The less simple answer is that lawsuits are the cost of doing business when you’re disrupting a very established and highly regulated industry. Like many a Silicon Valley start-up, Uber’s modus operandi has typically been ‘launch first, work out the kinks later.’ That works out okay when you’re selling software or smartphones—you can always just push an update to fix a bug. It works less well when you’re dealing with the physical world, moving around thousands upon thousands of people, subject to hundreds of different local laws and regulations. When you’re dealing with the physical world, it turns out, you get sued. A lot.
The same type of legal threat has led to serious changes at other on-demand start-ups. Last year, the housecleaning start-up Homejoy claimed that a similar lawsuit was the reason it shut down. And the threat of being sued inspired Instacart to offer some of its contractor workers the option of becoming employees.
Uber’s drivers don’t want Uber to go away; they just want to make more from the company. Uber’s competition on the other hand is trying to sue it out of existence. In more than a dozen cities, local taxi companies have launched challenges to Uber’s legal authority to operate, and that’s on top of cities and countries that are challenging Uber themselves.
Quantifying Uber’s legal threat underscores just how big it really is. Even Facebook, when it was Uber’s age and had surpassed 350 million users, had not faced anywhere near as much legal opposition.
[Uber Graphic 3]
Uber declined to comment on the record about either the number of lawsuits against it or the size of its legal team. Uber is, of course, either larger in size and scope than most of the companies I’ve compared it too, or tackling a more complex business. But those caveats still don’t undermine the extent of the risk.
Taking a peek at the size of Uber’s mounting legal arsenal speaks to just how seriously Uber is taking the threat: at present, Uber has 27 job openings for attorneys worldwide. On LinkedIn, more than 50 people in the U.S. list in-house counsel at Uber as a current job. (Uber declined to comment on those numbers as well.) At Airbnb, which like Uber has faced intense opposition from competitors and local governments, fewer than 20 lawyers in the U.S. list the company as their employer on LinkedIn.
If Uber is building up a legal army, it is because this is an existential war.