Kim Udovic’s Driving Ambition Brought Her to Toyota

Kim Udovic has built Toyota’s regulatory department from the ground up and become one of the top lawyers in the complex, competitive automotive industry

Photo by Mark Fletcher

Kim Udovic's dog, Dash, was photographed during a recent agility trial in McKinney, Texas.

Kim Udovic always intended to specialize in IP law, but as a young associate at the firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, she encountered an unusual structure that helped her discover her true calling. Instead of formally pairing new hires with veteran lawyers, leaders at the firm gave each associate the freedom to volunteer for assignments and accept work from various partners, granting them exposure to a variety of industries, clients, and subjects.

Udovic was handling IP, class action, and commercial litigation matters as a general litigator before she accepted an invitation to help a partner in the automotive practice—and in doing so, she found a new passion. The business- and consumer-facing nature of the tech-adjacent industry appealed to Udovic, who had completed her undergraduate studies in applied science and entrepreneurial management. She also loves cars. “I learned the importance of keeping an open mind. Although this work appeared to be outside of my normal practice area, it really united a lot of my skills and interests,” she says.

After getting deeper into the automotive industry, Udovic never looked back. Twenty years later, she’s now assistant general counsel—regulatory for Toyota Motor North America. After building relationships with many of her firm’s automotive clients, she knew Toyota was the company she wanted to work for. But since there were no open litigation positions with the famed carmaker at the time (a friend and colleague had landed the last open litigation job a few years prior), she applied to another Japanese auto maker—Honda.

Kim Udovic, Assistant General Counsel—Regulatory, Toyota Motor North America Photo by Lifetouch

That kicked off a decade of professional growth, as Udovic built subject matter expertise and gained more experience in automotive legal work and the automotive business. After six months in an in-house role, she realized there were more opportunities to unlock in the small legal department. “I continued what’s become a theme in my career: taking on more assignments in new and different areas that add to the foundation of what I can do,” she says. Soon Udovic was handling customs and trade work, including an ITC investigation, drafting and negotiating agreements, assisting the company with corporate governance and compliance, and resolving labor and employment matters.

Five years into her tenure, Honda’s main IP patent litigator left, and Udovic spent six months preparing for a jury trial to defend patent infringement claims—an experience that gave her the chance to interface with highly skilled outside counsel and work directly with the company’s Japanese IP experts. At around the same time, Honda decided to create a separate IP company. As a senior lawyer, Udovic managed its IP litigation and helped the company start this new division.

In 2010, Udovic began encountering headlines about Toyota’s unintended acceleration recalls and related litigation matters. She decided to check in on her friends and former colleagues at the company and discovered there was an opening in Toyota’s legal department. Motivated by the chance to leverage her growing industry expertise to make an impact at a company she admired, Udovic moved to Toyota to handle complex litigation, IP litigation, and international trade.

Despite the significant challenges facing Toyota, Udovic says she joined a legal department filled with contagious energy and anchored by clarity of purpose. Other class action lawsuits purportedly similar to the unintended acceleration issue had been filed, and Udovic managed these cases through to a very successful outcome—obtaining summary judgment and denial of class certification regarding the braking systems in second- and third-generation Prius vehicles.

In 2015 the company announced its plan to form “One Toyota,” which would eventually unite certain North American corporate, sales, manufacturing, R&D business units, and their separate legal functions under one roof in Plano, Texas. The separate legal departments were brought into a consolidated legal function: Toyota Legal One.

“I continued what’s become a theme in my career: taking on more assignments in new and different areas that add to the foundation of what I can do.”

In support of that effort, Udovic was tasked with building a newly unified regulatory department, which would be responsible for advising on product safety, privacy and cybersecurity, environmental, customs and trade, export controls, and related government affairs matters. She brought together existing subject matter experts handling various regulatory functions and recruited a new team member to oversee customs and trade responsibilities; she was promoted to assistant general counsel to lead the new group.

Udovic’s partners outside the firm have taken note of her work. “Kim is fearless, thoughtful, and a hands-on leader of any team,” says Michael Mallow, partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon. “Her patience, insight, and understanding of complex technological issues were critical to the hybrid brake class action victory and are the secret to her success leading TL1’s regulatory group.”

The move to Plano in 2017 caused more work to fall under Toyota Legal One’s purview, with new internal clients and new lines of business developing as Toyota continued to grow and transition to a mobility company. And when the move to Texas resulted in the retirement of three of her six team members, Udovic recruited new members to meet those needs and provided the necessary leadership to guide her team through the transition.

Five years later, Udovic has built a team of skilled lawyers and passionate experts that guide Toyota on regulatory changes through various administrations and technological advancements.

As she follows her career passion, Udovic makes space for her other love—animals. She trains dogs that participate in agility competitions and has qualified for national championships in three of the four sanctioning venues, including the recent AKC Nationals in March 2021. Dog agility, like Udovic’s legal work, requires focus, communication, and teamwork. “Whether I’m at work or with my dogs, I give it my all every day,” she says. “I learn as I go, I never give up, and I have fun along the way.”