In 2001, Justin Ishbia was the last person Vanderbilt Law admitted off of their waitlist. He had been practice testing in the 170s and aiming for a top three law school, but when he ended up with a mid-150s LSAT score instead, he had to adjust his expectations. After visiting, Vanderbilt became his top choice, and he ended up being admitted off the waitlist in August (with his furniture already on a truck on the way to the law school he'd been planning to attend!). He worked extremely hard in law school, graduated near the top of his class, and went on to a hugely successful career in law and investing. Twenty years later, Justin Isbhia just gifted $10 million to the law school that took a chance on him. In this episode, we break down how Justin earned himself that last-minute waitlist admit, how he excelled in law school, why a disappointing LSAT score doesn't mean you have to give up your dreams, and much more.
Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. Today, I am lucky and fortunate to be joined by someone who not only did I admit 20 years ago, but we became friends and we've been friends ever since, and I also admire. Justin Ishibia was the last person taken off our wait list.
And there's so many things in this podcast, this interview that I think are reflective of what can help anyone in any cycle, which is — Justin had a plan. He had a 4.0 GPA. He wanted to go to Harvard, Stanford. He got his LSAT back. He scored in the mid 150s. So, he applied to more schools, he adjusted his plan. Mid 150s was well below our median at the time at Vanderbilt. So, he visited — he made a strategic decision to visit. We don't talk about this strategic part as far as navigating admissions enough in the podcast. But research after research shows that if you have something in common with someone, whether it's job hiring or admissions, whatever, that commonality can really win the day for you, which is why we always tell people to have an interest section on your resume. It's why we always tell people to visit. You never know if your love of ballet or fencing or whatever it may be, maybe that is the inflection point that drives that waitlist admit decision. With Justin, it was we connected, but he also stayed in touch the right way. He didn't make up reasons out of the blue, but when he had a good organic reason, he would give me a call. He called me as his furniture or luggage, everything, clothes were being shipped to Emory, an apartment he had leased by Emory Law School.
And we had room. I pulled his file, and the very next day I called him and admitted him. So this is a wonderful story. I think there's a lot of great long sort of haul admissions advice in here — if you don't get an early admit, how to do things over the long haul. I have thousands of stories in my 20+ years doing this of people like Justin, who don't get into their dream school, who have killed it at their careers. But last week — again, Justin was the last person we took off our waitlist — last week, he gave Vanderbilt law school $10 million. So this story is special to me, and I hope you too.
I have the great fortune to be joined with a close friend, someone who I admitted to Vanderbilt law school about 20 years ago, Justin Ishbia. Justin, I think you have an interesting story about how you were admitted and how you found out. Do you want to tell us about it?
Justin Ishbia: Yeah. Great to talk to you again, Mike, it's been a while since we had caught up, but I loved my time at Vanderbilt Law School. And I think how I got there was not the traditional path, I would say. So, I applied to a bunch of law schools, this is back in 2001. So it was a different world a little bit back then, but literally applied to 15 law schools.
I applied even before I got my first LSAT score back. And then the first LSAT score back, I was pretty disappointed. I was probably about 10-12 points below than what I was practicing at. And so, when I had aspirations for, you know, maybe going to a top five school based on my grades and other extra activities, I felt like after the first test, I was unlikely to end up at a top five school.
And then I kind of recalibrated, and I figured out where was the place that I wanted to go. And I ended up going down to Nashville. My younger brother played college basketball, had an NCAA tournament, came to Memphis. So, I flew down to Nashville in March, and I asked the admissions office, I was on the waitlist, I asked the admissions office if I could meet with somebody there, I was in town. I flew to Nashville; I was driving to Memphis because it was cheaper to go there as opposed to drive from Florida to Memphis.
And so, my dad came along with me and we went and I got this fortunate meeting with Mike Spivey. Mike Spivey was the admissions officer at the time and I sat down in his office and I told him about my background, and Mike, I remember took me for a walk through the campus, which was beautiful. And the building was under construction, it was being – a new law school building. It was like you know a halfway done from being revitalized from when –
Mike: Yeah, my office was a closet back then because — right.
Justin Ishbia: It was a closet, and that’s why we sat there for a few minutes… he says let's go walk through the campus. And so we walk, and Mike, as you may know, is a former excellent baseball player and I was a baseball player as well back in my youth. And we bonded over that over a long conversation. And I'm reliving that conversation and walking through that campus and saying, after recalibrating, this is my top choice. If I get to go anywhere, this is where I want to go, and my LSAT score didn't warrant it. Not that point in time, as far as you know, the kind of 25th/75th/median. So I stayed in touch. So that was in March.
Over the rest of the school year, I stayed in touch, and I touched base with Mike, you know, every six weeks, kind of maybe a note to follow up or something good but meritorious that happened you know. I finished the semester, I finished semester with a 4.0, I got all A's, and I let him know that I think around May when grades came out. And then I took the CPA exam, and I was still an accounting major, in August.
I'd already decided, I was going to Emory. So, I'd already put my deposit down at Emory. I had already flown to Atlanta. I had signed the lease on an apartment. I had actually packed up all my belongings, put it into a moving company, and it had already been shipped down to Atlanta. I let Mike know about week before that, that if you were to admit me, just so you know, off the waitlist, I would 100% be coming.
I knew it was still a long shot, and I also found out that week that I had passed the CPA exam, the whole entire exam in one try. And I said, just so you know this is new fact. I don’t know if it matters at all, but I passed. And so that was bit of my journey.
And then randomly on a – I was actually with my father, and Mike had called my mom. My mom was my parents' house. My phone back then — there were no cell phones, or there were very few cell phones — my home like where I grew up, Mike had called my campus phone number which had already been disconnected because I already left campus, called my parents’ home. And he talked to my mom, my mom called my dad and said, “Get Justin on the phone.” And when Mike told me I was accepted, the answer was, “Yes.” And so that was my journey. I was – then Mike had told me that I was literally the last person admitted off the waitlist that year. And the next day, I flew to Nashville, I terminated my lease in Atlanta, had to pay a little bit of fine there and asked the moving truck to move my stuff to Nashville and never looked back, and it was the best decision I ever made.
Mike: First, I'm going to guess one thing, and then I'm going to unpack from an admissions angle — since the vast majority of our listeners are applying to law school, sort of my side of that story. I'm going to guess that, because a lot of people start at — I can think of a client of mine who started at Michigan Law and then got a phone call from Stanford Law and they admitted him, and he just packed up his stuff in the car and drove from Michigan to Stanford. I remember it was a tough decision. I'm going to guess that client, and I'm going to guess you — you have like zero memory of driving to Emory or breaking the lease. That's like a week in the life. That's just like a non-issue.
Justin Ishbia: It was a non-issue at all. I mean, I remember when I got the phone call, I was literally with my father, and we drove home there to talk to my mom about it. And the drive home, my dad is a lawyer, still is a lawyer, 73 years old still as a lawyer. And he said, “If we weigh the pros and cons of it…” And after about a 15–20-minute conversation, it became clear to me, go to your school you want to go to. Like we can undo a lease. I had to pay a one-month termination fee, and it was a no-brainer. I had decided long ago that's my first choice, so even though it was late in the cycle and it was uncomfortable making some changes. I mean, it's a three-year time period, I made awesome friends and a career that I want. Vanderbilt is a place where I learned and studied versus you know an inconvenience of a week of making some changes, and it was no brainer looking back on it.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. So from an admissions perspective, this is how I take what you just said. I remember you came with your dad, which is totally fine, by the way. I mean a lot — just for people listening, a lot of people do that. Don't bring your parents to orientation week, but you're more than welcome to bring — that happens too Justin — but you're more than welcome to bring them to any visit, of course, you're in your early 20s. I was in my probably mid to late, I think we have a five year age difference.
Justin Ishbia: Yep, that’s right.
Mike: You were probably what, 22. And I was –
Justin Ishbia: I was 23, 22-23.
Mike: This is 20 years ago. But I remember pretty well. I remember one thing that you said that stuck with me was your dad was like, “I can't wait for Justin to become a lawyer to work at my firm.” And you were like, “No way, Xad, I want to do my thing.” You can say that, it could sound fake or it can sound real.
Justin Ishbia: Yeah.
Mike: And the way you said it was very real.
Justin Ishbia: It was, I mean, it's totally true. I mean I love my father. He always wanted me to work with him, he still wants me to work with him to this day, but I knew that I wanted Kirkland & Ellis. I wanted to go to a national law firm where I would learn from others. If I ever wanted go back to my dad, I probably could. But to me, I felt like I had to go work somewhere else first for a minimum of X years.
Mike: Yeah. You said that, you actually said that if it didn't work out at a law firm, you could –
Justin Ishbia: Yeah.
Mike: — you said that on your visit. Our COO, who we chit chatted with before we started recording, her father is 78 and I think he still wants her to work at his firm too. So, we can relate. So, you had a 4.0 GPA I remember throughout college.
Justin Ishbia: That’s right. Correct.
Mike: And you played baseball at Michigan State?
Justin Ishbia: I got hurt. Never played the game, but I was –
Mike: Okay. So you went there to play baseball. So, we did very much connect over baseball. We both had a similar baseball background, and you were a bouncer, right?
Justin Ishbia: I worked at the -—at that time, yeah, I worked at the more popular bars on campus, and I would sit at the door and check IDs. It was a great college job.
Mike: And then the final thing is, you stayed in touch with core inflection points, all that stuff is what got you admitted. You had a likable sincere personality. I mean, you were 5 to 10 points below — but I know you took the LSAT twice —
Justin Ishbia: From your median, LSAT first test 10 points below, the second test 5 or 6 points below your median.
Mike: Yeah. Okay. So, you know that obviously generally you don't admit someone like that because what the typical applicant doesn't know, you probably didn't know this at the time, we probably had 800 people one point below our LSAT on the waitlist.
Justin Ishbia: Right.
Mike: And you would normally go to that group first, you wouldn't go to a different file drawer, back then there were files and file drawers. So you had a likable personality and a very authentic, sincere personality. I could tell that you were sort of hard work, hard play. Is that fair?
Justin Ishbia: Yeah, that's for sure. I mean, like I grew up playing sports. In high school I played football, baseball, basketball, sports was in my DNA. I worked in college at a college bar, played also sports in college, right to the point that I was playing at a higher level. And I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a successful lawyer, and I eventually wanted to go off to business after that and I think I said it all to you. I had a plan of what I wanted to do, and I bonded with you personally. I think had I met somebody at admissions office, who had a different disposition, it may have been a different story. That's the honest part of it.
Mike: Right. You could have been in Emory, right. But that's the thing. You developed a relationship. So many people try to put together a great application and launch those applications. But that's like the first step of the cycle, there's four steps to go and a lot of that is interviewing. We didn't, no one did that back then but now schools interview. But developing relationships. I have this analogy, Justin, I gotta come up with a better one, it’s a metaphor. You're this, like, revolutionary warship, and there's another ship across from you, but it’s 500 yards away and you only have eight cannonballs. You don't launch all eight cannonballs. You launch one, which is maybe your application. And then you wait for it to get closer, and then you retake the LSAT, that's your second cannonball.
Justin Ishbia: Right.
Mike: Don't use all eight cannon balls. So you spaced it out.
Justin Ishbia: Yeah. I mean, to me, I was trying to be strategic back then, but I don't think I had the right experience to even do so, but philosophically it was like, build the relationship, going to campus and being there in person, that was important to me. After I met you, I went back one more time. And then for me it was also important to have meaningful reasons to drip on you. I didn't want to call you and say, “Hey, you know, how are you? What's up?”
There’s three or four touchpoints probably from March until August. I know for sure one was when I passed the LSAT, the other one was when I got my final grades back, that year I got all As like you said. Hey, four years in college, I never got anything but A. I thought that was a meaningful. Like I mean even other guy gets 3.9, get 3.7 or 3.8, which are great, from better schools other than Michigan State, probably better schools than Michigan State academically. But it does say something about discipline and process when you can say, I worked in college, played sports for a little bit as you know in some capacity, and I never got anything below an A. I wanted to make that communication. Then as an accounting major I took the CPA exam, I took it in May, I got my results in early August, and having that part of the story also, I was like, I was trying to build up multiple touchpoints that say, “This guy works hard, he's disciplined. And he's being thoughtful about follow-up.”
Mike: Yeah. You had a strategy that was organic. You weren't making up reasons. So a lot of people in the application process, they reach out to admissions to make themselves feel better. Like, “Oh if I get an email back from admissions, that'll calm me down for a couple weeks.” You weren't doing that. You were reaching out with value-added touch points.
Justin Ishbia: People look at the U.S. News & World Report, for better for worse. Now, on the other side of being a lawyer and practicing at a law firm, that's not how I look at it personally.
Mike: Right, thank you.
Justin Ishbia: In my mind there’s tiers, and buckets, but like I would rather pick your school based on geography, you feel like it's a good fit. And by the way, Vanderbilt was so awesome for this is that, when I was in law school there, my colleagues and peers, the best and brightest in my class, some wanted to go to Atlanta. Some wanted to go to DC. Some wanted to go to New York. Some wanted to go to Chicago. Some wanted to go wherever. So when we were in school, it was a different dynamic. But on the way in, I just knew that there was a median dynamic too, and I knew I had a reason to be somebody that, when the waitlist came and there was seven names they were picking from and the first four they called were already happy with what they were going with — they would call me and I wouldn't change the overall numbers. And therefore, I thought I could maybe bring up the median on the GPA because I couldn't get higher on my GPA. And maybe it would be not impactful on the lower end of the LSAT that that could make the class stronger, and I had a hopefully a personality, and I’m not sure, I would say, ancillary factors that could be a positive for the class.
Mike: So you were the last person we admitted that year. And that's not a secret thing that Vanderbilt gets to do. Every law school gets to admit some people towards late. You were admitted in August of 2001, but every law school has, you know, if you have a 20-point cushion a week before orientation, you can admit, depending on your enrollment targets, 10 to 15 people below your median LSAT. Let me just be frank, if it was mean not median, you probably wouldn't have been admitted. I wouldn't have had the ability to like pester my boss, “Hey, admit this guy, admit this guy.” I think the last week I was saying that every day, if it was means, we would've gone on to the 163 bucket or whatever. So hopefully it'll stay medians. And then people always have a chance.
Justin Ishbia: I loved my experience. Like I could not have a better experience in law school, actually going down the path of a Vanderbilt commercial — but I should be a Vanderbilt commercial. I love my time there. The friends I've met there were the best, it’s the people. And probably it was luck. The guys and girls in my class jived. We jive as a group. We played extracurricular sports. I just had a great class.
I mean after our first year some of my friends — actually a girl I was friends with transferred actually to UVA. I got good grades first year, I ended up with strong grades and I could transfer, but I said, “I love my experience here.” Actually, I talked to people in the career services office and I said, if I end up in the top 10% of this class, would I have a good chance to getting to, I want to go back north. I'm from Detroit. I wanted to end up in Chicago or New York. I love Nashville, my firm has an office in Nashville now. So I love it down there a whole bunch. But I wanted to get back, so I felt like I wanted to do probably more on the investing side than just being a lawyer. And I asked them, I said, “Would I be able to get a job in New York or Chicago at a large law firm if I stay here and get good grades?” They're like, “Yes.” Last year we had X number of people who went to New York and to Chicago, we had firms like Skarden Arps, Kirkland & Ellis, Mayer Brown, Simpson Thacher. And I was like, Well, why am I going to transfer then? I'm loving my time here. It's a different part of the country that is, I probably won't live in for a long term, but great experience. I've got great friends and I know the ropes I'm staying put. And I loved it. And I thought about transferring for a half day maybe, then I was like, no, like I got this, let’s keep doing what we're doing. I loved my experience and it wasn’t on my mind.
Mike: Yeah. Well, the law school is grateful that you didn't transfer. I'm grateful. I'm grateful that your class was awesome. You put me on your softball team.
Justin Ishbia: That's true.
Mike: I was lucky to be part of that. We won. We beat all the other schools.
Justin Ishbia: Well, when we were in law school, I mean, we played these flag football teams, we played you know basketball, softball. Softball was the most memorable part of it, we played multiple games, and like those co-ed teams and there was just men’s leagues as well. And some of the guys in our team, they wanted to play, and Mike joined the team as a faculty member. And I remember the law school team won the graduate school division. And then we ended up playing against the undergrad division. Some fraternity won and for us it was one of those, you know, when you're out of college you know there’s no more big moments in sports ever again. I remember clearly, it was a Thursday night and it was like, you know, before everyone's going out to a bar review, which in Vanderbilt was a thing, everyone goes to a certain bar on a Thursday night, at least we did. Mike was on the team, and we beat the undergrad team, like four to three to win like the all-school softball championship 2001, which felt like a big moment back in 2001. But looking back on it, it was big, but it was fun. We had a great time and –
Mike: Those kids, those undergrad kids probably couldn't believe it.
Justin Ishbia: They were cocky, and we have fun. Then we went to, you know, for drinks after. And it was — all I can tell you is the atmosphere and the experience and when I think back on law school right now, I don't think about the classes I took or the notes I took or all the hard work or that sort of thing, I think of the people, and Mike was part of my journey. He was a friend, and he was part of the staff and faculty, but he was a friend. You know, friends I made there are still my best friends to this day. And my buddies and I to this day still go to a once a year, like 10 guys go to a big college football rivalry game. We’ve gone to Alabama/Auburn. We've been to, you know, Army/Navy, Stanford/Yale, you know, Michigan/Michigan State. We go to all these big games across the country. And the bonds that were formed in those years by playing on these sports teams in class and all still in the class together, studying together. I think the collegiality was unique because none of us wanted to go to the same place. I wanted to go to Chicago or New York, and my best friends, Dan wanted to go out west to Phoenix, I had great friends. Mike wanted to go to Cincinnati, Nick wanted to go to Atlanta. Mike and other guys wanted go to Atlanta. So, like there was collegiality and we helped each other with notes. We helped each other with stuff in class because we weren't interviewing with the same jobs at the time, yeah.
Mike: So you were not at a top 14 law school. Dan, you referenced, he's a general counsel of one of the larger companies. Jayme McKellop was in your class, right?
Justin Ishbia: Yes.
Mike: She did the best. She's working for Spivey Consulting now. Her career took off the highest.
Justin Ishbia: She's really smart that’s for sure. She's one of my favorite people also.
Mike: Yeah, me too. So I just want to click on the fact that, yeah, Vanderbilt wasn't your first choice. Like you wanted to go to Harvard and Stanford, but your career has taken off. You are now the managing partner and founder of a private equity firm.
Justin Ishbia: That's right. So, after law school, I went to Kirkland & Ellis and I went to go work in their private equity group. So, the offers that I was choosing from was between Simpson Thacher and Kirkland & Ellis. I knew I wanted to do private equity. And in my view, at least in 2001, my view, and probably still today, those were two of the best private equity focused law firms in the country. And one was in New York, one in Chicago and I debated where I wanted to go. And I talked to my dad, talked to friends. I had some good advice from some mentors. They said, “Justin, where do you want to end up?” And I said, “I want to end up in Midwest, most likely.” They said, “Go start your career there and then figure out from there.”
So, I went to Kirkland & Ellis, it was their private equity group. I was there for about three or four years. Went to go work, to work with a client of Kirkland & Ellis, went there for a few years, another private equity firm for two or three years. I founded a short capital in 2009, and we focus on investing in the micro-cap, which we define as businesses less than $100 million of revenue. Today, we have about two and a half billion dollars under our management. Our investors are most university endowments. We own 25 portfolio companies across the country. We have over 20,000 employees in our firm network and our portfolio companies, and we have an office in Chicago, an office in Nashville. And I love what I do every single day and I'll work until the day I die.
Mike: You and me both. I think that that's become a big trend, right, for universities to invest their endowments in private equity.
Justin Ishbia: Yeah. I mean, even recent news, probably you know, Vanderbilt has done an awesome job with their endowment I know. Anders Hall runs Vanderbilt’s endowment, he left Duke and came to run it for Vanderbilt, done an awesome job. I just saw some information that Vanderbilt was the second highest performing endowment in the country of the last 12 months, whatever it was. In the news today, actually Harvard with 34% and they had like a 10-billion-dollar gain. So, a lot of money, they don't need the money today. They're investing it.
Usually, they almost spend 5% of their money to build buildings or scholarships and the rest is used to keep reinvesting. And so that was a great year. And so, there's a lot more invested in the private equity community, because if they don't need the money tomorrow, returns will be more compelling than the public market. So, I went to a law firm, went to a private firm, started my own firm, and we've been growing and adding people in our organization.
Mike: Yeah. And you're on Vanderbilt’s, are you on the law school board and the university board? Is that right?
Justin Ishbia: Correct. Yep. I was on the law school board first. I think I have done that now for six or seven years, the law school is an advisory board, I don't think it's legally binding. Our Dean is Dean Chris Guthrie, who was a professor when I was there, and he had a negotiations class, he and I clicked and bonded.
And so, six/seven years ago, he asked me to join the advisory board of the law school, which has been a great experience, a lot of other talented Vanderbilt Law alumni. Just this year in July, I was invited to join the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, which is the main board of decision making and governing body of Vanderbilt University, and so I've been on the board now for about three or four months.
Mike: Okay. Three or four months. So A, congrats, that's a huge deal. I'm curious why we can’t, can you just get us a good football coach? Can I slip you a napkin? Like let me tell you Justin Ishbia story, there was like 10-year period of my life where I'd be on a flight to Chicago and I would get a text from you, “Hey, Spivey I heard through the grapevine you're going to be…” ¸— it wouldn't even have to be Chicago, I think it was Ann Arbor once you were like, “Can I take you to dinner?”
Justin Ishbia: Yeah. I keep tabs on my friends. I get to text people on the go and stuff, but I'm a huge sports fan, and so Vanderbilt I think has a great coach right now. And I think Clark will have a chance to build something special. Football is harder than basketball because you need to have, you know, dozens of great athletes. Basketball, you can get two or three and can change the game, but there's no better place than Nashville. And I think Nashville is a growing community and I think great people want to spend time there, and so I have no doubt, if those were the options we'd choose Vanderbilt.
Mike: So Chris Guthrie is a friend of mine too. He's someone who – he would probably say, “Yeah, Mike calls me every once in a while panicked about something,” and he calms me down and gives me good advice. You just gave the law school, I think it was last week, maybe two weeks ago, but I think it was last week, 10 million dollars.
Justin Ishbia: That's right.
Mike: You didn't fire a neuron and write a check, right, that's a mindful thought.
Justin Ishbia: I'm an investor in my profession, and you know, I’m fortunate that some of our businesses had some great outcomes. And then when you think about philanthropy, I was raised by my mom and dad. My mom was a teacher, she retired, she's 72 and she's taught for about 25-27 years in public schools in Pontiac, which is a relatively socioeconomic challenged community, I would say. And she retired about a decade ago. My dad's a lawyer, and they instilled upon me at a young age, like, education is the key to success. Education gives you ability to grow freedom and Vanderbilt gave me that opportunity. But for Vanderbilt, there's no way I would have got a job at Kirkland & Ellis. There's no way I would have learned private equity. There's no way I would have made returns on investments the way we have today. So I learned so much from Vanderbilt. I think of all these causes, they have merit. I go to who is the best leader that I'm in touch with, and I back it up later. Chris Guthrie, Dean of the law school there, is I believe one of the best leaders, and that's why I decided to donate money to Vanderbilt Law School. Because the impact it made on my life, it changed my trajectory, and if I can hopefully create some programs and opportunities for other students in the future, that could have a similar trajectory, I think that could have multiplier effect. So that's why I did it.
Mike: Yeah. Our firm invests in WWF, the World Wildlife Foundation, not the wrestlers, although if I had more money, I would probably invest in those dudes too. But there’s no better or worse in education. I heard Warren Buffet once say he doesn't buy companies, he invests in companies with strong management and it sounds like that's sort of the approach you took.
Justin Ishbia: That's exactly right. I'm involved with other charities as well. I don't donate money to a place that I don't believe in the leadership. I believe the leadership, that's just a matter of how much do you believe in this than somebody else, and I can tell you what Chris has done at that law school is tremendous. And I started talking about this, I had an idea I'd like to donate. And he said, “Here's what I would love to be able to do with this law school if I had X dollars more.” And I said, “I believe in your mission. I believe that I can help you get there.” You know, they're building a new wing there, and it’s a career services office.
And part of the whole, my whole story was I came in the last in the class, I left not last in the class, and I felt like there'd be other people like me. I have the scholarship I donate to Vanderbilt, and my mandate is for non-traditional individuals, those with not the top LSAT scores. I want to give the individual the chance to go to law school at Vanderbilt for those who were not the 170 LSAT and the 4.0. Former athletes, I believe some great leaders they come from the military, come from sports, other sort of backgrounds. I believe those individuals make a difference in our society, and I want to support those individuals.
Mike: We have had thousands of clients just as a consulting firm. I've seen 60,000 to 80,000 applicants. There are thousands of stories like yours. Now, yours is kind of interesting because you were the last person admitted and you gave 10 million dollars to your law school. To me that's just, I want to write a book about it or something. But there are thousands of people that get in every year, that get admitted off the waitlist that graduate top 10%, who go on to do amazing things, things that I will never be able to do with my career. But I was lucky enough at one point in my life, to be able to say, “I'm really pulling for this kid.” And she may have come from the arts and just, you know, had a passion for theater or something. You know, so many different backgrounds and that's what gets you admitted because you add a different voice to the class, and you did too.
Justin Ishbia: And I feel like, you know, you guys are big sports fans and in sports play — baseball, the playoffs going on right now — you play 162 games to get into the playoffs. And that's like your first 22 years in life. You have 22 years to do different things, to get into the playoffs. Then once you’re in the playoffs, which is like getting to law school, the score resets. No one cares about your LSAT anymore. No one cares about your grades from undergrad. It just doesn't matter anymore. Law firms will judge to hire you or not, based upon the last school you attend, which is your law school and how you perform there.
So, I mean look, yeah, I feel like a 1.2 from, you know, a random school, a law firm may say, “Why did you do so bad in undergrad?” But outside of a huge outlier, if you had good grades from you know a big 10 equivalent type of school, they're judging on your performance in law school. So, I view it as like, it was the playoffs now. Guess what, everyone starts with a record of zero and zero, they’re walking up the steps of Vanderbilt. And I was motivated to not be the last in the class. I was motivated to be a winner and to get great grades. And I wanted to prove that LSAT score was not defining me. and I was fortunate to have great professors and great friends and study groups I made along the way, and they gave me I think the competitive advantage to hustle and the disciplined process. And I was fortunate for great outcomes and a job offer out of law school that was my dream type of places to go after law school.
Mike: I was a Dean of Career Services too. I, you know, the Dean of Vanderbilt Law School when you were there, Kent Syverud went to Wash U and then he hired me to be his Dean of Career Services. And the time I spent in career services, I got to know so many hiring partners, no one ever cared about the undergraduate school that the law school student went to. They didn't care about the undergraduate GPA, none of these hiring partners, Justin, none of them could name the top 20 law schools. Like I could because this is my living. We should do a podcast where I tried to rank all 190-something law schools in order to see how close I can get. But no hiring partner can do that because they think in terms of when they were a student.
Justin Ishbia: I can't express this enough. When I was going into law school, there was a top 14 and it ended at Georgetown and I knew it. And from when I was there, 15 was Texas, 16 was I think it was USC and 17 was Vanderbilt, and I knew it cold. And I felt like top 14 was better than number 17. I really in my heart felt like it was better. And I talked to lawyers who were 20 years older than me and they told me it didn't matter, no one cares. And if anyone out there is listening, it does not matter. It does not matter one bit. Does it matter if the number law school is 190 instead of 3, yes. That does matter. But if you're going to a school that's anywhere near the top 25 or top 30, and you end up at the top 10% in your class, you will get a job that you really like.
Justin Ishbia: And so how I got the job at Kirkland & Ellis was that there's one alumni at the time, Vanderbilt at Kirkland & Ellis at the point in time, I called him directly. I said, “I have interviews at Mayer Brown and Winston & Strawn and Sidley Austin in Chicago, when I'm up there next week, can I come by and meet you in person?” And he said, “Yes.” And so, I, if I had anything to stress, 13 versus 14 or versus 12, it just does not matter. Nobody cares. I think going to a part of the country that you think you may want end up living in, that does matter, I think. If you ended up — you said to me, you for sure want to live in Chicago and you got into Northwestern and to Penn, I would say strongly consider Northwestern, even though it’s maybe a couple points ranked lower. It just doesn't matter.
And guess what? When I was a lawyer practicing at Kirkland & Ellis, I didn’t care where the guy across the law firm, across the table went to law school, it just doesn't matter. Some of the smartest lawyers I've ever met went to schools that were way ranked more, median, were ranked lower down, it does not matter. When you're 22 years old looking at those rankings, it matters. After that, it means nothing.
Mike: I can't fight this battle enough and I try, one of the metrics last year for U.S. News and World Report Rankings was seats, number of chairs in the library. Does that make a school any better, quote two better, is the 15th or the 14th ranked school too worse than the 13th because they have less chairs in their library? It's so arbitrary.
Go to a great fit. This is the other thing that you didn't click on. I mean, you mentioned it. Yeah, the rankings matter a lot when you're 21 and there’s all these bright lights in front of you. That's true. But the other thing is you visited, you went to places that — not just law school, but the law firm. You reached out to people and you found fit.
Justin Ishbia: Yes.
Mike: That's why you are where you are today.
Justin Ishbia: I called the guy at Kirkland & Ellis and said, I want to be in Chicago. I want to be in a private equity law firm. That's why I kind of called him and said that sort of thing.
But I do believe there’s tiers though. If a tier touches another tier, then it's the same tier in my mind. I do think there’s a difference between a top five school and a 40th rank school as far as who comes on campus, with a overlay of geography. And I think if you're talking about Illinois, which is, I don’t know what's the ranking, 30, that is a better fit to go to a school in Chicago than NYU. That's just an honest answer. I think there’s more people who are Illinois alumni at Chicago law firms than the NYU law students in Chicago. So there's some geography that plays into this, but go to a place you think you're going to be happy.
If you also said to me, you had a high confidence you’d end up being in the top 10% tier in your class of going to Iowa versus being, you know, the bottom third of the class at somewhere else, go to Iowa, be the top 10% in your class. For me personally, I hire people all the time. Literally, when I hire students from business school or from law school or from undergrad, if they can show to me, they were the top 1% of their class, I am very intrigued. I don't care where they went, whether it's a 30th ranked school or 4th ranked school, I don't care. Someone’s won amongst their peer set in competition, that's what I want.
Mike: To begin with. I know you hire people all the time because someone messaged me on Reddit and they said, “Is the Justin you're referring to Justin Ishbia, because he hired a friend of mine.” So I do know that for a fact, I got a message and I told him that story. How, when I'd be like on a plane, I would land and I'd have like five texts from you. “Hey, I know you're in Chicago. Can I take you to dinner?” How do you know I'm in Chicago? He thought that was a cool story. So, for sure these schools are blocked off in tiers, you're right. I think of my responsibility, I don't really have many clients anymore because our firm's 35 people. How many employees do you have?
Justin Ishbia: Across all of our companies, 20,000, that’s at short capital, then the investment firm itself properly we have 83 full-time team members in Chicago and Nashville offices.
Mike: So, you can say this to the Nth degree, but when you have even 35 people reporting to you, you don't really have much time to take on clients, but I'll take on a couple of a year. Here's an example. I see my fiduciary responsibility to my clients is to give them lots of hard decisions, but some of my favorite hard decisions, and we had someone two years ago do this, is she picked Michigan over Harvard. She just liked her visit to Michigan better. That to me is the same, it's in the same chunk.
Justin Ishbia: To me, it's the same chunk. I worked at Kirkland & Ellis; I was involved on hiring teams. When I was there, 20 years ago, we wanted people from all different schools. If you told me you hired, you know when I was a summer associate, there were 60 in my class. If you told me, you get all 60 from Harvard, they’ll say no way. They wouldn’t want that. You want breadth and diversity in your class and go to a place that you have a reason to be there and you're excited about it. I do think Michigan is different than Podunk State University, wherever that is.
But Michigan and Harvard to me are the, from a law school perspective, are both top notch grade law schools, and Michigan and Vanderbilt are the same, both top notch great law schools. That is huge deltas from like number 150 and 5. I get that, but choose a geography, choose a fit. Vanderbilt as you know, has a program called the Law and Business Certificate Program.
Mike: That was brand new when you were there.
Justin Ishbia: I was attracted to that. I wanted to go into business and so that was part of it. I was able to take classes — I knew on the front end — I was able to take up to eight classes in the business school, and so modeling and financial analysis, I wanted that. So, like, but after I knew I wasn't going to a top five school based on my LSAT score, I was like, I recalibrated, and Vanderbilt became my top choice. Partly because of that program, partly because I love Nashville, partly because I interacted with you personally, I felt like this is the place that I would enjoy my career. And it was a different part of life for me. It was three years in a different part of the country. I didn't think I would end up living in the south for the long term. I would though now, I’m sure you know, but I loved it. But that being said, like there's a pressure to like look at rankings, you know, look at certain data, and I get it. And you want to go to the best you possibly can. I'd encourage you create a scorecard. The goal should be best fit for me, not best law school by somebody else's rankings.
Mike: We actually created a website, it's called My Rank by Spivey where you can put in the metrics that matter to you and how much they weigh and then you can come up with your own scorecard. So, we actually have that. Myrankbyspivey.com, it’s free.
Justin Ishbia: That's brilliant, because like, like right on the score, like no geography, alternate programs available to you. If you love music or if you love divinity, like there's some places that have those options, you can cut across and do those things in too. So like check out, what's a fit for you. I’d also ask the career services offices, if you have options, if you get into school A and school B, say you want to live in Chicago or want to live in Dallas, call Michigan, call Harvard and say, “How many of your alumni from the class last year went to those locations?” That's a big part of it, because people want to recruit from their own. They want to go back to where they went to school and they want to recruit from their own backgrounds because they understand it better.
Mike: This is such great advice. What you're saying is things I've been saying for the last 20 years. You're just, I think probably articulating them a little bit better than I.
Justin Ishbia: I doubt that.
Mike: Any final thoughts for someone about to go to law school? I mean you did very well at law school and you also enjoyed yourself.
Justin Ishbia: I loved it. So just my take looking back, I got great advice from people I knew who were older than me. There's lots of paths. You can go to like, you can go to work for a judge as a clerk, you can go to the not-for-profit world. You can go to more a local law firm or you can go to a national law firm. I personally went to a national law firm. I personally wanted to focus on private equity law. Like that's what I knew that I kind of wanted to do. But if I was talking to people who were considering — like your first year, treat like a job. If your friends, you're 22 years old, your friends are getting interviews at Bain or McKinsey and they're going to – or they're going to Goldman Sachs or Bank of America for investment banking jobs, guess what? When they're 22, that's where you cut your teeth. It's the industry in a world of apprenticeship. You take lots of bets. And your first year in law school, treat it like a job. I used to get up literally at 6:00 in the morning, I would work out. I was seated at the front of class. It was a job and it mattered. I worked literally until 10 o'clock at night, I would say four days a week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then on Friday and Saturday, a little bit different, but I treated it as a job.
There’s a book I read that I really liked Planet Law School. I loved it. I read it a number of years ago. I think it was by Atticus Falcon. And I was reading about that in the blogs 20 years ago. Helped me a lot to think about law school and like the preparation for it. It's a bear the first year, second and third year were a breeze. I'm telling you; you learn the game. So, buckle up for your first year, because your grades in your first year in law school will determine who you interview with the summer before your second year. The summer second year internships will determine where you go after law school. So that first year I would say if I had to allocate weight of effort, I put 85% into that first year. And I had such a great time. I met some of the best people, some my best friends in the world, four or five guys who were in my wedding. Today, we still travel with those couples today, my wife and I. You don't know who is in your class. That's one of the things.
Like our class of 200 thrown in with other 200 people, and that's some of the luck. That's a little bit of luck, but back to the culture and the atmosphere, you know what Vanderbilt's looking for versus what Illinois is looking for versus Iowa versus Michigan versus NYU, all are great. But figure out, look at the class, talk to career services offices. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would never pick somewhere different. I loved my time at Vanderbilt, and the process of getting there was not what I planned before my senior in college started. But looking back on it, it was awesome.
Mike: One final question. You're a very confident guy. It's probably one of the reasons why you've been so successful. Did you feel imposter syndrome your first couple of weeks said Vanderbilt? Did you feel like you didn't belong there, everyone else must be better than you? Because most people do feel that. But I have a funny feeling.
Justin Ishbia: I did not. I just felt like there was – I knew that they're all smart people but this is about law school; there's no midterm exams. There’s no mid tests along — except writing class — but other classes, your first exam is December. You don’t — I don't know if I was doing good, bad or medium until my grades came back January 15th of my first year. So, you're going for a full four months. You don’t know what you're doing right, wrong. You have no idea. Everyone, they were smart. But guess what, do you think when everyone goes to investment banks, the guys that are dumb or girls that are dumb, you think when you go consulting your peers are dumb? It's a world of competition and talented people rise. And it's not just about how smart you are, it's about how hard you work. And my dad has a saying that I always subscribe to that he says, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” And I felt like you create your own luck. Coming to Nashville, meeting you. I worked hard. Some people would phone to Nashville, I got in the car and drove to Memphis. I said, “I'm going to go spend an afternoon and meet with Mike.” And I was lucky that was you. It could have been somebody who was totally into, you know, the symphony, which would not have been my cup of tea and we wouldn't have jived. But I worked hard, I followed up and I think that stuff, you work hard, you're going to get lucky in life. Not every single turn of the corner, but the harder you work, the luckier you get. And I really believe that. And give yourself more opportunities, more options, more shots on goals, and I think success will follow up. My brother has a saying where he says, “Money follows success.” It's not about the money, be successful. Nick Saban is one of my favorite coaches of all time in sports. He may beat a team 55 to zero, and he is in there talking about precision and the first step of the lineman and the tackle missed here. I think those who I've seen who have been incredibly successful — don't focus about the outcome, they focus on the process. I can't promise you the outcome, I can promise you the process. And I encourage you, those who are thinking of law school, come up with a plan and a process, stay true to your process. I'm very confident if you follow your process that’s strategically thought through and deliberate, there’ll be great outcomes.
Mike: Yeah, it's true in the application process, it's true in job searching, in your careers. You're a shining example of someone who worked the process and the outcomes figure themselves out. I know you have 80,000 people to boss around, so I'm going to let you go. But Justin it’s always a pleasure. The next dinner's on me. I owe you like 600, and thank you for the time so much.
Justin Ishbia: Mike, thank you for all your help over the years, you've been a great friend and counselor along the way and thank you for taking a chance on me 20 years ago.
Mike: Thanks Justin.