Every Sunday in 10-week stretches, nine law students leave Stanford’s campus and head north to teach at another school: the Prison University Project at San Quentin. Available to 20 prisoners who have earned their AA degree, the Stanford course offers a seminar-style experience that enables its students to analyze the prison system of which they are a part. Students study incarceration from a global angle, incorporating philosophy, race, history, religion, government, and international relations.

“The students are so engaged. They do the reading, they make notes in the margins. We’ve had remarkable discussions within prison walls,” explains Maggie Filler, JD ’12, who co-founded the course and the wider campus initiative, the Stanford Prison Forum, with Sara Mayeux, JD ’10 (PhD ’15). The course brings Stanford and prison students together in a collaborative learning environment, all focused on examining the imprisonment epidemic. “We wanted to take an interdisciplinary look at the subject—legal issues and broader questions. We applied for a Student Projects for Intellectual Community Enhancement grant, which resulted in funding that allowed us to include prisoners in the conversation and to use our resources to give something back.”

Photo of Ledeen, Hsieh, and Jacobs outside of the William H. Neukom Building
Gabriel Ledeen, JD ’12, Anne Hsieh, JD/MA ’12, and Gavriel Jacobs, JD ’13 (Photo by Colin Clark)

Similarly, when Alexander Benard, JD ’08, learned that Afghanistan had passed a new, more human rights-friendly constitution but that the country’s law schools failed to teach the new framework, he wanted to leverage Stanford Law’s resources—including “a body of students interested in hands-on, practical international work”—to help fix the problem. Benard, joined by Eli Sugarman, JD ’09, consulted Larry Kramer, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean, about creating the Afghanistan Legal Education Project (ALEP), in which law students would collaborate with the American University of Afghanistan to write textbooks and create a curriculum reflecting the constitutional changes.

According to Benard, the dean “greased all the wheels and destroyed all the roadblocks to make this happen. He even provided some startup funding.” Under the supervision of Erik G. Jensen, director of the Rule of Law Program, the students set to work building a law program from scratch. It proved so successful that not only was it adopted by multiple Afghan universities but the country’s Ministry of Justice and Supreme Court as well as the U.S. military now all use those Stanford-generated materials. ALEP received a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of State, and the project has expanded with students doing similar work in East Timor, Bhutan, and, more recently, Iraq.

Stanford Law School has long been a magnet for innovative students, those drawn to the Palo Alto campus not just for a law degree but also for immersion in the uniquely entrepreneurial environment of the university and its Silicon Valley environs. Even before World War II, Stanford was becoming a hub for innovation with the 1934 graduation of David Packard (BA ’34, ENG ’39) and Bill Hewlett (BA ’34, ENG ’39) and continued as such through the explosion of startup companies in the 1990s, giving birth to game-changers like Sun, Cisco, eBay, PayPal, and Google. Today, Stanford Law School students are building on that tradition of entrepreneurship by starting programs, courses, student groups, companies, and nonprofit organizations.

For Benard, the ALEP experience “infused a can-do spirit” in everyone. “We’re all involved in entrepreneurial pursuits now: starting companies, working on initiatives on the side. A lot of it has to do with the size of the law school—it’s pretty amazing that at Stanford you can email the dean directly.”

Benard also credits the broader law school community with encouraging innovation. For example, former dean Paul Brest, professor of law, emeritus, and president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (until September 2012 when he retires and Larry Kramer takes over the position) provided additional support for ALEP with an early grant. And the university’s Vice President and General Counsel Debra Zumwalt, JD ’79, introduced Benard to key people at the American University of Afghanistan, where she served as a trustee.

Many student startups are borne directly from class work. Margaret Hagan, JD ’13, for example, founded Safe Mathare, while taking Designing Liberation Technologies, a design school course co-listed with the law school, in which teams of graduate students from varying disciplines devise technology-based solutions to quality-of-life challenges in Nairobi.

“I wanted to do a project that had a social impact. I’m a problem-solving person more than a lecture hall and memorizing person, and I wanted to try something interdisciplinary,” which is encouraged by the law school administration, she explains.

Hagan’s team tackled safety issues for women in Nairobi’s slums. “Our basic principle is that it’s safer to walk in numbers, especially at dawn and dusk, which is when women need to commute. But it can be difficult to coordinate.” So Hagan’s team devised a safety service, hiring chaperones to be stationed at transit points and to walk up and down the mud paths. Hagan worked with the district officer (akin to mayor) so the chaperones could use low-level smartphones with direct lines to the police.

Hagan has traveled twice to Nairobi, where, she says, “I grew up a whole lot. I had to hire, fire, and manage people. It was the first time I took a leadership role in business.” That growth was possible, she says, because at Stanford entrepreneurship is not just relegated to the business or computer science schools. “There’s a great entrepreneurial spirit taking over the whole campus. I’m really excited that I’m in law school here and now.”

McCray and Filler seated inside the William H. Neukom Building
Angela McCray, JD ’13, and Maggie Filler, JD ’12 (Photo by Colin Clark)

Another nonprofit organization to come out of a class is Project ReMADE, which was founded by Angela McCray, JD ’13, when she took Sentencing and Corrections and then honed during the Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Law in Social Enterprises course last spring. Interested in barriers to successful reentry after imprisonment, McCray devised a program for business-minded, formerly incarcerated women. The 12-week program, now in session, teaches basic business concepts and, on alternating weeks, pairs the women with a mentor team ideally made up of a law student, a business student, and a business executive or practicing attorney. The goal is for the women to complete a business plan, and the graduation ceremony includes local micro-development organizations that may help the women bring their ideas to fruition.

According to McCray, one program participant had spent her 20 years in prison making jewelry, furniture, and sewn items and selling them to fellow prisoners. Her Project ReMADE goal is to open a brick-and-mortar store to sell those handmade goods. Another student in the program is planning to launch an event-planning business.

McCray’s family is loaded with entrepreneurs, including her father, who owns a helicopter business, so Stanford’s history of innovation drew her to the law school. “I felt like I’d get an individualized education,” she explains. “I wanted close relationships with professors. I wanted to invent things, to see them come to fruition. I wanted law school to be an extension of my professional growth, not simply an absence from the job market for three years.”

Anne Hsieh, JD/MA ’12, a former Army engineer officer, came to Stanford for similar reasons. “The school is open to new ideas. I got the impression you could come here and do whatever you wanted to do and the administration would support you and help you make it happen,” explains Hsieh, who served in Iraq after graduating from West Point. “I was also drawn to the school’s focus on practical experience. There’s administrative support to really apply what we’re learning.”

For Hsieh, that meant joining a new seminar to study veterans in the legal system (see sidebar above) and working on the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a national
organization that aids refugees immigrating to the United States. A student group, pro bono project, and advocacy organization rolled into one, IRAP launched at Stanford in 2009 as one of the early chapters, according to Hsieh, who serves as co-president. During the first two years at Stanford, IRAP students filed 12 appeals, five of which were granted, the others are pending. This year they’ve taken on eight more cases and hosted the first West Coast conference featuring experts in refugee law. Several Stanford IRAP students have gone to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, to work directly with clients.

For entrepreneurial students, law classes are particularly valuable, according to Brandon Wolfe, JD/MBA ’12, who during his 2L year launched SunRayse, a company offering a lower cost supply chain for solar equipment. “Focused on crimes and disputes, law school courses are all about possible risks. And managing risk is crucial to success in business,” Wolfe says. “Your instinct might be to swing for the fences, but you have to consider how you might strike out too. Anyone who is entrepreneurial benefits from thinking like a lawyer about downside risks.”

The law school’s spirit of innovation comes in no small part from the students’ exposure to the greater university resources and community, adds Tony Lai, who earned an LLM last year in the Law, Science & Technology program. “The dean shifted the law school schedule to match the university specifically so students could take classes at other schools, creating a milieu of interdisciplinary work,” says Lai, who took courses in the design, business, and engineering schools.

That interdisciplinary exposure inspired Lai and fellow LLM ’11 students Pieter Gunst and Bradley Newman to co-found LawGives, an online platform that assists individuals and organizations needing legal help. “We saw inefficiencies in how legal services are provided and we wanted to build technology to help providers and those in need to find each other,” Lai explains. In formulating this idea for a dispatch system, Lai, Gunst, and Newman received advice and encouragement from law school deans and professors. “They were dedicated to helping us succeed.”

Similarly, current and former Google, Facebook, and eBay executives and engineers are among LawGives’ advisors. “Stanford Law School’s location in Silicon Valley is a major draw,” Gunst notes. “We’re incredibly inspired by the community around the law school, by people who’ve gone out and created things.”

Now fellows at CodeX, an initiative of the law and computer science schools, Lai, Gunst, and Newman released a beta version of LawGives at StartX, the Stanford student startup accelerator, and are in discussions for a rollout at Stanford Law’s clinics. “CodeX took our nascent project under its umbrella,” Lai says. That kind of collaboration is “part of Stanford’s ecosystem.”

Matthew Pasternack similarly credits the “fluidity” between the law school and Stanford’s other graduate schools with inspiring him to explore ways to improve K-12 education. Now on a leave of absence from his legal studies, he has launched Junyo, which uses data analytics to personalize online and off-line learning. Specifically, the company collects student data to assess and enhance learning akin to the way Google gathers user data to improve search results.

Photo of Lewis, Lai, and Gonzalez in Moot Courtroom
Daniel Lewis, JD ’12, Tony Lai, LLM ’11, and Jennifer Gonzalez, JD ’13 (Photo by Colin Clark)

“When you’re here, you get immersed in the Silicon Valley world,” adds Daniel Lewis, JD ’12. To flesh out his startup, Casebird, a modernized legal search engine to rival Lexis and Westlaw, Lewis has taken venture capital classes while in law school as well as classes at the business and design schools. “A number of other students working on new ideas emerge from the woodwork. They point you to resources.”

For Jennifer Gonzalez, JD ’13, taking a class on multimedia storytelling in the graduate program in journalism has enabled her to learn from students in other fields as well as build technical skills. “That the law school gave me full support in taking the class is just one more example of how it encourages student exploration,” she says.

In return, Gonzalez has applied her journalism skills to the Stanford Law School Documentary Project (SLSDP), which was launched by students. A multimedia alternative to a traditional law journal, SLSDP produces films about contemporary legal topics. The first film, Arpaio’s America, covered immigration reform. Gonzalez and other students are currently examining the criminal justice system in a film about California’s “three strikes” law.

“Law reviews are read by lawyers and law professors. The documentary project invites people who wouldn’t otherwise be in the legal discourse into the conversation. Film gives us the tools to bridge the gap and have more nuanced conversations,” explains Gonzalez, who first learned of the project while perusing the law school’s website after she was admitted. “I thought it was cutting-edge, innovative, and unique. It struck a chord.”

“I wanted a place that encouraged diversity of ideas. Everyone here accepts my harebrained ideas—like ‘let’s go make movies,’ ” she quips. “I wanted to not only get a quality education but also thrive in different ways that would be the foundation for a career with a lot of components. Stanford gives students the tools and resources to explore unbeaten paths.”

The law school’s administration has been as supportive as she’d hoped when she first learned about the documentary project, including financing a camera and light and sound equipment. “Whenever we approach the school, we hear, ‘Great idea. What do you need from us?’ It’s a
perspective that anything’s possible.” SL