Kathleen Philips, ’97: An Unexpected Career Turn for the Best

Appeared in Record issue: 
Fall 2011

Kathleen Philips, ’97, is general counsel of Zillow®, the Seattle-based company whose initial public offering in July of this year caused a stir when share prices more than doubled during their first day of trading. Zillow runs zillow.com, an online real estate marketplace, and its strong opening day provoked some observers to rave about a new generation of not-to-be-missed Internet companies, while others prophesied a new tech-stock bubble.

Philips has observed the ups and downs of the Internet world from close range, having served as general counsel at big-name companies that include Hotwire, StubHub, and FanSnap and as outside counsel to, among others, Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life and TripIt.

She didn’t expect her career to take her in this direction. She was working at a San Francisco law firm as an executive compensation specialist—work she enjoyed and expected to continue—with Hotwire as one of her clients. As Hotwire quickly grew, she was asked to come inside as its first general counsel. “I told them that the variety of responsibilities of a GC at an early-stage company were not all things I was familiar with,” she recounts. “But they were insistent that I could do it, and it was a great opportunity, so I agreed.”

“The transition to inside counsel was much easier than I had feared, and to a very large extent that was because of my training at the Law School,” Philips says. “I was able to make on-the-fly decisions about so many things because I had received a great grounding in legal specifics and because I had learned how to think about any situation in a focused and pragmatic way. In particular, really understanding incentives and how they can play out has provided a very valuable framework. Not a day has gone by in my 14-year career that I haven’t  thought about something in the way that we were taught to think about it at the Law School.”

She has other fond associations with the Law School, too: she gave birth to her son, Calvin, during spring break of her second year, and she reports that people she met at the Law School still constitute her closest circle of friends.

She and her husband, Don, live in San Francisco; she travels to Seattle each week to work at Zillow. Not having been at a publicly traded company before (all the others were acquired or have remained private), she faces another new set of job demands,  including securities law issues and building strong relationships with far-flung stockholders so they understand and appreciate the company’s strategies for delivering long-term shareholder value.

“People ask me,” Philips says, “how I have been able to have such an interesting career. I tell them, first, that I have been very lucky. Second, I advise them not to be afraid to try new things and to seize opportunities that come along. And I tell them that the best thing I did to prepare was to go to the University of Chicago Law School.”