Go Where You're Needed: How Joe Tsai Made Himself Indispensable & Incredibly Wealthy Along The Way
How leaving Biglaw to go to a failing investment fund helped Tsai become a billionaire cofounder of Alibaba & the owner of the Brooklyn Nets
I’m a huge fan of stories like these. When I was growing up, I couldn’t imagine why you’d quit your job working as a lawyer at an elite law firm. But as I got older, I found that the most interesting jobs, some of which could be incredibly rewarding (not to mention lucrative) can be attained only if you walk away from that fancy firm job.
One of the themes I keep hammering away at in this Substack is the importance of going off the beaten path. This story, which took place in the 1990s and early 2000s, is no different. I know what you’re thinking though: It does seem kinda cliche these days to leave Biglaw to do a tech startup since by now, so many others have done something similar.
So let’s go back to before the Internet was a thing, to 1993. Before the dot com boom, and before leaving Biglaw to do tech was cool.1
In 1993, Joe Tsai was a third year tax associate at Sullivan & Cromwell when he was asked to join a client meeting. The meeting was with the firm’s most important client, Goldman Sachs, and the topic was how to set up an offshore partnership in the Cayman Islands. As Tsai recounts:
There was “this young guy in the corner, he’s kind of slouched over in his chair. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I guess I’ll be moving to the Caymans to run this thing.
The most striking thing about that conversation, Tsai would later say, was how young The Guy In The Corner was. In fact, one of the senior partners in the meeting said that Goldman would need to send someone else to the Caymans, because The Guy was too young and likely too junior. As Tsai continued:
The lead lawyer, he said, told [The Guy], “We need to have some more senior people.” . . . “The guy is like, ‘I’m a partner.’ It’s the 27-year-old guy. That kind of struck me.”
The article doesn’t elaborate what Tsai meant by “struck me” meant exactly. I think it was something along the lines of: How was it possible for someone the same age as me to become a partner at his Goldman F***ing Sachs? This wasn’t some random shop. He was a partner at Wall Street’s leading investment bank, the gold standard of banks.
Reflecting on his own career trajectory, Tsai did the math and came to the same conclusion as thousands of associates do every single year. It would take way too many years to make equity partner.
I should pause right here to share why this part of the story resonates with me. I too, once worked at Sullivan & Cromwell as a third year associate. I had a very similar experience during a client call once, except the facts were slightly different. In my scenario, the lead lawyer, who was a highly experienced, well-credentialed partner with decades of experience, was leading a conversation about, get this, the formatting of an Excel spreadsheet. That was the moment I realized that if I stayed at the firm, it would a very f***ing long time before I’d ever get to do the fun stuff myself.
Tsai had the same visceral reaction. He immediately realized that he could never move up as fast at his firm than others, like The Guy In The Corner, would in the business world. So in 1993, he quit his prestigious and high paying job to go in-house.