San Francisco Immersion Program Establishes a Foothold in Silicon Valley


By Ed Finkel

Law, Business, Tech Students
San Francisco Immersion Program

For the past few winter quarters, a select group of Northwestern Pritzker Law students, together with their Kellogg School of Management counterparts, have ditched their winter hats and gloves and traveled west in order to immerse themselves in the world of Silicon Valley.

Housed in Northwestern’s San Francisco campus and open to second- and third-year students, the 10-week San Francisco Immersion Program, which is directed by Emerson Tiller, J. Landis Martin Professor of Law & Business, combines externships at companies like eBay and Impossible Foods with classroom instruction by professors from both schools. The externships, which, for law students, take place in general counsel’s offices, provide not only valuable experience but contacts in the tech world, many of whom are Northwestern alumni.

Launched as a Kellogg initiative in 2017, the Law School was invited to join as a partner a year later. The program piloted with limited enrollment but quickly attracted attention and interest from students hoping to work in the tech world after graduation. For the 2020 session, the program had 30 applications and enrolled 20 students — roughly double the number of previous years. “We’re seeing a need for law schools to do more than just prepare students with critical thinking and legal reasoning skills,” says Don Rebstock, associate dean of admissions and career services. “There are other competencies students need, like an understanding of business strategy, quantitative and financial skills, communication and presentation skills, and an entrepreneurial mindset.”

“A lot of people in law school go in with the idea that they’re going to work at a firm forever. The legal profession has tracks that you follow. This program got me thinking outside those tracks.”

Kellogg started its effort for many of the same reasons — to give students exposure to and experience in the tech world, to engage with alumni on the West Coast, and to provide a differentiator for prospective students, says Michael Xenakis, adjunct lecturer of innovation & entrepreneurship, who runs the program at Kellogg. Sixty-three Kellogg students participated in the first three years, and they currently cap their side of program at about 30 students per year. Participating students from both schools say the combination of hands-on experience and close relationships with classmates is what makes the program stand out. “It allows them to combine the academic rigor with that unique, hands-on experience of working at startups in particular, and venture firms,” Xenakis says.

That combination suited Mason Willis (JD ’20), who originally hails from the Bay Area and wants to return to his hometown to practice in the technology field after graduation. “Those 10 weeks changed the way I think about my career,” Willis says. “A lot of people in law school go in with the idea that they’re going to work at a firm forever, or move forward on the standard route that’s out there. The legal profession has tracks that you follow. This program got me thinking outside those tracks.”

Emerson Tiller teaches a class in the San Francisco Immersion Program


While the externship experience may seem to be what makes the program unique, both students and professors say the coursework sets the program apart from the typical Law School fare. Courses like Information Privacy and Social Entrepreneurship are San Francisco-only offerings, and the opportunity to bond with Kellogg students is another unique feature. “They’re going side by side with Kellogg students to classes,” Rebstock says. While courses around entrepreneurship have historically revolved around preparing students to represent entrepreneurs, “this is also about preparing a subset of our students to be entrepreneurs themselves.”

Taking classes with a cross-disciplinary group of students leads to rich conversations, previewing the types of discussions lawyers and company leaders will have for the rest of their careers, Xenakis says. “When the question raised is, ‘how do you think about this business, and would you invest?’ business school students without fail go toward, ‘What’s the competitive advantage?’” he says. “Law students bring to bear whether there are intellectual property issues, and are they defensible. The more perspectives and viewpoints, the better.”

Joshua Bruce Deal (JD ’19), who went through the program in Winter 2018, appreciated the interactions with Kellogg students in both the present and future tenses. “My clients will be business leaders. It was valuable to have the opportunity to interact with them and see the type of training they’re focusing on,” he says. “Law students have our nerdy conversations. Business people have their nerdy conversations. It’s good socially because it’s a reminder to broaden your horizons.”

Willis also appreciated the exposure to students who plan to join startup companies. “That wasn’t on my radar before doing this program, in terms of taking a risk with my career,” he says. “My eyes were opened to alternative avenues towards a happy life.”

Maria Arroyo (JD ’20), who externed with eBay as part of the 2019 program, says Law School students stood out in the combined law-business classes. Business students “would often have optimistic comments about the growth of a company, like whether it could go global,” she says. “The JDs brought reality to class discussions: ‘Is this actually a good idea? Is the IP protected?’”

In turn, law students learned to keep a balance between identifying risks and getting overly fixated on them. “Professors encouraged us to keep an open mind,” Arroyo says. “To be okay with the fact that there’s risk.” And realize that the Kellogg students’ optimism “is the mindset you need to have when founding and building a company.”

That much of the instruction is done by people who are in the field, such as partners in venture capital firms, was another perk, Arroyo says. “These people are actually doing the job, interacting with each other in real deals that are going to happen. That was one of my favorite things I experienced.”

Class on Northwestern's San Francisco Campus


To date, the externships have provided a range of experiences, which can vary depending on the growth stage of the company. At a mature company, a student might get experience in different divisions, spending time in labor and employment, and then in intellectual property, Tiller says. “Whereas at a startup, it’s more fast and loose — they could get anything that might be coming their way,” he says. “It’s an excellent opportunity for people who have not had any prior business work experience to get inside a company and diversify their own portfolio of experiences,” he says. “We think that will help create a gateway for a lot of students.”

Deal, who did his externship with the human resources company Gusto, says the gig required some adjustments on his part. When he showed up the first day wearing a tie, a rumor began that the company was being audited. In addition to a casual dress-code, he was surprised to find an open-concept office with big screen TVs showing the company’s metrics. “Going from the formality of the law firm world to the energy and informality of the startup culture was shocking, exciting,” he says.

“When you’re a startup, you don’t have the money to hire everybody you might want. It was really helpful to have access to somebody who’s smart and could do good work.”

At eBay, Arroyo handled a different project each week for different practice groups as part of a rotation that included two weeks at subsidiary company StubHub. “Everyone I met was so accomplished and so, so smart,” she says. “Everyone took the time to get to know me. I felt really welcomed.”

Willis, who worked at the 3,000-person tech company Genes prior to law school, wanted to try a different environment and was placed at the 70-person startup Ouster, which builds lasers for self-driving cars. He reported to general counsel Myra Pasek (JD ’90), a veteran of companies like Tesla and Impossible Foods, where she also hosted externs. “She didn’t have a legal team. It was just me and her,” Willis says. “Because she is literally the only lawyer at this rapidly growing company, she does everything.” That included corporate governance, employment law, health and safety, contracts and intellectual property. “I got exposed to everything. I helped review contracts, draft health and safety manuals, and I interacted with outside counsels.”

As an alum, Pasek knew that she would get high-quality students when she took on externs. She gave Willis work that was appropriate for his experience but also substantive and helpful to her, such as preparing for the company’s next round of financing by creating a repository for all of its important documents. “When you’re a startup, you don’t have the money to hire everybody you might want. It was really helpful to have access to somebody who’s smart and could do good work,” she says. “It was work I would have done myself, if I could clone myself. He worked with outside counsel to update our employment agreements. He did things that needed to be done, that didn’t require a ton of legal judgment, but required somebody who’s smart, and can write well, and basically manage the project.” 

The externship offered Willis an experience he might not have gotten otherwise. “He got to see the inner workings of what a legal department does at a super-promising startup,” Pasek says.


Since the program’s launch, some participants have found jobs with Silicon Valley firms, and all have built their networks, Tiller says. “That’s one of the things we hoped would happen. It’s not necessarily jobs at the companies themselves — [general counsel’s office at a tech company is] often the resting place after three, four, five years at a law firm,” he says. “The hope was that these experiences would make them more attractive to law firms, especially Bay Area law firms. We’ve seen that bear fruit.”

The externship and the program overall worked out well for Deal, providing the contacts that led to his current job for the Palo Alto-based firm Cooley LLP. “This program was an inflection point of my legal career,” he says. “It’s possible I would have ended up out there without the San Francisco program, but I do think it changed my life.”

Following his experience in the San Francisco Immersion Program, Willis worked as a summer associate at the San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster, where he will return to work full time after graduation. “This program is exceptional to give you real, hands-on corporate work, which you don’t necessarily get in law school,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to get exposure in a region where corporate work is integral. I found that to be incredibly valuable.”

Arroyo spent the summer after the San Francisco program working at Atkinson Anderson in Los Angeles, handling labor and employment work, and while she expects to work for a firm after she graduates, she has in-house work in mind down the road. “Employment law is one of the first positions a company hires when growing their legal team,” she says, adding that she appreciates how well the program prepared her to network. “I’m a first-generation student. I’m not completely familiar and comfortable all the time with marketing myself.”

Northwestern Pritzker Law alumni have been playing a growing role in the San Francisco Immersion Program, whether hosting externs, teaching in the program, or appearing as guest speakers, Tiller says. “There’s a lot of distance between Chicago and Silicon Valley, so our Bay Area alumni aren’t always as active,” he says. “This is a chance to engage our alumni on the West Coast more. Whether they’re teaching, mentoring, or appearing as a panelist at a conference — this provides ways to engage our alumni that we never could before.”

This is especially important since, as Deal notes, California is a top destination for Law School alumni. “I would encourage members of the Bay Area Northwestern Law Alumni community to engage with this program — even something as simple as making an introduction, speaking to a class, or giving students a tour of where they work,” he says. “It will give those students a sense of what the practice of law looks like beyond the classroom, and beyond the Midwest.”