly in technology companies, like this one, where there’s a premium placed on innovation and on speed, the general counsel role is extremely important. I always focus on the ‘counsel’ part. You cannot come to this role and think of yourself as a lawyer. You have to think of yourself as a counselor and partner who can provide legal advice – but also general counsel to your business partner on legal, business, policy and reputational issues.

I don’t think Dara [Khosrowshahi, CEO at Uber] has ever asked me what’s the law on this, or what’s the law on that. He needs to know my judgement and my approach – and that will be informed by my legal judgement, but what he’s looking for is counsel. That is really what I want all of my lawyers in the legal department to begin to think of themselves as – they are business partners who need to give sound counsel to their business colleagues – and if someone is interested in this role, that’s what they have to prepare themselves to do.