Pre-Law Program at Miami University
R. Todd Johnson
[More People in the Spotlight.]
Todd was interviewed by former Director of Miami's Pre-Law Program, Yvette Simpson, on January 15, 2008.
YS: Let's start with your name.
TJ: My name is Todd Johnson. But when it's in writing, I always go by R. Todd Johnson. My parents wanted to call me Todd, but they named me Robert. So I blame my parents for the initial before my name.
YS: What is your title, Todd?
TJ: I am the Partner-In-Charge of Jones Day's Silicon Valley Office. I founded this office for Jones Day in 2000, at the height of the internet bubble. Our firm is a multinational law firm with 30 offices and 2300 lawyers globally.
YS: What would you consider your practice area?
TJ: My practice is focused on alternative energy companies. These tend to be private, emerging technology companies, and public companies that are focused on renewable energy, sustainable growth or energy efficiency. I also represent a number of Web 2.0 Internet companies, but over the years, a number of my clients have been traditional manufacturing companies. Most recently, I've done a lot of work with a relatively new type of company known as a for-benefit corporation — a company that seeks to do well by investors, but also strives to do good, by behaving responsibly and improving society. These tend to be companies that are stretching well beyond corporate social responsibility programs.
YS: Would you categorize your practice as transactional?
TJ: Yes, corporate transactional. I'm a "deal junkie" although I don't try to complete 20 transactions per year. Instead, I love working with clients on 5 to 10 really big transactions in a year (life or death types of transactions), plus a few smaller ones for which I really care about the company. I also provide advice on many others.
YS: How many years have you had this interest in alternative energy?
TJ: The sustainability and alternative energy areas have interested me for a long time. The fascinating thing was that, until a few years ago, it was actually hard to find clients doing this kind of thing. I got involved in the field before it became clean tech or green tech or some other type of cool tech ... before everyone wanted to say they had clients involved in the field.
YS: How many years have you been practicing overall?
TJ: More than 20 years.
YS: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a lawyer?
TJ: When I was thirteen.
YS: How did that happen? Was it an epiphany kind of moment ... or did a series of events lead to your decision.
TJ: Oh, I don't know. I suppose it was probably because I was great at debating with my parents on what I could and couldn't do. They'd ask me to take out the trash and I'd say, "No! and here are the three reasons why!" I grew up in Washington D.C. and I was fascinated by politics. I was thirteen when the Watergate hearings were going on and I used to rush home from school to watch. Something inside me clicked and that was when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer and a politician.
YS: Do you have any advice to students who are considering law?
TJ: Yes — it's the same advice that one of my political science professors gave everyone when I was a student at Miami: "Don't go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer."
YS: And why would you give them that advice?
TJ: There were a lot of unhappy people with me in law school ... and later when I was an associate in a large firm. These were people who rushed into law school to fill a void. They just didn't know what they really wanted to do and this was particularly true for liberal arts graduates. Law school seemed to be the default thing to do.
In fact, I was just having a conversation with a friend of mine this morning who noted that 10% of the population are left-handers, but 50% of all lawyers are left-handers. With that many creative people you would think that we would have something better for them to do than just going into the legal profession to make good money. Why aren't they working to create solutions to the world's greatest problems?
YS: That is so funny, because I am left-handed. I did not know that! I am one of the 50%.
TJ: Yes, so am I. And so is my oldest daughter who wants to be a lawyer. My youngest daughter, who is right-handed loves math and science. I wonder if there is a correlation there. I must say, however, that we have a lot of right-handers at Jones Day in practices such as patent prosecution. These are people with PhDs in chemistry and materials.
There are too many people becoming lawyers who don't really know why; they aren't happy doing it and their creativity is being sucked out of them. That's a shame for all of us.
YS: Now, when I meet with students, I'm going to check to see if they are left- or right-handed and I'll use that to evaluate whether or not they should continue in their path toward law school.
TJ: Well, the fascinating thing is that left-handers tend to have dominant right brains, and that means they tend to be creative people. And it is a shame that more of them aren't going on to be artists or teachers or doing something that would really benefit society and tackle some of our greatest social problems. I don't mean to suggest that lawyers can't benefit society and most of the really talented lawyers I know spend substantial time on pro bono work for just that purpose. But there are too many people becoming lawyers who don't really know why; they aren't happy doing it and their creativity is being sucked out of them. That's a shame for all of us.
YS: Well on that note, I have a very interesting question. If you weren't a lawyer, what would you be?
TJ: I would be doing what I do on the side, which is writing and lecturing and probably teaching in the area of for-benefit corporations. I honestly believe that the corporate model offers the best solution for for the world's most intractable problems. In the more than 25 years since I graduated from Miami, I have done a 180-degree shift from thinking that corporations are evil, to understanding that mostly, there is some truth to that, but that it is a result of the philosophy we are pouring into our companies, that greed is good and making money is the only thing that matters. I like to say that capitalism is neither bad nor good — it's a system and what you get out of it depends largely on what you pour into it.
Don't feel like you have to learn it all in undergrad and law school ... There are almost no practical skills provided in law school regarding the transactional area.
YS: Alright. What advice would you give to students who are interested in working in the area you are working in now?
TJ: Don't feel like you have to learn it all in undergrad and law school. Everything you learn in law school about transactional law is taught using casebooks ... based upon cases and disputes. Even with corporate law, you learn by reading case law. There are almost no practical skills provided in law school regarding the transactional area.
So, for people interested in pursuing transactional work, I think there's a high level of skepticism about whether they can do it, based on what they have learned in law school. A lot of people default into litigation. That's why I always ask young lawyers, "Think first about what kind of person you are. Are you the kind of person who enjoys divorces or are you the kind of person who enjoys marriages? If you like a good fight, then litigation is definitely the way to go."
I don't enjoy fights; I rather enjoy helping people who have a common objective in achieving it. So I always knew that transactional work was for me. The question was could I do it? Did I have the skills I needed? What I didn't realize as I was coming out of law school was that law firms doing transactional work were aware of this deficiency and were prepared to help me gain those skills as I began my practice.
YS: What kind of skills or personality traits do you think students need if they want to pursue law?
TJ: For years I did a workshop for our summer associates' to help them understand whether they had the aptitude for being a transactional lawyer. The first thing I would ask (somewhat tongue-in cheek) was, "How do you carry your money?" Inevitably, there were people who tended to fold the bills in denominational order and keep them all face up and in the same direction. I would tell them they had just the right amount of anal-retentiveness to be a good transactional lawyer. The challenge with transactional law is that you can't skimp on the attention to detail.
I remember as I was graduating law school, I read that a large New York law firm sued for security papers ... the UCC financing statements were filed with a missing zero. When the company defaulted and the banks went to grab the assets, the difference between $200 million and $20 million was relevant. The bank sued the law firm for the missing zero and won.
So it's not the kind of job where you can really afford to be sloppy. That requires people who are determined to get it right the first time. If that type of challenge doesn't interest you, then chances are you aren't suited for corporate law. You always want to be able to accept the sense of pressure and tension to get it right. On the other hand, creativity is just as important. The most successful transactional lawyers, especially as they progress in years, tend to be people who can use their experiences to create unique solutions when clients need them. What a client loves more than anything else, is a lawyer who says, "Yes, we can pursue that, but it might be challenging," rather than hear them say, "No, that cannot be done."
YS: Wow! So you have to be anal-retentive and creative; you don't find that in many people, do you?
TJ: Yeah, left-handers.
YS: I feel like I'm in a therapy session ... because you are describing me to a "T" right now.
TJ: I hope I am making you feel a lot better.
YS: You are making me feel a little better, that's true. I'm still no fun at parties, but that's okay.
TJ: Yeah, well, my wife always said that I took her to the most boring parties around. She remembers the law review parties. We'd stand around and talk about Bluebook citation form.
YS: And you guys are still together?
TJ: After 21 years, yeah.
I think the challenge is finding a workplace culture where people accept that you can have a life outside of the firm, and, even better, where your passions and interests are integrated with your work.
YS: Speaking of that — do you find that you are able to maintain a balance between your professional life and your personal life? And how do you do that with your practice?
TJ: I usually start by attacking expectations. For a long time, I lived a life of frustration around the word "balance". Then I had an epiphany ... thanks to my wife who corrected me and said, "Even if you only spent 8 hours per day, 5 days a week at the office working, you will still be spending more of your waking hours with the people at work than with me." It's a little depressing when you stop to think about it, but it's the reality. There isn't a perfect balance to be had. I think the challenge is finding a workplace culture where people accept that you can have a life outside of the firm, and, even better, where your passions and interests are integrated with your work. Today, Lil likes to say, "I hate it when you aren't busy, because you are so difficult to live with." It's true, when I'm busy doing something I love, it breaths life into every aspect of what I do, including with my family.
You often read about how large firms "suck up" every minute. I believe that only happens if you let it. The biggest challenge in law firm life, or in a lawyer's life is not the "sucking up" of every moment. You do have some control over that. Rather it's dealing with uncertainty and unexpectedness. Being in a service industry, you need to be able to respond quickly. Like when your client's delay becomes your emergency. Suddenly, your nice vacation or winter weekend where you were going to lay in bed with an extra blanket and watch movies just went out the window. I think that is the hardest thing. It's hard on you, but it's also hard on friends and especially on the family.
So my wife and I made a compact. When I was a fifth year associate, which is probably about when you're starting to hit your stride of working your hardest in a firm, my wife and I already had one child and one on the way. We took a two-week vacation and sat on the beach every day while our daughter took her nap and we asked the question: "Should I leave, should I trade-in my position for an in-house position ... or something else?" We both agreed, "No." I really liked what I did, I liked the people I worked with, and yes, I'd like to do a little less of it and have a little more predictability, but gaining that wasn't worth being unhappy in my job — especially because of the impact my unhappiness might have on the family. So we made a compact on how to make that work. Basically we examined our expectations and adjusted them, and said, "Okay, here is what we can expect from each other." We did that together as partners and, lo and behold, we were both a lot happier, for two reasons: 1) We modified our expectations to something that was reasonable within the circumstances, and 2) We made the decision together, agreeing that we would both own what needed to be done for me to succeed at a job that I loved.
After doing a lot of recruiting for our firm, I feel like large law firms often get a bum rap in terms of lifestyle. The people that I know that work the very hardest are solo practitioners and people in small firms, because they are doing what I do and trying to manage clients and bill hours and develop new business. But they also have to do a lot of support work themselves such as generating their own invoices and proofreading, whereas in a large firm, most of these support mechanisms are in place. Ninety percent of what I do is practice law; the other 10% is either managing/administrative (that I have chosen to do) or client development and recruiting (because those are things I am good at doing). I find that a lot of law students and other people viewing the legal landscape think, "Big firms are evil and small and medium firms are good. I want to go to a good firm, not an evil firm." I think there are shades of differences among large firms, small firms, medium-sized firms, and solo practitioners. The most important thing is finding a place with a culture that suits you.
Boy, that sounded like a recruiting plug, didn't it?
YS: A little bit. I'm sure you'll have more than enough Miami students in the next few years coming to Jones Day. You will be very happy.
TJ: At least within the state of Ohio, it's probably the best known firm.
My favorite [movie about the legal profession] of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't think you can get a better story about what it would be like to be a great lawyer than both the skill that Atticus Finch had and the ethos — you know, his passion to be loyal to his client's cause even in the face of unpopularity. I think it's very inspirational for lawyers.
YS: I would say it's a pretty well-known firm. What would you say is your favorite book or movie, or both, about the legal profession?
TJ: Ooh, about the legal profession, great question. Wow! Let's see ... I have an amazing collection of legal movies. I started out about ten years ago, I decided I wanted to collect some of the best movies about lawyers and the law that I could find, and it's amazing how many really, really good ones are out there. Just to name a few, and not in any particular order: And Justice For All, My Cousin Vinny, All the President's Men, Twelve Angry Men, and Dial "M" for Murder. Those are all just great flicks, but my favorite of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't think you can get a better story about what it would be like to be a great lawyer than both the skill that Atticus Finch had and the ethos — you know, his passion to be loyal to his client's cause even in the face of unpopularity. I think it's very inspirational for lawyers.
YS: I think it's kind of sad that they don't have any movies or books about transactional law.
TJ: Well, there are a few, but the problem is that the ones about transactional law tend to deal with things like Wall Street, where the message is something like, "Greed is good."
YS: Yeah. Tell me a little more about exactly what your practice has been over the last 20 years — where you started as a summer associate.
TJ: Let me see ... how do I make this interesting. Well, I started out just doing whatever needed to be done, as a young lawyer.
YS: Did you start at Jones Day, Todd?
TJ: I was at Jones Day. I was a summer associate at Jones Day and then started my first year at Jones Day in D.C.
YS: So you've been there the whole time?
TJ: I have. My bias just shines through, but I have never known anything else and I haven't needed to.
YS: They got you good, huh?
TJ: I just think it's a great place. I'm pretty honest about it. You know, I have the good, the bad, and, sometimes, the ugly moments. But so many of my law school peers have been with 2 or 3 ... even 4 or 5 law firms during their careers. And I'm pretty happy right where I am. My first year, I closed 15 deals. They were investment banking deals ... very strange, structured financings. They were arbitraging a particular exclusion in the tax code, which sounds important, but really it's just fascinating. As I was drafting the same certificate for the 50th time, and staying up late to hand black line documents and photocopy them or stand by the fax machine to send them out, I would often ask myself the question: "Is this why I went through 4 years of night law school and worked full-time?"
What I didn't realize was how much I was learning because, by the time I was about a fourth year, I was doing those deals by myself and I remember being opposite a large New York firm. I had 2 partners and 2 associates from the firm on the phone with me alone and I was kicking their butts on this transaction. So I learned a lot fast. Over the first 10 years, I did a lot of the tax arbitrage structured finance. A lot of it became cross-border work, so that I was ultimately closing multi-billion dollar transactions over in Europe. And at the same time, I also worked on some of the DC area's biggest and most noted corporate disasters, including working on the representation of the outside directors of First America Bancshares, when it was taken over illegally by rich Arabs, and for the outside directors of a holding company called the Dart Group, when the Haft family who owned it with the public shareholders, started trying to beat each other up. That was essentially a family feud; it was a public company controlled by a family that was incredibly dysfunctional. In both cases, we represented the special committee of the Board of Directors that ended up taking control of the operation of the business and selling off assets. They were both fascinating representations.
Then finally, in those first 10 years, I was regular outside counsel for a huge consumer electronics company. When it started out it wasn't so huge, it had just gone public, but Harman International today makes JBL loudspeakers, Harman-Kardon stereo equipment, Infinity loudspeakers, AKG microphones, some of the best consumer brand names around including Madrigal, Mark Levinson and more. And I just learned a ton and built great relationships (inside the firm and with the client), and then all of a sudden I was asked about 12 or 13 years into my practice if I would be willing to go out to the West Coast and start our Silicon Valley office. At that point, I cut the ties with long-standing client relationships with investment banks, with Harman International, with a number of others, and I came out here to Silicon Valley to establish relationships for the firm with venture capitalists and private equity funds. I started working with Sequoia Capital, Francisco Partners, and many others like them, and a lot of the private companies that they were working with. And it's pretty much changed my practice. I would say my standard of living has declined considerably since moving to the Bay Area (mostly as a result of the ridiculous price of real estate), but my quality of life has greatly improved. I really enjoy what I do.
YS: How many people did you take with you when you started the Silicon Valley office?
TJ: One associate.
YS: You were pretty much on your own then.
TJ: We opened in the fall of 2000 with 1500 square feet, me and one associate, plus three support people. I commuted from the east coast until the fall of 2001 and, by 2003, we had 26 lawyers. At that point, we cleaved the office in half and sent 13 of them up to start our San Francisco office. Today, we have almost 42 lawyers in the Silicon Valley office and another 50 up in San Francisco, so there are almost 100 Jones Day lawyers in the Bay area.
It's possible to do incredibly well in night school, but you have to be very, very disciplined, and it's not easy.
YS: You said that you went to law school at night. Where did you go to law school?
TJ: Catholic University, in Washington, D.C.
YS: We have quite a few students who are interested in Catholic.
TJ: People always ask me, "Should I go to law school at night? I noticed you did." And I always tell them the same thing, "Not if you can afford to go during the day."
YS: We have a lot of students that ask me that question and I tell them, "They call it part-time; it's not part-time. It's almost like having 2 full-time jobs — your full-time job and full-time law school."
TJ: That's really true. And, you know, I threw myself into it because I had this sense of what I wanted to do. So I always tell people, "I would get up in the morning, super early, and I would study and then I would go to work. I would get out of work, and I would start classes at 6:20 pm, and they would oftentimes go until about 10 pm and then I would study until after midnight." And that was my week. On the weekends, I would really let my hair down ... and study all weekend. One evening on the weekend, I would allow myself the time to see a movie or do something with friends. But I had to be incredibly regimented about it. What I always say to people is, "It's possible ... it's possible to do incredibly well in night school, but you have to be very, very disciplined, and it's not easy." You have to sort of look at it and say, "I am going to sacrifice my life for the next four years to meet this goal."
YS: What was your day job?
TJ: When I started, I was working for the Federal Election Commission, still dreaming of being a politician, and learning everything I could about campaign finance work. I was auditing Congressional and Political Action Committee campaign finance reports. And I moved up through the ranks there pretty quickly. But after I started law school, I realized I really wanted to get into law firms. So, my first year into it, I went and did this summer clerkship at a Boston firm that had a small D.C. office. Then I started clerking at as many different law firms as I could while I was in law school. And they paid much more at law firms than the government did, so that was nice.
YS: What was your major when you were here?
TJ: Political Science.
YS: Where did you go to high school?
TJ: I went to a school on the eastern side of the District of Columbia called Largo High School.
[My History professor] looked at me and he said, "What makes you think there's any law school in the country that would take you with the grades you have?" ... He had a huge impact on my life ... by his willingness to be totally honest and not giving me any room for excuses.
YS: Who would you say were your most significant mentors in college and law school?
TJ: Well, in college, there was this History professor and my second semester freshman year he taught early Western Civ. I was mostly involved in "social" studies during my first 2 years as an undergraduate ... and, for that, I received a Master's Degree in a very short time. Unfortunately, that did not translate into decent grades — I was on academic probation three of my first four semesters, always managing to stay just one step ahead of getting thrown out.
Then this professor called the question one day. After my semester with him, he learned that I was working 20 hours per week to help put myself through college. He started inviting me over to do odd jobs around his house — shoveling snow, mowing the law, things like that — but I think he really just wanted to see if he could help me a little bit because he paid me really well and his wife would always feed me a nice dinner and I'd eat with them. Of course, that next semester, we became friends.
I remember one night we were sitting and finishing dinner and he said, "So what do you want to do after you're done with college?" I said, "Oh, I'm going to law school." And he looked at me and he said, "What makes you think there's any law school in the country that would take you with the grades you have?" I don't think I spoke for 10 minutes. I was crushed. I was devastated. But, I needed someone who would speak that kind of truth to me at the time. Three of my last four semesters at Miami, I was on the dean's list. He had a huge impact on my life ... by his willingness to be totally honest and not giving me any room for excuses. So I hunkered down and got to work and graduated with a pretty horrible GPA, but managed to get into law school by wearing holes in the knees of my jeans.
I applied twice and was waitlisted by 2 schools ... both times. After the second time, I decided I was not going to take it and said to myself, "I am going to get in!" I started working on the Dean of Admissions at the time at Catholic University, and ultimately, to make a long story short ... it's a fabulous, fabulous story, ... but ultimately, he gave me a shot and let me register, and he did that on a personal promise from me that I wouldn't let him down. And that was it.
I graduated near the top of my class, I was the graduation speaker, I brought home an appellate advocacy national championship to the school during my last year, and was a note comment editor on the law review. When I walked across the stage to get my diploma, the Dean of Admissions stood up from the faculty section and walked over to me, shook my hand, and said, "You didn't let me down."
So I would say those two were the most significant mentors during my post-secondary education.
YS: What was your most memorable moment in college?
TJ: My most memorable moment was the night before graduation. I had a special place in my heart for the Western campus and the Interdisciplinary Studies program over there. I lived with couple of guys off campus in a house we called the Fillmore West. We had been enjoying ourselves all night long (wink, wink) and took a walk around the campus in the wee hours of the morning, so to speak. We ended up over on the Western campus; several of us had taken classes over there and one of the guys had even lived over there for awhile. And I'll never forget — we were at the top of the hill above the Art Museum.
During that moment, one of the other guys and I hearkened back to our childhood and just raced each other down the hill. We were a little out of shape at that point from our evening festivities, and when we got to the bottom, we were panting so hard just to gasp a little bit of air. Then he looked over at me and he said, "I don't want to take on responsibility." I think that was my most memorable moment, because it was a rite of passage from college life, where we had the opportunity to really learn and play and have fun ... to a realization that it had prepared me in many ways for the responsibility of life ahead but, still, maybe I just wasn't ready to close this chapter in my life.
... and there I stood, looking out over Amsterdam, and all I could think was, "Here I stand, in a suit, above the canal in Amsterdam, ready to bungee jump and if I wet my pants I don't have a change of clothes."
What was your most memorable career moment?
TJ: Gosh ... Does it have to be professionally focused?
YS: Not necessarily.
TJ: I've closed a lot of really large transactions and deals that have gotten a lot of press, you know. It is a wonderful thing to have the opportunity to read your name in the Wall Street Journal ... things like that, are a lot of fun. But I remember closing a deal over in Amsterdam and the investment bankers took us around the canals in a luxurious dinner boat with expensive wines. They pulled up to one of the docks and said, "Does anyone want to go bungee jumping?" And so I went bungee jumping after this one deal in Amsterdam. That was pretty memorable.
YS: We are going to have a lot of students now who are going to want to do deals because they are going to think that they can go bungee jumping in Amsterdam.
TJ: I must say, I have to question the wisdom of my decision because, when I got off the boat, there was only one investment banker who had also said that they wanted to go and we walked up to these guys who were on the dock and they started speaking to us in Dutch. They handed us a clipboard and asked us to sign a bunch of things, all in Dutch. I said, "Does this say if I die, it is not your fault?" and he said "Yah" and I said, "And can I jump if I don't sign it?" and he goes, "No" and I said, "Okay!" I signed it and they took me up to the top of this huge construction crane that looked out over all of Amsterdam and the guy was whispering in my ear in a very rich Dutch accent. He said, "Look, I am going to count to three, then say go, and you just need to fall forward; and if you don't, I can push you." And I said, "Don't you dare push me." Then suddenly he was saying "1 ... 2 ..." ... and there I stood, looking out over Amsterdam and all I could think was, "Here I stand, in a suit, above the canal in Amsterdam, ready to bungee jump and if I wet my pants I don't have a change of clothes." But I fell ... I jumped ... I did it.
YS: Very cool. That's a good lead into my second to last question which is, what kind of things do you like to do when you're not working?
TJ: Well, I used to do a lot of mountaineering. I haven't done much of it recently. I like to ski, play the guitar. But right now I'm working on a book.
YS: Oh ... About your life, right? I would think that would be kind of cool.
TJ: No. It's a book titled Greed is Bad: The Handbook for the Emerging For-Benefit Economy. It's really a book about how to create great companies — how to structure, finance and run them — so they can make money as well as do good.
I think that's a sad pressure that society puts on students — this idea that learning how to make a living is the higher priority. Then we end up middle-aged, with no idea what we're doing, why we're doing it ... what best suits us ... what we really care most about ... what we were really put on this earth to do.
YS: Is there anything that you wish you knew in college that you know now? If you could tell your college self something that you know now, what would it be?
TJ: There are only two things that are important about undergraduate school — one is learning what you're passionate about; and the other one — and I think they are in this order — the other one is gaining some skills so that you can earn a living.
YS: I think students today see it the other way, don't you?
TJ: Yeah, and I think that's sad ... I am trying to drive this home with my oldest daughter right now, who is in college. I think that's a sad pressure that society puts on students — this idea that learning how to make a living is the higher priority. Then we end up middle-aged, with no idea what we're doing, why we're doing it ... what best suits us ... what we really care most about ... what we were really put on this earth to do. Everyone is different; we weren't all made to be the same. If we all wanted to make a lot of money we would all pursue MBAs or law degrees. The truth is that some people were put here to be great teachers; some people were put here to be great artists, engineers, mathematicians. Some people were made to be great poets and inspire the rest of us. And I think it's a shame when we try to fit everybody into one or two or three molds of success, because I think we lose the artists and teachers and poets. But let me also add one additional thought — I believe those of us who are blessed to make a lot of money, bear a unique responsibility to help the teachers, the artists and the poets. Lil and I work very hard to give away at least 10% of what we make each year, and for me, that feels like just a start. I say that not to brag, but so we all think about the responsibility we have as the richest country on the face of the planet. That responsibility has been more real for our family than ever before over the past several years, as we've traveled each summer to work for several weeks in the villages of Ethiopia.
YS: The first question I ask students when they come in is, "Why do you want to be a lawyer?" And probably the answer I get the most is, "because lawyers make a lot of money." And I'm never satisfied, ever, with that answer. So I tell them to think about it a little more before they devote the 3 years and countless resources that are required for law school.
TJ: I think I would correct their thinking a little bit. Being a lawyer doesn't mean you will make a lot of money, not necessarily. Because it's only about 3-5% of law school graduates that go on to starting salaries of $160,000 or $165,000 a year. Yet, everyone who goes to a particular law school pays the same amount for tuition, most of whom graduate with an incredible debt load. You look at how many people go to law school and then struggle to find a job in the legal profession. It's astounding. And I think, in particular, if you can't articulate a passion around it, if you can't articulate a reason why this, the law, something about the law, really excites you, then I think you've got to question whether or not you are made to be a lawyer.
But that is a hard thing to "tell" a student, because they come to you with a certain sense of excitement or determination. And, I know — I didn't remember this about myself, although I am being reminded as I watch how obstinate my daughter is — that college students believe they are smarter than everyone else in the world. We always knew better than anyone older who would try to "tell" us anything.
In fact, recalling one of my favorite stories from undergraduate school — I wrote an op-ed piece my freshman year for the student newspaper. It was a harsh, nearly nasty piece about the political campaign for the student government president. I expressed disgust about how students weren't focused on the issues, how they were just littering the campus with signs and they were running on platitudes, instead of the real issues. I had some pretty scathing things to say about Miami's president at the time and some of the decisions that he was making — decisions that I felt students should be challenging, but that were not a part of the political debate in the campaign at all. In particular, I was a big advocate for divesting Miami's investments in companies that were doing business in the apartheid system in South Africa, but the Board of Trustees refused to take up the matter. The article was pretty brutal towards the university president regarding that.
Shortly after the piece ran, I received a phone call in my dorm room from his office saying, "The president would like to meet with you." I thought, "Aw man; am I in trouble now." Remember, I was a freshman and I was already on academic probation from my first semester, so I thought, "What's going to happen now?" So I went to meet the president. Today, I look back and I say, "How cool is that for the university president to reach out to talk with one disgruntled, op-ed writing freshman." Anyway, I went into his office and sat down; he just wanted to know more about me. We talked and had a great conversation. I was there in my holey jeans and my long hair, and I was thinking he probably viewed me as one of these young idealistic punks who didn't know anything about the real world.
But he provided me with a great object lesson. I said something about the article and he said, "Yes, I read that with interest." I said to him, "Look, I didn't mean to make it personal, but I was really trying to drive home a point. I think there is a leadership responsibility with an issue like this." And he said, "That's a fair comment, but ...," and he picked up this big stack of papers and he turned and showed it to me and he lifted it so that all I could see were the backs of the pages. And he said, "What do you see here?" And I said, "Well, I see this big stack of blank paper." "That's interesting," he noted, "because what I see here is next year's budget — filled with the possibilities of programs that can affect students' lives. Sometimes from where I'm sitting I just see things differently, and perhaps it is because I see more." I said, "Well, that's fair too." And that is how we left it; we parted friends, even though we didn't agree about the issue.
I have a lot of respect for that man, because what I see today in my daughter is that she knows better about everything, which I think is probably just typical for college students — at that age, none of us exuded humility. I don't challenge her to think like me or agree with me on every issue. She often says she's going to law school, but not to be a lawyer like me, but to be someone who will help the world. I know that's true. I can't wait to see how she does it. But mostly, I just smile and wait for the day when she will see more.