This content is from: People & Culture

Uber legal director Helen Hayes: ‘It’s quite cool being the reason rules are written’

Helen Hayes is northern and eastern Europe legal director of one of the most talked-about companies in the world. She tells IFLR about the responsibility that comes with that

After spending several years on a long running litigation project at DLA Piper – and about to embark on the partnership journey – Helen Hayes took a step back and reconsidered.

“I suddenly realised that a lot of the things I liked doing, I wouldn’t be able to do anymore,” she says. “Business development is not the reason I became a lawyer. I never wanted the quality of my work to be judged by how many billings I bring in.”

With a background in tech-related litigation matters, in late 2015 she began looking into opportunities at tech companies, when a position at Uber – which was quick becoming a household name – came up. “Frankly I didn’t care that much about the specifics of what I’d be doing, I just wanted to be part of that growth story,” she says. She accepted a role focused on regulatory and litigation matters in March 2016.

Hayes is now legal director for northern and eastern Europe, with overarching responsibility for anything that comes up: litigation, regulation, competition, commercial transactions, employment, plus day-to-day business decisions.

“People talk a lot about the shock of moving in-house, but I’d say the biggest was the sudden need to be self-sufficient, and adapting your style,” she says. “I cringe sometimes reading back over my earlier emails – I was so formal, and I sounded like such a lawyer. The biggest transition is learning how to turn legal advice into business advice.”


Uber's risk tolerance has changed hugely from being a 'disrupter' start-up - we're a big, publicly-listed company now, and with that comes responsibility


Working for a company with a chequered history with regulators actually makes that job easier in some respects. Hayes says the business is generally quick to involve legal – though there is always room to improve in this area. “Most understand that we are not here to say no, but to find solutions with an appropriate level of risk,” she says. “Uber’s risk tolerance has changed hugely from being a ‘disrupter’ start-up – we’re a big, publicly-listed company now, and with that comes responsibility. Our core values as a company have changed – when once these included ‘principled confrontation’ – it’s now to do the right thing.”

The team tries to do as much as possible in-house but has a panel of external firms for specialist matters such as competition and complex litigation. “We are of course in the Supreme Court at the moment [over driver status], led by our employment counsel Jonathan Ollivent – so we are obviously working with external counsel on that,” she says. “But our business model is complex, and nobody understands it as well as we do, so wherever possible, we do the work – and it’s a great experience for the team. That’s always been our policy, but obviously the pandemic has made us more conscious of our external spend than ever before.”

Uber, its principal business being moving people around, was hit hard by the pandemic. The diversity of its business model helped here though. “During the crisis we urged people to stay at home and although people weren’t moving around, they were ordering food,” says Hayes. “Overall the pandemic has been a period of intense innovation for the legal team, and we’ve had to move quickly to adapt to new safety regulations and to do novel things.”

These include, in recent months, sourcing PPE for drivers, introducing enhanced health and financial insurance policies, and the launch of Uber Boat in London as part of the company’s commitment to help people get around the city using outdoor spaces.

The team is structured regionally, with centralised specialists in areas such as data privacy and payments, plus an Amsterdam-based EU specialist. “Project management is a huge part of it, and it’s a skill that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to lawyers,” she says.


On governance, there's been a total culture shift within Uber, from the top down


Keeping up with fast-changing legislation in a number of different jurisdictions is a key challenge. “In the UK we have 30-year-old pre-internet, pre-smartphone legislation, whereas in Poland, Czech Republic and Romania, for example, new fit-for-purpose rules have been introduced,” she says. “It feels quite normal now to be the reason rules are written – and there are now plenty of other app-based operators like us – but it’s still pretty cool.”

Uber does now have plenty of competitors, but none get quite as much attention, except perhaps Lyft in the US. “That’s partly a hangover from our bad actions of the past,” says Hayes. “Plus, when we talk about disruptors, we’ve been around for much longer so are further ahead with some of our issues. We’re often the test case for various legal and regulatory matters.”

The legal team works closely with the public policy team, and Hayes believes getting the right regulation requires a close partnership between legal, policy, and the regulators themselves. “It’s about helping regulators understand what has worked well in other places, to share best practices.”

The company now takes its environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities seriously. Its plan is for all cars in London to be 100% electric by 2025, and its related clean air fund has raised more than £100 million to help drivers purchase their own electric vehicles.

“On governance, there’s been a total culture shift within Uber, from the top down,” says Hayes. The company now has both a global board and a UK one with an independent chairman, as part of its commitment to Transport for London.

So what prompted the cultural shift? “In early 2017 a number of factors converged, which resulted in a change of leadership,” says Hayes. “We also had to shut a few businesses down where we had come into conflict with local regulations – which had a big business cost.”

Once a unicorn – a private company worth more than $1 billion – Uber went public in May 2019. “The cultural shift was important for our IPO in 2019,” she says. “Going public cemented all of that work, and being a public company – and the reporting and other obligations that come with it – really focused people’s minds.”

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