Lydia Wahlke entered the legal profession after spending four years at Miramax Films as a video editor and field producer, scheduling behind-the-scenes shoots on the sets of feature films.
Now she’s the top lawyer of the Chicago Cubs, which put to rest a 108-year wait to clinch the World Series title this year.
“I decided to take the LSAT on a whim,” said Wahlke, of her 2002 transition from Los Angeles entertainment scene to taking classes at the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. “I didn’t necessarily internalize what lawyers did on a day-to-day basis because it’s hard to know from the outside.”
After graduating law school in 2005, Wahlke moved out to her home town of Chicago and became a litigation associate at one of the most reputable large law firms in the city: Kirkland & Ellis. After five years there, she took a job in-house at the Cubs and later became its top lawyer.
“We have the same challenges as just about any company out there,” explained Wahlke.
Wahlke, who joined the Cubs ball club in 2010 as assistant general counsel, spoke with Big Law Business about the legal challenges the Cubs faces, her advice to recent law school graduates facing a tough market, and what it was like to win the World Series.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Big Law Business: First, how did you become general counsel of the Cubs?
Wahlke: I am actually on my second career. I went to film school in Southern California and worked in the film industry for a few years and decided to make a change. I went to the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and moved back here to Chicago where I grew up. I was a litigation and intellectual property associate at Kirkland & Ellis LLP. I also clerked for a federal judge here in town. And then I interviewed for the job [at the Cubs]. I thought it was an interesting move in-house and what really appealed to me at the time, in 2009, was that the Ricketts family had just taken control of the Chicago Cubs. I remember reading an article talking about Ricketts and thinking, ‘That sounds like a really interesting person to work for.’ I applied for an in-house position and they gave it to me. In 2010, as assistant general counsel, and then I was promoted in 2014 to general counsel.
Big Law Business: I’ve often heard Kirkland can be a grind for associates, with an up-or-out culture. What was your experience?
Wahlke: I actually didn’t feel that way about it at all. I loved working at Kirkland. I found it to be a really entrepreneurial firm. They are willing to work you as hard as you are willing to work. I am one of those people who loves being a lawyer. I am not sure every lawyer would tell you that. It was not an easy choice to leave and come to the Cubs. I don’t think I would have left had it not been for a unique opportunity with a small family-owned company that was experiencing a lot of growth.
Big Law Business: What made you change course from the film industry?
Wahlke: A lot of things. I knew I wanted to move back to Chicago. I had been in Los Angeles for just over 10 years and I wanted a change in my personal life. I also wanted to move back to Chicago and find a career that quite frankly offered me a little more of a personal life. I decided to take the LSAT on a whim and I didn’t necessarily internalize what lawyers did on a day-to-day basis because it’s hard to know from the outside. I had a good relationship with in-house counsel at the company I had then, and I had a lot of respect for him, and I thought it would be an interesting change and it has been a pleasant surprise.
Big Law Business: So tell me about your role as GC. What kind of work do you do?
Wahlke: One of the greatest challenges we have is also one of our greatest assets: our brand. We have needed to find the right path to protecting and enforcing our brand, while allowing our fans to celebrate being fans and celebrate their love of the team. That can be challenging because we are 146 years old and it’s a really complex brand that has come about in many ways, including organically from fans celebrating the team. You have to find that dividing line between fighting people and protecting your licenses and protecting your brand long-term, but you don’t want to take the fun out of it. That can be deciding whether or not to enforce our mark.
We had an individual pretending to be a mascot outside of our ballpark. And more recently, when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, our fans decided to celebrate and memorialize their feelings on the outfield walls around Wrigley Field with chalk. So we had to decide right away how you react to that. It’s always a fine balance. I think what is wonderful about the organization I work with is there is a real appreciation for and respect for our fans.
Big Law Business: So how did you decide to react to the chalk incident?
Wahlke: I wouldn’t call it a chalk incident. It was an experience. We had fans who came and it was an absolute spontaneous outpouring of emotion. Wrigley Field is in a lovely urban neighborhood… and you can walk up to the wall of the stadium unlike other walls across the country. Fans started signing their names and notes to grandma and grandpa who couldn’t be there to witness the World Series. It was all walks of life. Cubs fans came to express their emotions. On the one hand, it’s chalk graffiti, and on the other hand, if you take a step closer and look at it, it’s really a beautiful message to the team and we were all incredibly touched by it.
I assume some companies might take the reaction of, ‘You can’t let people write on your walls.’ We saw it as, ‘This is touching,’ and we did our best to preserve it. We immediately started taking photographic surveys because it’s chalk and chalk is a fleeting medium. As soon as it rains, that chalk can disappear. We embarked on a little bit of a project to preserve those walls and those messages, so we could have a record of this post-season. We had to fence it in because we are under construction. We did eventually have to remove it. Wrigley Field is in the middle of a historic rehabilitation and restoration and it involves a substantial amount of work in the off-season. That is a complication that we will happily deal with: construction goes up and the ballpark doesn’t look like the ballpark in the off season… We did allow [the chalk] to exist for a solid week and during that week we took pains to preserve it with pictures and video.
Big Law Business: I was going to ask about the off-season. Does the off-season mean less work for you and your team?
Wahlke: I wish it meant less work. It really doesn’t. Our baseball operations team work year-round. A lot of it is planning the Cubs convention. We have a very large convention for our fans. This year will be one of our largest. We have spring training coming up, too. Like any other company, I am working every day to work with the needs our people have. We are slow at times, but believe it or not, one of the slower times for me might be after the season starts. Once the season starts, we have a rhythm and a routine.
Big Law Business: How large is the Cubs legal department?
Wahlke: We have three attorneys and a paralegal. The funny thing is, we have a number of other people in the Cubs who have law degrees who do not work as attorneys. The president of business operations is a former general counsel himself. A number of other folks went to law school and they certainly get involved in the day-to-day business.
Big Law Business: Do they ever give input on legal decisions?
Wahlke: They really don’t. The funny thing is, I feel a tremendous amount of respect. There never has been any challenging or headbutting.
Big Law Business: What was it like dealing with the fake mascot?
Wahlke: I don’t want to say anything about this individual. He engaged in some behavior we felt wasn’t in keeping with our brand. There was a video about an altercation at a local bar and some other issues, so we took legal action. So that no longer occurs.
Big Law Business: Did you grow up a Cubs fan?
Wahlke: I grew up in Chicago. I frankly wasn’t a Cubs fan until I interviewed for this job. I never disliked the Cubs. I knew what they meant to the city of Chicago. I can honestly say I am a huge Cubs fan now. This organization has made me a huge fan, working with the people and going to the games.
Big Law Business: What was it like watching the World Series as the Cubs general counsel?
Wahlke: It was all that and more. That sounds silly, but it was. From Chicago to Cleveland, we all got to go to the games together and cheer together. That was a unique experience. Normally when we have games here at home, most of us are working. I can’t think of another time when all of us together had the chance to go and just be a fan. Nothing is as fun as watching them win games. It was nerve racking. I don’t think I have a single nail left in my right hand. A lot of nail biting and nerves and a lot of hugs with your co-workers and there was a lot of ‘Yes we can.’ And at the end there was a whole chant of, ‘We never quit.’
Big Law Business: How were you able to all see the games together?
Wahlke: We have a really wonderful owner. It might sound a little bit like I’m trying to brown nose, but it’s just the fact of the matter. Tom Ricketts owns the Cubs and our chair made it a priority that all our full-time front office personnel should get the opportunity to travel to Cleveland to watch the World Series. Other teams have done this, but I didn’t fully appreciate the effort of supporting the movement of 406 people. It included significant others, a lot of people brought a parent, child, husband and wife. And friends who worked for the Cubs and had gone onto other jobs. It was really a great reunion. When you have 406 people traveling, you aren’t flying commercial. So the organization chartered an aircraft. It was on very short notice.
Big Law Business: Were you able to relax and watch the World Series as a fan or did you stay in lawyer mode?
Wahlke: When you’re an attorney, you don’t shut it off. You’re always talking to your client. You’re always checking your email and answering questions and thinking, ‘How can we do this or that better?’ From the perspective of operating the game itself, no, Cleveland had that responsibility and they are a great ballpark. But there are always issues that come up. We had a game coming up at Wrigley field and there was communications and marketing [work] in that respect.
Big Law Business: What kind of advice would you give a recent law graduate looking to make a successful career?
Wahlke: I would tell them, work hard and listen to everyone that you meet and really try to understand all your clients and what challenges they face on a day-to-day basis and how you can help. Most of it is not telling people. It’s listening to them and understanding what they need and helping them find the way to solve their problems with the resources they already have. That sounds really broad, but one thing I was told early on in my career is, make sure you get to know everyone in the mail room. Make sure you get to know every paralegal because they are just as important, if not more important to the case, than you. I think that’s a lesson I have really taken here because at the Cubs, it’s not necessarily about me or anyone in the front office. We have an amazingly talented group of 600-plus staff who work like mad and have a wonderful place to enjoy the greatest sport on earth.