Eugene Lao JD/LLM ’95
Eugene Y. Lao has held a number of top legal positions at high-profile companies in the tech industry, including Yahoo!, Zynga, Auction.com, and DocuSign. Now the president and chief legal officer of Prime Trust, which provides financial infrastructure for fintech and digital asset companies, Lao credits his success to continually growing his professional network.
“My previous job was literally the only one I’ve ever had in my career where I didn’t know a single person at the company,” he says, referring to his post as general counsel at Reltio, which provides cloud and data management solutions. He landed his first job as an associate at Hunton & Williams thanks to an introduction made by his roommate while at Duke Law, and others came about through connections he made professionally. “I’ve just been super lucky.”
Prime Trust provides APIs — application programming interfaces, which help technology and websites communicate — and widgets for fintech providers, such as crypto and digital wallet providers, creators of non-fungible tokens, crowdfunding platforms, alternative trading systems, and more. The company is part of a rapidly growing sector.
When Lao started with the company last fall as the chief legal officer, he was tasked with creating systems for the legal team to work more efficiently and at scale — something he had done for other companies.
“I would rather hire for attitude than for skills. The skill part is learnable. The attitude part is not.”— Eugene Lao
“Then my boss, who I’ve been friends with for a long time, said, ‘I can’t believe you could get the department up to speed and doing all this stuff so quickly. Why don’t you do it for the whole company?’” Lao recalls.
Now, in addition to the legal team, the CEO chief-of-staff team, the regulatory affairs team, the audit team, and human resources all report to him. He is overseeing these operations while the company is also experiencing rapid growth; he projects the staff to grow to more than 400 by the end of the year, up from 150 when he was hired.
“We’ve been growing at 100 percent year-over-year for the last five years,” he says. “For 2020, our revenue target was $40 million, up from a little more than $19 million the year before that, and we did $60 million.”
Though Lao has had a long career in tech, he describes himself as “industry agnostic.”
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I want a crypto job,’” he says of his move to Prime Trust. “The reality is that my old friend came to me with a great opportunity. I looked at the company, and I was like, ‘This is amazing. I think they’re doing awesome things, and I believe that I can help. I believe I can make a difference here.’
“When I look at opportunities, it’s more about ‘What can I do to move the needle?’”
Even his decision to go to law school was an opportunity spotted. Lao says he had plans to be a psychiatrist when entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but over time came to question the kind of impact psychiatry can have on people with serious mental illness.
But he liked talking to and helping people. He was considering a career in business when a friend convinced him to go to law school. “He said, ‘A businessman can’t be a lawyer, but a lawyer can be a businessman.’”
After graduating with a BA in psychology, international studies, and Asian Studies, Lao worked for a year at a law firm in Taiwan. He had a strong interest in international law when he started at Duke Law, where he also pursued an LLM in international law and comparative law. “In my heart of hearts, I wanted to be at the U.N.,” he says.
He instead wound up at some of the biggest tech companies during the sector’s boom of the early 2000s. And as a sideline, in 2012 he co-founded Red Dog Capital, a venture capital firm that specializes in early-stage software companies. The firm got started after he and a couple of friends made some successful investments, and others wanted to get involved.
“It started to get complicated because you don’t want dozens of people all investing at the same time on one thing, so we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we just officially start a fund that people can invest into?’” he says. The company has now grown to include three funds, but it’s still “a nights and weekends thing” for Lao and most of his partners.
At 53, Lao says that his position at Prime Trust will likely be his last, so he is looking at his “end game.”
“I would say over the last couple of years, and certainly as COVID has hit, my definition of success for my career has turned away from, ‘Oh, I did this big deal,’ or, ‘I led this initiative,’ or, ‘I participated in a congressional hearing’ — all of which I’ve done,” he says. “Now, I care more about the leaders that I’ve been able to make. There are a lot of examples where I am so proud of people that I’ve turned in a different direction or put on a path that has allowed them to really expand their careers and go on to be GCs themselves.”
He currently works with a Duke Law grad, Bob Zhao ’17, whom he mentored. He has also worked with Duke’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, making himself available for talks and networking. At an APALSA-sponsored event in March, he emphasized to students the importance of being open to opportunities, learning to network, and “learning to be likable.“
“I’ve hired a lot of people over the course of my career, and I came to the conclusion — after probably too long — that I would rather hire for attitude than for skills,” he says. “The skill part is learnable. The attitude part is not.”
He notes that lawyers work long hours on hard problems. “You want to be in that trench with somebody that you like. When I think about hiring people, that’s one of the standards I use: If I’m locked in a room with this person for a week working on a deal, am I going to want to kill them? Are they going to want to kill me? Or are we going to come out of it laughing?”
While he doesn’t discount the ability needed to do a job well, “it’s the likability that gets you in the front door,” he says.
Lao, who is Chinese American, also reflected on his experience as an Asian American in the legal profession at the APALSA event, recalling that he was one of only two Asian people at his orientation for Hunton & Williams. “It did occur to me that might have been why they were sending me to Hong Kong,” instead of putting him to work in the New York office where he was originally hired, he told the students.
“It’s actually only in the last five or six years that I’ve started thinking more about it and more about the disparity,” he says in a subsequent interview. “There are a lot of Asian Americans that are entering into the legal profession. Yet when it comes to firm leadership, when it comes to GCs, there are quite a bit fewer. Why?”
Through his mentorship, Lao encourages students and young attorneys to be “a little bit louder” — to be more confident and to promote their own skills and accomplishments in a way that feels authentic and genuine to each individual.
“Folks have to find a way to be able to talk about that and not just say, ‘My work speaks for itself.’ You have to do more than that,” he says.
As he looks toward the end of his career, Lao says he’ll continue to work on his investment fund, while enjoying spending time with his family — his wife of 15 years, his son, 13, and his daughter, 11 — and hobbies like running, reading, and rooting for the Tar Heels.
But he’s also looking to his legacy and thinking about how he can help the next generation of legal leaders. “I’ve made tons and tons of mistakes and errors in my career, which has equated to tons and tons of pain,” he says in his characteristically straightforward manner. “If there’s anything I can do to help anybody avoid that, to learn a lesson without having to go through the pain, nothing would make me happier.”