The company’s GC and EVP Legal, Allison Lucas, discusses the process of building up its first in-house legal department and how her position blends her personal and professional expertise and interests
One need only take a quick glance at friends’ Facebook activity to see how all-encompassing the whole of BuzzFeed’s innumerable lists, long-form stories and personality quizzes seems to be. While it’s unclear as to whether any one or combination of them will be supplanting the vaunted Myers-Briggs Type Indicator anytime soon, it’s no doubt that you can learn some very specific things about yourself in a matter of seconds by taking one of the aforementioned quizzes, such as “Which ‘Friends ‘Character Is Your Soulmate?”
Although the site might not have been around when she first began her career as a journalist, editor and counsel, it’s difficult to contest—even after one conversation—that had there been a quiz asking “Who Would Make the Best First General Counsel (GC) and Executive Vice President of Legal Functions at BuzzFeed?” the result would be media and intellectual property (IP) expert Allison Lucas.
Coming Full Circle
For Lucas, the journey and dream of entering the legal profession began earlier than for most. She recounted her childhood interest, collegiate years, and early career detour through journalism and as an editor, but can trace back to age five her interest in legal work.
“When I was five years old, I either wanted to be a ballerina or a lawyer,” Lucas said. “Of course at that age I didn’t really know what a lawyer was, so when I was still young, I remembering saying, ‘I have no lawyers in my family.’ I don’t know why I would have said that, but in high school I was on the speech and debate teams and it was something that I always thought about as a career.”
“I found myself at Northwestern University, ended up switching into the journalism school [Medill, now Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications], and loved it,” Lucas continued. “So I found my path to being a writer and editor, but at some point, after about three years, I realized that being a journalist probably wasn’t my long-term goal and law just seemed to be a natural fit for me, specifically First Amendment or IP. The decision to leave journalism and go to law school wasn’t so much an epiphany, as much as a gradual return to what I had always thought my career would end up being.”
Creating a Buzz[Feed Legal Team]
Expressing her longstanding desire to pursue First Amendment issues, Lucas acknowledged that she felt inclined toward this type of work even prior attending Fordham University’s School of Law. Her career practicing law spans both firms and in-house posts, including extensive international trademark, copyright and intellectual property law experience at Greenberg Traurig, LLP, United Media and Gilt Groupe.
Having witnessed the steps GCs at previous employers took to grow and shape their respective legal departments, Lucas lent insight into her ongoing effort to build BuzzFeed’s developing team.
“I came here in July of 2013, and at the time our outside counsel, which does a lot of work acting as GC to numerous startups, had done a great job of making sure all the bases were covered,” she said. “Still, there’s something to be said about having somebody in the office that you can go to and run random questions by so you’re not picking up the phone and calling an outside counsel every five seconds.”
“So what I did first was look at my core competencies,” Lucas added. “I was hired for my IP background, and since we’re an editorial and media site, I looked at what I knew that I could do really well and easily. My first step was taking over the IP issues, from copyright to any First Amendment issues we might have, and really the whole IP portfolio. That was something I took upon myself to really look at and decide how we were going to move.”
“The second thing I did was bring in a Paralegal/Legal Affairs Associate who had worked with the company through the outside counsel firm. He came on and took on some of the corporate work, but we made sure we still had the relationship with the outside counsel. Then, in January (of 2014), I knew I needed to hire another lawyer. I changed the processes of how we worked and some of our contract processes, and so I needed someone who could take over that day-to-day work, because it’s really hard for me to do that and really be involved in the operations of the whole company.” That need to find additional lawyers to take on the everyday work continued, and over the course of the next year, Lucas added additional corporate, editorial, and video support. The 6-member legal team is now better able to handle the company’s continued growing business.
Speaking to what she learned from the GC she worked with in her previous two jobs, Lucas talked about the importance of patience and the value of outside counsel, especially for startups whose departments might just be coming together.
“You wait a little bit, and you don’t rush to build a team because you’re overloaded at first. You wait it out for a few months and you see where you feel like you need other competencies that you don’t have,” Lucas advised. “It helps you build a better team, helps you be more efficient, and you don’t have to worry that you’ve made the wrong choice three or four months later. As in-house counsel, you can always rely on your outside counsel, so that’s what I’ve always done. Don’t hesitate to contact outside counsel if we need the help. I would never say that it costs too much to call outside counsel regarding an issue where I don’t have some knowledge. If there’s something that you don’t know and you can’t figure out yourself, you ask.”
Advocates > Mentors
In her career, Lucas has been fortunate to work with three talented and knowledgeable women who were instrumental in helping her progress: two law firm partners and one GC who she has worked under at two separate companies.
From the GC she worked with at Gilt Groupe and United Media, Kathy Leo, Lucas learned “how to build a program, how to interact with clients, to have a sense of humor about what you’re doing, and not get hung up on minutiae. Everything I learned about being in house, I learned from [Leo],” Lucas said, “because I was with her from 2006 to 2013.”
Hearkening back to her first job working as an IP attorney, Lucas shared the story of how a Partner helped her first break into that discipline. Initially she had been hired to work in securities right out of law school.
“My boss at Greenberg [Roxanne Elings, now at Davis Wright Tremaine] was instrumental in getting me to where I am,” Lucas said. “I had worked for her as a summer intern at a mid-size law firm, and she not only made sure that I had a place to come back to in 2002, but also in IP as opposed to securities. She was able to get me a job at Greenberg Traurig, which was a place she hadn’t even been for very long, as Counsel. She taught me so much of what I know in IP—about trademarks, that whole business—and just a ton of things on the practical side that I learned from her. I was so grateful for her getting me back to New York. I had talked to a number of recruiters who told me it would be very difficult for me to move from being a U.S. Securities lawyer at a London firm to being an IP attorney, and I was able to do it, so I owe a lot to her.”
All of this career-advancing influencing and networking assistance from superiors has led Lucas to place greater emphasis on the concept of advocacy instead of traditional mentoring. She elaborated on the idea, both in how she defines it and what advantages it holds over what we generally understand to be mentoring.
“I had gone to a GC event where someone spoke on this topic, and I thought it was a really interesting way to look at it,” Lucas said. “Mentors are great and they’re essential, but you also want somebody at your company who actually will think about you and who will advocate on your behalf and look out for you. Those are just as important as having a mentor in your field.”
It seems fairly obvious, given her background and all of the skills and intellectual curiosity she’s brought to her position, that it won’t be long before we’re seeing a list of “101 Ways Allison Lucas Has Made BuzzFeed’s Legal Department One of the Best in the Business.” ♦
Lay of the Legal Land
Lucas detailed the steps she’s taken to form the Legal Department at BuzzFeed. Here’s a short list of transferable ideas for a General Counsel walking into a similar situation, particularly at a startup:
- Know your core competencies, and take charge of those areas.
- Keep a close working relationship with your outside counsel.
- Supplement your team based on needs, but be patient and assess them. Don’t rush to hire full-time help and associates.
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