Innovation Trek 2024: Exploring Diverse Paths to Success

Twenty-Three Law School Students Experience Bay Area Start Up Culture and Connect with Alumni in the Field

People standing together for a photo in front of a large screen.
Innovation Trek participants enjoying an afternoon at X, the Moonshot Factory, with lawyers from various Alphabet companies.

I came into law school interested in the intersection of law and technology, so when I heard about the Innovation Trek, a four-day trip to meet attorneys and innovators in the Bay Area led by the Law School’s Innovation Clinic, I knew it would be an amazing opportunity to explore my interests and hopefully expand my network with alums on the West Coast.

The Trek happened over spring break, and it far exceeded my expectations.

We kicked off day one in the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati office in Palo Alto. We met with speakers, many of whom were alumni of the Law School, who encouraged us to trust our perceptions and embrace uncertainty as we worked to architect our careers. Our opening speakers provided the perfect introduction of what would be a repeated theme during the week: your life plan is never set in stone. 

We then heard from a unique IP panel of four highly accomplished women with wildly different backgrounds. They spoke with enthusiasm, confidence, and authority on an area of law that I typically associate with men with STEM backgrounds. Beyond their practical explanations of the different practices within IP law, they highlighted that even though it’s important to understand the challenges of the tech industry—the role of an exceptional attorney is to provide solutions.

Four women sitting at a table talking to students in a conference room.
Maya Skubatch, Danielle Coleman, Caitlin Courtney, ’12, and Lisa Nguyen, ’06, discuss their varied intellectual property practices.

We received more practical insight mixed with striking career advice at a biotech panel, which closed out the day. What hit me the hardest was hearing that the wrong way to pursue your career is by trying to win—trying to choose the stereotypical path in pursuit of “guaranteed success”—because you can’t count on winning, and the worst-case scenario would be to not win while doing something you hate.

Throughout the week our speakers had very different takes on how we should manage our careers, because they each had very different stories about what had worked in theirs. Yet, all of them shared from a place of vulnerability, weaving in their personal stories and key life moments so that their advice was about much more than just a career decision. I was struck by how open the speakers were with us; they highlighted not just what they knew, but who they were.

On day two we went to Coinbase, where we got to learn more about day-to-day life in-house in the Bay Area, especially in the innovative and sometimes contentious world of cryptocurrencies. Yes—we all got to hear their thoughts about where they think crypto is going. We also spoke about what it looks like to manage a Twitter presence and the public eye as part of a legal career and the opportunity to be a counselor when you work in-house alongside non-legal areas of the business.

Four people sitting at the front of a room talking to an audience of students
Leaders of Coinbase’s legal team, including Paul Grewal, ’96, Leah Bressack, Steve Yelderman, ’10, and Molly Abraham, ’10, share thoughts on crypto and the role of an in-house lawyer.

Outside of Coinbase we also had a panel about the evolution of the AI space from speakers who included non-attorneys. AI is a personal passion of mine and their thoughts on the future of AI and the legal landscape, especially the current and anticipated battleground legal areas, were incredibly fascinating. We ended the day by speaking to various young alumni who currently work in the Bay Area. While all of them had a lot to share, I especially loved the encouragement to pursue what we’re passionate about and not force our lives to fit into a box.

Our diverse array of speakers had very different legal careers, some with roles I’d never even heard of, but each of them had found “success” and were still finding it. The spirit of what they all shared was to drive your career forward by being open to the opportunities that life brings. As one of the alumni speakers told us: it’s okay to evolve as your interests change and evolve.

Day three brought us to Plug and Play Tech Center for a peek behind the curtain of how innovation gets funded and nurtured. This was the most business-oriented session of the Trek as we discussed the structure of accelerator programs and various funds. We also spoke with a serial startup founder about his journey, as well as a young venture capital analyst about walking companies through the funding process. From Plug and Play we ventured to Alphabet’s internal innovation hub (X, the Moonshot Factory), where we heard from a series of exceptional(ly cool) attorneys about their day-to-day roles, their careers, and how they got to Alphabet.

A group of people sitting and talking around a large table.
Julian Savelski, ’22, meets with Trek students as part of the Young Alumni Roundtable session discussing life as a junior lawyer in Silicon Valley. Other alumni meet with rotating small groups of students as well.

Again, I was struck by the breadth of backgrounds, experiences, and histories that these panelists encompassed as much as by their demographic diversity. We hear so much about the legal field being insular and homogenous that it’s important to me to highlight how much this week wasn’t that. While everyone we spoke to was affiliated with “innovation in the Bay Area,” none of them had the same background, nor the same linear journey to their success. These were brilliant, talented people who had charted unique paths despite whatever obstacles they faced and, in many cases, made it a point to drive home that their path is accessible for all of us, and not only theoretically. Across all four days many speakers took the time to speak through exactly what they did to get where they were, with advice on where to start and what to seek out every step of the way.

Arriving at Fenwick on the last day of the Trek was bittersweet because the energy of possibility throughout the week was infectious, and I didn’t want to say goodbye. The climate panel was equal parts confronting and inspiring, and I appreciated that through very different perspectives and varied positions across law, financing, and tech engineering, the panelists were each committed to being part of the solution.

In the Silicon Valley investing panel we spoke about the broader world of problem solving, the need for independent VC firms, and the role of corporate venture capital. Our last panel on startups that grew to be very successful was the perfect ending to bring it all home. The panelists spoke about the evolution of Silicon Valley and the parallel evolution of their careers, and they gave us frank and much needed perspective that spoke to the advice we’d been receiving throughout the week. Their wisdom can be summarized by a sentiment that a few panelists wove together: Silicon Valley has a deep culture of risk taking and therefore if you’re genuinely creating value, and committed to excelling at what you do, you can get anything done.

When I say that this experience has left me feeling like I can do anything, it’s anything but fluff. I left the week reminded that I came to the Law School because I wanted to do big things and feeling empowered and armed with the practical knowledge, as well as the necessary encouragement, to get out there and accomplish every goal.

Chi Obasi, 25, is a JD/MBA student at UChicago Law and Chicago Booth. Chi is passionate about the intersection of law and innovation, especially seeing the law evolve to confront modern problems. This summer she will be a summer associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom splitting her time between their Palo Alto and Chicago offices.