How I got here

How I Got Here: Iris Chen, Deputy General Counsel at Airbnb

December 18, 2023
Melody Chen

Table of Contents

Iris Chen is the Vice President, Deputy General Counsel at Airbnb, where she leads a team of 45+ attorneys and legal professionals supporting Airbnb’s product, growth, commercial, and marketing functions and managing the company’s intellectual property matters. Previously, Iris was a Vice President of Legal for 14 years at Google, leading a 145+ person legal team responsible for supporting global product development and all commercial transactions in North America across ads, payments, search, geo, research, and infrastructure products.

You’ve had this incredible 14-year journey leading legal teams at Google and now at Airbnb. How did you embark on this path?

I didn’t have the traditional sort of tech lawyer path. I started in New York, working in Biglaw doing corporate work at Simpson Thacher. There were not a lot of tech clients out there at that time. I was lucky enough to even have corporate work because the bubble burst in 2001 when I graduated. I had financial services, energy, and, at one point, a healthcare client. I went even further from tech as I started working with hedge funds and private equity funds, and that led me to Ropes & Gray, which had a broader investment management practice. Around my fifth year, I started thinking — do I want to make partner? Is this the kind of work I want to do and be known for? I didn’t have a good answer to any of that. 

So, I started thinking about going in-house. I cast a wide net. I thought about working for a fund, but the substance of what I’d be doing would have been the same, so that wasn’t the best path. I was interested in entertainment and media, but those companies are not interested in talking to you if you haven’t been practicing in that area. I randomly applied to Google online. I didn’t know much about the company because, in New York, you’re just not in that scene.

Lo and behold, they pulled my resume out of the stack of submissions, and I interviewed with them. I did not get the job the first time because they were further along with somebody else with more relevant experience. Six months later, they opened another New York role. I was pretty aggressive; I contacted the recruiter and told them I’d love to interview. The interview process took over six months, and when I finally got the job, I started as a commercial attorney, negotiating and drafting contracts for the ad sales business, which had nothing to do with my background. I knew nothing about digital advertising, but it was my bread and butter when I first joined Google. 

What were the pivotal moments that helped shape your journey into leadership?

Coming from a non-traditional tech background made me really curious and willing to learn and humble in a way that, had I been experienced, I may not have had the same approach. I’ve been fortunate that the people who were my managers were capable superstars who moved on to other things and, by doing that, created space for me. So I was a beneficiary of the fact that other people that I worked with and worked for were really successful. I was also consistently doing really good work, got to know the business partners really well, and understood the products really well. That’s super important in my line of work, as well as being open to being uncomfortable. When I was first asked to take over managing the team, I had to manage my peers. It wasn’t a comfortable next step for me, but I’m glad I did it. 

That’s always been a part of my career journey — being willing to step up and do more, even if you’re not confident that you have the skills or maybe there are things that are not familiar to you. I benefited from having a lot of sponsors, people I’d worked with along the way who, when those opportunities came up, were there to advocate and champion for me and say she’s a great fit for this. When we had reorgs and opportunities that would allow me to grow, there was somebody in the room advocating for me, which had a huge influence on my career path. 

The other thing that has helped is that I stuck with ads the entire time I was at Google, which was rare. Many lawyers move around because they’re like, “Oh, I want to try something else.” For me, it was ads on day one and ads on the last day. Whether I realized it or not, deciding to hitch my wagon to the core revenue source of the company was a smart move because, one, your work is always going to be relevant, and your experiences always going to be of use to the business. The resources and priorities of the company will always be directed toward that business or product. The ability to work with a business that has scaled the way Google has with its ads business is not normal. You don’t get to see that often. I saw it grow from search advertising to what it is today. That journey, figuring out how to scale the legal team along the way to support it, and taking something from growth to maturity, has been a great experience to apply in other contexts. I’m always grateful that I had the opportunity to support that side of the business. It wasn’t always the most glamorous part of Google’s business, but it’s so pivotal to the company, and I learned so much of what I know today from working on it.

What skills have helped you be an effective leader in legal?

I’ve learned a lot from each of my managers along the way. The person who hired me at Google was great at being a strategic advisor to the business because he knew the product and the business well. You have to have credibility with the business. Don’t just think about the short-term gains and the short-term next steps. You have to be strategic about things and think about the long-term goal and how to get there. 

One manager taught me the importance of work-life balance. I was coming back from my third maternity leave, where I took six months off, but my manager said, “This is your last kid. Take another month off. There will be work here for you to do, but there will be so few moments in your life where you can do that and just 100% focus on your family.” I will always appreciate her nudging me to see the bigger picture from that personal perspective.

Another manager taught me the importance of compassion and providing air cover to your team. There were some moments when some business partners questioned if I was the right partner. This manager stuck his neck out for me and said, “She is, and you’re going to have to deal with her.” It motivated me to perform at my best because I didn’t want to let my manager down — they had credibility on the line for me. I found that I get the same reaction when I do that for my team. If they trust that I’m going to provide that kind of psychological safety for them, they’re more empowered to take risks, and they’re more motivated to do their best. 

Our CLO at Airbnb is the best lawyer I’ve ever worked with so far. He has really high standards, which can be scary, but it forces you to be prepared and always do your homework. He’s also just really practical and risk-tolerant in a smart way. I’ve also learned from him how important it is to excel at how you communicate with business partners. You have to be able to distill complex legal issues into simple terms and be crisp in your communication with them because otherwise, they won’t listen to you or appreciate the advice. You also have to really tailor your communication to your audience.

As a legal leader, what kind of data are you really focused on for bringing them to the table? What legal metrics are you kind of keeping track of when you are looking at managing your team?

Commercial is one of those areas where you can more easily get data about how you’re doing. We think about how we measure whether we’re more efficiently supporting the business over time. I think it’s harder to do in other functions. For instance, part of my team does product counseling, where you’re a generalist dealing with a wide variety of product issues that don’t have a definitive life cycle, so it’s harder to measure progress from start to finish. It’s always been a struggle to figure out how to attach metrics to that work. I do have folks on the commercial side who think deeply about this. They can tell me, “Hey, we used to have this number of contract types we were working on, and it took us this long. Now, we have fewer because we’ve put out self-service resources for clients or business partners.”

Law firms train lawyers to be very detail-oriented and risk-averse. However, when making the transition in-house, the role requires more strategic thinking and the ability to make trade-offs. Can you share your approach when you transitioned in-house?

Airbnb is more risk-tolerant than Google was when I left. It’s still in a very competitive space and looking to grow, so I go in assuming the business will take risks — I’m not there to minimize them as much as possible. I just need to figure out what risks they’ll accept and where their priorities outweigh legal risks. My primary job is to make sure that they’re taking informed risks and making smart decisions. 

Also, if you’re at a founder-led company and they want to do something, we’re going to do it. “No” can’t be the answer, so we need to come up with creative solutions and figure out how to make it work. We might have to go about it slightly differently or a more circuitous route, but we have to eventually deliver what they want. As my boss likes to say, “Let’s figure out the art of the possible here.” I think that attitude inherently involves a risk-tolerant approach.

Last, pick your battles carefully. Not every issue has to be a “die on this hill” moment — there will be times when you need real courage to stand firm. But often, I’ll say to my team, “Is this the type of risk where we need to prevent this from happening? Or can we manage it more reactively and take a wait-and-see-what-happens approach?” If it’s the latter, we’ll probably take more risk there.

Technology has fundamentally changed the practice of law in many ways. What technologies have been major game changers for you? Looking ahead, what emerging legal technologies are you most excited about?

It still goes back to having a really good CLM tool. Commercial work is needed in almost every company I’ve seen, if not now, eventually. A good contract management system that touches so many business parts is critical to a well-functioning commercial function — and procurement or various business stakeholders that plug into that. So, if you can find the best CLM solution, that’s a game changer because it impacts so many different functions throughout the company.

Everyone’s talking about AI and machine learning. At Airbnb, we are testing different things in the legal department to see what could help lawyers.  Some in the legal profession may worry this will replace jobs, but I see it as reducing non-creative work — high volume, low-risk questions we field repeatedly. Lawyers should consider how technology can supplement our capabilities and free up time to focus on creative endeavors or truly hard problems needing human judgment.

I’m excited about AI possibilities. Just the other day, I learned of tech that can write initial litigation brief drafts. Imagine having a starting point to work from — how much faster, easier, and freeing that can be for somebody who has to think about strategy. It’s things like that that intrigue me about where this might go. But we as lawyers need to move past the mindset that it’s too risky or will replace us.

How do you feel that law firm models will have to change as these new AI technologies emerge?

I do worry about training junior associates. A lot of what attorneys experienced working at firms — sitting with a partner, drafting something, getting redlines, and hopefully getting explanations — along with working 80 hours a week, as awful as that was, there was some value in that process. It trains you to have stamina and endurance. Having pulled all-nighters on deals, I had a high tolerance for a lot of work. So, something about that training will be lost when tech replaces some of what junior associates do. That’s so key to their development. 

You’ve had such an interesting, non-traditional background for someone deep in the legal field — from working at Sotheby’s to editing Sesame Street episodes and documentary videos. So, let’s imagine an alternate universe where you won the lottery and didn’t pursue law. What would you be doing as a career?

I’d probably be doing something more artistic and creative. When I was younger, I used to want to be doing something with film or something like being a music video director and coming up with concepts because I love music and visual storytelling. I thought that seemed like a really fun job. I was baking bread even before the pandemic, and at one point, I considered opening a bakery. But I heard that takes the joy out of baking because it becomes about running a business, not the craft itself.

These days, I’ve really enjoyed mentoring and coaching other attorneys and others who want to listen to my career advice. So maybe one day I’ll do executive coaching or something along those lines.

Interestingly, you’re the third legal leader we’ve interviewed who enjoys baking or pastry as a hobby. What is it about baking and pastry that you think appeals to so many legal professionals?

For me, so much of what I do daily involves just thinking and isn’t very tangible other than the emails, memos, etc. I produce. Baking is using your hands and very much the opposite. There’s a lack of control, too, especially with bread. You don’t know how it’ll turn out, even when you think you did everything right. There’s some adventure there, and it’s gratifying to feed your family what you made — you can’t feed them that 11 pm email you sent. There’s something different about seeing them actually eat bread or cookies you baked. It’s just such a different feeling of gratification from the work that you’ve done.

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