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Self-Driving Startup Picks Up New Legal Chief in Ex-Ambassador

April 21, 2020, 10:59 PM

Cruise LLC, the autonomous vehicle technology outfit backed by General Motors Co. and SoftBank Group Corp., has hired Jeffrey Bleich as its new chief legal officer.

Bleich will officially start May 4 at Cruise, a company spokesman told Bloomberg Law. Bleich himself did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement provided by Cruise said he was “honored and inspired” to be joining a company at the forefront of a potential technological revolution.

“Cruise is leading the way to change lives in a shift that is as important as the move from horses to cars,” said Bleich, who spent three years as the U.S. ambassador to Australia during the Obama administration.

The hire of Bleich comes a little more than six months after former Cruise general counsel Matthew Gipple left the San Francisco-based company to become legal chief at health care startup Forward Inc.

Gipple, a former Latham & Watkins associate, joined Cruise in 2015, two years after its formation. In 2016 he worked with outside counsel at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe advising Cruise on its sale to GM for an undisclosed sum, although various reports have put the purchase price at roughly $1 billion.

In May 2018, SoftBank’s Vision Fund agreed to invest $2.25 billion in Cruise’s self-driving software. Since then Cruise has been valued at $20 billion after raising almost $4 billion more in fundraisings led by Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and T. Rowe Price Associates Inc.

Cruise remains a separate company from GM, company spokesman Ray Wert told Bloomberg Law. As such, while Bleich will work with GM’s general counsel, Craig Glidden, he will report solely to Cruise CEO Dan Ammann, a former GM president installed as head of the company last year.

Bleich’s Bonafides

Bleich is currently serving as chairman of the board of directors at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a San Francisco-based utility giant currently awaiting approval from California regulators to exit bankruptcy proceedings that it began last year.

Cruise’s Wert told Bloomberg Law that a decision hasn’t yet been made as to whether Bleich will remain affiliated with PG&E, which has racked up massive legal bills stemming from liabilities it incurred as a result of wildfires that in recent years ravaged California.

PG&E appointed Bleich to chair its board in April 2019. Prior to that he had served as a partner and global head of the diplomatic consulting group at legal giant Dentons, which he joined in March 2016 after leaving the partnership at Los Angeles-based law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.

Bleich spent more than 19 years at Munger Tolles, which he first joined in the early 1990s after clerkships with former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and former U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Judge Abner Mikva.

It was at Munger Tolles where Bleich became co-chair of the Obama for America presidential campaign. Bleich bundled more than $500,000 in campaign donations to Obama during the 2008 election cycle and he became special counsel to the president in early 2009. Later that year, Bleich was nominated to serve as ambassador to Australia, a role he would hold until September 2013.

During a keynote address delivered to Universities Australia in 2017, Bleich recalled a speech he gave three years earlier prior to leaving his ambassadorship about the merits of disruptive technology. Bleich noted how he once thought it would take years before he would see driverless cars on streets in the U.S. and elsewhere, only to see one on the road next to him while traveling to the airport for his flight.

Driverless vehicles like those made by Cruise face a host of regulatory and safety obstacles before they become widespread. Bleich said in a statement that he’s looking forward to solving novel legal challenges in his new role at Cruise.

“We all know it’s going to take hard work and collaboration to adapt the thousands of laws and rules that govern human-operated cars to make driving safer for everyone,” Bleich said. “This is the creation of an entirely new industry and defining its rules will be key to its success.”

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com

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