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Q&A with Jesse Wang, Author of 'Underdog: 12 Inspirational Stories for the Despondent Law Student'
USC Gould School of Law

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

By Jim Lee

Gould JD student Jesse Wang describes his motivation for, and the process of, writing his book.

1. What was your motivating factor in publishing this book?

All law students, no matter which law school they attend, have a stressful first year experience. 1L year is the first of many crucibles that we all must struggle through on the path of becoming a successful lawyer. 

That being said, it’s still the first of many trials and, as such, its value and weight are often overemphasized by classmates, faculty, and members of the legal community at large, placing an inordinate amount of pressure on first year students to perform exceptionally well. What this pressure creates is a culture in which those who come out at the top believe that they are set—that they are on the path to a successful and meaningful legal career—and those at the bottom are left feeling despondent—that there is no way forward and they should give up on their dreams of becoming a lawyer. I, along with many of my classmates, came out of my first year of law school with grades that were far below my expectations, but I knew it was not the end of the road for me. I believed this because of a Chinese proverb my mother used to repeat to me as a child every time I didn’t perform well on a test: “the clumsy bird flies early.” What this proverb means is that no matter how many times you stumble or fall, every proverbial bird, law student, or young attorney is capable of finding success, so long as they put in the effort and practice. 

This book serves as a reminder to law students everywhere, particularly those who came out of their first year feeling disappointed or doubting their own capabilities, that there is always another way out, another strategy to play, and another opportunity for redemption if they keep fighting to improve. This mindset of prioritizing improvement and incremental wins above all else is an overarching theme woven throughout the book chapters and repeated by the 12 incredible individuals I interviewed during my time at USC. They each taught me that success is about appreciating small wins and using them to build momentum to achieve bigger wins in the future. Success is about resilience—persevering day in and day out and chasing down a singular goal with every ounce of your being. Most importantly, success is about building a network of like-minded individuals who you can trust and lean on in moments of adversity.

2. Can you describe the process?

Back in October of 2019, I received a message on LinkedIn from a former attorney and current professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, Eric Koester, who told me my profile intrigued him and asked if I was interested in writing a book. At first, I was hesitant, given how busy my schedule was, but I decided to give it a go, because I realized I had a lot to say about the incredible experience I had had so far at Gould. It was perfect timing, too, because I had spent my entire 1L summer reading some very powerful self-help books, such as Nassim Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” and Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence,” as well as listening to podcasts like NPR’s Life Kit, This American Life, and Hidden Brain. I had been thinking about finding an outlet to express my thoughts on the topics discussed and how they could apply to my life. So, I took on the challenge of writing the book from scratch, which was an incredibly daunting task in the beginning. Although, as I progressed through the writing process, it felt less like a job and more like a hobby—almost like journaling. 

The Creator Institute, which is the book writing program that Professor Koester had founded, was an incredible vehicle in making this project come to life, because it held me accountable. I had to meet with my editor every week to discuss my progress, keep up with a strict revision schedule, meet with cover designers to figure out how the book would look aesthetically, raise $5000 from pre-orders to fund the publication process by reaching out to my network, and so on and so forth. In the end, while it was an exhausting time, it was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life and I could not have done it without the support of my fellow Trojans—the USC alumni, professors, and classmates that made up the majority of the 165 donors who helped fund the book’s publication and gave this book the legs to move forward. 

3. What do you hope to accomplish with this book? 

The most important accomplishment of this book for me was celebrating the diversity, strength, and legal brilliance of the USC student body and faculty. This project would not have been possible without their profound insight and support, including those from: Professor Dorna Moini, Dean Andrew Guzman, SBA President Danielle Luchetta, and PILF President Mirelle Raza. I even met with the President of USC, Dr. Carol Folt, who let me know she was so inspired by “Underdog” that she included my story in her remarks during USC’s Reunion Weekend! Thanks to everyone who believed in me and supported my campaign, “Underdog” debuted as the #1 Best Seller and #1 New Release in its category on Amazon eBooks. This accomplishment is a victory for everyone at Gould, and it demonstrates how much those in the legal community want to have an open and honest conversation about addressing the stresses of law school. 

In addition to this accomplishment, there are three main goals I hope the book will achieve moving forward: (1) provide support to the USC Barbara F. Bice Public Interest Law Foundation and the Small Business Clinic by donating all profits from book sales to both organizations,  (2) encourage law students to be more creative and to look within themselves to figure out their “ultimate concern” (i.e. their purpose for becoming a lawyer), and (3) motivate law schools, law students, and practicing attorneys to speak honestly about the importance of mental health and establishing healthy work-life boundaries in the legal field. 

Prior to the book release, I spoke with the former and current presidents of the Public Interest Law Foundation, Mirelle Raza and Johnathan “Chief” Coleman, as well as the director of the Small Business Clinic, Professor Michael Chasalow, to coordinate how I could donate the profits to their respective organizations. At the time, the pandemic had reached its peak and I wanted to do all that I could to provide my full support in helping vulnerable communities and the small businesses in the Los Angeles area that are struggling the most from the fallout. PILF is an organization that provides funding for law students fighting to promote social justice, equal access to the law, and empowering marginalized and underrepresented communities by providing pro bono clinic opportunities at local organizations such as the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles (NLSLA), and Community Legal Aid SoCal. I’m incredibly humbled by the work that they have done, and I know that the funds from book sales will be well spent toward an importance cause.

Secondly, I hope this book encourages law students to think more creatively in figuring out their true purpose for becoming lawyers. In the book, I speak about my experience taking two life-changing courses at Gould: Professor Dorna Moini’s Legal Innovations Lab and Professor Beverly Rich’s Legal Technology course. Professor Moini is a Sidley Austin LLP associate turned founder and CEO of the legal technology startup, Documate, and Professor Rich is a former litigator turned Ph.D. candidate in Strategy at USC Marshall School of Business. Both professors taught me a great deal about how versatile the J.D. degree can be and inspired me to think innovatively about how I could find success outside of the traditional path that I had become so attached to. 

Of course, I intend to complete my JD-MBA program, take the bar, and practice law for a period of time, but their courses and guest speakers demonstrated to me how quickly the legal field is changing and how many practicing lawyers leverage their legal skills to find success in a multitude of industries, including entrepreneurship, compliance work, and consulting. As a result, I was inspired to participate in the 2020 Global Legal Hackathon, a competition in which participants ideate, develop and pitch original ideas using technology to solve a particular legal need. I developed a mental health application for law firms, “MentalBrief,” alongside a senior data scientist from Capgemini, Kevin Coyle, and third-year law student at Gould, Michael B., which ultimately earned third place. I hope that my experience participating in the competition inspires law students to think hard about what it is they seek to accomplish once they graduate and how thinking outside the box can be enormously valuable in the legal field.

Finally, I know this book will motivate law students and those in the legal community in general to speak honestly about the importance of mental health. There are so many unfortunate stories and statistics that were highlighted during law school orientation about how lawyers are the most depressed professionals. According to the American Bar Association and a Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study, lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people in other jobs and 28 percent of licensed, employed lawyers suffer with depression. Much of this comes down to the fact that those who pursue careers in law are more likely to have type-A personality traits, be driven perfectionists, and experience major anxiety from being responsible for handling their clients’ fate. 

While many believe that these struggles will disappear once we graduate, the stories of those I interviewed demonstrate that they may very well get worse without establishing proper coping mechanisms and a strong emotional support system. While the book’s position as a #1 best-seller and #1 new release is cause for celebration in the short-term, this is only the first step in influencing law schools on a broader scale to take preemptive measures in bettering students’ mental health prior to facing the exacting standards required by the profession in the real world. I am confident that with the guidance of Dean Guzman, President Folt, and the rest of USC’s incredible leadership, we can work together to make Gould the frontrunner in bettering law students’ mental health and establish a blueprint for other schools to follow suit.

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