Career Advice – Grad School Angst

Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Not everybody I deal with in the start-up world knows of my secret past-life. To frame this post, it is necessary to come clean and fess up that I am a recovered corporate and securities lawyer. Because I am one of the ones “who got out,” I get a ton of requests give career advice to grad students or speak on career panels. I was even a chapter in a terrific book on the subject.

Since it feels inefficient to repeat myself, and I can help more people by putting it out there in writing, here’s one recent exchange that is so complete and contains so many concepts I repeatedly touch on over and over (including big cosmic themes at the end), that it is worth just republishing verbatim and unedited (except to hide real names).

Hi Mr. Mirabile, my name is Curt Hamilton (not his real name) and I am a second year law student at [prestigious local law school]. I found your contact information on LinkedIn, and I hope it is OK that I am contacting you. I am interested in learning more about your profession and experience in venture capital. I was wondering if you could shed any light on courses you took in law school that you found to be especially helpful over the course of your career, or if there were any particular experiences or programs that you would recommend. Furthermore, I am currently debating the JD/MBA program, and I was wondering if in your opinion the dual degree is worth the extra year of education to gain more business perspective. Thank you so much for your time.

Thanks for your note. Good to hear from you.

If you are interested in business and investing and tech and start-ups, the key things to take in law school are anything relating to: Corporations, Securities Law, Negotiation, Contracts, Intellectual Property, Licensing, Internet Law or the like, Tax, International Law, Bankruptcy, Banking/Lending, and advanced versions of same. Secured Transactions is OK to take and not a bad thing to know (it’s on the bar), but unless you get into asset based lending, it is not really all that useful and it is a lot of work – learn it in the bar review course instead.

In terms of experiences that are helpful, networking is by far the most valuable thing you can do. Time working in a law firm for a summer is OK if it is a prestigious firm with a great transactional practice, but it is far better to try and get experience in-house to get a sense of how things really work.

In terms of getting a first job, there are two schools of thought on that: one school of thought says go to a prestigious law firm, get some great training, pay down your debt and get out of there as quickly as possible. You will get some great training and a good name on your resume and be credible in-house. The other school of thought says being in a firm is horrible and it makes you totally generic (in that most third through sixth year associates are desperate to get out), the network you make consists of a bunch of often useless, typically unhappy big firm lawyers (unless their interests happen to align with yours and they can place you at a client), and you don’t really learn much practical law, just specialized high end stuff working on huge transactions and you work so hard it is nearly impossible to job search.

I think there is truth to both viewpoints and no one right answer and it depends on luck of the draw. If you get a great in-house job offer right out of law school and mediocre firm offers, go for the in-house one, hands down. If you cannot get an in-house job no matter how hard you network and you get a prestigious firm offer, do that, but make sure you don’t get used to the high salary (golden handcuffs) and end up staying on the treadmill forever to go on to be a miserable wretch.

The main advantages of joint degree programs such as a JD/MBA program are: (i) a broader base to your networking operations (ii) a second career office, (iii) a few more business skills (or at least familiarity). And I have deliberately listed those benefits in order of importance. But it is a whole extra year of tuition and it delays earning and getting out there for a whole year, so it is a big commitment. Some people say if you want to practice law, why waste time on an MBA and if you don’t want to practice law, why waste time on a JD? They have a point but I have a more nuanced view – I think that, for many people, law is a horrible career (it’s a temperament thing – only fits some people; fewer than the number who get into it), but it is a great body of knowledge. Law school is super interesting, the people are high quality and the knowledge is useful for your whole life (though you get rusty and out of date if you don’t exercise the muscles and keep current).

So if you can afford a law degree, go for it, even if you never practice a single day of your life. MBAs are decent degrees, but they are not magic bullets – you don’t really learn anything in any great depth – just an intro to a bunch of concepts. All of them are good things to be familiar with, but when you combine the two degrees, 1+1 is not 3 or even 2; it is more like 1.75. You still have to get out there and explain why you are over-educated and why you are a good practical fit etc. Outside of Wall Street and big city top their law firms, nobody is going to really give you a lot of credit for having both degrees and a lot of people are uncomfortable with lawyers based on stereotypes and personal experience and will actually hold the JD against you. For example, in my line of work, it is just not a helpful (or particularly relevant) part of my bio, so it is something I rarely mention.

Couple closing thoughts. Best of luck. Life is an adventure. There are no right answers. Most of the great breaks you get will come during expansionary periods in the economic cycle (and will be little credit to you – mostly great luck) and most of the hard years and tough challenges will come during recessionary periods in the cycle. You cannot take it all too seriously and over-optimize it. Choose to work exclusively with high quality people (zero tolerance for assholes, low quality people, low integrity people, people who are not good to have in your network) work only on worthwhile interesting problems, network 24x7x365*, and try to keep a big, philosophical, long-term perspective. Stay loose – it will all work out.

*You must read these books:
The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career
Never Eat Alone, Expanded and Updated: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time

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  1. Paige Smith says

    Law school can be stressful. During your first year it is even advised that you do not take on a part time job. My friend recently graduated from law school this year and it has been interesting to see that process take place.

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