Anjie Vichayanonda was an intellectual property lawyer for five years, most recently as an associate with the trademark practice group at Haynes and Boone. As a first-generation Asian-American, she found professional mentorships to be key to her success. So much so, that she decided to give up her law practice to make an app for that. Leg Up Legal seeks to partner practicing attorneys with prospective and current law students, to help them navigate the tricky waters that Vichayanonda eventually decided to extricate herself from.
The reach of the app is nationwide, and participants meet virtually through video chat. Universities pay for yearly subscriptions on behalf of their students, or students can subscribe individually for $19.99 per month. She’s now being approached by law schools like Stanford and Berkeley, which are desperate to find creative ways to connect students with professional opportunities in a physically distant world.
I chatted with the entrepreneur about the importance of mentorship and the challenges of the legal profession. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This app is fascinating to me, because there has long been a criticism of the legal profession that it needs to go back to more of an apprenticeship model, a med school kind of model. I remember when I showed up for my first job as a lawyer with Legal Aid, and I was supposed to draft a divorce petition. And I walked up to my secretary and was like, “Do you have a form for this?” And she was just stunned that a kid straight out of law school would have no concept of how to actually practice law.
I know this sounds crazy, but you could literally go through every single gateway to our profession and still have no idea whether you will be a good lawyer. You can take the LSAT — that doesn’t tell you jack about whether you will be a good student when you get into law school. And law school itself is mostly an academic exercise. You can take the bar exam, and that doesn’t tell you whether it is going to be a good fit. Then you’re popped out on the other side, $180,000 in debt, three years later. But then you’re like, 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 the residency programs, they force you to kind of be tested before you’re unleashed into the world. And that is just not how the legal profession works. And you know, I think mentoring is such an important part of your success. I watched this TED Talk just a few days ago about the most important factors for making partner. And she said, we looked at all of our partners, we looked at their education, we looked at their undergraduate education, socioeconomic backgrounds. We looked at so many different factors. And what is the secret sauce that makes you into a partner? She said universally it was that they had a mentor. And that just blew me away.
I think that that is definitely why I do what I do.
Let’s talk about how you ended up in law school. I grew up here in the States. My parents are from Thailand, but they are engineers, and I didn’t know any lawyers and I had no idea what I was doing when I applied to law school. I came from an advertising background. My undergraduate degree was in advertising and marketing, and I had some cold-calling skills. So picked up the phone, opened up the telephone book, and cold called a bunch of lawyers to see if I could learn a little bit more about what the legal profession was about before I go straight in. Luckily, one of the lawyers that I connected with became a mentor and a very influential person in my life, and changed the way that I thought about lawyers and thought about the legal profession and really became my guiding light.
But why give up your day job? I thought it was really important to pay that forward throughout the time that I was in law school. And when I was practicing, I mentored tons of other pre-law students, anybody that was interested in getting into law and really couldn’t find out much information about it. I realized that there was a real need for it. And I kept thinking, you know, if I keep practicing, worked my way up to a partner in a law firm, at best maybe I could bring along two or three people behind me and mentor them, make them my protégés. But that wasn’t good enough. I really wanted to change the way that we think about mentoring and the legal profession. I wanted to impact hundreds, thousands. And so I couldn’t, you know, just keep practicing and do this at the same time.
How did the app first come about? I decided, all right, I’m going to give myself a two-year break from practice and try to get this off the ground. So, I saved up my money and left the practice about two years ago and went into a startup accelerator. The startup accelerator was through the University of Texas at Dallas, so right down the road. We launched the startup in May, 2018, and then offered our first mentoring program. The feedback was really good from it, but it was a live mentoring program, and it was a lot of administrative burden. So instead what we really wanted to create was kind of a mentoring app, like Tinder for mentoring.
So we thought, okay, there’s all these people who are making really, really great connections online for dating. Why can’t we do the same for mentoring? So our app kind of works like that, where you create a profile, you match with a mentor, and we have a curriculum built in. It has a career development plan to help mentees self-diagnose what they’re missing and see what they want to work on with their mentors. But what we really targeted was prospective law students, folks that are interested in law school but really don’t know anything about it. They’re at the earliest stages of their career and they’re making the most important decisions based on the least amount of information. So we really wanted to connect those people with attorneys who have been through it before.
So is it weird for a non-practicing lawyer to be working to make more lawyers? I tell every single one of my students, my job is not to funnel you into law school. I’m not going to convince you to go to law school and convince you to be a lawyer. That is not what we’re here for. This mentoring program is here to teach you more about what the actual practice law is about and you make that decision for yourself. If you tell me you don’t want to go to law school, it is no sweat off my brow. It does not make me sad. In fact, I think that’s a great outcome that you find that out now and don’t go waste three years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars on law school.
I don’t have any skin in the game. I’m going to just tell you the truth and you decide for yourself. If you want to do this, then great. You walk into the profession with your eyes wide open, understanding what you’re getting into. You’re better prepared to handle these challenges. Good. If you decide you don’t want to do this, congratulations, you just won back three years of your life. Go do what you want, find your passion, you know?