• Lynn Elsey

Over the Uber rainbow

As head of Uber’s Asia Pacific legal team, Katrina Johnson is helping the high-profile company create the future, LYNN ELSEY finds.


It’s obvious the second I get off the lift at Uber’s Sydney office: Push bikes with baskets parked here and there, a young woman tapping away at her laptop while lounging on a cushioned window seat, a barista making coffee drinks – I’m definitely not in Kansas any more, but in the heart of a flourishing IT company with a curent valuation of US$68 billion. Welcome to the world of Uber.


Katrina Johnson, Uber’s Associate General Counsel and Head of Legal for Asia Pacific, runs the legal team in a constantly evolving, high-profile world of flying cars and self-driving trucks. As head of Uber’s Asia Pacific legal team, her kingdom covers Australia and New Zealand, India, South East and North Asia. The numerous awards and accolades she’s received, including being named “General Counsel of the Year” in the 2017 Australian Law Awards, are not surprising.


Johnson’s roots and interest in IT go way back, she says, including a summer clerkship she did at AMP.


“One of the teams I worked with was the technology legal team, which really helped foster some of the interest I had in IT as a potential area to pursue in legal practice,” she recalls.


After completing a BA and LLB (Hons) in law and neuropsychology at Macquarie University in 1998, Johnson worked as a litigator and commercial lawyer, first for McNally & Co and then at Watson Mangioni. This was in 2000, during the original tech boom.


“The firm had a number of tech companies coming for help, so I got exposed to a lot of tech work, including eBay, which was more of a start-up in those days,” she says.


Johnson worked on the eBay account for about three years. In 2003, the company decided to create an internal legal position and asked her to come across. Johnson didn’t find switching to in-house especially difficult. She says her background in litigation was useful for the commercial work.


“Having seen what can go wrong or what gets tested in court makes you more prepared to help prevent it in the first place,” she says. “Having a litigation background made me a better commercial lawyer. It allows me to see the whole picture or how things may play out down the track. Even now, there are still times when my litigation background is really helpful.”


Johnson worked as general counsel and company secretary for eBay Australia and New Zealand for almost eight years before the company moved her to San Francisco to work for one of eBay’s companies, StubHub, a marketplace for ticketing and events.


The role involved managing legal partnerships with US sporting franchises and leagues, including Major League Baseball. The biggest surprise about the move was that working in the heart of America’s tech universe wasn’t all that different from Australia.


“Putting aside the difference in the actual law, I found there were more similarities than differences,” she says. “The work ethic and pace were similar and, structurally, both operate within federal systems. The biggest difference was scale; the size of some of the deals I worked on and the way they run their events.”


In April 2015, she was offered a role as director of legal for Uber ANZ and moved back to Sydney.


“As with my eBay role, this was a foundational role to help set up the legal function and build out the legal team,” she says.

“We are working hard to build solid legal frameworks to ensure consumer protection and safety, in ways that haven’t been done before. It’s a really exciting area for a lawyer.”

KATRINA JOHNSON


Market challenges

Covering the Asia Pacific region for Uber can be a big challenge, Johnson says.


“You have to deal with different legal systems and languages, so you can’t necessarily roll out a playbook or predict how something might play out in different countries,” she says.


Some markets, such as Australia and New Zealand, have an established Uber presence and are further along in the business lifecycle and regulatory reform. In other countries, where the business environment is less developed and structured, Johnson and her team focus on creating frameworks and working with regulators and government regulations. Uber has lawyers in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and India, other countries are covered from these offices.


Johnson spends a lot of time on the road and in the sky, about two weeks out of every month, which makes finding a good work/life balance tricky. Fortunately, her husband is happy being a stay-at-home parent for their two children.


“At Uber, we have a policy of ‘sacred space’, where staff are encouraged to block time on their calendars for other commitments, whether for family, friends, sport or taking a class. I make sure I use this. I’m aware of the importance of leading by example and I encourage others to do the same.


“One of my key challenges at present is to scale the legal team so we can help the business keep growing in a sustainable way,” she says.


“This includes making things more efficient, freeing us up to work on more valuable, creative and fun areas by removing some of the more repetitive aspects of the legal work.”


Due to the nature of their business, Uber and the IT industry often venture into untried waters as they introduce products and services that don’t fall into current definitions of business, regulation or law. Rather than viewing this as just another headache, Johnson seems energised by the reality.


“It’s a great place to work if you are interested in solving hard problems,” Johnson says. “A big part of what we do is work with our public policy counterparts to move regulatory reform, including showing other governments what our learnings have been in these areas and how can we work together to develop sensible, consumer- focused regulations and protections – in ways that haven’t been done before.”


Uber’s regulatory nous hasn’t gone unnoticed. According to Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington D.C., Uber’s real innovation success is how it is working with governments around the world. He says that other sharing economy companies will be looking to Uber as a role model for global expansion.


What the future may bring

Uber’s chief product officer, Jeff Holden, recently confirmed plans to launch Uber Elevate, the company’s flying car project, in 2020. To a non- tech outsider, dealing with issues such as airspace management seems more than daunting. Does Johnson ever find working with the unknown especially challenging?


“That’s what really drove me to eBay and Uber,” she says. “Having the ability to get involved in creative problem solving in areas that aren’t necessarily settled, helping shape what that future might look like. I find it really rewarding; creating something that has a tangible benefit.


“We are working hard to build solid legal frameworks to ensure consumer protection and safety, in ways that haven’t been done before. It’s a really exciting area for a lawyer.”


So, for Johnson, are there any downsides to dancing down the Uber Yellow Brick Road?


“Never having enough hours in the day,” she replies.

Originally published in the December 2017 edition of the NSW Law Society Journal.

NSW Law Society Journal, December 2017

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