By Ani Torossian • January 27, 2016•Law School, Pre-Law
This week, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to Alice Armitage, associate professor of law at UC Hastings and director of Startup Legal Garage. A warm welcome and many thanks for her willingness to contribute to this series with the following interview:
What drew you to law school? First as a law student and then as a professor.
My path to law school was more of a winding road than a direct path. In college, I never considered going to law school and, in my senior year, was planning to go directly to grad school in American and British literature. Just as I was about to accept and send in my deposit, however, I decided that I needed to take a break for a year before diving into a rigorous graduate program. I managed to get a job at a large bank in New York City and, to my surprise, learned that I loved finance and business.
Within a year I changed my career goals from the halls of academia to the business world. The longer I was at the bank, however, the more I realized that most of the tough decisions that involved interesting issues were being made, not by the bankers, but by their lawyers. So I decided that a law degree, combined with my two years of experience in corporate lending, would be a better preparation for a business career than getting an MBA.
My career goals changed again once I got to law school. I was hooked by the intellectual challenges inherent in the study of law and determined that I was even better suited to a career in the legal profession. Over the years since I graduated, I have been a lawyer in many different environments (private practice, government, academia, and business). I returned to academia full-time when I was offered a job in an innovative program- the Startup Legal Garage at UC Hastings.
How has your career trajectory evolved to include teaching law?
One of the wonderful things about a law degree is that it prepares you to follow a number of career paths and to move between different sorts of jobs. For example, I started in the private practice of law, first at a small, boutique firm, then at a large firm in Washington DC. From there, it was a natural step, and one taken by many DC lawyers, to work for the federal government for a while. With that experience, it is possible to stay permanently in government (often moving between agencies or within departments of the same agency), return to private practice for good (or until the next interesting government position comes along), to begin a career in academia, or find a position in the business world. I had colleagues in the government who chose each of these paths.
I chose a different path and decided to take a break from the working world to raise my children. When I wanted to return to work full-time, my law degree and the connections I’d made in law school and afterwards offered me a path back to an interesting career.
The position at UC Hastings blends all my prior career experiences- practicing law, writing regulations as a federal government official, founding a couple of startup businesses, and teaching as an adjunct at UCLA Law School.
Aside from your role in teaching, you are also a founder and CEO of a mobile safety app startup. What could you tell us about the intersection of law and technology, particularly the startup world?
One fascinating aspect of my job as a professor who also directs the Startup Legal Garage is that I have a foot in both the world of startups and the community of policymakers. I deal with both sides on a regular basis and my experiences as a startup founder and as a regulator provide me with a unique perspective.
In many ways, the business models of startups and the regulatory process are polar opposites. While startups strive to be nimble and proactive, quickly reacting to new information and opportunities, the regulatory process is often ponderous and reactive, resisting change as long as possible. This tension is particularly evident in the sharing economy, in which companies such as Uber and Airbnb offer new ways of providing services previously restricted to large companies in highly regulated industries.
Despite this tension at the heart of the intersection of innovation and regulation, I believe there is a way to improve the regulatory process for both entrepreneurs and policymakers. By writing articles as well as by creating venues at which innovators and regulators can begin a dialogue, I am committed to helping both sides work together to find a way to ease the current tension.
What does it mean to succeed and thrive as a law student?
There are so many paths through law school that I think it is difficult to prescribe just one. I do believe that getting involved with something besides classes is helpful, whether its an activity like Moot Court competitions, a student run organization devoted to a particular issue, a clinic, or one of the many journals that most law schools sponsor.
The first semester of law school, no matter where you enroll, is intimidating. The truth is everyone else feels exactly the same way. Some people may hide their feelings better than others but I haven’t spoken with anyone, no matter how successful a law student or attorney they ultimately became, who doesn’t admit to feeling that they were less intelligent and less prepared for law school than everyone else in the class that first semester.
Do you have any recommendations for pre-law students as they prepare for law school?
To everyone who can manage it, I recommend taking a year or two off after college to work before beginning law school. It need not be a job in the legal profession - any in-depth exposure to the working world will help you better understand the context in which the law operates and so make the issues you’re learning about as a law student more meaningful.
How have you integrated work-life balance in your endeavors, and what advice do you have for those who are about to immerse themselves in such a demanding career?
I believe that there are many paths to achieving work-life balance, but I had a hard time working it out for myself. The demands of private practice are intense and it is difficult to find time for other personal activities. I was able to juggle my work and personal life pretty well until my first child was born. After that, I tried several different ways of combining work and motherhood.
After my first child was born, I worked part-time at the same law firm. While part-time turned out to be about 40 hours a week, that was still better than the 70-80 hour weeks other associates were billing. But for me it was ultimately unsustainable – I felt I was excluded from the most interesting matters and even 40 hours a week kept me away from home more than I wanted. So I moved to a three day per week policy job with the federal government. That job was terrific - fascinating work determining government policy for cutting-edge financial transactions yet still working on a predictable 24 hours a week basis. But, after three years, I still found the juggling act difficult and so, with two children and a third on the way, I decided to stay home full-time for a while.
I didn’t work again in the private sector for 15 years. Once my youngest child started to drive, I began to look for a job and realized that I was not easily employable. My experience and knowledge base was out of date and I had no book of business to bring to a firm. So I ended up creating the first of the two startups I founded.
There are many ways to balance a work life with having a family and each person needs to find the path that’s right for him or her. If you find the work-life balance not working at any point in your career, I would advise you to look for a less demanding environment. Many of my friends left the big-firm practice of law to move in-house with a corporation or a nonprofit. Others accepted a position with a smaller firm or moved to a smaller city with firms that had a more relaxed perspective on billable hours. Still others entered the world of academia.
My advice for those who decide to take a break from full-time work is to keep your toe in the water by working at least a few hours a week on something that utilizes your knowledge and skills. The experiences and connections you gain will be invaluable in finding the right job when you’re ready to return to full-time work.
A legal career can be very rewarding and may lead to many different sorts of jobs. In the end, the career flexibility provided by a law degree may be the key to finding work-life balance. What works at one point in your life may not work in another. Being a lawyer provides you with many opportunities to find interesting work, even when there are other demands on your time.