What’s 146 years old but feels like a startup?
The venerable Chicago Cubs, according to Lydia Wahlke ’98, JD ’05, the vice president and general counsel of baseball’s reigning world champs.
When Wahlke joined the club, the Cubs had just entered a new era, having been sold by the Tribune Co. to the wealthy Ricketts family.
“Once the family took control, the organization had to restart itself and recreate systems, from email to payroll,” said Wahlke, who grew up in the Windy City suburbs. “It was a fascinating environment, as we were embarking on a new strategy aligned along a single plan.”
Anyone paying attention during the 2016 World Series knows that plan led the club from “lovable loser” status to jubilant champions. The team finally ended its epic 108-year drought (the longest in U.S. sports history) when they won the championship in November.
“For our fans, the victory was like an enormous weight came off their shoulders. It was indescribable,” she said. “I don’t know that I know yet how to feel, as the championship was a goal we’ve all been striving and working for.”
In addition to the team’s rebuild, the Cubs also took on a $750 million renovation project: modernizing the iconic Wrigley Field, which was built in 1914. Wahlke helps to manage the restoration, which also includes the surrounding neighborhood, while fulfilling her duties negotiating contracts, as well as managing litigation and overseeing the use of the Cubs brand.
“One thing that surprised me is that so much of what I do as in-house general counsel is not straight legal advice, but general guidance to getting something done for a colleague or for our fans,” said Wahlke, who before joining the Cubs served as an associate at the Chicago firm Kirkland & Ellis. “We work long hours and odd hours when we have night games, which can be challenging. But because I have so much respect for my co-workers, it makes it so much easier. I feel like we are a team working for a team.”
A real team player
Before applying to the USC Gould School of Law, Wahlke had earned a BA in 1998 from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she focused on editing. After a few years working as an editor and field producer at Miramax, she decided it was time for a change. She applied to USC Gould and said she immediately felt a “high level of support and collaboration” that lasted throughout her time there. “Honestly, that feeling of collegiality has informed my personal philosophy as an attorney,” she said.
Wahlke fondly recalls Professor Daniel Klerman, who clerked for now-retired Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, encouraging his students to pursue clerkships.
“I valued that advice and I applied for a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve that ultimately helped my career,” she said.
I talk to a few fans a week. One recently wanted to put a Cubs logo on their father’s tombstone.
In a full-circle moment, Wahlke had the opportunity to meet Justice Stevens, a lifelong Cubs fan, when he visited Wrigley for a game. “I told him, ‘I had one of your clerks as a professor!’” she recalled with a laugh.
Whether the fans are Supreme Court justices or not, Wahlke sees herself as their resource, especially when it comes to managing the Cubs brand.
“I talk to a few fans a week. One recently wanted to put a Cubs logo on their father’s tombstone. We know that this is a generational sport, but it’s still surprising to me how deep the love for their team goes with Cubs fans,” she said. “Our general rule is that we want to help them celebrate the team.”
And as the 2017 baseball season begins, she hopes her team will find more to celebrate.