My Chicago Law Moment: How the Law School Helped Jim Parsons, ’77, Prepare for Careers in Law and Philanthropy

Law school wasn’t exactly what Jim Parsons, ’77, had expected.

He arrived at the University of Chicago thinking he’d be “learning law to pass the bar exam.” As he quickly saw, however, that wasn’t exactly the focus.

Instead, he and his classmates were learning about the evolution, and the theory, and the structure of legal thought.

“I remember in my Elements [of Law] class with [professor and dean] Phil Neal, I thought, ‘Wow this is going to be a different experience,’” Parsons said. “We’re learning how to think, we’re learning about the structure of law, which makes organized society possible.”

At the time, he couldn’t yet imagine how much he’d value that approach over the course of a career that would take him from law to philanthropy.

For the first 26 years after graduation, Parsons worked at a law firm, practicing corporate and securities law and serving for more than a decade as the managing partner. But then, in his early 50s, he shifted course, taking a role as the president of the Brinson Foundation, a privately funded philanthropic organization that focuses on encouraging personal initiative, advancing individual freedoms and liberties, and positively contributing to society in the areas of education and scientific research.

“What I didn’t realize when I made that switch was how the value of my Law School education [would come] back into play,” said Parsons, who has led the family foundation since 2004.

The University of Chicago law degree drew attention and opened doors. But, more importantly, it had prepared him for his new career in ways he hadn’t predicted.

“When I finally … ended up at the foundation, I learned that much of what I had learned in law school was very valuable, [for instance] how to analyze problems—let’s face it, the non-profit sector is dealing with some of the most critically difficult issues that society faces today,” he said. “In philanthropy, our goal is to evaluate nonprofits to see who is addressing those problems most effectively, and to develop grant-making strategies to ensure that we really have impact with the limited resources that we do at a foundation. … All of those analytical skills that I learned in law school really came to play very quickly when I joined the foundation, and I found it incredibly valuable.”

The Law School also piqued his interest in public policy. When he joined the Brinson Foundation, he dug into the issues, working to ensure that the foundation’s grant making took into account different aspects of public policy.

“If I hadn’t had that Law School background, I never would have appreciated that importance,” Parsons said. “And it really didn’t come to the fore until I had been out of law school for 25 years. Many things that you think you are benefiting from in law school early on in your life don’t really come into play until much later.”

My Chicago Law Moment is a series highlighting the Law School ideas, experiences, and approaches that have impacted our students and alumni. Video produced by Will Anderson.