Upon graduating from Stanford Law School this past June, I had the privilege of joining the team at Knotch, a StartX alumni company and the first to receive an investment from the new Stanford-StartX Fund. Several students have asked me how they, too, could land a job at a startup. While the exact steps (and missteps) I took are far from a formula, I do believe there are some repeatable lessons.
Before my last year in law school, I spent the summer as an intern at a prestigious law firm. Unlike the vast majority of students who participate in summer internships, I didn’t get an offer to return after I graduated. That was crushing enough, but I also knew that convincing any other firm to hire me would be a tough sell. I should have felt nervous or scared about my future prospects but, oddly, I felt relieved.
It wasn’t that joining that particular firm would have been a bad opportunity; quite the opposite. It’s a first-class group of professionals. I had taken the internship because it was too good to turn down, but I felt like I was hitting “pause” on my passion for entrepreneurship. When the post-graduation offer failed to materialize, the burden of opportunity was lifted from my shoulders.
While opportunity may not seem like a burden, it can be if it distracts you from your passions. Stanford’s wealth of opportunity is both a blessing and a curse. There are interesting guest speakers nearly every day, hundreds of employers flock to campus to interview prospective hires, and there is an embarrassment of academic journals for students to manage. Stanford excels at creating opportunities, but by doing so it also introduces the corresponding cost of losing out on opportunities.
It would be ludicrous to say that Stanford is doing anything wrong by creating this environment. It’s the university’s responsibility to provide opportunities for its students, and it does an amazing job at doing exactly that. At the same time, however, it can be difficult for students to choose to forgo such opportunities. Upon starting at the Law School, a student can apply for prestigious journals, internships, jobs, clerkships, and clinics. If a student is risk averse and doesn’t want to miss one of these opportunities, they could potentially just apply and apply for the endless array of job opportunities presented to them while in school. That doesn’t leave much time to find (or create) a nontraditional job that isn’t already on the menu of opportunity (e.g. Big Law).
Fortunately for law students interested in entrepreneurship, there is a growing legacy of graduates joining, creating, or investing in awesome start-ups (see Ravel Law, Judicata, Lex Machina, Ulu Ventures, Financial Engines, and Peter Thiel). And while there is no formal program yet, a group of law students is already working hard to bridge the inexplicable and undeniable gap between Silicon Valley and Stanford Law School. The irony here is that such offerings are merely more opportunity on the already overflowing Law School platter.
These opportunities can be greatly beneficial. But the real value for students come in learning to identify only the most relevant opportunities for their unique passions and skills. When you’ve already got a list of pre-defined jobs ready and waiting for you, it may never occur to pursue an unlisted job. I firmly believe the only reason I have the exact job I wanted was because I eventually decided not to choose my job from a list. If I had, there is no way that “Erik’s Dream Job” would have been listed, and I’m sure yours won’t be listed there either.
Erik Pavia is a Stanford Law School graduate and the youngest graduate in his class. While at SLS he adopted a paleo diet, worked at StartX, and hacked his sleep patterns. He took the bar exam over the summer and now works at Knotch.
Image via SLS