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Good Counsel: Musk Axes Twitter’s Conscience in Executive Purge

Nov. 1, 2022, 4:00 PM

Elon Musk announced his arrival at Twitter by walking into the company’s San Francisco headquarters with a sink in his arms. What got my attention was the drain in the first hours of his $44 billion takeover.

Musk’s choice of targets in his first day on the job may not have been surprising, but it was telling. In addition to firing Chief Executive Officer Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s new owner got rid of three individuals who were at the heart of the company’s legal, regulatory and compliance work: CFO Ned Segal, Head of Legal, Trust and Safety and Public Policy Vijaya Gadde, and General Counsel Sean Edgett. The entire Twitter board was dismissed shortly thereafter.

Musk had publicly criticized Argawal and Gadde, so the writing was on the wall once the deal went through. But the range of top executives now gone from the company and the speed at which they were shown the exit leaves the Twitter weakened from a governance perspective, and without valuable historical and institutional knowledge.

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Gadde and Edgett alone were at Twitter for a combined 21 years, an extraordinary run of longevity in the in-house tech legal world. Gadde has been described as the company’s “moral authority,” tasked with handling the platform’s most sensitive and complex issues around free and dangerous speech. That is at least in part what earned her Musk’s ire.

It’s not just the two decades of institutional knowledge left that day without a transition—in some ways, the company’s conscience also left the building.

Change is common inside corporate in-house legal departments. Complete upheaval like this at a large company is rare.

It had to be chilling for the legal team built by Gadde and Edgett to see these leaders walked out of the building, particularly with the reports of deep personnel cuts coming across Twitter. Musk reportedly fired Gadde and the others “for cause,” a tactic that is unlikely to hold up in court and almost certain to increase distrust among those still left in the building.

It remains to be seen who Musk will install as the new head of legal at Twitter. He’s already turned to his outside lawyer, litigator Alex Spiro, to lead upcoming decisions about layoffs.

If Tesla’s legal department is any indication, turbulent times are ahead. Tesla’s in-house ranks have been marked by churn. The company’s longest-tenured general counsel was Musk’s divorce lawyer, and Tesla is currently on its fifth general counsel since 2019.

Musk has made known his preference for “hardcore streetfighters, not white-shoe lawyers.” Members of the current Twitter legal team may feel that they don’t fit the new mold.

In-house lawyers are like any other employees at today’s tech companies—they want more than a paycheck from their work. They want to be part of a group that shares their values, and works toward a common objective or mission that they believe is good for the world.

The Twitter team was inspired by working for a communication platform that recognized how hateful, misleading and dangerous “free speech” brought down the quality of discourse for all of us, not to mention degarading the Twitter brand.

Musk, a self proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” wants to do away with many of the restrictions against that kind of speech, without transforming Twitter into—in his words—“a free-for-all hellscape.” But, a platform without a trust and safety architecture that removes hateful discourse and misinformation is just that.

Twitter may look very different in a very short period of time. It will be a tough sell to a legal and policy team that signed up for a very different vision.

Rob Chesnut is the former general counsel and chief ethics officer at Airbnb. He spent more than a decade as a Justice Department prosecutor and later oversaw US legal operations at eBay. The author of “Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution,” Rob consults on legal and ethical issues.

To contact the editor on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com