Law Scribbler

Career confessions of an atypical law school graduate

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Jason Tashea

Jason Tashea. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

In May 2012, my professional outlook was bleak.

I was wrapping up three unenvious years of law school, confident I didn’t want to practice and saddled with about $150,000 in fresh school debt. Insult to injury: I was unemployed.

A month after graduation, I received the first in a string of professional lifelines: a Fulbright fellowship to the Republic of Kosovo.

It was a palate cleanser. I spent the year talking to people building the country’s justice system, learning Albanian among international police and aid workers and exploring the Balkans. As I traveled throughout Europe’s newest country, I was focused on traditional rule of law issues: rights and protections of defendants, procedures in court and the training of judges and lawyers. In the periphery, however, I caught glimpses of something I’d never seen before: a civic technology scene.

While the country’s government operated in fits and starts, I saw members of a young, tech-savvy population trying to bridge the government’s gaps with their own solutions. Don’t know when the city bus is coming? A local coder has an app for that. Does the environmental protection ministry struggle to monitor air pollution? Citizen scientists built the hardware, instead. The list went on.

Accustomed to thinking of direct democracy and impact litigation, I’d never seen advocacy in the form of technology. With a new universe of possibilities rattling inside my head, I left Kosovo for Baltimore to lead a criminal justice policy project.

The role didn’t last long; however, during that time I channeled what I saw in Kosovo and built my first legal app. That small act sealed my fate. I quit my job to catch the wave of the app’s early success, only to find the model unsustainable. From there, Justice Codes was born.

The following five years would be filled with euphoric successes, crushing defeats and the often-numb banality of striking out on your own.

While I don’t recommend my path to others, I do think there are broader lessons in my experience. If nothing else, I want to join the chorus of voices pushing lawyers to expand their potential and embrace nontraditional, path-breaking opportunities. While such a choice is not without cost and sacrifice, lawyers who embrace it will be better suited to navigate our changing profession.

On a shoestring budget, I did a little bit of everything: building and testing new products for justice organizations, writing impact reports on justice technologies, hosting academic symposia and freelance writing—including at the ABA Journal. Some of these ideas worked and some of them didn’t. Regardless of a project’s individual success, each helped pave the way to a more exciting and fulfilling career.

Not just powered by my solo efforts, I was able to flourish because of the support of others. At critical points, I caught the attention and patronage of invaluable gatekeepers, like Jeffrey Butts and Jeremy Travis at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Jenny Kim and Silas Horst at Koch Industries; Tanina Rostain and Alexandra Givens at the Georgetown University Law Center; and, of course, Molly McDonough at the Journal—each a lifeline.

In retrospect, it’s safe to say that this was all worth it, as I exceeded many of my initial goals. Now, I even receive the occasional call from law students or lawyers looking to make a career change asking how they can do what I did. I tell them the process to get here looks nothing like the end product.

I’m privileged to have had some savings and the personal freedom to embark on this endeavor, but I made just above the poverty line my first year. Each subsequent year was progressively better, but I still had to stop paying on my student loans during this time.

Money aside, when you’re on your own, the heartbreak of failure is more acute. For me, this was embodied in two separate incidents. At the beginning, I had a business partner, that was until he made a copy of our website and rebranded it as a solo enterprise. He wrote to our clients that I was no longer involved, and they would work with him. I was not cc’ed.

Later, I partnered with a university to bring my work in-house. Helping me fundraise, we secured a $250,000 seed grant. Pulling off the impossible, I proudly told my family about my bright future over that year’s Christmas dinner. As the following year started, however, the money never came. A disagreement between the funder and the university kept the check in purgatory.

At this point, left broke, dejected and running Facebook ad optimizations to cover rent, I became a journalist—another lifeline.

While an unintended career twist, I have loved this job. Having the freedom and support to explore and write has been a dream, which makes it bittersweet that this is my last column as a staff writer. I feel genuinely privileged to have been a part of this cohesive unit, building a better magazine for our readers. But I’m compelled once again to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts, this time joining a new access-to-justice startup. I’m excited at what lies ahead.

My circuitous professional path since law school reflects a profession in flux. I’m a product of a legal education system that produces graduates for a foregone era, while saddling them with life-altering debt. Graduating into the wake of the Great Recession, I was left unsure about my professional future and building skills absent from law school curriculum. Simultaneously, legal professionals spent the last decade scrambling to learn new processes and technologies—and fend off others—in a bid to stay relevant. Regardless of our collective best efforts, most Americans still can’t access meaningful legal assistance.

At the same time, there has never been a more exciting moment to create a new path. Within the wreckage that is the access-to-justice gap, there is opportunity. Further, costs have never been lower to experiment with a promising idea, like those had by the founders at JustFix, Simple Citizen, Upsolve and Uptrust—just to name a few.

However, change is hard, and in a profession built on precedent—literally training us to look backward—I agonize over those not focused on what’s ahead.

I meet too many unhappy and unfulfilled people in our field, and I want more for us. To get there, we must shake off the narrow idea of what it means to be a lawyer. Conversely, it will also require the acknowledgment that the skills we’ve relied on to succeed in the past are not alone the skills that will take us forward. While I wouldn’t be here without my legal education, I’ve made a career out of everything that wasn’t taught in law school: from AI to product management. We can offer more than navigating statutes and writing motions, if we allow ourselves.

Throughout it all, I’ve found comfort in a quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Currently, the tide is high and the opportunities plentiful, but it isn’t forever. Some will find this moment exciting, while others will react to the uncertainty and precariousness with dread. Regardless of how one feels, as the profession changes and the market convulses, mooring to the docks to weather the storm will only cause more damage.

It’ll be better instead to set sail.

Jason Tashea is the former author of the Law Scribbler column and a former legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal.

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