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“Alumni Conversations” is an interview series initiated by Xiaoli Jin and Alice Chen, both of whom were admitted to Harvard Law School through the Junior Deferral Program. Xiaoli is currently working at a strategy and economics consulting firm, and Alice is working at a financial sciences company. 

As a Partner at Gunderson Dettmer, Randall Clark works closely with entrepreneurs and investors in various fields. He had a delightful conversation with Xiaoli and Alice over Zoom, chatting about how he transitioned from a film major in college to a student at HLS, then to a law firm partner. It all started with a $2,000 scholarship…

We want to start by getting to know more about your education background. How did you decide to go to law school?

I grew up in Dallas, Texas and attended the University of Texas at Austin for my undergraduate studies. I initially majored in Radio-TV-Film. After winning a national video production competition during high school, I had dreams of being the next Spike Lee. But, after two years as a film major, the thought of moving to LA and working odd jobs to make ends meet until I was discovered as the next Spike Lee lost its appeal. So I double majored in Marketing and began searching for a replacement career. I tried investment banking for one summer on Wall Street (through SEO); I also tried advertising in Kansas City, Missouri the summer after that (through the Multicultural Advertising Intern Program), but neither was a good fit to me.

Back to the drawing board. The following semester, I took a business law class taught by a professor from a neighboring law school and it blew my mind. Academics had always come relatively easy for me, but that class was a challenge intellectually. Our professor used the Socratic method, which was quite different from the lecture-based approach of all other courses I had taken at UT. It made me feel uncomfortable, but in an exhilarating and fulfilling way. At that point, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer but I decided to take the LSAT because I was sure I wanted to go to law school.

I had nearly perfect grades, from kindergarten through college, so getting accepted by a top law school was within reach. Problem was, I didn’t have $2,000 for an LSAT prep course. Fortunately, I discovered the Texas Appleseed Diversity Legal Scholars Program, which awarded me a scholarship that covered the full cost of a test prep course.

I probably would not be a Harvard Law graduate, or a partner at a law firm, had I not received a $2,000 scholarship. Just think about that – $2,000 can be life changing for some people.

And that is why standardized tests should be eliminated. They aren’t a proxy for someone’s intelligence, just how wealthy that person is. Standardized tests put up yet another obstacle for underprivileged people to overcome while giving a leg up and greater access to opportunity to those who simply have a disposable $2,000 to use on test prep. My story is not unique. There are millions of people who would have tested into great colleges or grad schools, but just did not have the money to do so. And, as a result, those opportunities get monopolized by those with means that don’t seem that big when you’re on this side. I know most of us think that we earned our way into Harvard, and we did, but we also need to acknowledge the role that wealth inequality and systemic racism plays in college and graduate school admissions so that we can work with institutions of higher education to make admission more accessible to deserving individuals from underprivileged backgrounds.

Definitely. It is extremely important for us to be aware of the inequality of opportunities so that we can use our HLS experience not just to enrich ourselves but also to address broader societal problems. How did you navigate your career after you got into HLS?

The summer prior to starting law school in 2007, I interned at Sullivan & Cromwell through the SEO Law Fellowship. At the end of the internship, I was told that I’d receive an offer to return to S&C as a 1L summer associate if I met the firm’s grade cutoff at the end of my first semester. I did just that and returned to S&C for my 1L summer and, at the conclusion of that internship, received an offer to return again following my 2L year. I was extremely lucky to have an offer going into on-campus interviews in fall 2008 because the Great Recession caused a number of firms to reduce the size of their 2009 summer classes, which made securing a job offer a challenge for many of my classmates since most firms predominately hired (and still do hire) first year associates directly from their summer programs.

After graduating from HLS in 2010, I spent the first 18 months of my legal career at Sullivan & Cromwell rotating among the firm’s various transactional practice groups, with most of my work focused on M&A, real estate, and bankruptcy transactions. Thanks to a class taught by David Hornik during my spring 3L semester, I developed an interest in practicing venture capital law, and my goal was to transition to a firm with a VC practice as soon as the economy picked up. I joined Gunderson Dettmer in March 2012 and became a partner at the firm on January 1, 2020.

Congratulations on making partner! At Gunderson Dettmer, you have helped so many start-ups in different sectors to finance and grow their businesses. Could you share a bit more about your experiences here?

What got me most excited about the venture law practice was a belief that tech companies would be the BigLaw clients of the future. I wanted a practice and skillset that would remain relevant and on the cutting edge decades after my legal career began in 2010.

At Gunderson Dettmer, I work with emerging growth companies, including ones in the software, hardware, education, consumer, and healthcare industries. It’s a “soup to nuts” generalist practice – I often start working with a startup at formation and continue to work with it on corporate governance matters and corporate transactions throughout the company’s life cycle, with my representation typically ending when the company gets acquired. I also work with venture capital funds of all stages in their foreign and domestic investment activities.

This area of law fits my personality very well because it allows me to be creative and to serve as a business (in addition to legal) advisor. Working with emerging companies requires both creativity and business savvy because our clients are often looking to disrupt industries with limited resources (from both a financial and personnel standpoint), and that can involve taking calculated risks. We work hand-in-hand with founders and the company’s board of directors as they make strategic decisions that shape the company’s direction, and it’s exciting to play a part in helping companies grow from scrappy startups to household names.

This is also what makes the corporate transactional practice at Gunderson Dettmer unique compared to those at other BigLaw firms. While many of our venture fund clients and late-stage startup clients already have a General Counsel (or, in some cases, a legal department comprised of a few attorneys) with whom we work closely, just as often (if not more often than not) we’re working directly with the business principals for companies with only a few other employees (if any at all).

Now let’s zoom in a little bit on your Harvard Law experience. What is one thing about your Harvard Law experience that has helped you the most in your career so far?

There are two. One is the people I got to meet and learn from and with at HLS. Some of my law school classmates now work for startups or large tech companies, and having them in my network is helpful as I grow my practice. Aside from that, it’s great to be able to call so many current and future leaders in the legal community friends. One of those friends, Mondaire Jones, recently secured the Democratic nomination for New York’s 17th congressional district in the 2020 election. I am constantly inspired by the accomplishments of my friends from HLS.

Another thing I gained from my time at Harvard is additional confidence. I don’t think I’m easily intimidated, but Harvard is Harvard. I can remember being convinced that I’d blown my chance to get into HLS after I was awaken one afternoon by a call from a 617 number, which turned out to be the HLS admissions office…looking to conduct a phone interview. I had no idea that was coming, and was half asleep at the beginning of the interview. Not good.

Then I got a second call from the 617 number. This time I didn’t pick up – I wanted to get my thoughts together so I could redeem myself. But when I listened to the voicemail, it said: “This is Toby Stock from the admissions office of the Harvard Law School, and I’d like to welcome you to the Class of 2010.” I went nuts. I forwarded the voicemail to my parents. They went nuts. All my friends went nuts.

Once the initial excitement went away, the doubts started to creep in. “Am I really smart enough to go to Harvard Law School?” I started to consider whether I’d be better off going to another one of the law schools I’d gotten into. Fortunately, my Dad was there to remind me of what I’d accomplished (and what I’m capable of) and put his foot down – despite me being 23 at the time – telling me that I would be attending Harvard Law School. Thanks, Dad. Best decision I’ve ever made.

What do you wish you had done if you could attend Harvard again?

I wish I had focused less on grades (at least after my first semester) and taken even more time to get to know my classmates and get involved in different campus organizations, which is probably even more important for students to do now with the development of so many different clinics that can help students hone in on what they want to do after law school. When we arrived at HLS in 2007, at our orientation, then Dean/now Justice Kagan told the incoming class, “The competition is over, and here’s the good news: You all won.” Harvard Law students should really take that message to heart. There’s room for all of us to be incredibly successful (regardless of how we characterize success) and to support each other as we push to accomplish our respective goals.

I also wish I had taken more courses like Dean Spade’s Law and Social Movement and Ian Haney López’s Debating Race and American Law. Those courses helped me understand the relationship between social issues and law and had a long-lasting effect on how I think about things and practice law.

You’ve mentioned amazing professors and classmates. Do you have any memorable extracurricular experiences at Harvard?

I studied abroad in Amsterdam during the fall semester of my 3L year. It was an opportunity for me to experience living in another country, which was something I’d never done before. You can’t beat Harvard when it comes to legal education, but, for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to really immerse themselves in other cultures, I can’t recommend highly enough the benefits of spending a semester abroad.

I also chaired the Leadership and Mentorship Program (LAMP) through the Harvard Black Law Students Association (BLSA). LAMP is a school-based mentoring program that matches BLSA members with local high school students. When I was chair, we worked with students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, which is right next door to the law school. Among the events we organized for the high school students were a discussion with Ryan Leslie about the music industry and an Atlanta college tour (with stops at Morehouse, Spelman and Georgia Tech) to get the students thinking about higher education. I’m still in touch with some of the students to this day. I’m a big proponent of giving back, and anything that’s related to mentorship is going to be near and dear to my heart.