If blazing a new path is your only option, it’s also your best option. Make the most of it.
[Editor’s note: If readers pick up a copy of Richard Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers (2nd ed. 2017) and flip to page 135, they’ll see a table captioned “New jobs for lawyers.” This table is reproduced below. Richard writes, “these are the jobs that flow quite clearly from the arguments and claims of this book.”
Richard’s analysis is definitely true. But it’s also incomplete. This is because new types of remunerative employment, particularly those at the bleeding edge, require groups of very sophisticated people to identify commercial opportunities, formulate a strategy, assemble the required capital and talent, and execute with reasonable precision. Then, after a period of trial and error that contains more risk than most lawyers can bear, we see the outlines of new models that work well enough to be copied by others.
Then, and only then, will the grass be sufficiently trodden upon that we’ll have the beginnings of job titles that denote new career paths on par with the coveted position of law firm associate. We’re not there yet.
To help fill the data vacuum, I’ve asked my former student, Seth Saler (IU Law ’19), to share his career journey.
Through bad luck and a series of wrong turns, Seth Saler became my RA during the summer of 2017. Although Seth passed the interview to get into Colorado Law’s Tech Lawyer Accelerator (TLA) program, the program was full before we got an employer match. Then Seth’s other summer opportunity fell through. The only upside I could offer Seth was an opportunity to do part-time research on a possible expanded TLA that would include other schools. Then, if Seth did a really good job and if a lot of speculative contingencies fell into place, I could recommend Seth for a 7-month paid for-credit internship in Cisco’s legal department during the fall of his 3L year.
Well, Seth did do a good job. So in the fall of 2017, I asked Seth to come to Chicago to attend an organizing meeting for what would later become the Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP, “I-flip”). Thereafter, the many speculative contingencies fell into place, which paved the way for Seth’s internship at Cisco. Seth’s essay tells the rest of the story. wdh]
Turning lemons into lemonade
My law school experience had (to put it mildly) peaks, valleys, and a number of holes out of which I had to dig myself. At the end of my first year of law school, I was crestfallen because my first internship opportunity disappeared overnight.
I had applied to the Tech Lawyer Accelerator program in Boulder, Colorado, and passed the interview process. Unfortunately, the program was full. Seemingly out of options, during the summer of 2017, Bill Henderson offered to take me on as a research assistant.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the hours I spent doing research about CLOC, ACC, certification processes in other professions, and legal operations more generally were my first steps into what would later become IFLP. Before I knew it, it was November and I was sitting in a large room at Northwestern Law watching several legal industry leaders discuss an education initiative that tied together specialized training to paid internships for law students. My job, if called upon, was to offer the student perspective. Of course, my position was supportive, as this type of program was the exact type of career break I was hoping for.
I can’t recall what I said at the time. Nonetheless, it was good enough to keep me in contention for one of the potential law department intern slots. A few months later, I spoke with several members of the Cisco legal department as part of the IFLP interview process, and I punched my ticket to San Jose, California by way of Boulder, Colorado.
Readers of this page likely need no reintroduction to the IFLP Bootcamp curriculum, see, e.g., Posts 043, 078, 118, but I will gild the lily ever so slightly. There is nothing that more profoundly impacted my ability to perform within my present career than the IFLP modules on project management and process improvement. Design thinking and the ideology underlying Mike Rother’s “Toyota Kata” were especially significant. I am constantly considering the present condition of things and defining the next target condition, which are two of the tenets of Toyota’s improvement kata.
I’ll admit that I’m an oddity—something that would be painfully obvious to anyone who works alongside me—in that I crave change. I embrace the process of development and growth. To my constant chagrin, the legal profession is not particularly hospitable to people who desire metamorphosis. This explains my affinity for the following quote from Franz Kafka: “By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
I landed in San Jose at the end of June 2018 knowing I was in store for an atypical legal externship. I had no defined outcome. Nobody at Cisco had a “by the time you leave, we need this to be done” mentality. Instead, a dozen or so project managers asked me things like: “Is this interesting to you?” or “Does this help you? Would you rather be doing something else? We can find someone working on something that would interest you.” I have never met a group of people more consistently concerned with providing a valuable experience for me rather than extracting value from me.
Between June and December 2018, I completed 33 projects (painstakingly logged in my personal Airtable) of varying durations. Several projects, like helping file quarterly and annual SEC filings and coordinating the annual shareholders’ meeting, spanned the entirety of my time at Cisco. Others, like developing Global Export Trade templates were less methodical and disjointed projects that moved forward in fits and bursts.
Perhaps the best part of the experience was being pulled into decidedly non-legal projects. Several times, other Cisco executives would visit “the intern table” and ask for help on projects ranging from small- and medium-sized business dealings with Cisco’s channel partners or ideating and organizing the collaboration team’s portion of Cisco’s sales expo. To some, splitting my attention away from the legal department seemed like an ill-advised detour from substantive law. Yet, that was definitely not the attitude of Steve Harmon and Mark Chandler, who were my nominal bosses several layers up and who consistently communicated the importance of the law department enabling the business—which is very hard to do if you don’t spend time listening to, and learning from, the business. For me, this is not a theory. It is something I came to appreciate through practice.
The mix of legal and business at Cisco hammered home the all-hands-on-deck mentality that ought to pervade the legal profession. Further, in my current job at xMentium, a legal tech start-up in the contracting space working on hard problems for very sophisticated companies, collaboration is king. No job is too small, and each member of the team slots in for another when we need to do so.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few things about my IFLP experience that were more personal than professional in nature. Growing up, my family moved around a lot, but we always moved within the same few states as my dad’s job dictated. We didn’t really take vacations for any other purpose than to visit extended family because we lived too far away to regularly pop in and visit with them. Thus, let me tell you that being out in the mountain air of Colorado and then experiencing the largesse of Silicon Valley were monumentally exciting. Driving around and seeing Tesla in Fremont or Apple in Palo Alto was surreal. Hiking through redwoods in Muir Woods and visiting Yosemite were breathtaking. Love even bloomed at the Cisco intern table, and I have been dating one of my fellow interns (also from Indiana University, though we had not met before the internship) for well over a year now.
So lest you believe that IFLP is all about creating a T-shaped legal professional, it definitely is. But also a whole lot more. It changed my life.
Disappointingly, my time at Cisco had to come to an end. I packed up and made the 2,300-mile drive back to Bloomington, with Griffey in the back seat.
I came back to campus without a care in the world about taking bar-focused classes. I decided that I needed to follow my passion, and I would only take courses that excited me. I took classes that I felt had a practical component like business planning, clinics, and as many moot courts as I could cram into my schedule. Had I experienced IFLP sooner I would have made this adjustment sooner. Alas, you cannot spend too much time looking backward; life must be lived forwards.
I graduated from Maurer Law without many of the academic distinctions and accolades of my colleagues. Nonetheless, I had an abundance of faith that things would work out for the best in the end. I’ll yada yada yada over the story of studying for the bar. It’s the same old story.
But the entire time I was studying, I was also on the hunt for a job. I networked with dozens of attorneys in the Indianapolis area without an “ask” other than hoping they would keep their ears to the ground for me and let me know what rumblings they heard. After the bar, I stayed up to date with as many of my connections as possible while I worked a short-term stint at a real estate firm in Indianapolis who graciously offered to have me on board while I looked for something more permanent.
In the fall of 2019, with no permanent job offers on the horizon, Bill Henderson introduced me to Paul Lippe, one of his long-time friends and an entrepreneurial lawyer who was in the process of launching his next company, xMentium. Paul knew about IFLP and was very supportive of its mission. After a brief conversation with him and his lieutenant, Rob Sheerr, I was welcomed aboard. To pull the exact quote from the email from Paul: “Seth – nice to meet you. Any friend of Bill’s….” I was off to the races.
Over the next several months, I worked with Paul, Rob, and our development team to build out the key features of the platform—both the external, customer-facing components, and the tools that we would need on the back-end to ensure customer success. As Paul would later put it, “we’re eating our own dogfood.”
The job is ideal for me. It’s something I can get passionate about because it satisfies one of my most prominent criteria when evaluating a job: “Can I see the impact that I make?” I am admittedly restless. I don’t like things to stay the same; I don’t like complacency. In my personal life, I’m constantly trying new software tools and buying new gadgets. It boils down to me being a tinkerer, and the thing I most enjoy tweaking and exploring is workflows. At xMentium, every day, I get to experience our tool and make suggestions about how it could be better. More often than not, my peers agree with me and put the feature request on the roadmap. Seeing my contributions come to fruition is the most rewarding thing about any job, and those breakthroughs sustain me through the tough sledding in between.
Paul, Rob, and everyone else at xMentium are a dream to work alongside. We are persevering through COVID19 because we were already a distributed workforce that had a fill-in-the-gaps mindset. As I mentioned before, collaboration is king at my workplace. More than that, we are a group of people that want to effectuate change and create a new paradigm. What we aim to do is redesign legal authorship, contract reconciliation, and deal negotiation.
To harken back once more to my days at Cisco, we were reminded on a daily basis that the legal department was a “cost center.” We didn’t make the company money. We slowed down sales planting the seeds, we slowed down the harvest, and sometimes we pulled out the plant root and stem. (This caricature was used to guard against the mix of arrogance and complacency that is an occupational hazard among lawyers.) Not anymore. At xMentium, our mission is to turn legal functions into deal accelerators, reduce the frictions in the sales/procurement processes, and pull in the sales timeline.
Grit, hustle, and determination are necessary to work for a startup. Beyond that, they’re necessary to make real, lasting change. They’re necessary to make things better. You grind through the muck. You give the whole of your efforts to everything you do. You fold your daily goals into your weekly goals into your monthly goals—and so on. You find your passion and pursue it relentlessly and resolutely. You make your living by what you get along the way. You make your life by what you pay forward and give to others.
The Bridge Builder
I leave readers with a poem that I first encountered years ago, which I think perfectly encapsulates Bill Henderson, Bill Mooz, Lisa Colpoys, Steve Harmon, Dan Linna, and numerous others at the core of IFLP’s mission. It is called “The Bridge Builder.”
An old man going a lone highway
Came at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,
“You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”
–Will Allen Dromgoole