advice about law school and legal careers

[From a talk given at San Jose State University in March 2015]

Hi, I'm Travis Wise. I graduated from San Jose State with a degree in political science. 12 years after I graduated, I was hired into my dream job as senior legal counsel at Google.

I'll share a bit of my background and career progress, and then share my top ten list of suggestions on how to get your dream job after you graduate, and then I'm happy to answer any questions you might have.

I was originally a psychology major here at SJSU, but I decided I wanted to go to law school. So I switched to political science, wrongly thinking that was the only way to get into law school.

I loved the poly sci program here, and I loved law school at Santa Clara. But I had no idea what legal field I wanted to work in. When I graduated from law school, I got hired by PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the big-4 accounting firms, to do tax stuff.  I had no idea what that involved.  But I kept showing up to work, for 9 years. During that time I specialized in international corporate tax, which is basically helping global companies figure out the best tax way to structure their business.

In 2009, Google offered me a job as senior legal counsel for international tax, and I have been doing that now for 6 years.

For those of you thinking about law school, I have four comments:

1. The LSAT. Unless you are really struggling, you do not need an expensive prep class.  You need to do a around a thousand practice questions, from prep books you can get on Amazon. Study your mistakes. You need to be scoring something very close or higher to the score your target schools are looking for.

2. Law school for many students is fairly easy because they find the material really interesting. The exams are painful of course. But the actual coursework is not difficult if you are really interested in the law.

3. The bar exam is a bit of a nightmare. But the good news is that the vast majority of law students who go to ABA law schools pass. So it is very achievable, and not something that should prevent someone from going to law school.

4. Law school is very expensive, in addition to a three-year opportunity cost.  Don't go unless you're very certain you want to be a lawyer, and have a financial plan for how to handle the cost. But if you are certain you want to be a lawyer, then go to law school.

Switching gears a bit, let's talk about jobs.  In my time working at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Google, I've interviewed hundreds of candidates for jobs, many of whom went to SJSU.  It's very clear after interviewing hundreds of people what makes a successful candidate vs. a not successful candidate, so I'd like to share that with you.

This is important, because as great as SJSU is, it is surrounded geographically by  higher tier schools. And that makes for a lot of strong competition when applying for jobs.

1. You almost certainly will not get your dream job right out of school.  Your first job will probably be low paying, with long hours, and not much long-term career potential.  You need to embrace that job.  That is where you learn, make mistakes, and scope out your future.

2. You need to do your best at every single task you are given, no matter how boring the task is.  Someone who does a poor job at the menial tasks will never be given an opportunity to do the glamorous projects.

3. Find a career mentor, who can help guide you from your first job, to a meaningful career.  Having at least one good mentor in your field is critically important to career success.

4. Stick with each job as long as you can, until something comes along that makes you say "wow."  Don't run away from a job.  Run towards opportunities.

5. Five year plans are nice in concept, but this is Silicon Valley.  Your five year plan should be doing something that does not exist today.  What is useful is having a vision of the types of work you want to do in the future, based on your skills and weaknesses, and a plan for how do you realistically get yourself from here to there.

6. Graduate degrees are important. A bachelor's degree in any major is  going to be increasingly difficult from an employment standpoint, because you are competing with people who do have graduate degrees from higher tier schools.  If you don't go to a full time graduate degree program, think about a part time master's degree at SJSU while you are working, and your employer may pay for it.

Ok, now for the important stuff - key take-aways:

7. Leadership - being a member of a club or organization is not resume-worthy - you need to be a leader for it to be on your resume.  Ideally, an officer or founder.  You can show leadership in lots of ways, from social organizations outside of school, to school organizations, part time jobs, etc.  But your resume needs to show you are a leader, not just a do-er.

8. Entrepreneurship - Co-found a company or an organization. You don't have to make money or have a successful product.  You don't have to build an app.  You don't have to succeed at all.  In fact, learning from failure is more important.  But demonstrate you can lead, you can think outside the box, and you can take risks.  Start a business or an organization with some classmates, get some publicity, have a website.  Put that on your resume. Most of the people we hire at Google have *started something*.  Grads from top-tier school have all started something. They have all demonstrated their ability to be entrepreneurs and take risks.  That is important in any organization, whether it is a startup or a massive company.

9. Have a story to tell.  When you interview for a job, you need to tell your story.  Your story should tie together your personal interests, why you came to SJSU, your choice of major, your part time and full time jobs, and what you want your future to be.  Your story should tell the interviewer why you are perfect for that position they are interviewing you for.  If your resume is just a bunch of puzzle pieces that do not fit into a narrative, then you look very lost.  When you go to an interview, take control of the interview, and tell your story.


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