Airbnb Names New Ethics Chief Amid In-House Legal Group Changes

Sept. 20, 2021, 9:30 AM

Airbnb Inc., nearing its one-year anniversary as a public company, has named newly promoted deputy general counsel Peter Urias to be its chief ethics officer.

Urias takes over a position previously held by former Airbnb general counsel Robert Chesnut, who parted ways with the San Francisco-based company last year as it grappled with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Urias most recently served as an associate general counsel after joining Airbnb four years ago as a senior employment counsel. He came to the online hospitality marketplace after a brief in-house stint at Tesla Inc.

Airbnb shed 25% of its workers—who sometimes refer to one another as “Airfam”—ahead of an initial public offering last year that raised $3.5 billion. Securities filings show that Airbnb’s stock market debut generated nearly $5 million in legal fees and expenses for Latham & Watkins, which served as outside counsel on the listing.

Liz DeBold Fusco, an Airbnb spokeswoman, confirmed Urias’ promotion. Airbnb had turned to Urias to take on its top ethics role on an interim basis earlier this year, she said. Urias moved into the position permanently in June and was promoted this month to deputy general counsel.

He wasn’t immediately available to discuss his elevation to ethics chief.

Urias began his legal career over a decade ago as an associate in New York doing commercial and employment litigation work at Bryan Cave and Seyfarth Shaw, respectively. He went in-house in 2014, joining SolarCity Corp., a San Mateo, Calif.-based solar energy company co-founded by cousins of entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Two years later, Musk’s Tesla swooped in to acquire SolarCity. Urias spent five months at Tesla, where he handled employment compliance issues related to the company’s integration with SolarCity, before jumping to Airbnb in early 2017.

At Airbnb, Urias went on to lead the company’s employment group in 2018. The following year he was part of a team of in-house lawyers who advised Airbnb on its acquisition of hospitality rival HotelTonight.

In 2020, Urias spent five months on the business side of Airbnb supporting its Pro Host, Lux, and Long Term Stays businesses before returning to the law department.

The company said Urias took a lead role last year in the implementation of Airbnb’s diversity plan, which looks to increase the percentage of its workforce comprising underrepresented minority groups. He worked closely with Chesnut in the development of the company’s ethics program, according to Airbnb.

Changing Times

As ethics chief, Urias inherits a role that was held on an interim basis by former associate general counsel for policy and compliance Kevin Heneghan, who left the company earlier this year, according to his LinkedIn profile. He is one of several Airbnb lawyers to have moved on after the company’s IPO.

Tanja de Coster, an associate general counsel for global litigation, who was hired by Airbnb in 2013 after a half-dozen years in-house at eBay Inc., wrote in a LinkedIn update this month that she was stepping down.

“I have decided to start a new adventure,” said de Coster, linking to a blog post she also penned describing the eight lessons she learned during her eight years at Airbnb. “I’ll spend my time being an activist, investor, student, and board member.”

Facebook Inc. welcomed aboard Julie Wenah, a community senior counsel and acting regional counsel for Africa at Airbnb, as an associate general counsel for civil rights in April. Robert Studley, lead counsel for community trust at Airbnb, where he spent almost six years, left in May to become a senior product counsel at Instacart Inc.

Airbnb also watched associate general counsel Derek Smith, a five-year legal veteran of the company, where he would sometimes bring his dog to meetings, depart in July to become general counsel for Dutch communications startup MessageBird BV.

Legal Recruits

The departures have been offset by Airbnb’s recruitment of new lawyers to build out the newly-public company’s legal, compliance, and safety and security teams.

Airbnb hired Morgan, Lewis & Bockius partner John Polito in San Francisco, where he was a co-leader of the law firm’s copyright practice, as an associate general counsel for global risk and regulatory in June. Airbnb added corporate counsel Alison Bloch, who had been an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, in May.

Baker McKenzie senior associate Juliana Marques joined Airbnb in April as a senior principal for tax, a perennially tricky issue for the company, while senior privacy counsel Julienne Chang joined Airbnb in March from Singapore Airlines Ltd.

In February, Airbnb brought on former Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz associate Courtney Shike in New York as a counsel for stakeholder initiatives after the firm seconded her to the company last year.

Bloomberg News detailed in a June feature story how Airbnb deploys crisis management and safety professionals to both protect its business and public image, as well as the company’s customers. Airbnb’s legal group is led by chief legal officer Richard Baer, a former top lawyer at Liberty Media Corp. who joined Airbnb in 2019.

Baer’s hire saw Chesnut relinquish his general counsel title, a role the former federal prosecutor assumed in 2016, having previously been the third lawyer in the door at eBay. Chesnut subsequently became Airbnb’s first-ever ethics chief.

Belinda Johnson, the first-ever executive hire by Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, stepped down last year as the company’s COO, a job she took on in 2018 after serving as the company’s chief business affairs and legal officer. Airbnb initially hired Johnson to be its general counsel in 2011.

Johnson remains a member of Airbnb’s board of directors. She currently owns almost $33 million in Airbnb stock, according to Bloomberg data. Securities filings related to the company’s IPO last year reveal that Johnson received more than $13.8 million in total compensation during 2019, including $926,250 in cash.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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