Turning from psychology to law was a natural progression for Elizabeth Abbene Coleman.
“I took some time off after receiving my undergraduate degree, and I had been leaning toward getting my doctorate in that field,” she explains. “During my break, I worked at the Center for Conflict Resolution, a nonprofit in Chicago that offers alternative dispute resolution services. One of the programs that I worked on focused on diverting juvenile offenders from the court system into more productive outcomes.”
But that experience also exposed her to the workings of the legal system, “and that really changed my perspective,” she notes. “I realized there’s an intersection between psychology and the law—both fields involve counseling and both have a serious human connection.”
Coleman says that it’s good to take a step back instead of going straight to grad school and some law schools won’t admit students on that direct path. She later earned her JD from Loyola University’s Chicago School of Law. She spent the next twenty-two years at Jenner and Block, the last fifteen years as a partner in the firm.
Jenner and Block handles a variety of commercial litigation cases, including on behalf of many tech companies. Oddly enough, the law firm represented Uber at the time—but Coleman never worked on any of those cases.
She adds that then-chairman Tony Valukas was one of her key mentors. “He supported me and brought me in on so many interesting and challenging cases,” Coleman recalls, “and I learned so much from him. He is an amazing leader and mentor, with a strong sense of ethics and a ‘do the right thing’ approach to every matter. His approach to leadership and values mirrors that of Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, which is one of the things that attracted me to the company.”
With nearly a quarter-century of experience at Jenner, Coleman wasn’t particularly interested in leaving the firm. Then a former colleague who was at Uber Technologies Inc. offered to pitch Coleman as a potential candidate for Uber’s associate general counsel. She casually green-lit the referral because after all, “it never hurts to talk.”
Uber contacted her and, as discussions evolved, Coleman realized she’d have a chance to build a legal team in an exciting, innovative industry. While Uber is perhaps best known for its ride-hailing platform, the company is also involved in food delivery, package delivery, couriers, freight transportation—even electric bicycle and motorized scooter rental through a partnership with Lime.
While private-practice attorneys often develop a yen for in-house work, Coleman’s initial reaction was the opposite. “At Jenner, I was accustomed to having clients in many different industries—tech companies, healthcare firms, energy suppliers—and I really liked having a birds-eye view into the businesses and operations of a wide range of industries,” she says.
Turns out that having a single client isn’t boring at all.
“Now I feel like I’m an extension of the business, helping it realize its vision across all of its business lines and products,” she says. That broad business base means her job is complex and challenging: “Even after two decades of practice, I’m still growing, and in ways I would not have if I’d stayed with a law firm.”
As associate general counsel for litigation, global competition, government investigations & special matters (GI&SM), and intellectual property, Coleman’s plate is filled with commercial litigation, antitrust and competition matters, agency proceedings, compliance, and counseling. She also is responsible for protecting Uber’s various technologies and brands, and the company’s GI&SM team oversees government investigations and inquiries.
“Elizabeth is a fantastic partner who is smart, resourceful, and brings real practical insight to the job,” says Andrew Finch, co-chair of the Antitrust Practice Group and a partner in the Litigation Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. “She has a terrific sense of judgment and is always open to exploring the most creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.”
Coleman’s staff of fifty is mainly comprised of attorneys, with key support from paralegals, applied scientists, operations, and related functions. Uber also relies on about two dozen carefully vetted outside law firms within its “preferred counsel” program, which requires firms to consistently meet a high bar when it comes to DEI.
“Diversity, equality, and inclusion are part of Uber’s DNA,” Coleman says, “and it’s important that our vendors represent our values. That’s why we insist on outside counsel making DE&I a priority at their own firms.”
Coleman says Uber’s goal is to drive practically all of Uber’s outside counsel work to these firms. “The feedback from them has been amazing,” she says. “In many instances, our preferred counsel program has driven systemic internal changes at law firms—more diversity in leadership, for example, and a more inclusive approach to staffing.”
While risk assessment is common for in-house legal teams, Coleman’s group often faces a shifting vista of uncertainty.
“We aren’t dealing with technology or programs that have been around for a hundred years,” Coleman says. “Because innovation often occurs ahead of laws, we frequently operate in a novel space, relying on parallel situations in other industries. And the outcomes of such ‘first impression’ legal matters can affect the creation of new laws that will affect us and our competitors.”
Uber’s atmosphere is refreshing, too. “At a law firm, you focus on your own progression—work hard, climb the ladder, make partner,” she says. “But I felt the focus shift at Uber. Now my team’s success is more important than my own. And that ethos comes from Tony West. He is vigilant about identifying growth opportunities, and is laser focused on the team’s development and progression, and that mindset flows through the entire organization.”
Jenner & Block:
“Elizabeth is a champion of women and diversity, and a great leader of her diverse and talented team. It has been my pleasure to work with her both in private practice and now at Uber.”
–Katya Jestin, Co-Managing Partner