The Reviews Are In

Laurence Wilson guides Yelp through its early twists and turns

Published in Business Edition Super Lawyers 2010 — September 2010

If Yelp, the website that posts consumer reviews of businesses in major U.S. cities—including restaurants, auto shops, doctor’s offices and law firms—were to run a review of its general counsel, Laurence Wilson, it might sound like this:

Laurence seems like the perfect fit for Yelp. For one thing, at 37, he exudes the youthful enthusiasm endemic to a 2004 Internet start-up company that has quintupled its workforce (to 350) since his arrival in 2007, and in recent years has launched websites in Canada, the U.K., Ireland and France, as its first and sole attorney (it recently added two more). He is a senior staff member in a company whose co-founders, Russel Simmons and Jeremy Stoppelman, are 31 and 32, respectively.

With his sneakers and jeans work attire, Wilson embraces the “every day is casual Friday” dress code, and doesn’t mind not having his own office. Yelp’s San Francisco headquarters is virtually all open workspace, with ping pong tables, and snack rooms stocked with free Cheerios, packaged Ramen, Odwalla drinks and soda.

The creative environment encourages an entrepreneurial ethos. “Older companies tend to manage against the worst possible outcome and focus legally on what they can’t do,” says Wilson. “We have to focus on what we can do.”

For example, recently some local physicians, not wanting to be subjected to Yelp reviews, began requiring patients to sign a contract forbidding reviews. If a patient wrote one anyway, the copyright would revert back to the physician. It wasn’t long before Yelp received a phone call from a doctor who demanded that a patient’s review be taken down.

Wilson checked with the patient, who stood 100 percent behind the review, and Yelp didn’t remove it. “It raises intriguing legal questions,” says Wilson, noting that the physician never took legal action. “Is trying to gag someone from expressing their opinion an appropriate use of copyright law?”

The company was enmeshed in controversy this spring when business owners accused Yelp of attempted extortion, alleging that the site would eliminate negative reviews in exchange for advertising. Three class action lawsuits ensued, and Yelp responded via its blog with a strong statement noting that the claims lack merit and indicating it will vigorously fight these allegations. In early April, it made two product changes unrelated to the legal action, adding the ability to see reviews affected by Yelp’s review filter and discontinuing the “Favorite Review” feature that was part of its advertising package. All reviews are now accessible to users by clicking on a link at the bottom of the page. Wilson still stands behind his company’s longstanding policy of posting reviews chosen by a complex, proprietary algorithm formula independent of any manual manipulation.

The increasing use of Yelp on mobile devices also raises privacy questions—such as when a person posts a review and identifies his or her location in real time. On top of dealing with these matters, Wilson also evaluates the licensing of Yelp reviews to other sites, sales agreements, and what content violates Yelp’s guidelines—including those containing disparaging comments, or posts by someone with a conflict of interest.

Contentious issues, to be sure, but Wilson much prefers being in-house at a young company to the partner track at an established law firm. After graduating from the University of San Diego with a B.A. in history and before heading off to Puebla, Mexico, to teach English, he worked as a paralegal at a large firm. The young associates, he observed, “were miserable.”

So upon graduation from Stanford Law School in 2001, he decided he wouldn’t take that path. Instead, he took a job with Silicon Valley angel investor Tom Bjornson, focusing on a wide range of emerging growth company issues. From there he moved to Xoom, the online money transfer company, after meeting a company executive at a Stanford basketball game in 2004. His work focusing on financial regulatory issues and building partnerships with foreign banks prepared him for his current post, which he took in 2007.

Being general counsel of Yelp, he says, “is the best job of my life.”

As for how he spends his free time: he has authored some 300 Yelp reviews.

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