As the lone lawyer in Orbitz’s Chicago-area headquarters, Suzanne Wallman is always adapting and on the move. But for this legal director for Expedia—which acquired the global travel company in 2015—that’s just part of the appeal. “We’re an agile company,” Wallman says. “Everything is constantly changing and growing. That’s exciting.”
Wallman came to Orbitz six years ago, after fifteen years in private practice with McDermott, Will & Emery in Chicago. While at the firm, she worked in the intellectual property (IP), media, and technology group, a field that was then in its infancy. When she began at McDermott, IP law was growing exponentially, e-commerce was just getting off the ground, and social media wasn’t in existence. “It was a great foundation for exposing me to so many of the areas relevant to my current legal practice at Expedia,” Wallman says, adding that “it was very helpful to be in a field of law that was constantly growing and evolving. It really allowed me to think outside of the box.”
She’s carried those nimble, creative thinking skills over to her current position as a legal director for Expedia, where she’s responsible for not only Orbitz, but also Expedia’s Travelocity and CheapTickets brands. As such, she’s helping drive the growth of the business. Operations and legal support for the brands are worldwide—spanning Seattle, London, and Asia—and Wallman’s often videoconferencing to consult with representatives around the globe. Moving in-house, she says, offers new challenges. “Just like businesses evolve and the competitive landscape evolves, we as lawyers need to be willing to look at things in new ways,” she says.
Successfully integrating the “risk mind-set” of law with the “revenue mind-set” of business is just one of those challenges. After all, it’s difficult to assess risk without knowing what’s important to the business.
In order to provide the best counsel, Wallman asks several questions to better understand the business context of the legal matter at hand: Is this decision a critical revenue driver? What is the company trying to achieve? What is the value of what it’s trying to achieve here? Are there other options to achieve the same objective? And—just as importantly—what’s the risk of not moving forward?
“You’re never going to completely avoid risk,” Wallman says, “so business lawyers are always evaluating the appropriate amount of risk. It’s really in this context, to help the business drive solutions that manifest success.”
Establishing a seat for legal at the table early in the development of any new project or product is key to success, she explains. If legal is seen as a fundamental part of the team, she can help shape decision-making throughout the development process, rather than being relegated to an item to be checked off on the back end.
“To be effective, I sit on the leadership teams for the brands that I support during discussions of business strategy and goals,” Wallman says. “What drives growth? What are the obstacles? Being part of that continued dialogue really assures a consistent understanding.”
She also prioritizes an open-door policy as well as regular one-on-one meetings with various business team leaders in order to better learn about projects in the pipeline and get a head start on the legal issues they may present.
Travel is a highly personal industry, so user privacy and data protection are also key issues. But these days, some of the thorniest challenges Wallman handles entail social media and the use of third-party content. With a great deal of the online travel industry’s marketing tightly integrated with social media, responsible management of videos, photos, user testimonials, blogs, and more is of crucial importance.
For instance, during a recent St. Patrick’s Day promotion, Orbitz videotaped Chicagoans watching and commenting on the city’s annual parade, and ultimately, surprised two crowd members with a trip to Dublin, Ireland. There, they got to continue their St. Patrick’s Day celebration throughout the week. In designing the campaign, the marketing team had to work closely with legal to make sure they had the proper releases signed, and that everything was in line—not just with current sweepstakes regulations, but also the rules and practices of Instagram and Facebook. For the fast-moving, live event, the team also played with hypotheticals, trying to anticipate every possible answer to the proposed question, “What would happen if … ?”
“Social media and third-party content has allowed our brand to really encourage customer engagement,” Wallman says, “but it’s created a challenging legal landscape. What you or I compose on our personal Facebook page is different from what Orbitz or any brand can post on their company page. Because it can be deemed commercial use, you have more stringent intellectual property right concerns, including rights of publicity, trademarks, and copyrights.
“Everything moves faster with social media,” she continues. “You can’t control what other people are going to comment on.”
Still, it’s all part of the package. “As someone who loves to travel and meet new people and new cultures, it’s great to be able to bring my legal skills to an industry that I have a lot of passion about,” she says. “At the end of the day, I get to help connect global travel adventures to the public. What could be better than that?”