Anjie Vichayanonda was an intellectual property lawyer for five years, most recently as a partner in the trademark practice group at Haynes and Boone. As a first generation Asian American, she found professional mentoring to be the key to her success. So much so that she decided to give up her law firm to create an app for it. Leg Up Legal is looking to partner with practicing lawyers with potential and current law students, to help them navigate the tough waters Vichayanonda has finally decided to extricate herself from.
The scope of the application is national and participants meet virtually via video chat. Universities pay annual subscriptions on behalf of their students, or students can subscribe individually for $ 19.99 per month. She is now approached by law schools like Stanford and Berkeley, which are desperate for creative ways to connect students with professional opportunities in a physically distant world.
I spoke with the entrepreneur about the importance of mentoring and the challenges of the legal profession. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This app fascinates me, because there has long been a criticism of the legal profession that it needs to go back to a learning model, sort of a medical school model. I remember when I ran for my first job as a legal aid lawyer, and I was supposed to write a divorce petition. And I walked over to my secretary and I thought, “Do you have a form for this? And she was just amazed that a kid straight out of law school had no idea how to practice law.
I know it sounds crazy, but you could literally walk through every door of our profession not knowing if you will be a good lawyer. You can take the LSAT – it doesn’t tell you if you’ll be a good student when you enter law school. And law school itself is primarily an academic exercise. You can take the bar exam, and it doesn’t tell you if that’s right for you. Then you got out on the other side, $ 180,000 in debt, three years later. But then you tell yourself, I don’t want to do this.
I feel like we’re one of the few professions that’s really like that. I mean, medical school, like you said, they have residency programs, they kind of require you to be tested before you are released into the world. And that is just not the way the legal profession works. And you know, I think mentoring is such an important part of your success. I watched this TED Talk a few days ago on the most important factors in partnering. And she said, we looked at all of our partners, we looked at their education, we looked at their undergraduate studies, their socioeconomic backgrounds. We looked at so many different factors. And what’s the secret sauce that makes you a partner? She said universally that it was that they had a mentor. And that just blew me away.
I think that’s definitely why I do what I do.
Let’s talk about how you ended up in law school. I grew up here in the United States. My parents are from Thailand, but they are engineers, and I didn’t know any lawyer and had no idea what I was doing when I applied to law school. I come from an advertising background. My undergraduate degree was in Advertising and Marketing, and I had telephone canvassing skills. So I picked up the phone, opened the phone book and cold called a group of lawyers to see if I could learn a bit more about what the legal profession was before I walked in directly. Fortunately, one of the lawyers that I connected with became a mentor and a very influential person in my life, and changed the way I think about lawyers and the legal profession and truly became my beacon.
But why give up your daily job? I thought it was really important to pay forward throughout my law studies. And when I was practicing, I mentored tons of other pre-law students, everyone who was interested in law and really couldn’t find much information about it. I realized that there was a real need. And I kept thinking, you know, if I kept practicing, working my way up to being a partner in a law firm, at best I could maybe get two or three people behind me and frame them, make them my proteges. But it was not good enough. I really wanted to change the way we think about mentoring and the legal profession. I wanted to impact hundreds, thousands. And so I couldn’t, you know, keep training and do that at the same time.
How did the application come about? I decided, okay, I’m going to give myself a two-year break and try to get this off the ground. So I saved my money and left the firm about two years ago to join a startup accelerator. The startup accelerator went through the University of Texas at Dallas, so just down the road. We launched the startup in May 2018, then offered our first mentorship program. The feedback was really good, but it was a live mentoring program, and it was a lot of administrative burden. Instead, we really wanted to create some sort of mentoring app, like Tinder for mentoring.
So we thought, okay, there are all these people who build really, really good relationships online for dating. Why can’t we do the same for mentoring? So our app works like that, where you create a profile, you match up with a mentor, and we have a built-in program. He has a career development plan to help mentees self-diagnose what they’re missing and see what they want to work with their mentors. But what we really targeted were future law students, people who are interested in law school but really don’t know anything about it. They are at the very start of their careers and they make the most important decisions based on the least amount of information. So we really wanted to put these people in contact with lawyers who have already experienced it.
So, is it weird for a non-practicing lawyer to work to make more lawyers? I tell each of my students that my job is not to direct you to law school. I’m not going to convince you to go to law school and convince you to be a lawyer. This is not what we are here for. This mentoring program is here to teach you more about what the law is to practice and make that decision for yourself. If you tell me you don’t want to go to law school, it’s not a sweat on my forehead. It doesn’t make me sad. In fact, I think it’s a great result that you’re finding out about this now and not wasting three years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars in law school.
I don’t have a skin in the game. I’ll just tell you the truth and you decide for yourself. If you want to do that, all the better. You enter the profession with your eyes wide open, understanding what you are getting yourself into. You are better prepared to meet these challenges. Good. If you decide you don’t want to do this, congratulations, you’ve just gained three years of your life. Go do whatever you want, find your passion, you know?