This article features highlights from episode seven of our podcast, The Abstract. You can listen to the full conversation here.
A New Yorker at heart, Lydia Cheuk embarked on her legal odyssey at Goodwin before venturing into an in-house legal role at Blue Man Group. Today, she is the General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Away.
Lydia’s passion for entrepreneurship also led her to join NYU Law Venture Fund, where she’s part of an esteemed jury of finance wizards, VCs, GCs, and entrepreneurs. Join us as we step into the world of Lydia, a trailblazer who proves that legal excellence and authenticity can take a business to new heights.
Lydia’s leap from corporate associate to in-house lawyer
Like many fresh law school graduates, Lydia found herself on the well-trodden path of a corporate associate, but deep down, she knew that wasn't where her heart truly belonged.
“I knew from the beginning that the law firm was never going to be my long-term career path. I was a mid-level associate at my first law firm and was surrounded by lawyers in a conference room. I thought, ‘Lydia, you have three months to find a new career.’ I had to give myself a time frame, otherwise the clock just keeps ticking and you're working all the time.”
And so, with the ticking clock as her motivator, Lydia embarked on a journey to find her true calling.
“I literally started calling everyone I knew, especially the people who were not lawyers, because I was thinking, ‘Hey, I could leave the law. I could do something else.’
I heard about the Blue Man Group job through a job posting, but I didn't know anything about them or what the job really entailed. But I thought, ‘I can totally do it.’ So, I applied, interviewed, and took that leap off of the typical associate track.”
Lydia deviated from the traditional legal career track and embraced the in-house role at the arts organization. But here's the twist: the Blue Man Group had never hired a lawyer before, and they weren't quite sure what they needed. Enter Lydia.
The right time to start building your legal team
In her early twenties and relatively inexperienced, Lydia had the opportunity of a lifetime — she got to define the role of an in-house lawyer and the legal function overall from scratch. It was a challenge, but one that she embraced wholeheartedly.
“Blue Man Group did have a lot of legal work, but they were using outside counsel. They used Paul Weiss, and that lawyer is still my friend today. They knew they had to do something in-house, but they had no idea what that role would mean. That’s when I got to set the footprint for what that role looked like.”
She would eventually become the first legal hire for First Look, joining the team at a pivotal moment when they were still shaping their leadership. Looking back, she realized her biggest mistake: taking too long to build her legal team.
“I worked so much because I took too long to hire up my team. That is always a tip I would give to people. If you're the first legal hire, start thinking about your hiring immediately. It will always take longer than you think.”
As the first legal hire, Lydia found herself wearing multiple hats and embracing an "I can do it all myself" mentality. While it may have worked for a while, it eventually became clear that she needed a team to support her.
“It took over a year to hire my team, and that was a total mistake. I think it's because I'm a person who thinks, ‘Oh, well, I can just do it all.’ Both at Blue Man Group and First Look, people were telling me, ‘Lydia, you need to hire. I don't know what you're waiting for, but you need to get on it.’ And I would look up from my computer and say, ‘What? Oh, okay. That sounds like a good idea.’
It also took a long time because I want someone who's great. It is worth waiting a little bit longer to find someone who's excellent. And a lot of it is not just the technical skills, but it's a culture fit, and it's also someone that you're going to want to spend a lot of time with.”
Beyond the typical virtual interviews, Lydia encourages in-person meetings if possible.
“I would do more than just a virtual interview. If you can do it in real life, that's much better. It reveals more than just a 30-minute conversation over a Zoom call. I'm a really open person, which enables other people to just be themselves. So, I get there a bit quicker.”
The key to hiring and retaining great legal talent
When it comes to building a great legal team, Lydia knows that providing autonomy is an invaluable ingredient.
“I provide my team with a lot of autonomy because that's what people want. I can also do that because they're amazing and do great work. They're very committed to the company. They're very good professionals, and most of them are not fresh out-of-college. Providing autonomy, if you can, is invaluable to employees.”
Flexibility and accommodating remote work is another key retention lever in Lydia's playbook.
“My team also, for the most part, gets to work completely remotely, which is not true for all the other teams at Away. But to me, that's a retention lever. I also try to offer the opportunity to learn and to do new kinds of work. Even when interviewing or recruiting for my team, I always base the role on two things: the needs of the business and what the job applicant is interested in doing.”
Moreover, Lydia understands the importance of fostering a unified culture within the team. While granting autonomy, she creates a cohesive and supportive environment.
Branding the legal function to transform perception within the business
The legal function often finds itself fighting the uphill battle of dispelling the traditional perception of being a roadblock rather than an enabler. Lydia understands this challenge all too well, and she has successfully transformed the way the legal team is perceived at Away.
One of the cornerstones of Lydia's approach is internally marketing the legal function.
“Lawyers often forget that they have to market themselves and their teams. And I get it because I have this impulse as well. We're somehow trained to think that the work is just going to speak for itself, and sometimes, it can. Excellent work is the baseline, of course, but you have to remember that all the other teams are already marketing themselves to the organization.”
In the early days, Lydia established office hours, offering an open-door policy for other team members to drop in and discuss their concerns.
“It was an hour a week drop-in policy. I met so many team members that way and learned what's really going on. You can chat and learn a lot about the context of why decisions are being made. It also made the legal team feel very accessible. This is something I always recommend, especially if you're just trying to establish your team into the company.”
Conducting trainings has also been a significant driver in Lydia's strategy to enrich the legal team's brand. She organizes informative sessions that cater to the interests and the work of the company's other departments.
“You really should do trainings. At Away, I work with a lot of smart people, and they want to learn the same way I want to learn. So, I find that those trainings tend to land really well, and there's always good feedback. You just have to tailor them depending on what's needed in your company. For instance, I held an IP training and it helped the marketing team really understand our point-of-view.”
These trainings not only enhance the team's technical skills but also offer insights into the context of legal decision-making, fostering greater collaboration and understanding.
“When we ask questions or make decisions, they understand where that's coming from. Like, we're not just asking these questions for the sake of it; we're doing it because we have to do it.”
Another factor that has been key to Lydia's success in making the legal team an indispensable part of the organization is collaboration.
“Create policies that no one else is focusing on. Gin up that gen AI policy if no one else is doing it, or your document retention policy. It might not be fun, but it brings in cross functionality and a lot of other people into your fold. You collaborate on something and provide value for the company.”
Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of data sharing and highlighting the team's contributions to the company's success and growth.
“When I tell my exec team that my team reviewed 300 contracts this quarter, the number sounds really impressive. No one else is thinking about what your team is doing other than you. And people love the data. So, if you have it, share it.
The last thing is brand. What is your team brand? All that means is how you want the rest of your organization to perceive your team, even if it's subconsciously.”
Lydia's legal team brand represents a commitment to being business-forward, supportive, and creative in finding solutions.
“The team brand is something that I focus on a lot because it requires me to disseminate it. It's a little bit of a North Star so that my whole team can all row in the same direction. That not only is great for the business, but it's great for us as lawyers on a personal level.”
Embodying this brand has earned the legal team a reputation for being a reliable partner across the organization, making them highly valued within Away.
Steering the company through its ups and downs
As the organization matured, the role of the legal team evolved as well. During the hypergrowth phase, Lydia focused on building relationships organically, working with every team in an all-hands-on-deck manner.
“Back in 2018-19, we were in this early hypergrowth phase and building relationships was very different from what it looks like now. Everyone was all hands-on-deck. The hypergrowth just meant there was this chaos and everyone was doing everything. So, I think the relationships just grew very organically. I did the lion's share of the day-to-day work, which meant I worked with every single team all the time.”
As the company reached a more stable phase, Lydia's role shifted towards providing support, context, and a steady foundation during times of transition and change.
“I share context, and I also lead my team to try and help through any kinds of transitions. My team has been with me for a while now, and because they're long-tenured — since 2019, which for Away is a really long time — we have seen a lot of changes. We can provide a thorough line and a steady foundation for other teams in some ways. When they're having a transition or a bit more tumult, our processes remain the same.”
Navigating unprecedented challenges
When the pandemic hit, it brought about a seismic shift in the business landscape, and Away, like many other companies, faced unprecedented challenges as the travel industry came to a grinding halt.
“You have to build other muscles when the company is going through a tough time. Nobody's traveling, and no one's buying travel goods. 2020 was hard, and all of us were dealing with situations no one had dealt with before. We were answering questions that no one had asked before. You're trying to keep your company together in a cultural way, and everyone's scared and everyone's suddenly working from home.”
It was a time of fear and uncertainty, and Lydia recognized that building resilience and finding solutions were more critical than ever.
“The great thing about being a lawyer is that in really good times, like the hypergrowth, you get to do all these incredible things; it's hard work and there's chaos, but it's so incredible and everyone's happy. But in the downtimes, it's much more challenging. The opportunity to learn is 100% there. And you might even be able to say that the value a lawyer can bring to a company in tough times is even more ample than in good times, because it's the tough times where people really lean on their lawyers.”
Authenticity: The cornerstone of building a personal brand
In a world filled with networking events, where people connect on a professional level every now and then, the concept of personal branding might seem daunting. However, Lydia offers a refreshing perspective on this matter.
“Branding is not something you have to necessarily articulate aloud, but it's about how you move through the world, whether that’s in a professional setting or not.Branding means finding a way to communicate what you bring to the table comfortably, something other people can value; it has to be incredibly authentic. It's not a persona you're putting on.”
For Lydia, authenticity is key in how she carries herself both professionally and personally.
“For me, I don't have a moniker for my personal brand. It's not like how we’ve branded the legal team as the team of ‘yes,’ but I carry myself in a very open and casual manner. If I meet you in a professional setting, I'm happy to discuss the new Gen AI policy that you just ginned up to give your team more visibility. But I'm probably way more interested in the last vacation you took, and that's just authentic to me.”
While some professionals might thrive in discussing work-related matters solely, Lydia knows she's more comfortable connecting on a personal level. And guess what? People appreciate it.
“I've noticed that other people are very receptive to the openness. I don't think I need to prove that I'm smart or that I'm a good lawyer. I would like to think that in a professional setting, we GCs get that presumption, so there's no need for me to flex. At the end of the day, people are attracted to and want to work with people who they enjoy and are comfortable with. For me, those personal conversations move that needle. And in any event, I can only be myself.”
So, for those looking to build their personal brand, Lydia's advice is clear – embrace who you are, find your comfort zone, and engage with others in a way that feels authentic to you.
To listen to more of Lydia’s insights on building a brand for legal, check out the full conversation on The Abstract.