Having spent more than 20 years working for entrepreneurs that revolutionized the personal electronics and automotive sectors, Lynn Miller is now taking on the decades-old yellow bus industry.
Miller recently became the first general counsel at school transportation startup Zum Services Inc. The company, which offers a platform designed to make school transport more efficient, approached unicorn status last year after signing a $400 million contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The move marks a new chapter for Miller, who previously was a deputy general counsel at Tesla Inc. and led litigation, regulatory and privacy at the electric automaker. She also spent 14 years in similar in-house legal roles at Apple Inc.
Working for Elon Musk and Steve Jobs taught Miller to “do everything different from what the industry is doing,” often by looking for creative and innovative solutions, she said in an interview.
Zum announced last month that it inked a $71 million contract to operate in Spokane, Wash. The company, founded in 2015, has also forged partnerships with school districts in Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., and Nashville.
Zum said its platform allows users to optimize school bus routes, reduce commute times, and track and monitor in real time the progress of children on their way to and from school. Miller is looking to do the same on the legal side: One of her first acts at the company was to find cost-efficient outside counsel.
Cost-effectiveness and experience are the two primary criteria that Miller considers when she’s looking to hire a law firm, she said. Miller, a former partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman who also spent time at Fenwick & West, often looks for boutiques and smaller shops.
“You can find partners from the major firms who have gone out on their own and their price is less than half, oftentimes, of the big firms,” Miller said. “And not only is their hourly rate less than half but they’re doing the work themselves—they’re not relying on a pyramid of associates at the bottom.”
Zum still has Big Law on its payroll. Miller said she’s brought on Cooley—a firm known for its startup expertise that previously did work for Tesla until running afoul of Musk—to handle some matters.
O’Melveny & Myers, which advised Zum on a $130 million Series D fundraising round in 2021 and has done trademark work for the Redwood City, Calif.-based company, also remains part of its legal roster, Miller said.
Miller left Tesla after seven years in mid-2021 to take the top legal job at PlusAI Inc., a self-driving truck startup that planned to go public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company.
Amazon.com Inc. placed an order for 1,000 Plus trucks before geopolitical tensions between China and the US—the company had units in both countries—led Plus to restructure last year. Other transportation startups like TuSimple Holdings Inc. have faced legal and business woes stemming from ties to China.
Miller remains bullish on the future of vehicular transport.
“Tesla liked to quote that Ford was the only US car company that hadn’t gone into bankruptcy,” she said. “Now it’s Ford and Tesla are the only two—it’s just a hard business.”
While Zum hopes to eventually have an entirely electric-powered fleet of vehicles that it will source from multiple manufacturers, the company still relies on human drivers. Miller said “driver out” technology is still years away, although she touts the assisted driving technology of Plus and Tesla.
Tesla doesn’t make buses, Miller said, so the company isn’t likely to be one of the companies that Zum will look to partner with for its platform.
Zum faces oversight from numerous regulatory bodies, particularly given its role in transporting children. Miller said she’s looking to expand her Zum legal team.
“One thing I learned from Apple and Tesla is how to evaluate risk,” Miller said. Both companies were breaking into industries controlled by established players, necessitating lawyers who wouldn’t stand in the way of business success.
Miller’s time at Tesla and Apple taught her to be both concise in her counsel and to understand that the impossible can also be achieved, something she said she learned from Musk.
“You end up surprising yourself, the extent to which you can accomplish things that you really didn’t think you could do ,” Miller said.
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