Isaac Lidsky graduated from Harvard at 19 with an honors degree in mathematics and computer science. He then founded [x+1], which was later acquired for $230 million. Fascinated by the burgeoning field of “cyberlaw,” Lidsky left [x+1] and returned to Harvard to attend law school, graduating magna cum laude in 2004 as Editor of the Harvard Law Review and the only student named a Fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. As a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, Lidsky argued more than a dozen appeals in federal court on behalf of the United States and never lost a case. Along the way, he founded Hope For Vision, a nonprofit organization to fund the development of treatments for blinding diseases and within 5 years grew it to a dozen cities nationwide and more than $5 million. Lidsky has contributed pieces to and/or been featured in numerous national media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes, CNN, MSNBC, U.S. News & World Report, 60 Minutes, Voice of America, Business Insider, Men’s Health, and People Magazine. Penguin Random House acquired for publication his first book, Eyes Wide Open, and it hit the shelves as a New York Times bestseller in March 2017. TED invited Lidsky to present a mainstage TED Talk at TEDSUMMIT 2016 in Banff, Canada, and it was viewed more than a million times in its first 20 days. Lidsky now consults and speaks to organizations around the world on issues including leadership, accountability and self-empowerment.
Q. Hello, it’s a pleasure to have you here with us! Please tell us about yourself and your life before law school?
In a sense, I grew up knowing two things – one, that I really, really wanted to go to law school, and two, that I didn’t necessarily want to practice law as a lawyer. Both of those things made perfect sense to me growing up, as a kid. I can explain why that is. My dad, who is retired now, was a lawyer – a solo practitioner and wanted a business in an immigrant community in Hialeah, Florida, where he was sort of the jack of all trades and he through a lot of hard work, a lot of brilliance and a lot of luck and support from family and friends grew his practice into a pretty thriving and successful legal establishment. He eventually had around 5 or 6 lawyers working with him. He really enjoyed it and to me, it was always amazing that in that mode my father always had that power to sort of support friends and family. For me, it felt like a superpower. My father was able to hold people with the knowledge he had. He also had a different relationship with rules and could always somehow find loopholes. The way he thought as a lawyer was according to me a very powerful perspective, and as a kid, I could never win a bet against my father. I wanted to go to law school and acquire this superpower.
Regardless, I was also quite interested in Science and Mathematics and other fields. I didn’t necessarily see myself as someone who would work in a law firm for years and climb the partnership ladder. I didn’t feel like I was cut out for the 30-year single-law-firm life. I wanted to get my degree and then see what course I will follow; I just valued the license to practice law a lot.
Q. Would you say that your law school experience has helped you in setting up and running your entrepreneurial ventures?
It had an impact on a million different levels. I will say at the core level or the human level, learning the mode of thinking, the kind of reasoning through hypotheticals and the common law method of rule-making, weaving through analogies and hypotheticals and understanding how society has ordered itself is immensely valuable. The conceptual understanding of how society’s ordered itself is what you get through the study of law. It only goes levels up from that, it just defines what the rules of the game are and as a business person, it was invaluable to me to understand the basics of the game. The experience taught me what forms of liability one can experience, it also established how the multiple legal aspects actually go down in practice. Additionally, I would often write an email/letter to different individuals (employees, clients etc.,) and understand my legal obligations in it. On one level the law school experience allows me to write a mail with an understanding of what my legal risks are. Additionally, these are some of the things that I pinch myself every day about. I had a heavy background of math, technology and policy. I studied Math at Harvard and then had an experience in the Supreme Court clerkship program as well. Today, I firmly believe that if you are in the field of law or understand it and can apply it in the context of technology, then you are the helm of an incredibly lucrative field. If you can creatively apply legal skills and technology development then there hasn’t been a more incredible time to be alive. For instance; the blockchain and crypto outbreak has at its core self-reliance without mediators. It is that we can align our work through perfect trust and this self-aligning and executing codes without intermediaries can improve our lives. The difference between legal codes and contracts and technological or smart contract code is getting blurred increasingly. You can be a lawyer painting with the palate of technology. I am incredibly involved in this sphere for now and I feel in a weird way I am back to law.
Q. You returned to your entrepreneurial roots to start a multidisciplinary innovation firm – Senary Blockchain Ventures. When did the motivation for this switch begin? What were some of the factors you took into consideration before making the switch?
It is my current gig and is a multi-disciplinary innovation firm and I founded it with 2 partners. It is multi-disciplinary and greatly crypto centered. It is a 100% crypto development web free technology and the three of us are having a blast with it. We have two forums divided into the funds and development sides. In the former we develop capital; the other side is the studio which is a sort of think tank or development shop and we sort of build ideas. Right now, we have three or four fun projects on the capital side and about four applications in development in the studio side that we are really excited about. A part of the product development experience at its core really exerts the importance of legal knowledge defining the jurisdictional aspects, rights and responsibilities etc., I feel, today, that technology product development and law are becoming the same thing in many ways.
Q. Can you tell us about the types of things you did at law school? What extra-curricular and co-curricular activities did you take part in?
Sure, so I did a moot because I was really interested in the US clerkship program and I wanted to apply and get selected for the program. I was big on experiential learning and did it for that. I did the Harvard Law Review and was lucky enough to break the competition and get on. I feel like that was an instrumental experience as opposed to an intrinsic experience. I didn’t love it but I felt that it’s something I should have on my CV. However, the real passion I had was with the Berkman Klein Center For Internet & Society.
I was named the first fellow for the Center but the thing was that I was coming out of a gruelling experience from a startup and for me, law school was a vacation. Coming from 18-hour days to simply attending classes and giving an exam a subject wasn’t very challenging. So, I sort of showed up at the centre and kept on pestering everyone there and spent all my free time at the centre. This was my passion for extra-curriculars while I was there, and since law school, I hadn’t utilized the experience as such. Additionally, when I was at the Center, the internet had exploded as a new thing and what internet law would look like was the new idea. Inevitably you see law lag behind and then catch up at its own pace. It is fun to be back at it.
Q. Post your legal education you worked extensively in the U.S. Justice Department. One of the noteworthy jobs was the clerk for Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What was it like working under these stalwarts?
So just like I knew from a very early age that I always wanted to go to law school no matter what, once I heard about the US clerkship program, I sort of got convinced that I wanted to be a part of it. As it is, it’s an incredible experience, if you think about it the US Supreme Court has immense responsibility and power. It is a massive institution akin to the US congress. However, the President and the Congress command a number of people, but the US Supreme Court is just 9 justices and at most 4 clerks each.
Where the President ultimately commands all the workforce of billions of people and congress, they have their huge staff for their DC office and their staff for their own office and frankly it’s not clear what those people do for a living, cause they don’t seem to make laws, but they have them. Meanwhile, in the US Supreme Court, it has 9 Justices with at most 4 Law Clerks each and that’s it. There are some staff attorneys and clerks that work in the building as well and they have certain important functions too but for the most part, it’s the Justices and their 4 clerks you’re talking about which is about 9*5 giving 45 people who are literally responsible for the substantial work of the United States Supreme Court, the highest court of the land. For the most part, those 4 clerks are just a couple of years out of law school and they’re there for one year and they turn over every year. But it’s all-access, I mean you see it all. So, I had to do it. I did some things along the way to improve my odds because it’s ultimately very difficult. I tried pretty desperately for 4 years until I finally succeeded on year 4 and in all sincerity and without exaggeration, it was all I had ever dreamed it to be and far more. Again, I think there are zero substitutes for experiential learning. Book learning is wonderful but experiential learning is learning at the level of the human mind. I loved every second about being there and just understanding the dynamics, the vibes, the people and the roles and how it all works. Seeing how two camps can brilliantly, passionately and persuasively argue these wonderfully contained systems of logic that produce diametrically opposed outcomes. And they’re both absolutely convinced they’re right at the highest level of thinking at our nation. I love it and it’s amazing. It’s hard to say how but I know it changed me profoundly as a human being. It has enriched my life in countless ways and at the human level too, being able to get to know and work with such remarkable people and that goes without saying, it teaches you a lot. You then get to stay in touch with the community for life in two ways – the community of all the people who were working there for the time that you were there, like the clerkship class with whom you make friends. There are about 6 or 7 people that I get together with about once a year and take a trip for 3-4 days and we spend some time together. The other family is the extended clerkship family of all the years for any of the Judges or Justices you clerked for. They have unions or get-togethers periodically and you have a great community there too. It’s a life-long enrichment and it begins with that year. It’s a really intense year – if you’re awake, every second you’re working.
Q. You are an American corporate speaker, an entrepreneur, and an author. What were the challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?
I’m in the middle of doing a re-write of my website and the whole branding and I am no longer a corporate speaker. I was for a while, which I really enjoyed and it was important to me and it was special. But that’s not something I do anymore. So, I can explain – when we started ODC, a construction services business, we built a technology platform and a real-world organization to handle construction management at a high scale. So, after a while, the thing that happens is firms started growing. I left to go take some time off frankly and I wrote my book, spent a year or two writing my book and was blessed to do a TED Talk which kind of went by well I guess and before you knew it, I was being invited to give like Keynote addresses, hour-long speeches and conferences and things like that which was wonderful and for a few years I did that. There was one year alone where just to give you an example of how crazy it got, I spoke 37 times in like 8 countries or something like that. It was great, but it also became kind of exhausting and I wanted to get back to creating something new and so now with COVID and all that, these conferences rarely happen anyway, it’s a different world. Now what I intended to show you folks is that to the extent that there’s any sort of organization that has an interest in my giving a talk, making an appearance at an event, participating in something I care about or something like that, they can reach out; but something short of that, I’m not going to sell a standard talk anymore. If it’s more meaningful and more consistent with the other purposes in my life, then I’m happy to do it and it’s going to be less about if you pay my fee I will show up.
In terms of challenges, I’ve got a whole book on them but I’ll try not to go too deep. I really believe that in ways that are not always clear to us, we really are the masters of our own realities. We largely create for ourselves the reality that we experience. And so, in some respect, when we’re trying to do something new, we’re more likely to see challenges and you’re more likely to perceive them as challenges when you come from a place of fear and uncertainty as opposed to when you’re coming from a place of love and sort of focusing on who you are and what you want. Getting into some actual specifics, after the sort of joyride in public service ended when I was kicked out of the building, I did kind of go down the easy route and took an amazing signing bonus and a generous compensation package and a big International offer. I gave that a good effort and I worked for them in London for a year where I enjoyed some aspects for sure. Then I came back to their New York Office but quickly realized in my heart that this wasn’t for me. So that was a scary prospect as to ‘What have I done?’ and then the challenges are immense and infinite because I had spent 7 years building an elite legal resume and now I’m going to have to literally throw it all away? Everybody is going to think I’m crazy. Not to mention, I have a lifestyle that assumes that I make X dollars a year and so while as a Lawyer I can make X dollars a year or maybe even a little more but I don’t think anybody is going to hire me for something else that’s going to make the same amount of money and so it was challenges, challenges and challenges. If those challenges were ultimately for the desired intention to make yourself happier or maybe you are perfectly happy anyway, then you stay. But when I’m not happy with what I’m doing and it doesn’t make any sense to me and I want to do something else instead, then the challenges aren’t necessarily challenges. They become opportunities. So, all of a sudden ‘Hey, I don’t know if the gig I have next is going to pay me anywhere near what I currently make now’ became ‘what I make now goes to supporting my lifestyle in my two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan which is one of the most expensive contexts to live in the world and by the way with infant triplets is a lot expensive anyway so this is a blessing in disguise and I’ll move somewhere else to begin this new chapter and I will explicitly plan to make a lot less and so I will also plan to spend a lot less’. That’s now a wonderful opportunity because I was stressed out all day thinking I had to work 90 hours a week for some jerks in my law firm (and some nice people too) because I was just assuming that I had to pay $6000 a month in rent. Who said that? Why do I have to pay that much? So the core advice I give folks is zealous and unequivocal honesty with yourself and integrity. Align your intentions with your character, with your principles and with your desires. So, if you’re not happy then there is no good reason for you to continue it and if you’re worried about not using the things that you learnt or the skills or degree or the money that you spent, then remember that we’re human beings and we’re the sum total of every moment we’ve experienced in our lives and if you choose to say whatever you’ve done so far was a waste, then the inescapable truth is everything you’ve done in your life is jointly and separably liable for why you are who you are at all. I’m not going to regret or lament anything I’ve done because that’s to lament or regret who I am. Instead, I’m going to say that given what I’ve done and given who I am, I am going to find purpose, joy, meaning and love in my life.
And this is positive because every “mistake” that you’ve made in life, you learn from. There is no progress without failure. We’re so convinced that we can analyze our experiences and categorize them as good or bad or where we fail or come off short or where we excel. It’s all nonsense and is just stimulus-response. That’s the human condition – stimulus-response, and with every new stimulus, we get the benefit of all the ones that came before when we respond.
Q. Many of our readers are either students in law school or just starting out after their graduation. Many of them are hesitant to take their career purely out of passion. Do you have any tips on how they can strive on working consistently towards their goals in/after law school?
Yes, I would encourage everybody to start by figuring out for themselves what it is they want to do and it could even be ‘oh man, wouldn’t it be wonderful to work for a children’s toy company and invent children’s toys’. You start seeing how you can do that but with a legal perspective and maybe there’s a regulator that regulates safety for children’s toys and it may be interesting to get there for a year. Or you may have an entrepreneurial friend and you could say ‘hey, you’re gonna need some serious legal thinking as you start your new toy business. Why don’t I join you as the legal counsel?’ you get where I’m going with this. So, start with ‘what is the problem I’m trying to solve’ and ‘how to make myself happy and do what I want to do using my legal skills’ and figure it out rather than the other way as to how am I going to get a job that is good compared to my peers based on what everyone says. Who cares what everyone says?
(NOTE – This has been reproduced from a telephonic conversation between Mr. Isaac Lidsky and Abhishek Jain)
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Disclaimer – All views and opinions expressed in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the LAABh Foundation or the individuals and institutions associated with LAABh Foundation.