David Hyman carved his own path to the general counsel chair at Netflix

Hyman's route was both circuitous and serendipitous

Sometimes things just work out for the best. Such is the case with David Hyman. A one-time ski bum, Hyman followed the slope of life all the way to the general counsel chair at Netflix Inc. 

Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., Hyman spent his formative years in the shadow of the Capitol and eventually migrated a few hours southwest to the University of Virginia. After college, he drifted into politics, working for former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb’s campaign before heading west to Colorado for a season to ski. Following the wintry respite, Hyman returned to Virginia to work on Don Beyer’s lieutenant governor campaign. It was at this time that an interest in policy and legislative issues spurred an interest in law school. 

After law school, Hyman took a job at Arent Fox in Washington, D.C. During his tenure at the firm, he carved a niche for himself working on transactional real estate affairs, as well as financing, sales and acquisitions. In 1996, he headed west to work for Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, where he continued to specialize in transactional real estate work.

In the mid to late ’90s, the Internet was still booming, and outside counsel were jumping ship in droves to seek their fortunes in-house. Hyman found the right fit at Webvan, an Internet grocer, which was seeking an attorney with his talents. The move allowed him to expand beyond the narrow real estate scope in which he had been working. Eventually the Internet bubble burst and the company went bankrupt, but not before Hyman was tapped to replace the general counsel. In that position, he gained the breadth of experience he needed to step into the same role at an up-and-coming DVD mail delivery company.

Q: How did you come to work for Netflix?

A: It was 2002, and there was a small company in Los Gatos [Calif.] that was looking for a general counsel. They were delivering pieces of plastic by the mail to a small subscriber base. It was a subscription- based business that had plans to grow its distribution network nationwide, which tapped into some of the old real estate ways. They were in the process of going public, so that tapped into some of the corporate securities work that I had gained by being at Webvan. It was a great fit. And it opened up a whole new area for me in terms of content. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are sometimes apart on issues, but Netflix was able to pull the two of those together.

Q: What’s a normal day like for you?

A: Given the growth in the company and the legal group, a normal day now is really one of working with my direct reports. I help to shepherd them along in the transactions or litigation matters they’re dealing with in a way that helps balance the business interests of the company with legal risks. That spans discussions on reviewing pleadings in various litigations, reviewing contract licensing deals and helping to understand public policy issues and what our positions and responses are to that. It’s a pretty broad array of issues that pop up on a daily basis.

Q: What is your management style?

A: The company and I share an alignment in how we approach people’s responsibilities and management. And that comes down to a culture of freedom and responsibility. Within Netflix, individuals really have broad responsibility for the areas in which they work, and this goes across the legal group as well as anybody within the company. The legal team is much more nimble and able to quickly respond to the needs of the business. And while I’m involved in helping them make the right decisions, I view my role as a manager of setting contexts, but not control, by which they can act accordingly. There are not lots of layers of approval processes—it’s really an ability for them if they’re dealing with a transaction to work with the business persona and make those decisions on the fly.

Q: What interested you in in-house practice as opposed to working in a law firm?

A: The biggest attraction was the ability to be part of a business at a much deeper level. Not only do I see a transaction from incubation to years after it was executed, I also am involved with the business people on setting these transactions up and helping achieve those goals. One of the great things I find about being an in-house counsel is to actually negotiate the deal. Oftentimes I found that being an outside counsel, you would be used for your expertise—especially the more senior you got—on difficult issues, but you’d be less used in the context of negotiating on a dayto- day basis over a deal.

Q: What is most challenging in your work?

A: Keeping up with the pace of technological change. Inherent to many people is a comfort zone with technological use on a day-to-day basis. You really need to be able to say, “I’ve got to try that new service”, “I’ve got to use Pinterest”, or “I’ve got to use Instagram” and see what these cool, new technologies are because they drive so much consumer behavior. Their impact not only on our culture, but on a service like Netflix, is important to understand.

Keeping up with the pace of change is a fun aspect of the job, but it’s also constant. And for me, it’s hard enough to keep up with day-to-day things, legal issues, court rulings and regulatory matters, but then add to that an understanding of what’s going on in various consumer offerings.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

A: Being part of a company that is changing the way in which people interact with entertainment content. Netflix has driven a lot of the change in Internet-delivered video, and being part of that and helping to shape that is rewarding. Not to mention that a lot of people in Silicon Valley have really technical jobs that are very difficult to explain to people. My kids know exactly what I do and what my company does. And that’s kind of fun, too.

Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer who aspires to become a GC?

A: Don’t plan. Do what you find is interesting and that will be rewarding. If it leads to becoming a general counsel of a company, so be it. It may fit your personality. While oftentimes people think that being a GC is the pinnacle of an in-house counsel’s career, I think there are a number of important roles within a company that people can assume without being the GC and still have a very rewarding career. It’s looking for the right company and the right fit and having fun with it.

Q: If you didn’t work in law, what would be your dream job?

A: I like my job. But if I didn’t do this, I would go back to being a ski bum, although my body doesn’t take it as well as it used to.

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