Entrepreneurial lawyers: It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s something of a fledgling trend. For example, take University of Pennsylvania Law School students Lydia Fayal and Stephanie Shyu. Right in the thick of their 3L year, they participated in the Wharton Business Plan Competition and even became finalists.
Their startup? AdmitSee, a platform that allows college and graduate school applicants to access profiles of students in the schools they’re targeting. It creates a win-win situation: Applicants get a cheaper alternative to admissions consultants, and current students get extra income from uploading their old essays. If someone buys your profile, you get half the money from the sale.
Many people have asked Shyu if going toe-to-toe with MBAs was intimidating. She shrugs off the idea. “We really are passionate about what we’re doing and we really believe in the product, so it’s been pretty natural going out, establishing partnerships, and doing cross-promotional opportunities,” she says. Plus, Shyu adds that law students have an advantage in the form of public speaking experience. “To be honest, I think lawyers are great presenters, so I think for us, that actually worked out really well,” she says.
It helps that both Fayal and Shyu have business in their backgrounds. For one, both of them will be graduating with certificates in management from Wharton. Fayal, who almost did a JD/MBA, comes from a clan of business students: “Everyone in my family went to business school and worked in private equity and corporate real estate,” she says. Though she chose to differentiate herself by attending law school after spending three years at ICM Partners, she was still drawn to the corporate side of law. Last summer, she was a summer associate in corporate practice at Mayer Brown.
Shyu brings a fair amount of startup experience to AdmitSee. In 2010, she spent nine months as a reporter and producer for Comtex News Network, a financial news startup; in 2013, she was a summer associate at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, where she worked in the emerging companies practice area.
“IT’S CRAZY TO ME THAT PEOPLE ARE STILL RELYING ON THESE ANONYMOUS FORUMS”
Fittingly, the two founders met at a Wharton event back in November 2012. “Stephanie and I were randomly in the same info session for the Wharton Business Plan Competition two years ago,” Fayal says. “We were chatting about some business ideas we’d had, and I mentioned the idea of AdmitSee to her, and she just looked at me and was like, ‘Yes. I can’t believe this doesn’t exist already. We should do this.’” The site went up in August 2013, and they’ve been working on it constantly ever since.
Fayal and Shyu were inspired by their own exasperating application experiences, which began in high school. “Both of us were incredibly frustrated with the process, because we both went to public schools,” Fayal says. “They were good public schools, but you don’t have much access to a college counselor. And it’s getting worse: The ratio of college counselors to students in the U.S. is 1:471, and 73% of public schools don’t have a dedicated college counselor.”
That’s why so many college applicants turn to sites like College Confidential. “I was applying back in 2002 when College Confidential was still pretty new, and it’s crazy to me that people are still relying on these anonymous forums when you never know who you’re talking to,” Fayal says.
Applying to graduate school wasn’t any easier for her. “I was coming from a kind of unique background and had worked for a few years,” she says. “I wanted to figure out a way to get my whole resume into my essay, and I couldn’t find any examples of how people with an entertainment background have done that.”
“THERE’S NEVER GOING TO BE A PERFECT TIME TO START YOUR OWN THING”
As passionate as Fayal and Shyu are about AdmitSee, it’s hard to imagine how they kept building the company while they’re still in law school. “I spend more time every week on AdmitSee than I do in class or preparing for class,” Lydia says. “It’s a 60, 70-hour-a-week job.”
Part of it has to do with timing. They only started working on it during the second half of their 2L year, which is when law school generally starts winding down, and the tech team did most of the heavy lifting while they were working as summer associates. Part of it also has to do with knowing how to choose the right classes. Part of it certainly has to do with discipline.
But as simple as it sounds, the most important thing is that both Fayal and Shyu truly want to do what they’re doing. “I think people are always afraid to take on too much in law school or commit themselves to too many extracurriculars,” Fayal says. “I think that if you find something that you’re actually really passionate about, it doesn’t feel like extra time.”
Shyu echoes her co-founder’s thoughts. “I think in general, a lot of people wait and say, ‘You know, I have this great idea, but I don’t think I’m ready yet’ or ‘I don’t have a good team for it’ or ‘I’m not in a good place right now to start it,’ but I think people should not think that way,” she says. “I met Lydia through law school, and I actually think law school is where you can find a lot of people who are super driven, have great ideas, and are really great at managing their time and managing other people. So, if you can find somebody in law school who wants to do something similar with you, you should take that opportunity. There’s never going to be a perfect time to start your own thing, so if you have an idea that you believe in, you should just delve into it.” She makes a good point: As busy as law school is, the real world is likely to be busier.