James Harvey

Career: Klein DeNatale Goldner lawyer

How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in today? Was there a pivotal moment? 

 I’ll start with this one because it informs a lot of my other comments.

I began college at UC Santa Barbara with no declared major and no particular goal in life beyond obtaining a college degree and seeing where it took me. Sometime during my second year, I settled on philosophy as a major. My sole reason for majoring in philosophy was because I enjoyed the courses.

Then one day, I came home from class to find a roommate studying an LSAT prep book. I was not familiar with the LSAT at the time, but it serves as a standardized aptitude metric for law school admissions and primarily tests logical reasoning abilities. My roommate, who was struggling with the material, asked me to take a look: He was hoping my background in philosophy might help me to understand the material so I could explain it to him.

I quickly found that most of the test was essentially a review of material from lower-division logic courses I had taken. I was intrigued by working in a field that prioritized the same kinds of skills I had already wanted to build for my own enjoyment. After doing some additional research, I decided a legal career could be a good fit. I transferred to CSUB the next year, declared as a philosophy major with a concentration in pre-law, and finished up my degree before heading off to UC Davis for law school.

I credit the singular moment above for dramatically affecting the course of my life. But I also point to this moment as a warning for others who choose a major based on enjoying the coursework instead of choosing a major based on career prospects: I have no idea what I would be doing today if that conversation with my roommate had never occurred. Not everyone will be so lucky to stumble into the right major for their career without actually thinking it through before choosing a major.

How did your experiences at CSUB help you find your first position after graduation? 

 My experience may be a little different than some, because my CSUB experience was always intended as a stepping stone to further education. My goal, when I arrived as an upper-class transfer student, was to obtain the training and educational credentials I would need for law school. To that end, my CSUB experience prepared me very well for the LSAT and I was able to obtain strong recommendations due to the relationships I developed with my CSUB professors. In particular, I found the smaller student body and class sizes at CSUB made it much easier than at larger universities to develop meaningful relationships with the faculty.

What career advice would you give our students?

 First, spend the time to develop a researched and realistic picture of what you might like to do with your life after graduating. If possible, do this before you select a major and start taking non-GE classes. While I enjoyed college immensely and believe there is generally value in the “college experience,” I was also very lucky that my passion for philosophy dovetailed well into a career in law. I am now 11 years post-graduation and am still paying down student loans. It would be difficult or impossible to feel positively about these continuing expenses if I were not actively using my degree in my career.

Second, make a point of connecting with the faculty and alumni in your intended field. I know a lot more today about law school, lawyering, and how to get a job in the legal field than I did as a prospective law student. It would have been very beneficial to have known then what I know now. I suppose I thought at the time that busy professionals wouldn’t be interested in fielding my questions or discussing their experiences. Now that I am a busy professional, I can see my initial apprehension was unfounded. Most attorneys I know are happy to make time, with reasonable advance notice, for students with interest in the legal field. The answer is always “no” if you don’t ask, so ask!

Pro tip for winners: You can combine these two suggestions for maximum effectiveness. Alumni working in a particular career field will likely be a best possible source of information and guidance on what a particular career will entail. There’s no better way to decide if a field is really for you than learning what those who work in the field actually do with their time on a daily basis.

What do you attribute your success to? 

 Success is a really relative term, but to me, the most critical element is formulating clear goals.

In my view, almost all of life reduces to a three-step process, and those steps are: figure out what you want; figure out how to get it; do those things. It sounds really simplistic, because it is. It’s supposed to be. Most of where we go wrong is in failing to do step 1.

How do you foster creative and innovative thinking within your organization? 

 This is a particularly meaningful question for me as an attorney, because the lawyering profession tends to be fundamentally backward-looking. It makes sense if you think about it: We largely discern legal rules from past cases, and we apply those rules to present cases. This is the legal concept of precedent: Most of the time, we’re looking to what was done previously to guide us in moving forward.

In the abstract, this is a fine way of doing things. The problem arises when we look to the past to guide us not only on the substance of the law, but on the means, methods, and processes of lawyering. Arguing that your client should win because of some applicable legal rule articulated in a Supreme Court case with relevant facts is good lawyering. Using words like “aforementioned” and “heretofore” because you saw them in a judicial opinion from the 1940s is not. Double that for Latin phrases: Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur.

Strange as it may sound, I always come back to the Enron motto: Ask why. Legitimate criticisms of Enron aside, there’s a lot of wisdom wrapped up in those two words. The first step in figuring out a better way to do anything is to understand why the operative way became the operative way in the first place. What existing problems were your rule or process meant to solve? Did it solve them? Did it create other problems in the process? If so, is there a way you can solve the old problem without creating new problems?

Ask why.

What are the most important decisions that you face daily as a leader in your organization? 

 Generally, the most significant decisions involve how to manage my time.

As a litigation attorney, I’m typically not hired to provide a specific product or service for a particular price. Instead, I’m typically hired to solve a problem. Often, part of the problem can be that the nature of the problem itself is unclear.

The only way to navigate the inherent uncertainties of litigation without losing control of the cost—in general, litigation runs on an hourly billing model, where time is quite literally money—is to act deliberately. I’ve found it extremely helpful to begin any task by reducing it to discrete, individual steps and charting out an order to perform them in. While this approach front-loads a small amount of extra time at the outset of a project, it more than pays for itself through downstream efficiencies. Adding five minutes of planning can save ten minutes of doing.

Who is a person that you consider as a role model? 

 Carl Sagan.

For my money, The Demon-Haunted World, and in particular the chapter entitled “The Dragon in My Garage,” represent the absolute pinnacle of human thought and literature. All strategic thought is foundationally premised on some belief or set of beliefs about the way the world is. Sagan’s project with the book is to explore how we go about forming and testing those foundational beliefs, and why it matters that we think about this stuff. Read it. Seriously, close your browser right now and go read it. Nothing I have to say is half as valuable as the content of that book.