Ten years ago, I was working a dead-end job making $40k at Northwestern University (a great place to work a dead end job). I went to a great college (Carnegie Mellon) but I had terrible grades (I wanted to graduate in three years because I was paying for everything after freshman year, and I did it by gaming the system (AP credits and overlap in courses between two majors)). I ended up at a modest law school, and I didn’t even graduate cum laude. And somehow now I work in one of the best IP litigation groups in the nation. How did I pull that off? And can it be replicated?
I was not a particularly promising candidate for grad school. I had a whopping 2.71 GPA from Carnegie Mellon. It didn’t matter that I graduated in three years, and it only mattered some that I went to Carnegie Mellon. But I trained hard for the LSAT by taking as many full length, four-hour tests as possible, with the support of a great PI that gave me the flexibility to take these tests on Friday mornings (I also took full-length tests on Saturday mornings). That effort yielded a 97th percentile score. In some sense, your legal career is based on your LSAT score. Not because it inherently matters, perhaps, but law schools treat them as if they matter, because law school rankings treat them as if they matter. A useful lesson in the power of understanding market structure and incentives (another teacher is The Wire).
It definitely wasn’t because of the timing of when I went to school: I was in the largest pool of applicants for law school ever. After applying to all the schools I wanted to apply to, on a whim I thought well, I already put in the fixed costs, the extra effort of applying to The John Marshall Law School is low. So in mid-December I submitted my application, and about a week or so later I got a letter in the mail (which I still have), letting me know I was being offered a full academic scholarship. I wish I could say I was ecstatic – but in my arrogance I thought “well of course they did”. Don’t worry, my first semester humbled me – see below.
It’s kind of incredible that you can use gmail to uncover thoughts from the past. [something Randy Pausch presciently mentions off-hand here] Digging into my emails on law school feels like anthropology to me now. Here’s an email from January with my thinking about how to decide where to go to school:
The thing is to make a decision based on what seems the best value, not what everyone else is running towards. Because law graduates salaries are very bimodal (heavily clustering about $45K and $140K), it makes me think my law school choice should also be bimodal. Either I got to the best school I can, more or less cost-be-damned, or I ought to go at absolute minimal cost. So far, it looks like can exercise one of these options, which is good.
I also said:
“One advantage of a full ride scholarship at Kent [n.b. jumped the gun, didn’t get one] or John Marshall is that it is transparent – I am clearly the pinnacle of the class. Northwestern, by contrast, does not use any ranking. Another is that when it comes to applying to biglaw firms, I can countersignal my commitment to the firm – typically, debt-loaded graduates are great targets because they must work for their debt, but I can say “hire me because I’m not just applying to pay my bills”. Assuming, even as the top ranked student, I can make my voice heard, and given that I will graduate with a glut of other students, is dubious. Increasingly, I am convinced I ought to go to the least expensive school possible.”
This was…actually pretty good reasoning. Granted I didn’t have admission to a top school as an option at all, but going to the least expensive school was good for me. Ultimately, everyone takes the same bar exam – the necessary know-how is standardized. For the opportunity cost of my time (and modest salary) I capped my downside, and created essentially unlimited upside: I bought a call option.
I got my ass handed to me my first semester of law school. I thought I was so smart, and look at these dummies from no-name schools, of course I’ll do better than them. I ended up in the 34th percentile my first semester. Ouch. My scholarship required me to stay in the top third; this would obivate the entire reason for attending law school. So I swallowed my pride and got detailed feedback on how to improve my studying, and rallied the next semester.
I got a great education at John Marshall. But it wasn’t exactly easy to get access to big firms from there. I quickly figured out that as much as I wanted to do corporate law (hedge fund formation, the works), a small scrappy school like John Marshall mostly makes personal injury attorneys and assistant district attorneys – litigators who are ready to get to work. But it had carved out a foothold in patent litigation for a number of years, so that’s where I concentrated my efforts. Patent litigation was still humming; companies short on operating revenue were okay with squeezing whatever money they could out of assets like patents, and the smartphone wars made billion dollar patent cases.
This is where my contributions began. I knew applying for jobs would get me nowhere – I needed to build relationships with attorneys and actually learn what attorneys did and where their work was coming from. To do that. I’d guess I got coffee or lunch with about 200 attorneys in law school, and about 100 attorneys the last semester of law school; I ended up working for #198. My first conversations were…awkward. I didn’t even know what to ask. But I got back out there and iterated. I realized a way to break in was by meeting person A, asking for an introduction to person B, and then reaching out to person C that knows A and B. Triangles are resilient shapes; this technique enabled me to incrementally build credibility and become part of a network.
I have to say, a big draw of the profession of law is the sense of mentorship: a lot of people I never talked to again picked up the check. And I happened to be in a city with a incredibly strong bar association culture; asking around to lawyer friends in other cities, it appears that the culture of getting to know and support peers was not common. Through one such bar association dedicated to IP law (the Linn Inn), I made some of the most important relationships of my career. And through that organization I got the opportunity to extern for the chief judge of the district court, who helped the district raise the bar on handling patent litigation. Ultimately, being a judge calls for and cultivates certain wisdom. These are people that sentence terrorists, rule on billion-dollar cases, and opine on the validity of laws – they see society in its entirety. It’s a special to get access to that thinking. That experience accelerated my know-how and was a key selling point to law firms.
Risk management matters. I always recommend attending law school at the lowest cost possible, unless someone has been admitted to an exceptional law school and knows they will pursue a high-income path. The “risk” of going to a lesser known school was more than offset by the morale boost of knowing my downside was capped.
Focus matters. I was relentless in my preparation for the LSAT. I knew that the LSAT mattered. But perhaps most importantly it was the only thing that mattered that I could improve. It was my One Thing. That upstream effort paid dividends. My third semester of law school was my busiest; I carried a full course load, clerked at a law firm 15 hours a week, and was on a journal. Every twenty minutes was accounted for. I had to be laser focused to get everything done. That was my only 4.0 semester. Focus gets results.
Strategy matters. If there is a single word to describe my approach to my legal career, it’s “strategic”. I found even very smart peers had not given much thought to the endgame: how to get hired. People who graduated magna or summa cum laude who wanted the kind of job I got didn’t get it themselves. Strategy governed much of the remaining takeaways: for instance, being relationship-driven was a tactic that I later realized was even more valuable that I expected – and now I realize is inherently valuable. There’s no harm in running the numbers or making pros/cons lists – it’s how Charles Darwin picked his wife.
Relationships matter. Counter to the LSAT angle above, I could say that my career is reducible to the relationships I built. I’m starting to see my net worth as a reflection of the value of these relationships. In a serious sense, relationships are assets. Relationships in a field can be built strategically and methodically, but always authentically – a key mentor of mine taught me this. There is no substitute for talking to people: it’s the best way to learn how fields really work.
Niche markets matter. Much is said in Silicon Valley about niching down. My niching went so far as law -> litigation -> intellectual property litigation -> patent litigation -> pharmaceutical patent litigation. It was important to pick a lucrative niche, and part and parcel of this lucrative niche is that only a handful number of attorneys do it; it was more tractable to break in. And the payoff was high.
Otherwise, markets don’t really matter. Entering the legal market when jobs are nearly the worst-ever, and with a record number of applicants was brutal. On the other hand, the people that graduated law school in 2008-09 were crushed. These conditions called for strategic decision-making that forced me to be scrappy and resourceful, skills that maybe I would not have gained at a different time or at a different school.
* This post has been updated to reflect thoughts from my friend Jaimin, who was in the trenches with me at John Marshall (and even got paid to be there).