How Upwork GC Brian Levey Helps His Company Get to the Double Bottom Line

By David Ruiz

This article originally appeared in Corporate Counsel. Reprinted with permission.

Brian Levey, general counsel of Upwork, did not plan on becoming a lawyer. But in 1987, when global stock markets crashed, Levey, who had originally intended to go to business school after college, felt he had to switch gears.

Levey chose to go to Stanford Law School, but rather than leaving his interests in business and finance behind, he leveraged his legal education to get closer to the business world.

In 2000, after law school, four years at Latham & Watkins, and three years at MGM Studios, Levey landed in-house with a startup. Then, another crash hit—the Silicon Valley dot-com bubble burst.

Luckily, Levey’s startup was a company that survived and still thrives today—eBay Inc.

Today, Levey is at Upwork, a company that serves two specific audiences: freelancers looking for work, and businesses and individuals looking to hire freelancers. The Mountain View-based company is the product of a merger between online staffing platform Elance and its competitor oDesk—where Levey landed in 2013 as GC after leaving eBay. Levey heads a seven-person legal department that includes one administrator, one policy counsel, three compliance counsel and two attorneys who work on corporate and commercial matters.

He recently spoke with Corporate Counsel about his responsibilities, his leadership style and Upwork’s involvement in a project with consultancy AdvanceLaw that attempts to quantify the behaviors that lead to better relationships between outside counsel and their clients. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

CC: What are your priorities today, both for your legal department and the business?

BL: My priorities are really just helping the company and helping the legal and finance functions scale better. We are using technology to disrupt the way the world works, and we’re creating a marketplace that never existed, related to contingent work, and trying to get better and better at it and focus on the customer experience and mitigate risk as we do business on a global basis. And [I] try to be proactive for a company that … I like to say, has a “double bottom line.” EBay had this as well. I love working for companies that are mission based and are market leaders that have scale.

CC: What is that company mission?

BL: The mission is to provide opportunity; to connect businesses with independent professionals around the globe, regardless of location, faster than ever before. And really leveraging the technology to do that, because I think it’s something that no government could have ever done.

CC: What does the legal work involve on a typical day?

BL: The day involves trying to work with the two-sides platform. How do we best serve the needs of both the freelancers who use our platform as well as what we call our clients of the platform, the businesses who engage the freelancers directly and work with them? It’s tracking complaints—how can we disclose things in a clear way—and there’s various compliance elements that touch contingent work on a global basis.

We have to make sure from a policy and legal perspective that we’re educating regulators and legislators that we are truly a marketplace where businesses connect directly with freelancers, at their own rate. It’s a lot about education, and we also focus on payments compliance. As an internet escrow provider, we are regulated by the state of California. Freelancers love the notion of an escrow system where the business that needs to get work done places money for their project in escrow, and the freelancer is able to get money. It’s creating a very efficient and satisfied customer in 180 countries. Freelancers’ main concern is: “When am I going to get paid from a person who necessarily isn’t working in the office next to me?”

CC: How did you and your legal team get involved in the project with AdvanceLaw?

BL: I’ve been working with [the AdvanceLaw] team since the early days in my capacity overseeing a pretty high magnitude legal budget at eBay and PayPal. I’ve kept the relationship with that team over the years and have been on their advisory board for the past couple of years.

CC: What have you learned so far from the project?

BL: We’re still waiting for them to release their findings. It’s really about: How can we lift the entire ecosystem up and how can we make these working relationships and get higher client satisfaction over time? Or how do we just enhance the dialogue between outside counsel and companies that are in need of great outside counsel?

CC: What do you do outside of work?

BL: I like to play a lot of tennis, so I try to take a lesson once every month if I’m lucky. But most of my time is spent with family. I have three children, a great wife, a dog, and as of yesterday, a new cat.

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