Hear Ye! Since 1998.

Stanford 2008/09

A year as an LLM student at Stanford Law.
20
Jun 08
Fri

Americanized for your convenience

I’m going to California in August and I’m going to be a uni student again. Woot!

Earlier this year, I had some incredibly good fortune and was admitted to Stanford Law School. I’ll be doing Stanford’s Master of Laws (LLM) program which is a year long. Stanford’s in Palo Alto, a little bit outside of San Francisco. It should be heaps of fun.

I’ve always wanted to live overseas (at least for a little while), and what better way to do it than returning to the much missed lifestyle of a uni student? I’m scheduled to finish work in two weeks’ time. On the 4th of July, coincidentally! I then have two weeks to get everything ready and send off the girlfriend, who will be flying to New York, sitting the NY Bar and then starting a plum job in one of those Biglaw firms. Then I’m off for a short two week holiday in Singapore, catching up with my old flatmate (although Singapore might turn out to be quite boring since David just learned he’s going to be ferried off to the UK to deal with some potential oil spill near Libya or something bizarre like that and might not be back for a bit). A handful of days in Sydney, then it’s off to San Francisco, then the Valley and then the Farm! Not long to go.

Some miscellaneous things I am looking forward to:

  • Finding more time and opportunities to post on Hear Ye!
  • Free shipping from Amazon.
  • Bulk lollies (sorry, bulk candy).
  • Thongs (sorry, flip-flops) during business hours.
  • Two words: No tie.
  • The continuing fall of the Greenback against the Aussie.
  • Campus-wide WiFi.
  • The Valley! The land of entrepreneurialism and dot coms! I get to go back to my techie roots!

THE LLM APPLICATION PROCESS
Just in case anyone was thinking of applying for overseas LLM programs, I’m going to write about my experience with the whole process. Getting into Australian unis is an administrative cakewalk, in comparison. US and UK schools generally impose a long and somewhat painful process. Hopefully this post will be a useful resource if you’re a lawyer wondering if an LLM is a good idea.

The first step in the process is, of course, figuring out why you want to do an LLM in the first place. Speaking from the perspective of a commercial lawyer, I can unequivocally say that doing an LLM solely in order to progress your career is Not A Good Move. One year of practical work experience is in most cases going to be more beneficial. The opportunity cost of taking one year out for studies is considerable – there is the significant financial aspect, and there’s also the consideration that you will lose one year of seniority as compared with your cohort (which is important since law is quite structured in terms of promotions and progression -– you really have to “do the time”). Australian lawyers from certain local firms are well regarded in the main legal markets around the world and you absolutely do not need an LLM if you want to work in London, New York, Dubai or Hong Kong (although you will probably need language skills for the latter if you are fairly junior). You really only need an LLM if you are lawyer from a civil law jurisdiction (continental Europe, South America and many Asian countries) and want to practise in a common law jurisdiction.

I had several reasons for wanting to do a Masters overseas. The first was that I’ve always wanted to live overseas for a while, which would be a much more pleasant experience without all my time being occupied by soul-crushing 200-300 billable hour months. The second is that I wanted the international exposure. I figured I’d get more time to meet new and interesting people from around the world. I get the feeling that Masters programs overseas tend to be more diverse than what we get in Australia. The third was that I’ve always enjoyed studying -– when you learn at uni, it’s because you choose to learn, not because a client has asked you something –- everything you do is done on your own terms and you can spend extra time thinking or exploring certain issues which you can’t do when there’s a deal to be done. The fourth reason was that it would provide useful legal experience. Not as good as real work experience of course, but it does have its advantages. For example, some LLMs have very practically oriented courses, covering things that were never offered in my uni (contract drafting and commercial negotiation, for instance). I think that doing these practical courses with real world experience will allow me to get a lot more out of things than learning about them in the abstract and not being able to relate it back to practice. It will also hopefully give me the opportunity to experiment -– if you stuff something up, at least you haven’t compromised a real client’s position.

The second step is to figure out where you want to study. I have always wanted to experience what studying in a “world class” institution was like. It’s probably something that was ingrained into me by my parents expressing their aspirations for me as a kid rather than something I developed on my own. Still, I think life is about experiencing as much as you can, and this is certainly a unique experience. So my mindset was to shoot for the law schools at the top of the tree, find out who would take me and then figure out which one would fit me the best.

If you’re interested in a particular type of law though, you might want to be more focused in your search. If you’re interested in international law, for instance, some unis are better than others despite how they are ranked overall. One partner at work advised me that for finance law the UK was the place to be. East-coast America was perhaps better for M&A studies (the total market cap of the NYSE speaks for itself). You also have to adjust your expectations according to your level of experience. Without any work experience you can still get into an Australian LLM without many problems, but for some overseas unis it’s a tough ask. If your grades at uni weren’t great, you can make up for this with strong work experience.

I initially planned on applying for both UK and US unis, but I soon realised that I didn’t want to study in the UK. Not terribly enthused about the weather. Too many Aussies. So (to the chagrin of my parents) I ruled out Oxford, Cambridge and other reputables like LSE. Take this with a grain of salt, but I’ve been told by former LLMs that it’s typically easier and cheaper for Australians to study at Oxbridge than the “equivalent” unis in the US. I think a large part of this is that we share quite a bit of case law with the Poms, not having declared our colonial independence quite as zealously as the Yanks! Anecdotally, there are more people from my firm that have gone to those two UK unis than their counterparts across the Atlantic. It’s also easier to get financial assistance and scholarships for British unis. Apparently, a whopping 30% of the Cambridge LLM crowd is composed of Aussies and Kiwis. So this will be a factor to consider when deciding where to focus your efforts.

Having settled on the US, it was time to do a bit of research. It’s best to talk to people who have done an LLM to find out their experiences. For figuring out the lie of the land, the forums at www.llm-guide.com are undisputedly the best resource I came across.

The first thing I figured out is that the US seems big on “prestige”. I was taken aback by how much this was the case, especially coming from Australia where tall poppy syndrome is all too common. It’s a rather contentious factor that unfortunately tends to overshadow many online discussions about the relative merits of different law schools. Egos and bias rule the day and you really have to be careful about what you choose to believe. Things get really bad on the Autoadmit board (which has the tongue-in-cheek tagline of “the most prestigious college discussion board in the world”). But nonetheless, the “prestige factor” is a real and arguably significant factor when it comes to life after uni.

Prestige is of course driven a great deal by brand name recognition, hype and annual law school rankings. The most well known rankings seem to be the US News rankings. There is often a lot of controversy about whether these rankings actually reflect anything real or useful. Whether the ranking methodology works or not, they do tend to reflect and/or affect people’s perceptions of prestige. See here, here, here and here.

The US seems to love tiering things. They’ve nicknamed top tier organisations in each industry -– the US is the home of the “bulge bracket” i-banks, “White Shoe/Biglaw” law firms, “Big 4″ accounting firms and “MBB” management consultancies. (Not to say that this doesn’t happen elsewhere -– the UK has their “Magic Circle”, for instance.)

I think it’s interesting how different it is in Australia. “Top tier” only refers to the size of a firm, not necessarily its quality. There are plenty of top notch mid-tiers. We also haven’t given our top tiers a collective nickname.

The forums have developed their own vocabulary related to the obsession on tiering. “Prestige whores” are people who care only about how prestigious schools are to the exclusion of all other factors. These people tend to grossly generalise and I’d wager they’re unhealthily arrogant. The boards are full of people wondering whether they should give up a full scholarship in exchange for a place at a marginally higher ranked uni. “T-14″ stands for the top 14 law schools, which happen to be the only 14 schools that have ever placed in the top 10 of the US News rankings. There are about 200 ABA-approved law schools in the US and, as you’d expect, the quality varies significantly. The unofficial rule of thumb is that it’s far more difficult getting into a highly regarded commercial law firm if you went to a non-T-14 school. Again, grain of salt. “TTT” stands for Third Tier Toilet. It’s used as a derogatory term covering all the schools which US News ranks as third or fourth tier. Amusingly, the prestige whores will take it to mean “any school ranked lower than theirs”. There are many other factors to consider other than prestige.

If you’re interested in studying a specific area of law, you should research what unis are good in that area.

Another consideration is the area of the US you want to be in. It’s a diverse country. I’ve been told that the West Coast and East Coast are quite different in terms of culture, but even individual cities have their unique characteristics. For example, New York is like no other place in the world but it’s more expensive. Boston has some of the best unis in the world there, but it gets bitterly cold in winter. Palo Alto has great weather, but it’s out in the ‘burbs.

Some people also are interested in certain unis because of specific famous professors. I wouldn’t recommend dwelling too much on this. Each uni has its star academics. They don’t necessarily make good lecturers. They may be on leave. You might not get into their class if it’s full. A small class size with a competent lecturer will be more useful than taking a class with 100 other students taught by a prominent academic who’s only in the classroom because he or she has to be.

Personal factors may come into play too -– for example, if you are bringing your family, is the city family-friendly?

I have the following brief notes about some of the schools I looked into. Berkeley has the West Coast vibe and reportedly the best IP program in the country. It also has the third lowest acceptance rate out of all law schools. Chicago is an academic powerhouse and its law school is no different in that respect. Out of its JD program, it has an unusually high number of people who go on to clerk for Supreme Court judges. Columbia has a great location in New York and the ivy league halo. It takes about 200 people in and provides terrific job prospects if you’re looking to work in a Biglaw firm afterwards in corporate or finance. Harvard is of course the best known university in the world and its elite alumni base is unparalleled. Its brand name recognition is a big drawcard (“even people in third world countries who never completed primary school have heard of Harvard”, someone said to me once). It takes about 120 people in. NYU has an even better location in New York than Columbia (it’s more central) and a large, diverse class of about 400 LLMs. It has a highly regarded tax program. Although Yale Law School is generally regarded as the premier law school in America (it has a tiny, exclusive class size and an absurdly low acceptance rate which dips below 7%), the LLM program is open only to those interested in teaching, not private practice. It takes less than 30 people in its LLM class. As for Stanford, here are a few good forum posts on it: one, two, three.

Once you’ve made yourself a short list of places to apply, the third step is sitting down and putting together the applications. Generally you’ll be required to fill out an application form, write a personal statement, gather letters of recommendation (usually one academic and one professional), send in academic transcripts and submit a resume. I’ll write about each of these components in the context of the Stanford process. The process for other schools is for the most part the same.

Most applications are due near the end of the year, in early to mid November, for an August intake the following year.

Get started early, especially with hitting people up for letters of recommendation. You can control how quickly you get your stuff done, but with these letters you are at the mercy of each of your recommenders (who are likely to be very busy individuals). The Stanford LLM is a degree aimed at practising lawyers so virtually all of its admits are coming in from private practice or in-house positions. This makes figuring out who should write your professional recommendation easy – ask your supervising partner (I’ve seen it written that Stanford occasionally gets partners applying… I have no idea who a partner would ask to be a recommender… maybe a more senior partner?). Getting an academic recommendation is a trickier prospect, especially if you have been out of uni for a long time. One interesting piece of advice I took onboard from a friend was that US unis may not have a good understanding of other countries’ academic systems. In Australia, our academic ranks begin with Lecturers and progress up through the Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor and Professor titles. In the US, most academics are professors of some description – that is, our Lecturers are broadly equivalent to their “Assistant Professors”. I was told that to avoid any potential misunderstanding, I should get an academic recommendation from, at the least, an Associate Professor. Luckily I was able to cold email my former Restitution lecturer (who had been promoted to a professorial position in the time I had left uni!) and she was graciously willing to help me out.

Each uni has its own fiddly administrative requirements when it comes to submitting recommendations. Most of the time a hard copy letter, sealed in an envelope with the recommender’s signature signed across the seal is required (how anachronistic! Ahh, the conservativism of the legal field…). To make their lives easier, I wrote a briefing letter to my recommenders explaining why I was applying, what each university was looking for and the exact administrative process they had to follow (including due dates, which I pre-dated two weeks’ ahead of the real date in case of slippage). Then I sat down and talked them through it. I gave them about 3 months’ notice. Follow-up periodically -… last minute recommendations are incredibly stressful.

The next thing you should probably organize is sending your academic transcript. I submitted mine through the LSAC service, which is a bit of a ripoff, but it does save a lot of hassle. Normally you’ll need to instruct your old uni how to send the transcript to the US (if you’re using LSAC, that means the uni has to send the transcript directly to them in a sealed envelope – I recommend couriering it).

The application form and resume are pretty straight-forward.

You’ll spend the most time on your personal statement. Stanford is kind of annoying. It asks you to write about your background and asks two questions -– why an LLM and why Stanford. But, it sets out nothing about what sorts of traits it is looking for in its applicants other than at least 2 years’ work experience. I tried to infer things from profiles of its alumni. In doing so, I didn’t get much additional insight and almost psyched myself out of applying. Stanford runs two different specialist LLM streams, taking in about a dozen for each stream. I imagine it would be difficult to apply for both streams and have a credible shot at both, so essentially with only 10-15 spots available per stream, the numbers really don’t look very good. The alumni profiles, on the other hand, do look very good. Intimidatingly so.

From the forums I learned that the standard class profile is fairly senior -– most people are about 30 years old and are at about the early senior associate level in world class firms. Many have a Master’s degree already! At least three people I know of in my stream have PhDs. Given this, I am genuinely amazed that I got through. At the time I applied, I did not yet have 2 years’ legal work experience and I think I am the youngest person in my stream. I’m chalking it down to having a non-legal degree in a related field. Thank goodness for most Aussie unis making law a graduate degree. (In many other countries, including England, law can be studied by itself as an undergrad degree.)

The only advice I can really offer is to let your own voice and passion show through. Justify things with interesting examples and hard numbers where possible. Keep in mind that you’re writing for a US audience who may not be familiar with the connotations of your achievements, so spell it out for them. (The forums do mention that Stanford gets its LLM students to fill out surveys about their home countries that ask about the reputations of the local universities and law firms. If true, then the staff there at least will have a greater awareness of things when assessing applications. For example, I am pretty sure that practically no one outside of Asia and the UK has heard of my firm.)

After you’ve drafted and redrafted it, let other people read your statement and take on board their feedback. Get fresh eyes to proofread it. Here’s how I started off my statement – this gives a pretty good indication of how I positioned myself:

I have always had a passion for science and technology. I taught myself how to program in several computer languages in primary and high school. I currently maintain a weblog (www.hearye.org) which is almost ten years old and started an online magazine focused on current affairs.

There is also the TOEFL requirement, which is the test for English language proficiency. It won’t be an issue for Aussies and US unis will waive the requirement if you studied law at an English speaking uni or if it’s your native tongue. Somewhat ridiculously, Stanford demanded that I submit a “formal written request” for a waiver (complete with an attached published writing sample) before they would grant one. Despite the fact that I was born in Australia, clearly studied at Australian schools and have been practising law at an Australian firm!

There is one more bonus part to the Stanford application process that no other uni seems to have. It’s sneaky and unpleasant, especially if you’re unprepared for it. I don’t know of any other uni which interviews its LLM applicants, but I can confirm that Stanford does. There is absolutely no place on the website or in any official documentation which even hints at the fact that there will be an interview. Not the slightest indication. It’s only when you visit the forums that you start to get suspicious when you find a few scattered references about impromptu telephone interviews.

Stanford has an interview round and they conduct it by ambush. Their modus operandi is to call you, normally while you’re at work, out of the blue. One moment you’re focusing on drafting a licensing agreement and the next minute there’s an American voice on the other end of the line. And it’s not your client.

Despite being aware of this, I was still caught by surprise. There is pretty much zero communication from Stanford after they confirm receiving your application. They shortlist applicants, interview them, and accept/reject everyone at roughly the same time. Apparently about 50% progress beyond the interview stage. In early March, I began reading reports on the forums of people getting ambush calls (one interviewee happened to be in court at the time!). In hopeful anticipation, I brought an interview cheat sheet to work. Then the calls stopped going out for about a week. Naturally I thought that I had missed out and was expecting the rejection email to arrive imminently. Soon after, people started reporting acceptances, so that was the nail in the coffin in my mind.

Another week passed and then suddenly there was an American voice on the phone at 11.00am on a Friday. I was totally unprepared. The interview was short and, on my part, plain crap. One rambling answer I gave was followed by an awkward silence on the other end of the line followed by an, “O… kay… um… yeah. My next question is…” Mortifying. To my shock, I got the acceptance email half a week later.

I’m not sure if it’s proper to do this, but I have listed below some of the questions I was asked to give you an idea of what this “hidden bonus” involves:

  • What kind of work do you do at your firm?
  • What are some cases that you’ve worked on recently? What role did you take?
  • You wrote an article on X. Why did you do that?
  • Why do you want to take an LLM in your stream?
  • What do you want to do after you finish your LLM?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

There were minimal follow-up questions.

There is a silver lining to all this, but it’s only a theory: the telephone interview is conducted solely to figure out if you can actually speak English (and aren’t a raving lunatic, even though I may or may not have bordered upon that in my interview). Very few students come from countries in the Anglosphere and I am probably the only monolingual LLM student this year. There’s no warning about the call probably because they don’t want you preparing for it, but to be fair, it’s pretty much like a chat rather than a grilling.

In hindsight I think what they did was interview and accept the corporate stream before starting to process my stream. The application process was wrapped up by the time April arrived.

A little bit of trivia: The writer of the book, Legally Blonde (upon which the movie starring Reese Witherspoon was based), was writing about her experiences in Stanford Law School. It was switched to Harvard Law School in the movie because more people have heard of it -– a testament to the power of the Harvard brand.

That’s it. Any questions? Leave ‘em in the comments or email me.

6
Aug 08
Wed

Holding post

Made it to Stanford… running around trying to get all the administrative stuff done. This campus is huuuge and there isn’t a decent supermarket anywhere near that is easily accessible with public transport (at least during the summer holidays, which it now is). Also, I visited and had dinner at the Googleplex tonight!! More on it all later…

8
Aug 08
Fri

Stanford: The First Week

I had planned to meet with three other grad law students upon arrival at San Francisco Airport – Jesse, Daryl and Vincent (a Kiwi, a Singaporean and a German respectively). I arrived at about 1pm, but Daryl’s flight was delayed and Vincent’s flight had been cancelled. So Jesse, Daryl and I shared a shuttle heading for Stanford with an American family, the parents of which we discovered were both Stanford alumni and were overflowing with praise for the university. Eventually, we made it onto Stanford’s sprawling campus some hours later, entering by the much-postcarded Palm Drive.

Stanford’s campus is without doubt beautiful, but almost completely impractical. I was told that the campus was the second largest in the world. Although I have my doubts about the veracity of that claim, there is no doubt that the campus is huge. It would not be overstating things to say it is at least 6 times larger than UNSW’s Kensington campus. The academic core of the campus is made up of a variety of single storey and low-rise buildings, based on a hodgepodge of early 1900s architecture. Scattered around these are an array of student residential buildings, including my home precinct of Escondido Village which is entirely populated by a variety of graduate students (walking through the area is somewhat reminiscent of walking through a retirement village). There is no apparent logic to the arrangement of buildings and bewildered new visitors are often found wandering around the grounds with a map in hand. I know I still am.

Getting around campus on foot can be punishing. Even staying on campus, it takes 15 minutes to walk to the law school, and I am living relatively close to it. Back in Sydney, I was staying off campus and I could get up to the law school in 12. Consequently, many students use a bike to get around and bike racks are happily ubiquitous. But ultimately, Stanford and the surrounding suburbs (Palo Alto, Mountain View, etc) are made for cars. In fact, the whole of California is made for cars. One of the biggest problems with Stanford is that there are no supermarkets or national bank branches on campus! It’s currently summer holidays and there is no public transport to the local Wal-mart or Safeway. And even if you get there somehow, there’s the problem of carrying things back home – when you’re moving in, there’s a lot of stuff you need to buy.

Fortunately for me, my flatmate has a car and he graciously drove me (and three other law buddies) to Wal-mart for our first shopping run. The car was loaded to the brim and it was with a great deal of humor that we squeezed everything into the trunk, under the seats, and on top of laps. The car was virtually dragging on its mudguards as it chugged out of the carpark. My flatmate is a really nice guy. He’s a Californian doing a PhD in applied physics (researching something along the lines of manufacturing a laser capable of reading/writing discs with the potential to store 400 gigs of data).

Stanford does provide a free shuttle service called the Marguerite which has stops around campus and also in surrounding areas such as Palo Alto. Unfortunately, my experience with it has led me to believe that it is notoriously unreliable. The whole system is partially broken and I could think of many things that could make it better – such as marking shuttle stops clearer, marking shuttle stops with directions/arrows, keeping timetables posted at the stops up to date (especially as the buses operate on a different schedule during summer), overlaying the shuttle route maps on the main campus map and most of all, making sure that routes are contiguous. We were trying to get back from the Bank of America, only to find that the bus terminated mid-route and we had to switch buses. So we switched buses and were on our way again. Only to have that bus terminate. Then we had to wait 10 minutes for the next bus to come along. This did not happen to us only once.

The weather has been decent, although not what I expected. It’s the tail end of summer and daytime highs reach the low 20s. Mornings are cold and I need to wear a jumper in the evening. Still, it’s been sunny and from what I hear, it doesn’t rain.

Yvonne graciously took me out to dinner at the main Google campus and gave me a tour of it a few nights ago. The place is insane (in a mindbendingly good way)! It was everything I’d read about and more. The best way for me to describe it is that it has such a vibrant university atmosphere – so much so you don’t feel like it’s a workplace. Visitors commonly wonder how any work gets done. Arriving there at 6.30pm, I found people playing beach volleyball, people swimming in swimming pool “treadmills” (complete with lifeguards), dogs cavorting on the lawns and a continuing bustle of Googlers in totally casual attire. Controlled chaos is an apt descriptor of the work environment inside. The whole deal might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to me it is a dream. And I mean, how many people can say, “Let me take you out to dinner at my workplace,” and actually make that sound like a really attractive proposition?

Today was the first orientation day for us new LLM and JSM students. A really diverse crowd of law students – we have people from Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Kenya, Japan, China, Singapore, Thailand and New Zealand (and me from Australia). Lots of people from Japan and China actually (they comprise maybe 25% of the total intake). I was surprised that there wasn’t UK representation, but then I found out that our resident Thai went to high school there and studied at LSE. Everyone seems pretty nice and down-to-earth, which is terrific. Not too many cultural differences at this stage, apart from some differences in types of humour (a joke not understood and not explained can be counterproductive!) and Jesse having to readjust the pronunication of his name (with the Great Kiwi Vowel Shift, he normally says “Juss-ee” which is then interpreted as “J.C.”).

Class starts on Monday and part of the assigned reading is the famous Hawkins v. McGee (the “hairy hand” case), which is basically the American equivalent of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company (the “carbolic smoke ball” case), although the former is about contractual damages and the latter about offer and acceptance. Hawkins appears to be used as the first case that law students are exposed to in the US. However, as our lecturer has insisted on us calling her “Muffie” (her real name is Beth), I doubt my first day will be a Professor Kingsfield-ian experience as depicted in the Paper Chase:

“Mr Hart. Could you recite the facts of Hawkins versus McGee?”

Incidentally, there is a library here, the Green Library, which has 14000 DVDs for overnight hire (including blockbusters, indie flicks, foreign films, etc). I need to rent the Paper Chase since I haven’t actually since the whole movie…

9
Aug 08
Sat

Let the games begin

This uni is a ghost town after 6pm in the summer. Nonetheless, a group of us LLMs found a place to eat dinner and watch NBC’s rerun of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Spectacular stuff – China put on an incredible show. It was interesting and a pretty cool for me that we had people from several different countries and continents watching, although the patriotism during the parade of nations was muted at best. The US NBC commentors were constantly amusing – eg, “You may have heard of Malawi via Madonna!” (as if the only way for US audiences to be informed about African nation is to follow the offbeat exploits of their celebrities). Our dear leader, PM Rudd got some airtime as well, with the NBC guys dropping the factoid that Rudd is fluent in Mandarin. I also thought it interesting that the Australian team received a rousing reception.

13
Aug 08
Wed

What I learned in class today I

Generally speaking, the losing party in a civil case does not have to pay the legal costs of the winning party. Also generally speaking, US judges are predominantly elected, rather than appointed.

23
Aug 08
Sat

Ok…

Americans seem to think I’m British. The last one that thought that told me, “it’s because you enunciate your words. … Australians don’t. And Australians say ‘mate’ a lot too.” Right.

24
Aug 08
Sun

A week in the life…

Brief-ish rundown of what happened during the first week. Took a while to write, so I’m not expecting to write anymore posts like this!

Monday, Aug. 11
First day of class. All the LLMs and most of the SPILS students have enrolled in this class which seems designed to be a super-quick overview of the American legal system. The lecture theatre is the size of a large classroom – three rows of desks with the back rows elevated above the front rows. Seats about 40. The class is pretty diverse. This year’s Master’s intake has the following stats: 26 LLMs (12 in Science and Tech stream, 14 in the Corporate stream) and 13 SPILS.

There are 21 countries represented: China (6), Japan (5), Brazil (3), Germany (3), Israel (3), Colombia (2), Argentina (2), Singapore (2) and one each from Italy, France, Belgium, Thailand (although he’s a UK-educated lawyer), Finland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Spain, Taiwan, Egypt, Kenya and Uzbekistan. So, all but 6 of the class are civil law lawyers. The average age is probably about 29, with most people having a moderate amount of seniority in the firm from which they came (it probably averages about the 5 year PQE stage). One of my fellow LLMs was actually a partner at a large Chinese law firm. Unlike in the US and most Australian universities, a law degree in many countries is an undergraduate level degree, so those people can be practicing by the time they are 21 years old. However, there are also about a half-dozen PhDs as well.

The first class was mainly about U.S. law school pedagogy – and our lecturer played the infamous first scene from the Paper Chase to introduce us to the Socratic method. Comfortingly, the environment was fairly familiar to me. I went to UNSW Law School and the great thing about it is that they try to employ the Socratic method – all courses are taught in smallish classes of about 25-35 as opposed to lecture halls of hundreds of students. I think it’s a great way to learn and the input that came from everyone else really made the interaction and learning more interesting.

How many law students does it take to watch a DVD? At least a dozen.

We managed to borrow the Paper Chase DVD from the lecturer and a group of us gathered in the common lounge of one of the studio apartment complexes. Unfortunately, when we arrived there at 9pm, we discovered that someone had absconded with the DVD player. After way too much discussion (an hour of it actually), we finally resorted to watching it on a laptop. All eleven of us.

Click for full sized image
That’s a lot of people huddled around a small laptop screen

Side note: it just occurred to me that the answer that Hart gives to Kingsfield’s question of, “What should the doctor pay the boy?” is wrong. Hart replies, “He should pay for the difference between what the boy had, a burned hand, and what the doctor gave him, a… burned and hairy hand?” The damages, being expectation damages, should be the difference between a perfect hand and a burned and hairy hand. But of course, we don’t know whether the movie was written to show Hart giving a correct or incorrect answer.

Tuesday, Aug. 12
Class today introduced us to the common law system of finding the law in cases. All familiar stuff to me, but there was lots of input from the civil law lawyers which was informative. They have cases too, but their law seems to reside first and foremost in civil codes, which are exhaustively written. Cases which interpret the codes are persuasive, but there isn’t the same sort of precedent system that common law systems have. Of course, statutes exist in the common law system as well, but the difference is that the statutes aren’t exhaustive. There’s a lot of law that’s just out there floating in the case books. Nonetheless, despite these differences, the general analytical approach to a legal problem is the same in principle regardless of whether the system is common or civil.

In the afternoon, we got a free lunch and had a presentation from the careers office detailing the options open to us foreign students in terms of finding a job after graduation. They offered each of us a personal resume review session, an opportunity which most people took up. US resumes are pretty compact one-page affairs, since firms normally spend about 30 seconds skimming one before moving on.

That night we had dinner at the Graduate Community Center (otherwise referred to as the GCC), which is the only bar on campus. I took the opportunity to watch the Olympics there, although NBC’s coverage is awful. If Americans weren’t involved, they didn’t screen it. The coverage was incredibly ethnocentric.

Wednesday, Aug. 13
Class today was about statutory interpretation. There was also discussion about how many judges in the US are elected rather than appointed. Virtually everyone in our class found this to be an anathema. We had Westlaw training in the afternoon.

Thursday, Aug. 14
We had two guest lecturers today. A Wilson Sonsini partner came to lecture us on civil procedure. Of course, there is no divided legal profession in the US – attorneys are attorneys, and any of them can technically appear in court. A law school professor lectured us on criminal procedure. LexisNexis came in and gave us a training session in the afternoon.

My $80 bike from Walmart broke. I guess you get what you pay for. Luckily, Walmart has a very liberal return policy, so I was able to return the bike and get a cash refund, no questions asked.

That night, the law school held a movie night and screened A Civil Action. Free pizza and beer.

Friday, Aug. 15
Probably the first day covering substantive law, we had a class on constitutional law. Very interesting stuff to compare and contrast with the legal systems around the world. I knew that England didn’t have a hard constitution, but I didn’t know (or maybe I forgot) that New Zealand didn’t have one too. Of course, it was quite embarrassing to admit that Australia didn’t have a Bill of Rights. The other students from the West were aghast.

“Free speech is not constitutionally protected?”
“No, it’s a negative right – it exists to the extent that the legislature does not take away from it.”
“But that’s like saying you have a negative right to a fair trial… until you don’t.”
“Uh… but we do have a right to political communication. Which is implied.”

Still, not as bad as New Zealand, which its Parliament could technically transform into a dictatorship overnight, if they had the numbers. :)

Incidentally, the American right to free speech in the First Amendment is incredibly, incredibly broad, to the extent that America probably has the laxest hate speech laws in the world.

It was also interesting comparing the US federal system to Australia’s. There’s a lot more interest in state independence in the US. States have wide ranging plenary power (as they do in Australia) but for matters of state law, a state’s Supreme Court is the final arbiter. The federal courts and US Supreme Court can generally only hear matters if they involve federal laws or a constitutional issue, or are “diversity of jurisdiction” case (a dispute involving laws of multiple states).

Also, most of the things in by the Constitution apply (expressly) only at the federal level (eg, the Bill of Rights). There’s a Fourteenth Amendment which contains a “Due Process Clause” requiring states not to deny due process. Various rights under the Constitution are then classified as necessary for due process by case law and thereby bind state governments.

In the afternoon, Bloomberg held a training session in the law library. The law library is pretty cool, as far as libraries go. At work, there was a big commotion when they decided to upgrade all of the firm’s chairs to Herman Mueller mesh chairs, which were touted to cost over $1000 each (but I’m sure there was a volume discount involved). In the law library, all of the chairs are those Herman Mueller ones. They also give free printing to all students (subject to a “fair use” policy of 10,000 pages per month).

The library also has bikes available for loan! I borrowed one while my Walmart one was out of commission.

Anyway, Bloomberg came in and gave us a training session. It seems like they are trying to get into the legal space, but their strength is still financial and corporate information. Apparently access to Bloomberg costs companies $20k per year per employee, but Bloomberg was using a “crack dealer” strategy (Bloomberg’s words, not mine) to get law students hooked. We all got a free year’s subscription to it and a nifty biometric card to go with it – to log on to Bloomberg you have to scan your finger on this card and hold it up to the computer monitor. The card reads a flashing light off the screen and then spits out a token which you use to log on. Very cool stuff, but Bloomberg’s UI has all the elegance of a beached whale. It’s probably most useful for M&A lawyers – all the merger agreements and loan documentation from public transactions are available for download.

That afternoon, the South Americans arranged a soccer game. All three Brazilians and all two Argentineans turned up. Everyone else was intimidated. But it was quite good fun despite my lack of fitness. The sporting facilities at Stanford are amazing.

Went out to watch the Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in the evening. Our resident Spaniard, Maria, took a fair bit of bagging out after that. Movie was pretty good. Then we had drinks at a bar in downtown Palo Alto. The confused bouncer was confronted with a menagerie of foreign language driver’s licenses, but he let us through anyway. It was only $2 for a Coke there.

Saturday, Aug. 16
We hired a car from the car rental shop on campus. Did a lot of shopping today, including for a used car in Santa Clara. One of the used car salesmen there put the hard sell on us. We passed by a car that was yet to pass mandatory safety and smog inspections. We were informed that the car would not be able to be test driven by us until these inspections had occurred. When we expressed interest in the car, they started throwing around numbers.

“Sure, but we will need to test drive it first.”
“Look, legally we can’t permit that, but we assure you that it will pass the safety inspection.”
“Fine, then we’ll come back and test drive it then.”
“But it might be gone by then!”
“But you said it had to pass inspections first.”
“Yes but we might wholesale it in the meantime.”
“Well, if that happens it happens, we’re willing to take that risk.”
“Look we’re giving you a great price. Listen… why don’t you take it out for a test drive now?”
“…”

Notes: The nearest Walmart is in San Antonio. Cheap fruit and veg to be found at the Milk Pail nearby. Safeway is good for groceries (except fruit and veg), is open 24 hours, and will also deliver to your door (the first delivery is free, otherwise it costs about $10). Make sure you sign up for a free Safeway card at the checkout lane to get the discounts. Trader Joe’s has organic groceries.

Sunday, Aug. 17
Went to San Francisco and visited the Berkeley campus. The food options around Berkeley are heaps better than Stanford. But the weather is not so good. Boalt Hall (Berkeley’s law school) was under construction at the time, so it probably didn’t look as good as it should.

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The hilly approach to Lombard St, San Francisco

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UC Berkeley’s School of Law

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Panorama of the Bay

Monday, Aug. 18
During class there was a peninsula-wide power outage that lasted for several hours, so we got an early mark. We ate lunch at Manzanita, one of the all-you-can-eat dining halls around campus. If you use Cardinal dollars to pay (which is basically prepaid credit stored on your student card), you can get lunch for about $6.75, which is great value and there’s heaps of variety (although the ice cream was soft because the power was out!). Met our first 1L JD who was in the process of completing a PhD in Political Science at Oxford. Everyone here is interesting!

Bought a used bike at the campus bike store and also met with my program advisor to discuss my selection of courses over the next year.

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My new used bike

Gave Yvonne a short tour of the Stanford campus and then had dinner on Castro with her and two other Aussie Googlers, Juvita and Roger.

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Stanford

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The postcard shot – giving Von a campus tour

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University or country club?

More photos in Facebook, but I’ll leave you with this one:

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Google’s toilets – clearly imported from Japan



A couple panoramas

Got sick of studying this afternoon so I dropped by the driving range today, hit a few balls then went for a bike ride around The Dish (view route map) and snapped a couple of panoramas. It’s really nice having a recreational track just down the road… but apparently you have to watch out for the mountain lions.

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Manual geotag

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Manual geotag

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Sage advice

28
Aug 08
Thu

Half time at Stanford vs Oregon State

Having a bit of trouble understanding what’s going on in the game…

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2
Sep 08
Tue

Panoramas and other pictures from Yosemite

As is now usual, more photos in Facebook (album 1, album 2). Warning: the panoramas are large files.

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Glacier Point (lower terrace)

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Glacier Point (lower terrace)

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Glacier Point (upper terrace)

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Vista across the Valley

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The Grizzly Giant

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Tunnel View

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Treeline

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(Almost) Touching the California Tree

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Half Dome

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The top of El Capitan

8
Sep 08
Mon

In-n-out

A late night snack after a night of drinking (of course, that meant
that I was the DD as usual). In-n-out has a “secret menu” so the
double-double burger animal style was the go. However, my attempts to
order an “Arnold Palmer” were met with ridicule. Don’t believe
everything you read on the net.

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16
Sep 08
Tue

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world…

Amid all the coverage of the finance markets, many other interesting things have been progressing in the world.

A couple nights ago, I caught up with Justin, a Malaysian friend I hadn’t seen for some years. Justin was in San Francisco for a couple weeks, working for a major mobile phone company on some undisclosed big ticket project. We took the opportunity to catch up over dinner in Palo Alto and he filled me in on the dramas of Malaysian politics. To cut a long story short, Prime Minister Badawi, the leader of the governing coalition has been rapidly losing support, both within his own party and with the public, including its traditional Malay support base (usual story of mismanagement and corruption). The last federal elections saw Barisan Nasional (the governing coalition) being returned to power, but with its normally clear majority severely cut down. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition coalition, recently won a by-election after his bar from being a politician recently came to an end (the bar stemming from a doubtful corruption conviction). Anwar is also currently facing a charge of sodomy. He has been charged with that offence in the past, only to be acquitted. Over the past few months, Anwar has been announcing that he has a list of about 30 government MPs willing to defect to his party. With such defections, Pakatan Rakyat (Anwar’s party) would essentially become the governing party, ending the rule of BN which has been in power since Malaysia’s independence. Pretty monumental. Anwar threatened to announce the defections this Tuesday, and over the weekend some pretty bizarre events occurred, including the jailing of several people – including a journalist, a blogger and a politician – under the country’s Internal Security Act (a distateful piece of legislation which allows indefinite detention without trial). The move was a misstep by the government and was met widespread condemnation. A BN cabinet minister resigned in protest over the incident.

A bunch of BN MPs were also ferried to Taiwan under the guise of “training”, but which many suspect as a ploy to keep the MPs out of contact with Anwar. When Anwar’s party sent 5 of its own members to Taiwan on a “cultural trip”, BN promptly cancelled the “training” and recalled the MPs. There are also many racial elements in play here which add another layer of complexity to events. Today Anwar announced that he would miss his own deadline for announcing the MP defections. Badawi thinks Anwar is bluffing and so the story continues…

Back in Australia, Turnbull has ousted Nelson for leadership of the opposition. Maybe now Australia will move more quickly towards becoming a republic.

At the municipal level, Labor got totally routed in the recent NSW local elections, mostly due to a backlash caused by the utterly incompetent state Labor government. Former Premier Iemma, of course, is now history.

In Zimbabwe, the text of the agreement signed between Mugabe, Tsvangarai and Mutambara has been published. I had a quick skim, and it’s pretty hazy as to who really holds the power (but I think when push comes to shove, we can guess who will assert their dominance). I have never seen so much preamble in a single document. There’s more aspirational text in there than operative text.

18
Sep 08
Thu

Snapshot from Tahoe

This mid-week holiday was brought to us by “flyback week”, the week when all the law firms fly the JDs to New York and other major cities for job interviews. There are no classes during this week so us advanced degree students and the 1Ls use the opportunity to take a weeklong holiday (even though it’s actually only the second week of term!). We went to Lake Tahoe, which is beautiful. We hired a boat and took it out to Emerald Bay. Christoph is skippering the boat in the picture.

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21
Sep 08
Sun

A lot of heads of state are getting axed this month

South African President Thabo Mbeki, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej have each been booted out of power prematurely within the last month. And Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was ousted in mid-August. Wow.

Malaysian Prime Minster Abdullah Ahmad Badawi might be gone soon as well, if Anwar really has the numbers and a no-confidence motion is successfully passed.

(There’s of course been movement on the domestic front too – NSW Premier Morris Iemma was axed, as was federal opposition leader Brendan Nelson.)

25
Sep 08
Thu

Mid-lecture break post

I’m currently in the middle of an IT Strategy for Tech Companies lecture where a couple partners from Weil and the GC of a large tech company are discussing negotiating IT agreements (including negotiating tactics when the other counsel is responsible for dragging discussions on interminably). It’s all very nice to listen to and all, but it’s all in the abstract if you haven’t done it before and I don’t think it’s of very much real, practical use. That and it’s giving me bad memories of a rather hairy deal I was involved in the closing months before I left work earlier this year.



Calendar sample

I only have 14 contact hours per week, but my calendar for this week looks like this:

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This is caused, in part, by the amount of events they hold here, which is insane. There’s often several events during lunch or in the evening that are worth attending – though unfortunately they tend to conflict – and it doesn’t hurt that most of the events provide a free meal (seriously, you could go through a whole semester and not have to buy lunch). The events are mostly student organised, and the things is, the entire law school only has about 550 students. Then there are university functions, housing community functions, graduate functions, etc… So it’s busy, but it’s definitely a good type of busy.

2
Oct 08
Thu

The VP Debate

I think that it’s safe to say that tonight’s Vice Presidential Debate was more eagerly anticipated than the first Presidential Debate, especially after Governor Palin’s performance in the Couric interview. I was a disappointed that I had a class scheduling conflict with the debate, but happily, our professor let us out early so I managed to catch the last half of the debate.

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Watching the VP Debate in the Law School Students’ Lounge

The student lounge was standing room only, with the turnout easily double that of the Obama-McCain debate. Obviously, being where we were, the room was overwhelmingly Democrat. Some people were playing Palin Bingo, others would yell out “maverick!” and hoot everytime Palin used the word and there was some laughter with one candidate, and much laughter at the other.

Palin’s performance was improved from her Couric interview, which was highly reminiscent of Miss Teen South Carolina’s infamous answer to a question posed to her. However, you can’t help but feel that she is out of her league. She seems to be competent as far as being a small state governor (a rich state Alaska may be, but its GDP is in the bottom 10 of all US states and its population is in the bottom 5), but when we’re talking about applying for the number 2 job in the world’s largest nation, you have to wonder. Next to Biden, who was eloquent and highly knowledgeable (and seemingly “more genuine than Obama” as I heard from a friend), she was clearly an outsider to federal and international politics. She had a habit of resorting to general statements unsubstantiated with examples, or just simply not answering the question and talking about points she had prepared in advance. She seemed to argue that her being out of Washington means she can bring change, but inexperience does not logically lead to the conclusion that you are well placed to bring change to that in which you have no experience. She was also perhaps too colloquial (did anyone else cringe when she said, “Doggone”, and gave a “shout out” to those third graders?).

Anyway, there weren’t really any major gaffes from either candidate that I observed. I came away impressed with Biden – I’ve never heard him speak at length before. Obama and him seem to make a great team. There will be massive disappointment around here if, come November 4, they don’t get elected.

I should also note that CNN was running a worm onscreen with a panel of undecided voters (split into men and women). It was pretty much useless. The worm would go up when a candidate talked about their policies, go down slightly when a candidate attacked the other’s policies and never really go deep into negative territory. Women seemed easier to impress than men.

If you missed the debate, there’s a good liveblog of it here.

6
Oct 08
Mon

Scary graphs

Further to the link below on Iceland in danger of declaring bankruptcy (yes, you heard that right – that’s a sovereign nation in Europe that can’t find anyone willing to lend it money), here are a few stunning graphs. Click to make them big.

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This is the price of credit default swaps on Iceland’s sovereign debt – the higher the price, the more it costs to insure against a default by the country.

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USD/ISK chart: A country’s currency is only as good as the central bank which backs it – the Icelandic Kroner has been savaged.

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AUD/USD chart: The Aussie hasn’t fared too well either – slowing global growth = lower demand for commodities = less commodity prices. Also, people pull their money back into USD in times of turmoil (see today’s quicklinks). An expectation of narrowing interest rate differentials should also put short-term downward pressure on the AUD, but it actually rose when the RBA cut rates by a whole percent today. These are not rational times.

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USD/ZWD: This graph doesn’t even make sense. With Zimbabwean inflation is 8-9 digits big, the country’s currency has become virtually meaningless.

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The Dow Jones Industrial Index – the economic barometer that most US people watch.

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The VIX chart (daily): colloquially known as the “fear index”, it measures market volatility (which indicates uncertainty).

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The VIX hit an all-time high this week.

19
Oct 08
Sun

Ten small differences

Here’s a list of some small and sometimes annoying things that need to be adjusted to in the US:

1. US spelling (e.g., “-ise” becomes “-ize”, “-our” becomes “-or”). US spelling actually makes a little bit more sense to me and some of the words are shorter by a character.

2. Lack of distinction in spelling between verbs and nouns (e.g., “become licensed by applying for a license”, “he practiced medicine in a private practice”). The US way is easier.

3. The lack of the metric system. Their scientists use the metric system, why can’t the rest of the country? This is my biggest bugbear, and I find myself having to switch GPS devices over to using meters and kilometers because I just don’t have any innate sense of how far away 800 feet or 1.3 miles is. And how much is 1 pint and 4 fl. oz.?!

4. Zealous use of periods (fullstops) to denote abbrevations (e.g., “Mrs.”, “U.S.”, “Sept.”, “Oct.”). However, the practice is unfortunately not uniform – lengthier acronyms and some two letter acronyms are not broken up with periods. Putting too many periods distracts when reading text. I prefer so-called “open-punctuation” which minimises periods. Using “S.&P.” for Standard & Poor’s is just messy.

5. Punctuation around quotation marks. US punctuation requires ending commas and periods to be placed inside the quotation marks. For example: That article made claims that were “bogus,” “inaccurate,” and “dangerous.” (As opposed to: The article made claims that were “bogus”, “inaccurate” and “dangerous”.) Also, Americans tend to put a comma before the “and” or “or” in a list of items.

6. “v.” in case names is pronounced “versus”, as opposed to “and”. The US way makes more sense to me.

7. Tipping and state taxes. Makes splitting a dinner bill among a group a herculean task.

8. Date formats (e.g., “October 19, 2008″ instead of “19 October 2008″). The US system doesn’t make sense. When you use dd/mm/yy, you’re progressing from the most specific descriptor to the least specific descriptor, and you don’t need to add an extra comma when writing the long form of a date.

9. Different valedictions in letters and emails. “Best” seems to be the most common signoff in informal or semi-formal, emails around here (“Regards” seems to be the equivalent in Australia). “Sincerely” is used instead of “Yours sincerely” and “Very truly yours” is acceptable for legal opinion signoffs.

10. Differences in terminology. College and school instead of university. Pumpkins are for carving, squash are for eating. Shrimp are prawns. Etc, etc.

21
Oct 08
Tue

Late night musing

Can someone explain to me exactly how this is grammatically correct: “please see here for the information the subject of your inquiry”, as opposed to, “please see here for the information that is the subject of your inquiry”? I never really understood how the first phrase could get away with missing a verb… or maybe the first form isn’t actually grammatically correct?

Maybe it’s ok if it’s written with a comma: “please see here for the information, the subject of your inquiry”, but I am pretty sure I’ve seen it without a comma.

25
Oct 08
Sat

At this week’s colloquium

Fred von Lohmann of EFF. He gave a great talk on user generated
content and the DMCA’s takedown notice and safe harbor procedures.
(Finally, a non-patents talktalk of copyright!)

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26
Oct 08
Sun

Nocturnal writings

After trying to figure out how to start writing a paper all day, it is more than a little annoying when the inspiration suddenly strikes in the wee hours and you get on a bit of a roll. And I’m meant to be playing tennis at 9am today…

2
Nov 08
Sun

Prediction for the US Elections

My call: 364-174, Obama-McCain. Optimistic? Maybe, but I called the Rudd-Howard election optimistically as well, and look how that turned out. Also at issue is whether the Dems will get the 60 seats to avoid filibusters.

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4
Nov 08
Tue

Election liveblog

10:05:42pm: Residual counts: Indiana might actually go for Obama. Missouri is pretty damn close too. Dems won’t get 60 in the senate. Montana is surprisingly close.

8:03:50pm: over! CNN just called

7:05:58pm: Looks like a foregone conclusion. Of course, the networks aren’t calling it yet.

6:33:15pm: I notice that Ohio has been called for Obama. That’s big. 15 minutes of class left.

5:47:35pm: Stuck in a class, but it looks like things are going without too many surprises…

3:53:40pm: The Kentucky gap seems to be closing…

3:30:59pm: Indiana with about 20k votes counted in is 55%-44%. Kentucky is 36-62 (5.5k).

3:20:45pm: First election results are coming in. Kentucky, for example, is starting to report.

1:30:56pm: A series of proposals on state law are also being voted upon today. Massachusetts is actually voting for whether they want to abolish income tax by 2010. (That’s right, zero income tax in Massachusetts!)

1:27:56pm: FiveThirtyEight.com writes:

“Andrew Gelman of Columbia University has taken a recent set of our simulations to look at what may happen conditional on the outcomes of the first states to close their polls at 6 and 7 PM [EST]. The bottom line? If those states go roughly as expected (meaning, say, an Obama win in Virginia and a close race in Indiana), we can conclude with almost literal 100 percent certainty that Obama will win the election”.

Annoying, I have a class at 4.15pm PST, but if this is any indication, we could have a very clear idea of how things are going to go down by then.

1:18:18pm: The consensus among the students here is that an Obama victory is a foregone conclusion. I have heard from one or two people back in Australia who are not so certain.

Here’s the GCC – sorry about the quality, the iPhone camera is crap. It looks like the lines earlier in the day have cleared out. There are some Obama placards around, but no McCain advertising.

12:51:41pm: The Graduate Student Center is a polling location and apparently there’s a long line outside it. I’m going to swing by and check it out when I pick something up from home.

11:37:30am: Intrade is currently showing that traders expect a 93.1% chance of an Obama victory and a 7.5% chance of a McCain victory. Their real time election tracking page is calling the EVs 364-174.

9:45:48pm: To start us off, this summary video is a great New York Times feature summarizing the lead up to today. For live election coverage online, here is a good list of resources.

9:42:26am: I’m making this post a liveblog and will attempt to update it throughout the day. The law school here has set up the student lounge for election viewing with a big projector screen from 3-10pm and are keeping it supplied with food and drinks, so it sounds like a good place to camp out for the day.



Change has come

Barack Obama is President-Elect of the United States of America. Pause a while and consider that. Absolutely amazing. What a country.

The mood around campus is incredible — euphoric is how I’d describe it.


Euphoria, as CNN calls the election for Obama. At 8.00pm PST tonight, the west coast polls closed. The television networks immediately called California, Oregon and Washington for Obama, catapulting him from the low 200s, straight past the magic 270 vote mark.

5
Nov 08
Wed

My election night experience

This has been excerpted from my Backbench article.

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA — November 4, 2008. The student lounge began filling up at 3.00pm, as the first polls around the country began to close on the East Coast. The flyers advertising the event said that no alcohol would be provided, but nonetheless, cases of beer and bottles of wine had been procured — though hopefully they would be used to toast to victory rather than drown our sorrows.

The mood was light and positive. Whenever CNN, or MSNBC called a state for Obama, people would cheer. When states were called for McCain there was silence, but, most notably, never were they any jeers or booing.

East Coast counting was well underway when I had to go to class just after 4.00pm, with some toss-up states shaping up to be a close battle. There was a large amount of distraction during a normally engrossing class on international deal making.

In class, I kept refreshing the New York Times’ “Big Board” summary page and various liveblogs and saw Obama’s EV count edge slowly up past 100, 150, and then 200. It hovered there for a while, with states such as Indiana, Missouri, Florida and North Carolina still hanging in the balance. Iowa fell to Obama. By 6.45pm, I was crawling up the walls as class ran overtime.

I got back in time for the 7.00pm round of polls to close to find that the student lounge was standing-room only. It was relatively uneventful for that hour, but we were kept entertained, not least of all by reporters appearing “via hologram” on CNN. There was the occasional cheer as various other less-crucial states were called, but the real lead up came just before 8.00pm, when the West Coast polls were due to close. Obama was still about 60 EVs short of hitting 270 and anticipation was growing in the atmosphere.

As CNN counted down the seconds to 8.00pm, the crowd joined in.

Five. Four. Three. Two

The projector screen went blank. A second of confusion, then the first boos of the night. The television feed had been lost.

Continue reading this article on the Backbench.

22
Nov 08
Sat

An update on campus life

It’s been a while since I wrote something substantive on here. Almost four months in, and this place continues to amaze me. I’m dreading the day it all finishes.

After an afternoon of study today, I played squash with a group of LLMs and got my ass majorly kicked. I grabbed dinner afterwards with a friend, an eighth year lawyer from Brazil, during which we jointly commiserated over the painful depreciation of our respective currencies (the Brazilian Real has gone down more than the Aussie Dollar!). I then headed over to a neighborhood “dessert night”. I stay in Escondido Village, which is a large on-campus residential area for graduate students, and each section of the village regularly runs community events. I only intended to drop by for a half hour to gorge myself on some ice cream before returning to hit the books but unfortunately I was late and the ice cream had run out by the time I arrived. I got involved in a conversation instead. It was one of those conversations that was so engrossing that everyone ended up standing around talking for three hours despite the presence of perfectly good couches only a couple of metres away. We were six people who grew up on six different continents, and the spark which initiated everything was when one of us admitted to being a conservative and was lamenting about four years of Democrat rule. A Republican, much less a Republican who is willing to admit it, in this part of the country, is a rare thing. But diversity of views is always good – when everyone shares the same views, there is too much self-congratulatory back-patting and agreement which, while potentially therapeutic, isn’t so interesting. Reasonable disagreement is that much more stimulating and productive. The conversation lurched from topic to topic – universal healthcare, economic bailouts, Detroit, fiscal management, feminism, the Presidential campaigns, the role of languages in a multicultural society, voting in California, differing notions of democracy around the world, oil and alternative energy, the drinking age, and so on. We all had different academic backgrounds and upbringings, so even among the liberals, there were widely differing worldviews (I, for one, am economically more to the right than I am on other issues). But what made it work was that people were not rabid supporters of their personal views (ie, in the same way that support is shown by the nuts in the Republican party base whose reflexive instinct on hearing the word “Obama” is to boo). There was always intelligent give and take, and while you can’t expect a conversation like that to make people switch sides, you do expect it to bring people closer to the centre. These comments may be trite, and my wonderment quaint, but I can’t say I’ve ever been in an environment like this before. I would certainly be hard pressed to find one in Australia.

And here’s what I did on a day earlier this week.

Woke up about twenty minutes before a 10am contract drafting class and dashed off to make it. We spent the hour dissecting a Stock Purchase Agreement. I then biked over to the b-school to meet a couple MBAs to discuss a very interesting business idea they had. There’s a b-school course which teaches about starting up a start-up and they were looking for a law student to join their team. Then I rode back to the law school for lunch with Larry Lessig. Various faculty Professors make themselves available throughout the semester to a small group of students for a talk with them over lunch on a first-rsvp first-served basis. Since Professor Lessig is not teaching any cyberlaw courses this year, I jumped on the opportunity. He took questions from all of us and answered them one by one. As expected, he was extremely eloquent in expressing his thoughts which recently have been turning to examining corruption in democracies (not so much overt corruption, but conflicts of interest and competing influences on decision makers).

After a thought-provoking lunch, I moved to the library to work on a case study presentation for an International Deal Making class (involving an LBO of several Taiwanese companies by, coincidentally, an Australian conglomerate). Spoke with a friend about the status of the job market and our expectations of US work culture. I typically think of New York as being the most intense place to work in the world. However, she used to work in the Cairo office of a US law firm – as a lawyer in an understaffed office, in an emerging market economy, and in a culture where clients don’t understand the concept of personal time, the hours she pulled were very scary.

Then I rode to the b-school again to meet with an MBA who was interested in an idea I have about an IT application for streamlining administrative tasks that lawyers always complain about in law firms. I was planning on attending a talk about microfinance initiatives in Africa afterwards, but our discussion ran overtime. I instead attended a presentation by Professor Frans De Waal, a famous biologist known for his work on primates, who spoke about whether animals have the capacity for empathy. It was a fascinating presentation. (The evidence is pretty strong that apes do have empathy which extends to an inter-species level.)

I went home to cook dinner, do some study, and then went over to a wine and cheese night that the French Student Association was hosting (a friend is the President of the association, which is where the connection lies). I don’t normally attend wine functions for reasons that are obvious to those that know me, but I needed to get out and do something social. The French seem to have a mansion called La Maison Française all to themselves in which they can host events. I’m not sure, but it was probably bought by some French alumnus or alumna who wanted to donate something back to the university. I was told that ze Germans have their own house as well.

I think I was the only one drinking coke there, but it fooled more than a few people into thinking it was a glass of red wine. I walked up to a person with a jacket that had “Australia” written on it, only to find out he was actually Swedish. We spoke for a while and I found out he was involved in a funded startup which provides a service that converts bitmap images to vector images. A group of us then adjourned to a bar in Palo Alto where we ended the night bitching about how much work we had to do. (The line of the night was that one of us had applied to Stanford for the sole reason that it was on the West Coast. He thought it would be chilled, laid back, and a good place to have a holiday from work, only to find, much to his chagrin, that he was working harder here than he was at the Magic Circle firm he used to work at.) I arrived home at about 2.00am, put in a couple more hours of work and then went to sleep. We have exams in two weeks.

2
Dec 08
Tue

What makes Australian unis unusual

Life at a US university is a lot different from life at an Australian one. Students in the US rarely stay in the same state, much less the same city, when they go to university. The result is that students live away from home and therefore live “in residence” on campus. This lends itself to a much more involving student life, and a much more diverse student body. The Aussie norm is that people go the biggest university in their own city. This concept is alien to Americans. This article expresses that observation well:

But from the point of view of students, perhaps the most striking difference I’ve noticed between Australian universities and those in the other countries in which I’ve worked, is the relative dearth of residence or college places in the older, and best, universities. …

If you are from Sydney you go to a Sydney university; if from Melbourne to one in Melbourne. University students stay at home. They commute to, and home from, the campus. The overall learning experience – in both a narrow academic sense and in a wider life-changing (including having fun) sense – is far inferior to going to a residence university.

Given any two universities even remotely comparable in their academic excellence, if one is residence and the other commuter, students should do whatever they possibly can to attend the residence one. (emphasis added)

I thoroughly agree with this article. I attended my first two years at UNSW living from home. It was a two hour commute each way, making for a total of four hours of travel each day. With that much travelling time, I didn’t hang around campus much more than I needed to. Socializing was done in the breaks between classes and on Friday nights and weekends. If class time at uni for a day was less than the travelling time, I just wouldn’t turn up at all. It wasn’t worth it. I certainly wasn’t in the mood to get involved in any extra-curricular activities. During my second year, I started working in North Sydney, which meant that I was travelling for five hours a day. I finally had enough, and moved into an apartment 5 minutes’ walk from campus. That made a world of difference – it was so much easier to get involved in campus life and activities, although there was still the tendency for people to disperse to the suburbs after classes. (While my 4 hour commute was unusual, a great deal of people had 2-3 hour commutes.)

When everyone lives on or near campus, the difference is phenomenal. It builds a student community. I have a feeling that’s one of the reasons why, despite the law school student body here being more than five times smaller than UNSW law school, the events organized by the students here easily doubles what UNSW offered. (To be sure, there’s more money flowing around here, but the UNSW Law Society was nonetheless the best funded law student organization in Australia when I was there.) It’s hard to meet people to arrange things when they are only in at uni for a few hours each day, and most of that time is spent in classes. When you’re on campus, it’s easy to just “drop in” at all hours of the day. It’s so much more time efficient as well. So, in relation to this particular aspect, I’m a great believer in the US education system.

In contrast, I think Australia is unusual. For many Asian countries, it seems usual for students to travel overseas for education, and I think they are better for it. When I was finishing up high school, it wasn’t even on my radar to consider an overseas, or even an interstate, university. But I think that it should have been. I don’t think the culture of Australian universities in terms of changing to an in-residence culture will eventuate anytime soon, so looking to overseas universities is a great alternative. (Just come back to Australia afterwards!)

9
Dec 08
Tue

Sensationalist

This is some pretty misleading headlining by the Herald:

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“Obama caught in corruption scandal”

Compare this to the Times:

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“Illinois governor in corruption scandal”

16
Dec 08
Tue

“Blissfully cholera free”

The law school still has exams running to the end of this week, but finals for the rest of the uni finished up last Friday and the campus has pretty muched cleared out since then with people going home or elsewhere on holiday. Friends have started putting up status messages on Facebook telling everyone where they are or where they’re going to be, but the one below was just surreal (he’s Indian-Zimbabwean and his family is in Zimbabwe). And in the meantime, more sinister stuff is going down in that country…

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30
Dec 08
Tue

A (belated) Merry Christmas and (premature) Happy New Year

My parents came to visit over the Christmas break. I showed them around the campus, then we spent a few days in San Fran, with a nice daytrip down the coast to Monterey and Carmel. The only thing we did in Monterey was visit the aquarium, which was of particular interest to me since it was one of the filming locations for my favourite Trek movie. As the aquarium doesn’t actually have any whales, nor a whale tank, the digital effects guys had to digitally construct them, along with a backdrop of the San Francisco skyline. The movie was filmed in the 80s and although the aquarium has been updated quite a bit since then, all of the filming spots were pretty much unchanged. Apparently, people have gone to the aquarium after watching Star Trek IV only to be disappointed to find the closest thing to a whale there is the life-sized plastic model they have suspended from the roof.

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South of Monterey is the famed Pebble Beach golf course which borders the Pacific Ocean. At $495 for a round, it’s a rich person’s course. Staying there costs a few thousand bucks a night. One of my dad’s friends had the opportunity to play there, but he unfortunately didn’t have time to enjoy the views. Apparently they place marshalls at each hole to keep players moving quickly – they try and push as many groups through as possible since they clear about $2k for each foursome. There are a whole bunch of golf courses in the area, including Cypress Point. Cypress Point is a very difficult course, but it has some admired holes, including the notorious 16th. It’s a par 3, but to make the front of the green, you have to be able to carry your ball over 200 yards. In between the green and tee area, it’s all ocean. I’d need at least a spoon (3 wood) to make that distance. There’s a “bail out” zone to the left, but you still have to carry 150 yards.

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On the 22nd, we flew into Dallas to spend Christmas with my uncle’s family. It was a chilly zero degrees C when we arrived. One of my cousins is studying in Boston and he had planned to fly in on the same day, but the weather up there was way below zero and his flight was cancelled. He arrived a couple days later.

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I had only been to Dallas once, and that was exactly 15 years ago. My uncle pulled out some old camcorder footage which showed me playing with my cousins in the backyard – we were firing super soakers and chucking water balloons at each other in the dead of winter! This time around, I visited the Sixth Floor Museum, which is housed in the building from which JFK was shot. Quite an interesting place, especially in light of the references to JFK’s civil rights work and display text which was written in a pre-Barack Obama world. Of course, the pall of assassination hanging over the place is sobering, and obviously a concern today. On Christmas Day, we attended a midnight mass which was novelly conducted in English and repeated in Spanish (which really drew out the service…) and went to a Christmas party at a neighbour’s house (to which my uncle’s family had been attending for the last 15 or so years). On Boxing Day, the weather warmed up considerably, hitting an incredible 26 degrees. We took the opportunity to hit the factory outlets. We also did a lot of eating. All in all, it was a good trip.

I’m back in California for New Year’s… I’ve realised that out of the last nine January 1sts, I’ve only been in Australia for one of them. Running back through the past nine New Year’s Days, I’ve been in Hong Kong, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong, Singapore, Lucerne and Hong Kong. Kind of a pity, since Sydney fireworks are such a great spectacle. But I do enjoy Hong Kong where I’m of average height so I can actually see things going on instead of smelling armpits the whole night.

Some photos:
- Miscellaneous Bay Area pics
- Winter Holiday pics

Facebook is a pretty convenient place to post photos these days. One gripe I have though is that I wish they allowed higher resolution photos (perhaps they eventually will, just as YouTube now caters for HD vids). You can’t make prints from photos 604 pixels wide.

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1
Jan 09
Thu

Happy New Year!

We went out looking for a drink last night after watching the fireworks over the bay, only to be stymied when we discovered that California has laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol in bars after 2.00am. (In Palo Alto, everything shuts at 1 or 2am, but I always thought that was only because it was Palo Alto, not because the alcohol has to stop flowing…) This country still surprises me sometimes.

I also learnt that in Japan, New Year’s traditions include making mochi – gooey rice cakes. Unfortunately, this tradition also has the side effect of causing several elderly Japanese people to choke to death each year while eating mochi. We get annual holiday road death tolls, in Japan they get annual holiday mochi death tolls. So each year, the Japanese distribute tips on how to avoid death by mochi, including the popular solution of shoving a vacuum cleaner down someone’s throat if they start gagging. My Japanese coursemates insisted this was not a joke. I was still dubious but Google appeared to confirm this improbable tale. Apparently the Heimlich manoevure doesn’t work too well.

In Berlin, New Year’s was described to me as a “war zone”, with people taking to the streets with roman candles, bangers, rockets and all manner of fireworks and miscellaneous incendiaries. And they fire them at each other.

Someone should do a “top 10 most dangerous places to celebrate New Year’s” feature…

14
Jan 09
Wed

The Facebook status lines of two of my coursemates

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Opinion runs deep… no prizes for guessing the ethnic backgrounds of the people here…

15
Jan 09
Thu

Justice Anthony Kennedy to give Stanford Commencement address

He’s no Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey, but he’s particularly apt for us law students!

17
Jan 09
Sat

This week in the Valley

This week was a real treat. Pervez Musharraf came to talk yesterday about “Extremism and Terrorism”. His actual speech, imploring for a “holistic” approach to tackling terrorism by addressing the “root causes” which lead to extremism, was nothing special. The Q&A session that followed was a cracker though. The first audience member came out swinging: “Given that you seized power illegally, given that you suspended the constitution twice, given that you have engaged in gross human rights violations…” The moderator had to stop him and ask him whether he was there to ask a question. “Yes, this is a question,” he said before rattling off another list of accusations ending with, “why should we believe anything you had to say today?”

The audience applauded. But Musharraf is, of course, a seasoned hand. He has been in world politics for many years now and has fended off numerous assassination attempts. This was nothing. His reply shut his accuser down quickly and Musharraf in turn received applause. The questioners were disproportionately from the subcontinent (India, I’d wager) and predominantly confrontational, but for the most part things were civil.

One of the courses I’m taking this semester is Internet Business Law and Policy. The course syllabus was designed in partnership with Google’s Deputy General Counsel, and each week someone comes in to talk to us about a particular topic. Surprisingly, there are only about 12 people taking the class, so it’s a reasonably intimate environment. On Wednesday, Vint Cerf came to talk about trends in internet architecture development and related policy implications. I was stoked. Most people wouldn’t have heard of him, but he’s one of the designers of TCP/IP, the protocol on which the net runs, and is considered to be one of the net’s founding fathers. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts (our ex-PM John Howard just received one too).

Finally, I’m taking a course at the business school which teaches about starting up a start-up. Our team mentor is a venture capitalist and we had a meeting at his office which is located on the fabled Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. There are only about three blocks of relatively non-descript buildings in which the who’s who of the venture capital industry are located (including Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia, and the VC firm that Bono is a partner of – yes, Bono from U2) as well as some private equity firms like KKR and TPG. It’s a highly concentrated area, and it’s somewhat peculiar that such a small zone comprises the core of the Valley’s VC powerhouse. The area is unique – 80% of America’s start-ups originate from the Valley – and there certainly isn’t anything even close to resembling it in Australia. There are expensive cars in the parking lot interspersed with Priuses, and financiers whose net worths are equivalent to the GDPs of small Pacific islands interspersed with hopeful entrepreneurs in their early twenties sitting in meeting rooms waiting to make their pitch…

27
Jan 09
Tue

Per Se, New York

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to write one of these restaurant reviews, so I was very much looking forward to visiting Per Se. Per Se is Thomas Keller’s restaurant in New York. Keller is best known for The French Laundry, located in the Napa Valley region on the other side of the country, and both of his restaurants have been bestowed with three Michelin stars. This was my first time eating in a three starred joint.

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Located on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center, Per Se’s two-tiered dining room looks out over Central Park from its south-west corner. The interior is classy and, with its high ceiling and relative sparsity of tables, feels spacious. The ambient lighting is dim, but the tables are sufficiently lit. We were seated by the window, but curiously were pointed back towards the dining room with the view at our backs. The level of conversation in the room is not so hushed as to give the feeling of a mortuary, but not so loud as to be distracting. Great decor.

Per Se only takes bookings up to two months in advance and reservations tend to get snapped up within minutes of becoming available. Exactly two months’ prior, I called a couple minutes before the reservation line officially opened at 10.00am, but still was only able to obtain a 5.45pm seating (lunchtime reservations are easier to get).

The service was absolutely exemplary. Service staff were flawless, very attentive and even offered to escort me all the way to the restrooms when I asked where they were(!). The main server for our table came over to chat at one point, which was nice – it gave a personal touch to service which could otherwise appear clinical.

Per Se has two nine-course set menus, one vegetarian and one non-vegetarian. Each has several options, some of which incur a supplemental charge. Two small amuse-bouche dishes (freebie hors d’oeuvres) kicked off the meal. The first course was Per Se’s signature Oysters & Pearls dish, followed by a palm salad, sea bream, quail, beef, a cheese dish, a couple desserts and mignardises (petit fours). I think there was another course, but I can’t remember what it was. Unfortunately, the food did not reach the very high expectations that had been built up by the surrounding press, Michelin stars, general hype, and exorbitant cost of the menu. This is not to say that the food wasn’t excellent, but it was clear to me that the best Sydney restaurants can easily hold their own against a giant like Per Se, at a fraction of the cost. The desserts were a bit of a let down, but that’s probably because I prefer something sweeter.

At the end of the meal, a server placed a small metal tray in front of each of us and walked off. Then another person sidled up to our table and said in a thick French accent, “This plate will now be filled with chocolates,” and walked off. Then a third person came along with the chocolates themselves. It was comical.

I mistakenly had a large lunch (an oversized $6 bowl of noodles from Ollie’s) and was absolutely stuffed by the end of dinner. With three chocolates still staring me in the face, someone came along and deposited another receptacle filled with yet more sweets. I threw in the towel and asked for them to be boxed. They happily obliged, wrapping everything up in a shiny silver box with brown ribbon. We also received a little nutty chocolate snack as a free gift.

One other gripe was that the courses were paced too quickly. Only a few minutes separated each course – for a restaurant like Per Se it felt like a barrage. Everything must have been delivered in the space of just over two hours. I have a feeling they were trying to ensure we were out of the way for the second seating.

All in all, Per Se is a nice venue for a special occasion, but I think the food is very much in the same league as Sydney’s three hatters, not a league above. $275 per person, plus state tax. The good news is that the tip is already included in the price.

29
Jan 09
Thu

Random observation

I was in a networking seminar earlier this week with maybe 50 or 60 other law students here and it turns out I was the only one there who blogged and twittered. Almost nobody had even heard of Twitter. I also seemed to be the only one that had heard of Google Alerts. I was very surprised. Even in the heart of the Valley, it seems that lawyers don’t have any particular affinity for technology.

13
Feb 09
Fri

It’s brutal out there…

They’re calling it the Valentine’s Day Massacre. 828 employees from various law firms were laid off on Wednesday and Thursday this week. 95% of Above the Law’s posts lately have been lay-off reports. To say that I’m very worried is an understatement…

21
Feb 09
Sat

‘Tis the season for rejection

Time to check in to my blog again. Lots of doom and gloom this week. I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Churchill Club, an organization that brings together members of the Valley’s venture capital community, and the general consensus was the economy was really bad and only going to get worse. The number of startups funded has fallen, the number of startups folding has risen, VC firms are finding it tough to raise funds, and so on. Times are really, really tough and the job market is brutal. This has been clearly reflected in my ongoing job search – it’s pretty much impossible to get firms to even look at my resume, even if applications are sent through personal contacts and not via HR. The reason is depressingly simple – virtually every law firm has just completed one or more rounds of lay-offs, and in that climate, they’re not going to turn around and hire more people – especially with an uncertain deal pipeline. The question is, will things recover over the next few months, or will the hiring freeze continue (or worse, will there be more lay-offs)? The university is suffering as well – the endowment is expected to take a huge hit and continue to shrink over the next year. One result is that a few Masters students here who wanted to do PhDs have been unable to obtain PhD funding. I was out with a friend tonight who is working towards a PhD and we walked past a large sign saying “We are hiring! Inquire within!” Jose turned to me and remarked, “Wow, that’s rare to see during an ad like that in these economic conditions! I wonder if they hire PhDs?” The sign was on the wall of a fast food joint.

So for a variety of reasons, professional but unfortunately also personal, it’s been a Real Bad Week for me.

3
Apr 09
Fri

Bailing out the U.S.

The Quiet Coup“, an article published in The Atlantic, is written by a former chief economist of the IMF that compares the troubles of developing countries it has had to bail out in the past to the troubles the US is currently facing. The systemic problems underlying the two different types of countries are more similar than you would instinctively think:

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

In its conclusion, the article points out that the difference between the US and developing economies is that the US’ privileged position in the world makes the necessary reforms that much harder. There’s something to be said about getting the dead wood out of the financial system. And there’s a disconcerting feeling that frittering away more funds and shovelling more IOUs on the growing mountain of debt in a rejuvenatory move whose effectiveness is questionable is the wrong path to take.

The conventional wisdom among the elite is still that the current slump “cannot be as bad as the Great Depression.” This view is wrong. What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression—because the world is now so much more interconnected and because the banking sector is now so big. We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries, a weakening of confidence among individuals and firms, and major problems for government finances. If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.

The article is almost 7000 words long, but it’s worth a read.

6
Apr 09
Mon

MPRE

It is possible to pass the MPRE by reading only the BarBri Conviser section once, and doing a few practice exams, a day before the exam. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Next stop, the notorious Cal Bar Exam.

15
Apr 09
Wed

Baseball Panorama

A few artifacts left over from stitching, but it looks okay from a distance.

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Oakland A’s vs Boston Red Sox

18
Apr 09
Sat

Mogulus Live Broadcast

Link live for today only from 9am local time. See a bunch of coders, b-schoolers, d-schoolers and l-schoolers go at it at the venture weekend.

20
Apr 09
Mon

Liveblog: Legal issues for new computer game distribution models

1:53:55pm: That’s all folks. First time I’ve liveblogged anything… difficult to concentrate, and type at the same time without missing points, but easier than I thought if the talk’s interesting (which this one was).

1:53:06pm: User-generated Content. Spore as an example. Is it a service where people can create content? Or like Photoshop, a tool which allows people to create their own IP? Does EA retain any IP rights in content created by users using EA software and using EA-provided content as a base? [We had a whole seminar on this in our Internet Business Law class a few days ago when Lauren Gelman came in] How do you value UGC? He’s mentioning WoW accounts and selling accounts. Waiting for a case to say that users can’t be prohibited from selling accounts. [I think if there's consumer demand to do it, then the game companies should get into the action instead of resisting it - if people want to trade accounts and there's a market for it. Don't push it underground, but provide a marketplace! And skim a commission for doing that...]

1:47:58pm: X-box live points – allow people to use them in EA games? Conversion rate, eg, between Sims points and X-box points? Arbitrage of virtual currency. Guilain next to me is laughing, but it’s real and happening today on virtual currency exchanges.

1:46:56pm: Virtual Currency. What’s the legal analogy for virtual currency. Is it like a stored value card (eg, Starbucks gift card)? If so, then you’re a bank under federal banking regulations. Payment facilitating. [Being a bank subjects you to lots of regulation] Not exactly EA’s core competency, but now they have someone on staff who is a banking law specialist. But not quite Starbucks since you can’t buy anything tangibly… [hmm not quite accurate?] Club Med beads analogy? Swap cash for beads, and use beads within the resort only. Circumvents banking laws by providing a service – the beads don’t store value. [similar to casino chips?] EA trying to pursue the latter model, expects to be challenged about it in the future.

1:43:25pm: Nintendo and Sony don’t permit their game developers to provide EULAs! They have proprietary platforms and don’t want a third party to affect the legal relationship between them and the end user.

1:42:00pm: IP Protection. One of the benefits of streaming games means content only resides on servers. [So a persistent world like WoW can't be replicated, since you need to access their servers to play. Licensing can be controlled and CDkeys can be verified, etc. Some people have reverse engineered their own persistent worlds, even as far back as the days of Ultima Online, but it's not the same thing]

First sale doctrine raises some uncertainties as well with streaming content. Another issue is efficacy of EULAs. What terms are enforceable?

1:38:50pm: Revenue recognition. Cash received != revenue recognized. If you sell a boxed game, the accounting is easy. But what if a game’s revenue stream is ongoing? Accrual accounting issues – eg, for money earned but services not yet provided. EA deferred recognition of revenues across entire period because they couldn’t figure out how much of a payment EA had provided products/services for. Eg, Sims 3 will let you buy Sim points for $. You can buy digital content with points. [Same as any other microtransaction business models out there - FB points, etc] How do you recognize revenue arising from these points? Misreporting revenue may result in a securities law violation – resulting in class action law suits which are hugely expensive and SEC investigations.

1:34:07pm: Existing licenses. The new context for distributing games makes the existing licenses majorly outdated. Licensing problems can sink a game – can be hard to remove IP from a completed game. Microtransactions (eg, digital content) has copyright owners thinking how they can get their cut. So these business models are still trying to be figured out.

Bundling arrangements are being considered. Pay EA a monthly fee and you can pay any of their sports games (like a cable channel package). But how do they pay licensees like the NFL, NBA, FIFA, etc.? How do you tell how much a licensee’s content is being used?

1:30:08pm: Talent. So you record voice actors, or short video clips. Talent agreements are relatively uniform to protect lesser known talent. The union acts as the talent’s representative. Agreements normally cover
only offline play. Once the game goes online, EA needs to pay for an “interactive buyout provision”. But these were intro’ed 10 years ago before streaming became a reality. Talent budgets may exceed a million bucks. Might be prohibitively expensive to stream under current licensing agreements, so need to look at different models going forward. But unions are very cautious. Still troubled by when the VCR came out.

1:27:10pm: Soundtracks. When you want to sync it with an A/V work, normally have to seek out two copyright owners – the performance right and the rights in the musical work [although in Europe the performance right isn't considered a copyright]. But what if you stream it? And it’s not synced staticly with an A/V work in a computer game? Do traditional music licenses even have the capacity to accommodate for usage of the music in async ways? Need to approach collecting societies (for performances) which are scattered around the world raising jurisdictional issues. Dynamic soundtracks are pretty novel in terms of accommodating for them with legal documentation. Canada’s perf rights societies are getting “pretty aggressive” in terms of scoping the rights of their constituents.

1:22:51pm: There’s existing legal regimes for audio licensing and AV works. But games are a leading industry [kind of like the porn industry, right?] due to the non-linear, interactive aspect of things. They’re different to music and movies. No easy business model to fit what EA is trying to do [compared to iTunes I guess].

1:20:57pm: Analogy to internet radio. Legal streaming service for movies – he doesn’t know of any. But what about Hulu? Move to a subscription model. Also move to SaaS in commercial software (eg tax software), but not in the entertainment industry yet. Chris is asking why stream everything instead of distributing large amounts of data which reside on a user’s computer and streaming incremental content [WoW is distributed on several disks - a high latency but very high bandwidth way of transmitting info]. Steve says that streaming makes piracy more difficult.

1:16:01pm: “There’s nothing inherently good about physical media” and they want to get rid of them. Thus a move to online distribution [Valve's Steam platform comes immediately to my mind]. As demonstrated by the technical issues earlier – it would have been easier to play off Youtube. Move towards online gaming and multiplayer gaming. Kind of obvious to gamers, but I’m not sure you’d find many here.

1:12:38pm: EA is publishing its last game available solely in a single-player, single-play format, on physical media in June (Harry Potter).

1:10:35pm: The DVD’s back on. He’s showing the asteroid field scene. “Never tell me the odds!”

1:08:24pm: False start, brief intro by Mamei, and then we’re off.

1:07:06pm: Technical problems but now he’s showing a scene from a Star Wars V DVD.

1:01:45pm: Waiting for the presentation to start. His laptop’s wallpaper is a picture of an Audi.

Intro: Steve Bené, EA’s General Counsel is here to talk about legal issues concerning distributing computer games via online streaming. Testing out a liveblogging function I made for this website some time ago.

21
Apr 09
Tue

Stanford Venture Weekend 2009 Debrief

One of the entrepreneurship student organizations on campus hosted an event called Stanford Venture weekend last weekend. Students from across the university were invited to apply to participate, and a team of about 25 students was formed. The concept in a nutshell was that within a 54 hour period, the team would brainstorm an idea for an internet-related start-up, implement a prototype, and prepare a pitch. At 9.00pm on Sunday, three Sand Hill Rd venture capitalists (VCs) and a VC partner from Wilson Sonsini, one of the leading law firms for start-up representation, would turn up to hear our pitch, see a product demo, and provide advice and feedback. Two rooms were rented from the university in Meyer Library from 6.00pm Friday to the end of Sunday and the organizers kept us sustained with breakfast, dinner, snacks and drinks.

The weekend was pitched in the following way: “We believe Venture Weekend is a great way to get the community excited about entrepreneurship and to spend an intense weekend with creative people who want to actually bring an idea to life as opposed to sitting back and listening to YATAE (yet another talk about entrepreneurship).” Truth be told, I was excited by the opportunity, but pretty skeptical about the whole idea. The ingredients of a successful start-up include having a great team, and having a team which is passionate about the idea.

The quality of students that turned up was not at issue—a university like this has the luxury of a student body containing more talent than you can shake a stick at. The team was composed primarily of computing science grads and undergrads, with a sprinkling of MBAs, design schoolers, and a couple of law school students. However, “great team” refers not only to the individuals in it, but also how they work together. This competition would chuck together two dozen people, most of whom didn’t know each other, and hope they somehow would gel.

The second skepticism arose from the fact that the start-up idea would be the product of a brainstorming session, but surely no single idea was capable of generating enough passion from everyone in such a diverse group. Especially for something that would require a lot of hard work, an entire weekend, and a high opportunity cost. (Eg, law students have finals looming two weeks away.)

Surprisingly, these two things turned out to be less of a problem than I thought.

At Friday 6.00pm we gathered in a meeting room in Tressider with two large whiteboards. About 20 of us had decided to show up and the gender imbalance was massive—literally one girl, a CS undergrad. After some time for mixing, we split up into groups of 3 and started brainstorming ideas for a half hour. The first challenge was extracting the single idea to pursue from the mass of ideas people came up with. The deadline for this was 9.00pm. Each team of three got a chance to quickly run through their ideas with the whole group. The point of brainstorming is to throw up as many ideas as possible, but the major pitfall in such exercises is that people often jump in with criticism, and the proposer feels obliged to mount a defense. This detracts from the point of the exercise and bleeds away time.

Engineers often half-jokingly wonder what the value of MBAs are for in a start-up. Here their value was clear. A couple of them stepped up to facilitate the brainstorming session and impart some direction on the team. It must have been a bit like herding cats, though. By keeping the process moving forward, they slowly extracted a list of a dozen ideas which were written on the whiteboard and explained in more depth. The person who came up with the idea spoke for a while about it, and then people asked questions to get a better understanding.

Each idea was voted upon, and the five most popular were short-listed. Each of these were then examined again in greater depth—market size, revenue opportunities, difficulty of developing a prototype by the end of the weekend, competitor identification, team size needed, and so on. We then voted on the top two ideas we each thought we’d like to personally work on. Interestingly, people’s preferences shifted in the last round of voting (indicating to me the value of the preceding discussion), and we ended up with two clear leading ideas garnering ten and six votes. After much discussion, we eventually came to the realization that it was going to be unwieldy to coordinate a team of 20 on a single project. For instance, if you don’t need 10 coders, you shouldn’t use 10 coders—too many cooks. We elected to split into two teams pursuing the top two ideas, but made it clear that the teams weren’t exclusive. The point of the weekend was that the whole thing should be collaborative, so skill sharing between teams was important. Sometime around 10.00pm we made our way to Meyer in our respective teams to begin the two start-ups.

I found the process significantly more painful than my description probably reveals. Most people were quite outspoken, and although there were rarely problems with people interrupting others or things like that, it did mean that there were a large amount of valid opinions to juggle. Even deciding how to run a vote on the ideas was a difficult process in itself: should we vote on our top idea? Or top 2 ideas? Or on all the ideas we’d be willing to work on? Or should we vote on the ideas we think are viable? There was much wheel-spinning in the mud and I could see my initial skepticisms fulfilling themselves.

The rest of the night was very messy. We spent it trying to scope out the two ideas, but kept conflating the issues of what we should achieve in the weekend with what could be achieved in the longer term.

I’m not going to write much on the two ideas, but it is helpful to briefly detail them to get an idea of the different challenges facing each team.


The most popular idea was the creation of a platform for placing virtual objects in real world locations. These objects can be interacted with by anyone with a mobile device with GPS (typically an iPhone). The platform would enable a variety of applications, including gaming (giving people an easy way to organize and participate in scavenger hunts), informational (guided tours), and commercial (Livecoupon-type services). The idea was very similar to this idea brief I came up with in November last year. (This illustrates the fact that good ideas are a dime a dozen in this part of the world—executing an idea is a different thing altogether.) This idea was a major project to fully implement, but the potential upside was huge.


The second most popular idea was the creation of “university Twitter”, which I initially treated with disinterest because of the name. But that description is probably not apt. This is how I now view the idea: at tech conferences, many people liveblog keynote speeches, or join a chat channel to comment on what a speaker is saying in real time (kind of like a back channel for chatter). If you apply this idea to the classroom, you open up the possibility for real-time collaboration between students. You also provide professors with numerous benefits such as the ability to monitor and encourage participation, to obtain an objective measure of participation, and obtaining student feedback. This seems disruptive at first, but when you realize that most students are on Facebook or e-mail during lectures anyway, this is probably a good way to keep students on topic. (One anecdote: a friend of mine decided to join Facebook during a lecture. He sent out invites to all his friends in the same lecture and was amused to find all of them being accepted over the next five minutes. Clearly no one else was paying full attention to the lecturer, either.)

The first idea was the one I (initially) found more interesting. After all, the problem space was bigger, more complex, and it was an idea that I had previously come up with myself. We had another brainstorm and there were varying opinions on how to proceed. Lots of mutual misunderstanding, efforts to get people on the same page, and more wheel-spinning. Meanwhile in the other room, they were already brainstorming business names, drawing screen mockups, and moving forward. By midnight, we were clearly not all on the same page, and I think the frustration led to us calling it a night soon after. However, we had managed to draw up a quick and dirty database schema and some screen mockups.

Saturday morning came. When I arrived, we’d lost a few people and were left with about 12-15 who decided to stay on. The two groups were roughly evenly numbered and had started to fragment into sub-teams. Even though the products weren’t fully fleshed out, the sub-teams had decided to press on regardless and match up the edges later.

Some thoughts related to the sub-teams. I think the basic skills an internet start-up team traditionally needs include:

  • back-end coders (including SQL, database schema creation and optimization, and programming in languages such as PHP and Python);
  • front-end coders (including HTML, CSS, Javascript);
  • also, the back-end coders need to be able to talk to the front-end coders when interfacing the two ends together, so data manipulation skills are important (eg, knowledge of XML, JSON, AJAX, etc);
  • graphic designers;
  • if applicable, any technical people needed to develop models which back-end coders can translate into code (eg, economists, financial analysts, etc); and
  • “business people” (to help obtain funding, so they help to perform market research and viability studies, prepare and deliver presentations and pitches, and form and manage relationships with other relevant parties. They are also valuable in managing the team and providing leadership and direction.)

These roles are not exclusive. People are multi-skilled. There is no reason why a coder couldn’t also be a business person, or why a graphic designer can’t deliver a pitch to a VC. But typically, these skills are all desirable, if not essential.

Note that a “law person” does not appear in the list above. Law students are in the unusual position of not actually being able to really use their skills in a start-up. Not actually being California-qualified lawyers, we’re generally not allowed to give legal advice, draft contracts, or do any of the stuff that lawyers do. Providing legal guidance can skirt the fine line between violating and complying with professional conduct rules, so often the most we can do is spot legal issues and potential deal breakers. And then refer the team to a real lawyer, which is not particularly helpful for a start-up without any funding. What about incorporating a company? Maybe I could do it in Australia, but I wouldn’t trust myself to do that in California without legal counsel, and definitely not when there are equity division issues, among other things, present.

Besides being a lawyer, I’m in the somewhat unusual position of having a decent working knowledge of back-end coding, front-end coding, and (it turned out) graphic design. So I wasn’t completely useless. I’d rate myself as pretty competent in all three fields, although not an expert. So for example, I can reasonably easily develop most website prototypes, but I don’t know how to make a website or database scalable to handle high volumes of traffic. I don’t have experience managing large code bases, worked on by a team of coders (eg, using Subversion). I can design logos and page layouts, but I have zero talent when it comes to drawing original artwork. But I have been making websites for years and years.

After a couple hours of discussion that appeared to be going around in circles, some sort of vague consensus was reached about what the virtual objects platform product actually was. Soon after, the team roles were snapped up. Two people worked on coding the iPhone app, one worked on implementing the back-end API, and there wasn’t really a web front-end to code. A d-schooler set to work on designing page layouts. I twiddled my thumbs. I asked for something to do, but there wasn’t much. I was told to figure out how to interface Google Maps’ Javascript API with an iPhone App. My knowledge of iPhone App programming is limited to the first two online lectures of CS193P (available for free at the iTunes store), and I don’t know Objective-C, but I did a bit of poking around anyway. I discovered that iPhone 2.0 doesn’t have an easy way to translate Objective-C calls into Javascript calls (unlike the forthcoming 3.0), but someone had written a UIWebView component to do the job of translating the calls (at least for a partial set of the API). That occupied me for about 10 minutes. Then I was back to thumb twiddling.

Then an MBA on the Lecturefeed team was trying to create some graphics for their website. However, no one really had any Photoshop experience, so when I stepped in to help him, he asked if I wanted to help them do graphic design. Since I wasn’t doing anything else, I was summarily assimilated into the Lecturefeed team. Graphic design is probably the area I’m least comfortable with—I’ve never had any design training and all my Photoshop and Illustrator knowledge has been cobbled together through years of trial and error and online tutes. (Not that I had any formal training in web-oriented coding—I, like many coders, learnt all of that stuff out of my own volition—but the comp sci classes I took in undergrad at least taught me programming best practices.) The MBAs sketched the logo on the board, and were attempting to design it using Powerpoint(!) so I eventually ended up designing it in Illustrator. I fed images to the front-end coder as requested, worked on the color schemes, and troubleshooted design issues.

By the end of Saturday, things felt like they were moving along nicely. The coders were all doing great jobs, the iPhone app was slowly taking shape, and somehow both teams had managed to coalesce and make material progress.

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Sunday came and I was told to design the logo for the virtual objects platform, but they hadn’t even come up with a name for it. They gradually decided on “Upquest” after a survey of available .com domain names, and I made a series of candidate logos. Meanwhile, the MBAs were constructing their neato slide deck and running rough market sizing calcs and financial projections. By the time the VCs appeared at the door, we had amazingly completed what we had set out to do. We had a fantastic presentation and working preliminary prototypes. My skepticisms turned out to be much more unfounded than I even hoped they’d be.

The feedback we got was happily positive. One VC was “very impressed” by our weekend efforts, and told us that relative to everything he sees usually, the standard that night was high and we were welcome to drop by his office in the future when things were more developed. I’m not sure how much of this was them blowing smoke up our asses, but VCs around here are well known for not pulling their punches and pouring cold water on ideas that don’t interest them. Then again I’ve heard the opposite as well—they don’t like to reject things outright because there’s no upside in potentially souring a future relationship.

However, the most interesting part to the weekend for me came after this. The partner from Wilson Sonsini stuck around to answer any “next steps” questions that we had. I asked him about what the typical process for start-ups was after idea formation. Nothing legal had been discussed by anyone up to that point, which I thought was positive because it meant that people were focused on the weekend’s activities rather than something potentially more self-interested. This would have been fine had this been like a class project that wasn’t taken further, but of course people from both teams were now thinking of taking things further.

Typically, a venture that is intending on becoming serious will incorporate. The new company is a legal entity in which ownership rights can be clearly divided (through division of equity) and a receptacle into which all IP developed can be assigned. Incorporation costs money in taxes, fees, and ongoing compliance obligations, and a company’s constitutive documents also need to be drafted. The more founders, the more complex or time-consuming the process will normally be. I was told repeatedly that it was highly advisable to retain legal counsel to assist with the incorporation process. Although not strictly necessary (there are online services that will do it for something like $300 a pop), it’s a question of risk tolerance. Things can go wrong with the paperwork, but no problem will arise if everything else goes fine. But incorrect paperwork can cause problems down the track—ownership or management squabbles and breakdowns in relationships between founders, for instance. And a company with an uncertain legal position creates risk that is a turnoff for VCs and other investors. (While the founders can scribble down an agreement to split equity on a napkin that will appear to work, these seemingly innocuous scraps of paper can cause major headaches later on.)

VC lawyers will usually defer fees and make take a nominal equity stake in the start-up if they advise it. Because the fees are deferred until the company receives funding, if the company fails in this endeavor, the lawyers won’t get paid. Therefore, VC lawyers perform their own assessment of start-ups to see what’s viable. (One yardstick they use appears to be what the opportunity cost of setting up a business is to the founders—do they have their livelihood riding on this, or are they doing this as a summer project to kill time while they wait for their full-time job to start?) VC lawyers can also connect start-up clients with VCs as well, so in this case the lawyers perform a bit of pre-filtering for the VCs. Having a reputable lawyer can assist with credibility and reputational capital that is useful when seeking VC funding.

The trouble with not incorporating is that it becomes difficult to determine who owns what, both in terms of IP and the business itself. Although the value of IP may be zero at the venture’s beginning stages, IP is nonetheless created and usually owned by the creator in one form or another, whether as copyright or otherwise (eg, code, graphics, some form of business input). If this IP is not assigned to the business in some way, then use of that IP may give rise to liability due to infringement of the owner’s right. Without a company, the IP has to be assigned to an individual. You could transfer IP to individuals as joint holders, but this raises its own set of thorny issues.

Understandably, we wanted to keep the ball rolling while the buzz was still in the room and we were still physically together in the same room, so an immediate attempt was made to try to figure out how to split the equity pie as soon as the lawyer left. A few people wanted something written down on paper. My lawyerly instincts began to kick in and I could see the numerous problems besetting this goal. First of all, some people had to leave due to the late hour. I didn’t see how it was possible to reach any sort of agreement when everyone who had a stake in the weekend wasn’t in the room. (Even those who weren’t interested in pursuing either idea might have some sort of IP ownership in some aspect of the project which could cause future problems were that IP to acquire commercial value.)

Secondly, there were a lot of people involved. Maybe six people wanting equity in each venture. Negotiating equity splits would be difficult. There wasn’t much contention over splitting a portion of the equity (10%) equally in reflection of the contributions of each team member even though the time spent actually working seemed to be weighted towards the coders. The bigger challenge was trying to figure out how to split equity based on future commitment. Each of us had variable time commitments, so it seemed to me impossible to reliably determine that night who was actually committed. For example, someone could say they wanted to work on it full-time over summer and therefore they should get a 25% stake. But an unusual opportunity might arise over the next two months which causes them to bail—but they still would have an ownership stake that didn’t accord with their contributions (and no one seemed to be considering contributing anything other than sweat equity). So there was suggestion of creating a vesting schedule for equity, or some sort of “temporary equity” (equity that “goes away” if you don’t get involved). Again, with that many people involved, I could see issues, and would expect many unseen issues, with doing something like this. There were definitional issues (how do you determine who is “involved”? How sufficient does the involvement have to be? How do you handle voting? If you allow other stockholders to vote that one stockholder is no longer involved and thus has to divest their property interest, how do you protect minority stockholders from being colluded against?). There were legal issues (was any of this even legal? Does a controlling stockholder have some sort of duty to look out for minority stockholders?).

Far too tricky to scribble down on a scrap of paper that night. The lawyer had also mentioned that these scraps of paper that float around can surface later on and complicate things. Furthermore, drafting a legal contract is an art form in itself. Just as with coding, there are right ways to do things, and wrong ways to do things. Sometimes the wrong way to do things works anyway because things go as expected. But often things go wrong—unforeseen circumstances arise, people do things which are unexpected, and when the values fall outside the boundaries which were hastily conceived late on Sunday night, if you don’t have robust code, or a robust contract, things break. Just like our prototypes, we could produce something that gave an idea of how things should work, but there’s no way it could be used in a production environment. Creating something purporting to have binding legal effect in that situation was kind of analogous to launching the prototype we had into prod. It’s dangerous and it simply won’t work.

So I put forward a suggestion. We could attempt to write down some proposal of how ownership in a future company was to be handled. We could write down an indicative stock split covering just the people in the room. We could even formulate some language about how a stockholder could be required to divest their holdings to other stockholders on a pro rata basis on the unanimous vote of other stockholders. (From the looks in the room, I discovered that the term “pro rata” is not as intuitively understandable a concept as I have come to believe and it probably should be replaced with something a bit more plain English in contracts generally.) We should then circulate the proposal to everyone by email, and call a future meeting. Anyone with an interest in obtaining equity should attend or indicate their interest if scheduling issues don’t permit attendance. The meeting would nut out the proposal more fully. Then, if people were really serious about moving forward, we should hire legal counsel to begin the incorporation process, using the proposal as a guide to what we wanted. We would then be told whether our proposal would be possible (I doubt the enforceability or validity of the divestment provision). The other issue would be to get everyone else who attended the weekend to assign IP over to the company for some nominal amount—something which may be administratively difficult to achieve, especially once people start leaving for the summer.

This suggestion seemed to persuade the group, and we left without putting anything down on paper but agreeing to set up a future meeting. My experience has been that interest quickly flags as time goes on, but the people that are genuinely motivated to carry on the idea, will.

It was an illuminating and interesting discussion to see people’s viewpoints, and the age old problem of lawyers frustrating businesspeople by raising roadblocks was evident. But part of lawyering is reducing the risk of bad consequences when things go wrong. Everything might seem hunky-dory when everyone’s in a good mood, but just like any computer programmer will tell you, there are always bugs somewhere in the code—if the code is used a lot, the bugs will turn up sooner or later. Legal bugs can be expensive to fix. Ultimately, though, legal risk is but one form of business risk, and like any type of risk, it’s usually a business judgment call whether it’s a risk worth taking. If everyone wanted to go ahead and draft up a contract that night, it would have been entirely in their rights to do so, nor would it have been particularly unusual.

The weekend turned out to be very worthwhile. I learnt heaps, met a lot of remarkable people there, and we put together something that exceeded all of our expectations (two prototypes!). All things considered, the organizers did a great job of coordinating things (even going so far as to get some Red Bull and In-n-Out burgers for us when we started clamoring for them). As part of the learning experience, a few things also emerged that would help to improve future weekends:

  • NDAs and confidentiality agreements are probably not necessary (and there were none)
  • Considering whether some legal paperwork should be distributed, such as an IP assignment agreement of some description, to be signed by anyone not interested in pursuing a venture beyond the weekend
  • Consideration should be given as to what rights, if any, the university might have over a venture that arises from the use of university facilities in developing it
  • The brainstorming session might benefit from the presence of facilitators (whether third parties or identifying a couple from the initial team)
  • Team sizes should be flexible, but not too large (it is difficult to envision a project that is scoped appropriately for a weekend of work, yet involves an army of 20 people)
  • Providing an overview beforehand of what the potential process is for taking things further, so as to set people’s expectations going into the weekend.
  • How will domain name ownership be handled? (We registered domain names for both ideas that weekend.)

A large part of the learning experience was also the interesting insights gained into entrepreneurial team dynamics when working with different sorts of teams. Last quarter, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of incredible people (a Sloan who developed Google Adsense, a few MBAs with military, start-up, finance and publishing experience, an accomplished economics PhD, and an EE PhD who sold a Facebook application company with a userbase of millions). I was maybe the youngest team member there, and the way the team operated was a lot different to a team I’m in this quarter, where I’m the oldest team member. One style was not necessarily better or worse (last quarter we never even got close to getting a prototype developed due to a series of other problems we encountered), but just the working style is tangibly different—how the team chooses to communicate, divide responsibility, motivate and deliver feedback to each other, prioritize values and goals, and so on. Often it’s a matter of adapting to fit each one (and vice versa). Venture Weekend was a different type of team again.

This post has been a braindump and probably contains various inaccuracies, but if I had time to go through it again, I’d likely end up making some edits.

29
Apr 09
Wed

E-mail stats

Been playing around with Xobni, an indexing and analytics plug-in for Outlook. Once it’s created an index, It’s pretty snappy with searches, much more than Outlook’s own search function (I never understood why Outlook’s search was so poor). What’s more interesting is the analytics which produces all sorts of stats, such as who sends emails to you the most, the average time people take to reply to your emails, and the times of day you receive the most email. Here are some graphs generated from the last 11 months of my inbox history (June 08 to April 09).

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Distribution of email received by hour of day: Clearly, people like emailing before and after lunch

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Distribution of email sent by hour of day: I do a lot of emailing between midnight-1am, as well as a bunch in the morning after I’ve woken up (10am-noon). Clear dips in emailing during lunch (noon-2pm) and dinner (7-9pm)

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Email volumes over the last 11 months: I came to Stanford in August last year and the email traffic jumped.

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Uniques: This graph surprised me – this shows the number of unique people mail was sent/received to/from throughout the course of each month. The received graph is somewhat inflated by email received from mailing lists and other non-human email addresses.

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Average time for me to respond to emails: No surprises here – I took longer to respond to emails during the Christmas holiday.

31
Dec 09
Thu

Year in Review (Part 1)

As the end of the year, and indeed a decade, draws to a close, here’s a customary introspective post.

It’s been a very full year, so I picked out a few themes to write about and broke up the post under those themes. I haven’t written up everything yet, so I’ll be breaking the post up into multiple parts. Some will be posted in the new year.

1. Getting another piece of paper

2009 started with my second and final semester at Stanford.  By the time  my classmates and I had come back from Winter break, we had well and truly settled in and were now focused on making the most out of our remaining time. Spanning only 9 months, the time needed to complete an LL.M. is – unfortunately, in my opinion – the shortest time in which you can get a degree. So, after it all, what did I get out of it, other than another piece of paper and a large hole in my wallet? Did it meet my expectations? What did I learn?

An Expensive Piece of Paper

As I wrote early last year, an Australian lawyer won’t really find a U.S. law degree helpful for their career as a lawyer. Despite the amazing academic experience on offer here, I got the impression that a year of work experience would be more valued by a U.S. firm, even if it’s foreign experience. In relation to this aspect, my expectations were pretty much met.

On the other hand, there is something to be said about having the university’s brand name on your resume. While it might not help so much for legal practice, it certainly helps in other contexts.  Just as there is cachet in Australia if you can say you “read” at Oxbridge, so too in America for certain of its universities. I found that Americans (and people that had been in America for too long) I encountered often used university affiliations as a heuristic of someone’s “credibility”. So much so that the way people reacted to an answer to the question, “Where did they go to school?” was often a physical one – anything from a flutter of disdain across the face, to a raising of the eyebrows and a subconscious straightening of posture. I found it jarring.

My favorite anecdote was when I was attending an interview in New York for the London office of one firm. The firm put on a dinner for the dozen or so interviewees – a couple of Aussies, some Brits, and a contingent of Indians from Harvard, NYU and Columbia. One of the Columbians came up to me at some point in the night and said, “So, where are you studying at?” When I told him, he immediately straightened up in his chair and pulled out his phone. “I’ve always wanted to meet someone from Stanford!” he remarked, eyeing me like an ornithologist would eye a rare bird they had stumbled across in the wild. “Could I get your email address and phone number please?” (He turned out to be a really nice guy and I ended up taking him around campus when he was visiting the west coast. He ended up reciprocating a few weeks later in New York.)

The reason why things work this way is America’s remarkably tiered system of education. Generally speaking, you have your private institutions, which charge an arm and leg. Then you have public state systems, which are themselves tiered. In California, the University of California system (UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, etc.) forms the top branch, with a second tier of state schools beneath that. At the bottom are community colleges which award 2-year associate degrees and certificates. Everything is ranked. Consequently, it makes it very easy for people to pigeonhole others based on where the received their education. While convenient, I’m not sure this is necessarily helpful. For example, a recent study of entrepreneurs found that those with ivy league educations didn’t have a significantly higher success rate than those without.

Compared to Australia, things are reversed. The best universities are all public, and they’re all pretty big. Stanford has under 15k students, while UNSW has almost triple that number. None of the Ivies, with the exception of Columbia, have more than 20k and some are under 10k. But ultimately, I think the best graduates from our universities can mix it with the best from any country in the world, and we didn’t need to pay much more than HECS (or whatever they’re calling it these days) to do it.

Still, one thing I did find true about the graduate student body here is that the calibre of people was not only impressive, but consistently so. At UNSW Law School you basically need to be in the top 0.6% of the state to get in (ignoring full fee payers), so you’d expect consistently high-quality students there as well. But that’s not the case – you do get a sizeable number of slackers, and I think it’s for one main reason: there are people doing law (or medicine) when they shouldn’t be. In part it’s because they came straight from high school and didn’t really know what they wanted to do with their life… but they got the marks, so why not use them? The other part is that education is cheap. If it costs $150,000 to get a law degree, I would expect the quality of students to be consistently impressive in Australia as well because anyone in law school had damned well better be sure they wanted to be there. (I suppose though that trust fund babies are a bit of an exception here.)

So, getting back to the initial question, what I ultimately ended up with was a very fun and interesting break from work. I don’t mean to say it was a year of slacking off. On the contrary, it was a very busy year, and there were a lot of productive things going on. (I’m giving the word “productive” an expansive interpretation in this case.) The difference is I spent it doing things that interested me, on my own schedule, and away from the stress of client demands and deadlines. The tradeoff is that I was paying for the luxury, instead of getting paid.

Inside the classroom, the small size of the law school was a boon. This meant classes were small, and lecturers generally got to know you by name – this happened in all but two of my classes. The quality of classroom discussion was also impressive. Most people didn’t merely speak for the sake of speaking, they had substantive contributions to make, or interesting questions to ask. As I’ve mentioned before, Americans really do have the gift of the gab. Despite this, I would tell foreign students not to be intimidated by the JDs. Class participation does not necessarily translate to better marks in papers or exams (although, where blind grading is not used, getting to know your lecturer does help your marks, and you can do that in ways other than raising your hand in class).

Outside of the classroom, the academic experience was supplemented by a steady stream of high profile visitors and events. I heard Pervez Musharraf, Colin Powell and Steve Ballmer speak at Memorial Auditorium. Supreme Court Justices Breyer and Kennedy were on campus during the year and Chief Justice Roberts was here a few months ago. All things that are easier to organize when you’re sitting on an endowment larger than what most small African nations output in a year.

Ballmer. Photo credit: Andreas Braendhaugen

Steve Ballmer. Photo credit: Andreas Braendhaugen

However, the most valuable thing I got from the experience was not attending class, or hearing famous people speak…

Continued in Part 2

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1
Jan 10
Fri

Year in Review (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series. The first post is here.

2. Getting to know some very interesting people

The most valuable thing I got from Stanford was the contact with so many interesting people.

Starting with my coursemates, I had never been exposed to people who were nationals of so many different countries in the same place before. The admissions committee did a great job of getting together such a diverse group of people. And what was remarkable was that everyone was nice. No one really had an ego, and I’m really sensitive to people with overblown egos.

Sure, on the first day when everyone met some were a bit edgy. People were unsure of what to expect, so there was a bit of grandstanding and competitiveness as they tested out the waters. Some conversations were an exercise in keeping face. For example, one person would say, “So I was just in Paris last summer at Cornell’s law program, and I found this great restaurant in the 6th arrondissement” and the person they were speaking to would jump in with, “Oh, well I actually speak French and I lived there for a year.” (This isn’t a real example because I can’t remember exactly what was said, but they were things of this flavor. My favorite answer to these conversations was, “Well I only speak English and I’ve lived in the same city for my whole life, maaaaaate.”) Amusingly, people organizing social events would write emails in formal language, as if they were being sent to clients and were organizing a deal closing. And people actually turned up to these social events on time.

But pretty soon everyone realized that no one was insecure about themselves, and people relaxed. This allowed people to open up and talk about things they had done or achieved without someone else feeling defensive or like they needed to prove themselves as well. Unfortunately, this also meant that punctuality went out the window.

I learned so much about other cultures, just by hearing about how people got to where they were in life now, and just in the way I saw certain cultures interacting with others. The multi-kiss greetings of Europeans versus the hands-off approach of the Chinese. The early meal times of Australians versus the late meal times of Brazilians. The undying fascination a sex-obssessed European had with the conservative practices of a Muslim middle-easterner. The varying political viewpoints among the Israelis. The propensity for certain cultures to slip back into their mother tongue, against those who did not (I once witnessed three Germans having a spirited discussion in English, even though no one else was listening in). The tendency for certain cultures to clump with others. I remember sticking around after a class, only to realize that discussions had broken up into three groups of people: three Japanese, three Brazilians, and myself, a Canadian, and a Kiwi (three Commonwealthers). I found that national identity asserts itself the most overseas. Patriotic sentiments people never knew they had sometimes bubble up to the surface. I found myself introducing myself as being “from Australia”, as if that would explain everything.

I learned how each of us viewed the American culture, and although homesickness is a universal trait, I think that some cultures are more prone to being homesick than others based on how dissimilar America is to their home country.

Interestingly, even though as time went on, people stopped prefacing names with “the Brazilian guy”, or “the Chinese girl,” nationality remained such a big part of people’s identities. I think for people living overseas, nationality is the biggest part of one’s identity, maybe rivaled only by their occupation. This is all a positive thing when the differences introduce diversity and expand perspectives, instead of promoting discrimination.

On the professional side of things, the value of having an international network of lawyers is clear. However, to say the LLM is a good networking opportunity really cheapens things, because these people aren’t just a network of acquaintances, they become really good friends. The LLM program acts as a great leveler, and everyone, whether they were a judge, a partner, or a junior associate all become students again. I struggle to find any other context where (at this stage in my career), I could get to know a partner well enough that they would offer to lend me their car to help me move apartments.

It wasn’t just the people at the law school, either. The law school is tiny in the whole scheme of things – 550 students out of 15,000. Take for instance where I was living.

Most graduates live in on-campus housing. The largest of these settlements is called Escondido Village (known locally as EV), which is a mixture of different 40-50 year old buildings, arranged in all sorts of configurations. You had high-rise buildings with 1-bedroom apartments, studio apartments, 2-level 2-bedroom apartments, and so on. As the average age of people in my program was about 29, most were at a stage in their life where they couldn’t tolerate living in a dorm, so most people opted for studio apartments. I went with one of the 2-level 2-bedroom apartments and found myself in a part of EV called “Area 51″. It was called Area 51 because there was a peculiar structure in the middle of the neighborhood looked like a landscape architect had tried to breed a sandpit with a skateboard park. It had no practical use and questionable aesthetic value. Its purpose was a local mystery, hence the name Area 51.

When I arrived, I met my roommate who had already been living there for a year. Sonny was a half-Vietnamese half-Chinese American, who had grown up in a rougher part of LA. I found out quickly that he was a pretty skilled hip-hop dancer, having taught dance classes and choreographed for a dance group back in UCLA before. He told me that he had been trained by someone who had choreographed for Michael Jackson. Sonny was also working towards a PhD in Applied Physics, trying to build a better laser. How’s that for anti-stereotypes.

The majority of grad students at Stanford are engineers and scientists. My neighbors were aeronautical engineers from England, electrical engineers from Nigeria, economists from India, and developmental biologists from Venezuela.

The development biologist was Jose, and I came to know him through Sonny. They were both CAs for Area 51 – community associates. Their role was to trying and turn the agglomeration of buildings around the skateboard sandpit into a neighborhood by holding social events. (Given how difficult it is to get engineers and scientists out of their labs, and the general personality type of an engineer, they were pretty successful, even if people only showed up because of the free food and not because it was a chance to socialize.) Jose had an even more interesting background than Sonny. He grew up in Venezuela and more or less illegally ended up in Florida as a teenager, without a passport. He spoke no English, but luckily he was in a part of the US where Spanish was heavily used. He eventually got a job waiting tables, where he was forced to pick up English very quickly. He did that for three years, and during that time saved enough money for him to put himself through a community college and earned a 2-year associate degree. He then transferred into a university and completed a bachelor’s. Jose was then awarded a national scholarship which allowed him to start his PhD at Stanford. A pretty amazing story! In his spare time, he liked to take multi-day hikes through national parks and had a somewhat notorious penchant for Asian women (which he made no secret of!).

3. Getting fit again

Stanford is a well known sporting university, and a lot of prominent athletes have attended under a scholarship (Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, Kerri Walsh, Janet Evans, etc.). Apparently, Stanford had more alumni in the US Beijing Olympic team than any other university. Consequently, this means that us mere mortals have access to a lot of great sporting facilities at no cost. It would have been a travesty to not use them. The gym, swimming pool, squash courts, tennis courts, basketball courts, volleyball courts and golf course were all minutes away by bike. I spent a lot of that time on the golf course. It’s a beautiful, very lush and well-maintained course. Par 71 from the white tees. A round costs $25 for students, or $13 for a twilight start (where you can fit in about 12 holes). This is a real bargain by itself, but when you put it next to the non-student price of $130, it looks even cheaper. Fortunately, a lot of my classmates played golf as well, so I had no shortage of playing partners. (One friend even infamously turned up to Stanford with a repertoire of footwear consisting solely of a pair of flip-flops and a pair of golf shoes. This meant that he was forced to show up to formal events in a suit and flip-flops. This happened on more than one occasion.)

I hadn’t played regularly since my club days back in school, but over the last year I was going once, maybe twice a week. Starting with a score in the 100s, I slowly managed to whittle my average round down to about 90. On one blazingly good day – the type of day which keeps otherwise frustrated golfers addicted to the game – I shot a 76. I should have stopped playing then, because I have never been within a half dozen strokes of that score since.

The golf course was also interesting because of the people you could get randomly grouped with. Apart from students, the golf course was frequented by cashed up alumni who filled the car park with an array of flashy cars. We played with an array of people, from a football team coach, to a Google exec, to a very well-to-do Bay Area realtor. I know someone who played with George Roberts (the “R” of KKR, who apparently donated Stanford’s driving range).

I managed to attend an NBA, NHL and NBL game, but I can’t say I really enjoyed any of them except the basketball. The concept of baseball seemed similar to cricket, but I guess unless you were brought up on the sport, it’s difficult to acquire a taste for it.

I played a bit of squash, which is a great way to get fit because it’s so vigorous. The South Americans seemed to have that sport nailed down tightly, along with the soccer. It’s a great game though because you don’t need to be very good at it to have fun.

The other thing I should mention is the near-perpetual sunshine you get in this part of the world from Spring through to Fall. You get tanned just by walking to class (although the tanlines are pretty bad).

Continued in Part 3

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Year in Review (Part 3)

This is the third post in a series. The previous post is here.

4. Getting a job (or at least trying to)

It was 4.00am on a Friday morning in October, and I was bearing witness to carnage.

Having just flown in from San Francisco a few hours ago, I was sitting in my hotel room bed, wide awake and trying in vain to shake off the jetlag before an interview that was only about five hours away. Only a month after arriving into the US, in early September 2008, I had been invited to interview with a major US law firm. They had offered to fly me, along with about a hundred other LLM students from universities around the country, up to New York for the weekend and had booked us all into the downtown Hilton. I had never been the beneficiary of such corporate largesse, and it seemed that things were still going well in corporate America.

But it was now October. Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy only a couple of weeks ago, after the Feds refused to bail them out, and the world was still reeling from the shock. I had switched on Bloomberg on the television, and had spent the night watching bloodshed in the form of line graphs that were reshaping themselves to look like precipices in real time. That week, the Dow had opened at 10,325 and promptly crashed through the 10,000 point mark for the first time since 2004. It had continued to hurtle down. By Thursday afternoon, it had closed over 15% down at 8,763. And now, the European markets were beginning to open to a new day of mayhem.

The view from my window looked straight out over the wreckage of the old World Trade Center. Although it was now a construction site, it was still a pallid, deathly hole in the city that never sleeps. Indeed, I imagine that many businesspeople on Manhattan were also having a sleepless night that night.

October was a turning point, marking the start of the worst job market in the history of US LLMs, although we didn’t quite know it yet. The interview weekend, and associated expenses invested in it by Cleary Gottlieb, presented a solid, but ultimately misleading face on a legal market that was about to have the earth fall out from underneath it. When we had arrived in August, the 2Ls were busy with OCI (on-campus interviews) for summer associateships. The LLMs were told that we were welcome to turn up at any spare interview slots for networking purposes, but most of us were pretty relaxed about this. After all, we had a job fair tailored specifically for LLMs in New York scheduled for January. So, for now we were content to wait until then before starting to network and jockey for jobs.

In contrast, a friend I bumped in to at the Cleary interviews who was taking an LLM at another university had hit the ground running. He already had procured offers from Cravath and Sullivan & Cromwell, and the offers came with signing bonuses. Given what was about to happen, this was astounding. By January , rivers of blood were flowing, and firms were cutting 10-20% of their attorneys. Bonuses were eviscerated, salaries were frozen.

January’s Columbia job fair was a wash. While I was there, I grabbed lunch with a friend I had made from the Cleary interviews who was studying at Columbia. He told me that the word on the street was that some firms interviewing at the job fair had absolutely no intention of hiring anyone—they were there only because Columbia had threatened not to invite them back if they didn’t make an appearance this year.

As the US economy continued to implode, LLM students nationwide in the class of 2009 were confronted with the fact that they had managed to pick perhaps the worst year in human history to do their LLM. The chart below probably sums it up the best:

So, away from the framework of a structured recruitment cycle, I was left to pound the pavement by myself. I sent out literally dozens and dozens of resumes to firms and companies. I used my network where I could – asking friends to forward applications to hiring partners, getting Professors to provide referrals, and periodically follow-ups. In the end, I failed to land even a single interview.

Naturally, I began to doubt myself. At the start of the year, I was told that grades matter quite a lot to U.S. employers. However, by all accounts, I had a successful academic year. On my transcript there is only one subject (out of 12) in which I could have possibly received a better result (prizes included). Yet, it was still pretty disturbing.

Most of my classmates were in the same boat, and many of them returned to their home countries after little success with finding a job in the US. In the previous year, 8 or 9 LLMs had taken the California bar exam, presumably because they had procured jobs at Bay Area firms. In comparison, the total this year with legal jobs in the Bay Area was zero. Only about 15 of us stayed in the US to do the bar exam – all but two opting to get New York qualified.

In the end, I think it worked out positively for me in that it gave me the opportunity to work with a startup after graduation, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. More on that in another section.

5. Getting admitted to the California Bar

With no indication of where I’d be working after graduation, doing the California Bar was an impulse decision for me. The process is pretty expensive. The State Bar of California charges over $1,000 worth of fees, including a registration fee, an exam fee, a moral character application fee, and a fee for taking the exam with a computer. On top of that, most people enroll into a bar preparation course. Although there are other bar prep providers, BarBri has a virtual monopoly over the industry, and their bar prep course will set you back somewhere in the range of $3,500. For that price, you get to attend their video lectures and receive about 10 kilograms worth of books.

I was at an auction night at the law school, and one of the lots up for bidding was a California BarBri course. Initially listed at $800, I couldn’t resist putting in a bid and found myself in a rapidly escalating bidding war. In the end, I won the auction at a substantial discount to the retail price of the course, but it was still a little scary forking over a couple of grand to do a bar exam I had only decided to do a few minutes before.

The California Bar Exam has an infamous reputation. While it is almost impossible to fail a law school course, short of academic misconduct or assaulting your professor, it is very possible to fail the bar exam. Because California’s exam has the lowest pass rate out of all 50 states, it is usually identified as the toughest bar exam in the nation. This is slightly misleading, because California unusually allows people without law degrees to take and pass the bar exam. This drags the overall pass rate down since people without a law school education generally do very poorly. California also allows people to retake the exam unlimited times and, because the pass rate for re-takers is less than 20%, this also drags the overall pass rate down. Nonetheless, it is an exam that isn’t to be taken lightly.

The exam is three days long and completely closed book. Day one consists of answering three essay questions in the 3-hour morning session, and taking a performance test in the 3-hour afternoon session. The essays are each on different topic areas (from over a dozen topics) and are typical problem-type fact-scenario essays. The performance test is an exercise in drafting some sort of legal document (like a memo of advice or affidavit) based on a file containing briefing documents, fictitious case law and statutes, and other source materials. The second day is the MBE – the multi-state bar exam – which consists of 200 multiple choice questions about federal law. This exam is also administered by several other state bars including New York. The third day is a repeat of the first.

Assuming you already have a law degree, then the only thing you really need to have to pass the bar exam is a good memory. You don’t need to be particularly analytical and the material is not difficult to understand. This is because the course materials basically contain masses of black letter law: legal principles, their exceptions, and exceptions to those exceptions. Your task is to rote learn all of them. Your legal education – where you spent three years learning to issue spot and apply law to the facts – will fill in the rest. If you don’t have a good memory, like me, then you’re in for long hours of memorization by repetition.

The BarBri course is actually very well constructed. Paced over two months, if you follow the schedule, you’ll be fine. When I say “follow the schedule”, I don’t mean complete everything on the schedule. You only need to do maybe 75% of the things there to put yourself in a good position to pass. If you try to do everything, you won’t have a life and you’ll drive yourself crazy in the process. It is important to have a life during bar prep.

I divided each day of the BarBri course into morning, afternoon and night periods. Lectures were in the morning. After lectures, I would take a nice long lunch, then choose to do something fun in the afternoon or night period. I would use the other period to study, giving me roughly an 8-10 hour working day. The “something fun” would often be going to watch a movie, playing squash, or hitting the golf course. It also involved other activities like going to Six Flags, or a place like this:

(I edited together that video during a study break as well.) I even managed to fit in a trip to Shanghai to celebrate my dad’s 60th, the week before the bar exam. Stress relief is important, and it helps to keep things in perspective as well.

I also liked to mix up my study locations: in the library, in my apartment, on a grassy bank by the swimming pool, at Starbucks, at McDonald’s(!), next to the White Plaza fountain, and on the Area 51 lawn. It was summer, and I wasn’t going to miss out on all that sunshine.

How you choose to memorize stuff is a pretty personal decision. Some people like to use flash cards, some people like to just read and re-read things from a book. I summarize questions and answers on paper, then cover up the answers with another a sheet of paper.

I’m also a big fan of group study. For learning material, I don’t think it’s particularly productive compared to plowing through the material solo, but it importantly introduces a social element to things – knowing that you’re not in it alone, and that other people share your fears and uncertainties, is a big help with the psychological side of the bar exam.

The psychological challenge the bar exam imposes is not insignificant, but whatever you do, don’t psych yourself out of it. Compare it to the German bar exam, which consists of 55 hours of exams over 11 days.  Or the Japanese bar exam which, until recently, had a pass rate of 3-4%!

Doing the bar exam itself is an exercise in endurance. Answering the questions is a very mechanical and dry process. Don’t try to be artful in your answers; just grind it out. It’s boring and tiring, but you have to do it.

Continued in Part 3

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2
Jan 10
Sat

Year In Review (Part 4)

This is the fourth post in a series. The previous post is here.

6. A tale of three and a half startups & the major lessons I learned

In a nutshell, “venture capital” refers to money and other resources (capital) which are given to new businesses (ventures) in order to help them grow. Venture capitalists, or “VCs”, refers to the people who decide which ventures this capital should be allocated to. Similar to a private equity fund or a mutual fund focused on equities, VCs raise money from investors who want to invest in a particular type of investment. In this case, the start-up industry (young, small companies). VCs put this money into a VC fund which is then invested in a portfolio of start-up companies. In exchange, the VCs take ownership of a part of the start-up and therefore partake in any of its growth.

Silicon Valley is home to the largest VC industry in the world. And since start-ups go hand-in-hand with VC, the Valley is a hotbed of entrepreneurialism. This is not merely a catchphrase, but something which pervades the area. It’s not just that the Valley is inhabited by a mix of intelligent and ambitious people, or that it provides access to a lot of money, or that it contains a world-class university pumping out motivated grads and producing useful research. It’s also that the culture of entrepreneurialism – including its ups but also its downs – is embedded in the very culture of the place.

This is a rare environment. A smaller version exists in Israel, and I suspect China has a rapidly growing VC-funded industry. No place like this exists in Australia. I had the opportunity to get some exposure to the world of start-ups and there are two things I observed that nicely demonstrate this “culture of entrepreneurialism” to which I refer.

Let’s say someone asks you what you do for a living. You tell them that you work for a “start-up”. They do a bit more digging and it turns out that you are working out of your apartment with two other guys, not getting paid anything, and are currently going around asking people for money so you can launch your product, which is a website that allows people to do stuff. In most places in the world, the reaction you’d get would vary from dubiousness to disdain. In contrast, the reaction here is quite different – usually one of genuine interest in what you’re doing. The powerful result of this near-universal social validation is that joining a start-up is a perfectly valid career path here. It encourages people to take risks that they would not have otherwise been taken if these social support structures not been there. The heightened risk appetite that exists in human capital therefore enables start-ups to source talent for less cash (in exchange for equity or the future promise of equity in the form stock options).

The second aspect is that failing holds little to no stigma in the Valley. The vast majority of start-ups fail. And the entrepreneurs who have succeeded often have been previously involved in failed ventures. Instead, the focus here is not on the fact that someone failed, but on the reasons why they failed, and what they learned from the experience. It’s a very supportive atmosphere, and that’s what you need to foster entrepreneurialism.

I was involved in three start-ups, and although none of them turned out to be successful for me, the experience was fantastic and I learned a heap from it. I could write a lot on each of them, but I’m just going to summarize each one.

Reputation.com. The first start-up was created within the framework of an entrepreneurship course at Stanford’s business school. Although it never really got off the ground, it was an interesting experience.  The idea was compelling: to create an online reputation score that would act as a measure of your trustworthiness in fulfilling online transactions, in the same way that a credit score acts as a measure of your ability to repay debts on time. Just as eBay has a “feedback score”, you could have a reputation score that you could take with you to Craigslist, or Kijiji, or any other site where you’re dealing with an unknown counterparty.

The team was an amazing bunch of people – an ex-Air Force MBA with an engineering background, a Sloan fellow who had been at Google since 2002 (and an Olympic-level marathon runner), another MBA with management consulting and start-up experience, and a bunch of adjunct team members including several PhDs in economics and electrical engineering, and a Kellogg MBA grad. As the youngest member of the team, it was valuable seeing the experience of the others in action. For example, the way things were organized, discussed, and resolved with efficiency and professionalism. Working with them was fun.

Unfortunately, the biggest challenge confronting the team was solving the problem we had set out to solve. In the end, we couldn’t work out a way to create a solution that would work – both in a technical and business sense – and after a quarter of tossing many ideas around without result we mutually decided to abandon the venture.

Hedge-me.com. The second start-up was also created within the framework of the same course as the first. Again, the idea was compelling: to allow consumers to construct a portfolio of assets that could be hedged and fit within their investing time frames and risk appetites, without having to pay the fees that hedge funds and mutual funds charge.

The rest of the team was a bright bunch, but inexperienced. I found myself being the oldest member of the team, and the difference in team dynamics was very interesting. I think that experience is often useful for resolving disagreements. Disagreements usually involve something which is uncertain and the people holding differing opinions are to some extent engaging in speculation that the viewpoint they hold is correct. Past experience allows concrete evidence to be provided to back up an opinion so that it is no longer an argument involving speculation. On the other hand, a lack of experience is sometimes beneficial because it allows people to approach problems from perspectives unconstrained by past experience. In any event, the result is that an inexperienced team will tend to produce a lot more heated debate and discussion. (An experienced team may also have much debate and discussion, especially if the experiences of the team members differ, but the debate will more likely be confined to a few key issues.)

There were several big challenges confronting this start-up. Among the forefront were a human resourcing issue (sourcing the engineers to build our product) and a business issue (VCs identified several weaknesses in our business plan we were struggling with). However, this start-up did progress beyond the confines of the business school course, and we had the opportunity to pitch to several VCs which was a valuable (although sometimes mortifying) experience.

Tabulaw. This third start-up was the most progressed out of all of them. I joined after graduation, by which time Tabulaw had incorporated and received seed funding. This venture is ongoing so I’m not going to write anything more about it, other than to say it was a great experience and I learned the most from it. Interestingly, many of the challenges facing Tabulaw were different again to both Reputation.com and Hedge-me.com.

Major lessons learned

Here are four key take-aways from my start-up experience that relate to internet-based start-ups in their pre-funding stages:

1. In the Valley, good ideas are a dime a dozen. What you need is a team that can execute. An aphorism often attributed to an unnamed VC is that a great team executing a mediocre idea is better than a mediocre team executing a great idea. Silicon Valley is full of ideas. And if you come up with an idea, there are probably a dozen other people who have come up with it before you. Even if you’re the first to have a brilliant idea, that counts for zip. The challenge is not coming with an idea, it’s turning it into a business. In fact, the challenge is also knowing which idea to pursue, and which ideas to ignore – focusing on one thing, because a start-up normally doesn’t have the resources to do more. An idea, like talk, is cheap. Execution is action. The idea is just the first step – after that, you have to build a team, figure out the business case, analyze the business’ viability, and a whole host of other non-trivial tasks.

2. Engineers are the most important resource. Not business people, not marketers and, unfortunately for me, not lawyers. Without business people, you might not deliver a great pitch. Without marketers, you might not position your business optimally. But without engineers, you don’t really have a company. This is because an internet company’s product or service is going to be something that the engineers build or supply.

Engineers are expensive and surprisingly difficult to come by, so if you can get some to work for mainly equity, that’s an achievement. This is why my picture of a perfect founding team is a hard core engineer, and a JD/MBA with a hard core engineering background. A founding team of two is desirable. Three is ok. Four or more is generally viewed as too much as it adds an unnecessary layer of complexity to the legal documents (among other things). Non-engineers are important too, but they can be brought on board later, or used on a contracting basis.

3. Prototype, prototype, prototype. Whatever happens, keep driving product development forward. Product development should generally not be dependent on any other type of activity. It can and should occur in parallel with other workflows. Whereas recruitment or fundraising are all dependent upon third parties and can therefore be stalled, product development is primarily an internal process which can always be progressed. This of course assumes that you have engineers that can build the prototype (see point #2 above).

A prototype is a powerful asset during fundraising and recruiting as well. Like my English teacher used to say of good creative writing – show, don’t tell. Not only does a prototype or demo help to convey what you’re trying to achieve, it builds credibility in VCs’ eyes about your ability to execute.

4. Founding a start-up is more than a full-time commitment. I now believe that, unless you are a successful serial entrepreneur, founding a start-up demands full-time commitment. If you don’t need to be (or can’t be) working full-time at the start, then you perhaps don’t need to be a founder from the start.

A large part of being committed stems from simple logistical issues such as working hours and working location. I believe that a regular working location, with a suitable environment is critical. The environment doesn’t have to be sumptuous – if you’re writing software, all you really need is a table, power and net access, and a place you can talk without distractions. A whiteboard might help. This can be a founder’s apartment, or you can also rent a small office (e.g., there are furnished places in Menlo Park with inclusive net access and amenities which comfortably fit 4 or 5 people for under $600/month). I like the idea of an office because it has less distractions than an apartment, and it puts people who have worked in regular jobs before in a familiar frame of mind… in “work mode”, so to speak.

Regular contact hours are also important. Working on a start-up comes with more flexibility than a regular job, but the idea of increased flexibility is deceptive, because it also requires more commitment than a regular job. So while there is flexibility in terms of being able to step out of the office to take care of errands, and being able to work from home, you are still going to be much more productive if everyone is in the same room. Face-to-face communication is the richest form of communication, so being able to instantly bounce ideas off and ask questions to co-workers is really valuable.

VCs demand this level of commitment too, and when they do due diligence on your company, they are going to want to know where everyone stands. I was participating in a pitch to DFJ once, and two of our team members still had a year left to go on their degrees. Tim Draper lobbed us a lot of questions trying to get an idea about our team, as opposed to our business. Questions to team members were as general as, “How did you all meet?”, to being as pointed as, “Are you two dating?” One question he lobbed was, “If you are as passionate about this idea as you say, would you drop out of your university degree to pursue it?”

The half start-up?

I now work at a small internet company in the Bay Area which is not a start-up. It has been around for a decade or so, but last year it was bought out by private equity firms with the view of kicking the business into a new phase of growth. The result is that the working environment is very much like a start-up – the team is still relatively small (but growing) and there are all these new projects being planned and implemented. However, it lacks the layer of bureaucracy that comes with larger organizations. There is also a luxury in that the company is highly profitable, which means it has more flexibility and ability to go out and implement what it wants to. I’m really enjoying it: the people are friendly and talented, the work is stimulating and interesting, and I think the business has great prospects.

Continued in Part 5

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5
Jan 10
Tue

Year In Review (Part 5)

This is the fifth and final post in a series. The previous post is here.

7. The LLM Experience

At the end of my time at Stanford, I decided to put together a photo book. The project quickly ballooned, and the book become much larger than I initially intended. With the inclusion of infographics, charts, collages, stories, and lots of other stuff, the book turned into a yearbook of sorts. (I say “of sorts” because it was put together from my point of view alone.) I made it available in hard-copy format through Blurb. You can also download a low-res digital copy of it here (sans cover).

8. A New Decade

2010 marks the start of a new decade. I entered the last decade as an 18 year old and left it as a 28 year old. It is sobering to think that — at least in terms of age — these were the so-called prime years of life. It’s been quite a ride. I’m not going to sum the decade up, so I’ll just leave you with a few miscellaneous statistics and images that represent some aspects of my noughties. You can click most of them to view them full size.

Flight map

A map of the flight routes I’ve taken.


Where I was during New Year’s Eve over the last decade:

My photo album histogram

This is a portion of the frequency histogram showing the number of photos in my photo album by month. (I use Photoshop Elements to organize my photos.) As you can see, I didn’t get out very much during 2007. Such was the life of a banking and finance lawyer.

Hear Ye! Statistics

I last generated these graphs in 2006.

I like this graph. The stream of posts that form a vertical line in the graph was a 24-hour posting streak for Blogathon.

I'm hoping that 2010 will be more active than any of the last 5 years.

You need to click on this to see what it's about.

And that’s all folks!

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