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Is Airbnb’s Top Lawyer the New Archetype for the Legal Profession?

July 21, 2016, 2:17 PM

Airbnb’s chief business affairs and legal officer Belinda Johnson is in the spotlight thanks to a glowing profile on Medium that’s making the rounds.

Johnson, 49, has ascended to the number two position at San Francisco-headquartered online room rental company Airbnb, and largely handled the day-to-day operations that helped it reach a $25 billion valuation. Unlike other “sharing-economy” companies, such as Uber, Airbnb has avoided negative publicity by trying to solve its problems constructively, according to the profile.

For instance, on Wednesday, the company hired former Attorney General Eric Holder, now at Covington & Burling, to help it develop an anti-discrimination plan following complaints about this.

From theprofile by Jessi Hempel, Johnson is depicted as the architect of this constructive approach to problem-solving:

A lawyer with more than two decades of experience building internet companies, she joined Airbnb in 2011 as [CEO Brian] Chesky’s first executive hire, and from the start, she encouraged Chesky to get to know regulators before conflicts even arose. She is largely responsible for the fact that Airbnb is a company that makes love, not war  —  especially when it fights. Under her watch, the company has created a cultish social movement around its efforts to connect strangers and foster cultural belonging. While Uber drivers fight the ride-sharing company through lawsuits, Airbnb hosts attend annual revival-like conferences (and pay for the privilege) and call their local officials to show support for the company.

“She really taught me that you always talk to people. She was like the secretary of state,” says Chesky.

On Twitter, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner gave Johnson props.

Well deserved piece on Belinda Johnson, airbnb’s secret weapon & one of most effective executives I’ve worked with

— Jeff Weiner (@jeffweiner)July 14, 2016

And Quartz writes that Johnson shatters the myth that tech companies are built by a founder who battles the world alone. “We don’t see these stories all that often because most of the operators work outside of the spotlight. It’s the very nature of their jobs.”

The article cites Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Steve Jobs, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer as examples of founders who relied on a “brilliant operator.”

It focuses on Johnson’s cred as chief operating officer and leaves aside her legal background.

According to her LinkedIn profile , Johnson graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1991 and worked at law firms for five years, leaving Littler Mendelson as an associate in 1995 for a series of positions in-house. Before joining Airbnb in 2011, she spent 12 years at Yahoo! as a deputy general counsel and senior vice president.

Chesky’s description of Johnson as a “secretary of state” mirrors former General Electric GC Ben Heineman’s position that lawyers’ now play the role of a “statesman.” [For more about this, see piece here by Big Law Business.]

Heineman cited David Drummond , who started out at Google in 2002 as chief legal officer and rose to become a senior vice president of corporate development and moved to Alphabet as senior vice president of corporate development under the reorganization, in addition to serving other roles.

Drummond helped Google make the decision not to target China as a market in 2010 after its servers were hacked and had its intellectual property stolen, according to Heineman.

“Google had to consider a variety of factors in China – legal, ethical, commercial, political and personnel … The point here is the analysis of a variety of factors that went far beyond law,” Heineman wrote about Google in China.

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