It’s not uncommon for graduates of the University of Virginia School of Law to become general counsel at Fortune 500 companies. But among those who hold the coveted title, Netflix General Counsel David Hyman, Class of 1993, is something of an outlier.
He helped build a company largely from the ground up.
In anticipation of his welcome address to UVA Law’s incoming Class of 2021 on Monday, Hyman recently answered some questions about his rocket-powered career with the Los Gatos, California-based Netflix – and what the ride’s been like.
In the past decade, the now-ubiquitous video service jumped from a by-mail rental company to the 130 million-subscriber streaming platform and content production studio that it is today.
Hyman, as Netflix’s “GC,” has been essential in charting the way.
His replies to our questions were written. We retain the “: )” he no doubt wears to work every day.
Q. With Netflix now one of the major entertainment players, how big is your legal office versus when you started? How has your work changed?
A. Wow, it’s very different from when I started. I was the only lawyer in 2002. Now we’re over 300 and growing.
The work has changed in innumerable ways. When I started, we were a domestic-only distributor of physical DVDs; now we’re a global media company, producing content across all verticals of TV and film. It is this original production of content that is our biggest driver of legal growth. It takes a lot of legal folks to create content.
Q. In 2002, coming out of the recession and the collapse of the dot-com bubble, what gave you confidence in joining Netflix, which had only been around for five years?
A. I was unemployed and wanted a job as a GC. : )
Q. Were you brought on to handle the initial public offering of company stock, or at least in anticipation of it?
A. Yes, I came from another startup where I was handling securities matters. My role, however, was to be a broad-based general counsel for a high-growth, business-to-consumer company.
Q. Did you ever feel like a fish out of water, not having had prior entertainment industry experience? Or did your previous experience with online grocer Webvan provide enough of a template?
A. Not really, or perhaps I should say I’m pretty comfortable in ambiguous situations. I’ve been pretty adept at handling new business and legal issues. That was part of the fun/attraction to working for a startup. When I went to Webvan, I didn’t have any grocery experience.
Q. Can you detail some of your early efforts in writing contracts with the studios? Are these mostly standardized now, or do they still require high amounts of individual crafting?
A. Again, I’m fairly comfortable in ambiguous situations. When we struck the first streaming deals, it was novel and unique. Some of the contracts have become standard, but the new paradigm of original content production for a streaming world requires a lot of individual crafting and negotiation.
Q. Did Netflix’s decision to produce content ratchet up the complexity of what your office does?
A. Absolutely. Original content has been a huge driver of legal growth and complexity. It’s also impacted all other areas of our business.
I liken our move into original content as going from selling cars to manufacturing cars – dealing with suppliers, production, unions, etc. And on top of that, given our pace of growth, it’s a bit like building the car while you’re racing down the road. : )
Q. Do you have a favorite Netflix original series either as a viewer, or as someone who saw the hard work behind making it a success?
A. My current favorite is “Babylon Berlin.” It’s a great example of how Netflix can bring stories from around the world to people of the world. It’s very satisfying to see how our content can, in some small way, increase happiness to our subscribers with so many diverse stories.
Q. What’s next for the company? With Netflix’s reported interest in buying a movie theater chain, is a wave of theatrical releases on the horizon?
A. The era of internet entertainment is a potentially big and enduring opportunity. We’ll be focused on making great TV and movies for our growing subscriber base for hopefully a long time.
Q. Can you preview some of the advice that you’ll be sharing with UVA Law students when you welcome them?
A. I’ll have a few simple concepts to share around collaboration, participation and humility. Hopefully folks won’t fall asleep. : )
Q. What can a law student do now to position herself as a future general counsel?
A. The best advice I think I can give to someone who wants to be a future general counsel is to not plan on being a future general counsel. I think if you follow what interests you and be true to your personality, you’ll have a great career, which may take you to the GC role or somewhere else.