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April Rinne

Chief Change Navigator, Futurist, Advisor

Her latest book:  Flux:  8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change

Portland, Oregon

JD Harvard Law School


Futurist predicts ‘bright’ for ex judicata

april rinne 2

The 1 question I ask myself every day

What is a flux mindset

On manifesting what you put out there

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript – Part 1

ex judicata:  With us today is April Rinne.

April is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and ranked one of the “50 Leading Female Futurists” in the world by Forbes. She is a change navigator who helps individuals and organizations rethink and reshape their relationships with change, uncertainty, and a world in flux.  She’s a trusted advisor, speaker, investor, adventurer (100+ countries), insatiable handstander, and author of Flux: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant ChangeAnd, for our purposes, she also has a law degree from Harvard.

Thank you for joining us.

April Rinne: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here. This is going to be a great conversation.

ex judicata:  I bet you’re not asked often about your legal experience, and the only reason I say this is in scanning your LinkedIn bio, there are like 37 experiences listed after you were a practicing lawyer.  We discovered you were an associate at Allen & Overy and O’Melveny for about four years in total.  Tell us about your experiences as a practicing lawyer.

April Rinne:  It is quite funny.  I will say that today, people who didn’t know me long ago, are like, ‘Wait, you’re a lawyer?’ ‘You’re not a lawyer!’ ‘You’re a lawyer and went to Harvard Law School?!’  And it’s fun for me because my time practicing law and my time in law school absolutely shaped who I am, what I do, how I do it and why I do it.  But not in the ways a traditional legal career tends to play out, and not in ways that people can necessarily see on the surface today. 

So going back to my time at Allen & Overy, I was in the London office but a part of the US law group, which at that time was pioneering and young.  We got to shape a new space within a very global firm.  And then at O’Melveny, I was part of the banking and capital markets group.  In both cases, I gradually evolved to do more in business development – bringing in deals and teaching lawyers about new ways of seeing opportunity – than “practicing” law.  And here’s the thing. I loved my time at both law firms. I had a blast.

ex judicata:  Well, one doesn’t often hear those words strung together in a sentence.  Practicing law….loved…had a blast.

April Rinne:  I learned a ton. I met wonderful people.  I can’t say enough great things about these two firms.  Allen & Overy because they had such a forward-thinking vision about what the practice of law could be.  I do, however, think that part of why I was able to love my time at law firms so much, including throwing myself at truly insane billable hours for a couple of those years, was because I knew I wasn’t going to be there forever. 

I knew very early that a career solely in the legal sector or solely at a law firm was not what I wanted.  I knew that I wanted to design a different kind of career that was more multifaceted, and that allowed me more flexibility to learn to speak, metaphorically, many different languages, of which legalese was one.  But there were a bunch of other ones that I also wanted to learn and use.

ex judicata:  Did you specifically choose Allen & Overy because of the international footprint and being able to work in London?

April Rinne:  Absolutely.  I had summered there between my 2nd and 3rd year of law school.   It wasn’t that the position “had” to be overseas.  That was my preference, but the overarching goal was a very clear path to get global exposure and work on cross-border deals. That was important to me because of my upbringing and because of what I’d already been studying.  I grew up with a global perspective and a love of travel. College was international studies, international relations.  I was especially interested in global economic development, and how to build more inclusive business models globally. So, the international component was really in my DNA.

ex judicata:  Did you also have lawyers in your family, April?

April Rinne:  No.  This is where the story starts to get interesting.  Growing up I did not know a single lawyer until I was 20 years old.  And – I say this respectfully – both my parents were educators.  They didn’t know lawyers. I’m not sure they would’ve been fans! My dad was a cultural geographer, which means he studied the migratory patterns of people, plants and animals.  I grew up with lots of globes, lots of maps, lots of emphasis on cultural diversity and a global perspective, for sure.

April Rinne:  My parents encouraged me to do the things that brought me joy, but also that were of service to others.  They made it very clear that my career had to be of service; it wasn’t “about” me, or my ego, or making a lot of money. So I was on this track to go do my PhD to teach in some capacity to follow a more academic track.  I was a good student.  I liked to learn.  I was in my junior year studying overseas.  And then, right as those studies were finishing up: I got the phone call that no one ever wants or expects to get. I learned that both of my parents had died in a car crash. 

Okay, so–and I know people tuning in might be like ‘What did she just say?’–let me be  clear: I’m offering this up.   I welcome talking about my parents and what I went through.  It’s bittersweet, of course, but even more than that – it’s a point of human connection and it totally fuels what I do, how I do it, and how I see the world.  And this experience was also my entry to the legal world. The first words of legalese that I learned in my life were ‘dual vehicular homicide’:  That means “two people died in a car crash.”

ex judicata:  Oh my God.

April Rinne:  I have one older sister and, obviously, we had a big tragedy on our hands to deal with.  Not a lot of wherewithal, because no one expects this kind of thing to happen.  I was 20, and the accident happened in Colorado.  So, I had to go back to Colorado.  And under Colorado state law, when two people die in a car crash, you must have a criminal case. So, by law, there had to be a criminal case.  And frankly, my sister and I we wanted to know who had hit our parents and how had they died.  We needed some closure.  We weren’t litigious in any way, but we had to take the step.  I didn’t know any lawyers.  My sister happened to know two, thanks to initiatives she had launched in college (she had recently graduated).

My sister called these lawyers, explained to them what had happened and that we needed some help.  And let me just say, I will get teary about this, they heard what happened and were like, ‘Of course we’ll help you’.  Little did I know that that would begin a journey that would take the better part of four years to get to the bottom of, and involved a coverup.  It gave me a crash course in criminal law.  It taught me so much. But after that, I wanted nothing to do with criminal law or litigation.

ex judicata:  I can imagine.

April Rinne:  Most importantly, this experience taught me the power of a law degree, which ended up shifting my life’s work.  My life experience really informs my life’s work.  A couple of years after that, I started piecing things together. together that I didn’t want a career in litigation, but I was studying international development, international economics, international business, and I decided to go to law school to help people understand what their rights are and how we can form better solutions to create a more sustainable, inclusive, flourishing world.   So, drawing on that as well as what I’d just been through, that’s what led me to law school.

ex judicata:  Unlike many of us who went to law school because we were liberal arts majors and had no idea what else to do.  You had a mission.

April Rinne:  Yes.  I went with a clear purpose.  I was extremely intentional. I applied to Harvard Law School, and they were like ‘We don’t see personal statements often like yours! 

The first half of my personal essay for law school was all about my dad, who was my best friend and my rock.  And the other half was about those two attorneys who represented my sister and me, and with whom to this day we are still in touch.  It was a man and a woman, and over time the man became like a father figure to me. 

ex judicata:  Absolutely amazing.  Someone goes through what no one should ever have to go through and rather than derailing them, it informs their life going forward.

April Rinne:   It wasn’t easy, and I can’t say I didn’t have lots of questions and fears and worries along the way. But I can’t underscore this enough. This is only my story. I don’t need or want to push it on anyone. Because we all have those experiences, those moments and those things that completely throw us out of kilter on a Tuesday afternoon that we didn’t see coming.  We have a choice.  We can choose to ignore it or integrate it and embrace it in terms of life choices going forward.

ex judicata:  Well said.

I know you didn’t go right off to law school after college.  From your bio it sounds like you had some extraordinary experiences.  For the benefit of our readers, I’m going to try to provide the highlights.  After college you received a Fulbright and a full scholarship at both Harvard and Stanford to pursue a PhD in global economic development.  You are so grief stricken during your Fulbright year; you determine you have no business plowing straight ahead to pursue that PhD. 

You then spend the next 4 years or so in self-discovery, traveling the world and serving as a hiking guide 7 months each year for the well-known Canadian outfitter Butterfield & Robinson.  You are trying to better understand how the rest of the world lives so you can figure out how to best contribute to it because you (as you’ve recently learned all too clearly) might die tomorrow. You don’t intend to or want to, of course, but it could happen – to any of us.

It’s during that time that you determine a law degree would be a logical next step.  But it’s not just the law degree you want, You choose to do a joint degree getting a Masters in international finance as well because you’d always had an international leaning in your background and because your travels informed the need for and the importance of financial inclusion.  Plus, you weren’t interested “just” in the law – but rather, how to combine law with other systems, like financial systems and social systems. You complete both degrees in 4 years which is a year shorter than if you pursued them independently.  All of this then takes you to the doorstep of the home office of global law firm, Allen & Overy, in London.

April Rinne:   Yes.  When I was interviewing with law firms, it was for corporate law and banking and finance. I was able to explain to the recruiting team that the same skills that you need to write a loan agreement for a company that will to burn through in a month, that same amount of funding could also fund hundreds of millions of families around the world.  Understanding loan agreements had more than a “big company” purpose. And I asked, ‘Could I explore that if I came here. Could I try to bring in new opportunities for corporate lawyers to do, frankly, more meaningful work?’

I asked this of every firm I interviewed at.  Pretty much every firm was like, ‘Oh, interesting.  Yes, great, sure.’But A&O was  so much more. They were like, ‘We love this idea. You can come here, and we will help resource you. We will support you. We want you to be entrepreneurial and help us learn too.’.   So, I went to A&O and ended up building an entirely new practice area, which is still going strong today.  It’s called impact investing, social sector finance.  It’s not only microfinance but also now financing for low-cost energy, healthcare, water, sanitation and all kinds of matters related to sustainability and global development.  And the fees, while not full freight, are commercial fees.  Some of it is pro bono, but much of it is not.

And here’s the hook: There were a lot of corporate lawyers at the firm hungry for more meaningful transactional work, and I was bringing in deal after deal.  I was practicing law, but I wound up spending more and more time doing business development.  I was the person who understood what microfinance was, who understood who needed to be around the table. I was basically a junior associate teaching senior partners about microfinance and still working on the deals.

I was an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur!) and I loved that.  This practice area now at A&O is huge and I’ve been told there is a waiting list of people wanting to do this work.

ex judicata:  So, you have this unique legal background in social sector finance and know in the back of your mind that climbing the ladder at the firm, no matter how much you enjoy it, is not your preference.  

April Rinne:  I wanted to go back “in the field.” I wanted to be more directly engaged in some capacity around financial inclusion.

ex judicata:  So that’s when you move to the Gates Foundation.  How did that come about?  Had you been looking around or did they approach you?

April Rinne:  I ended up advising the Gates Foundation in more of a consultancy role.  It was super interesting and, around the same time, I was offered a full-time position, with Unitus Investment Fund.   Basically, I went lateral into a microfinance and impact investment fund, where I was doing some legal work as well as strategy and partnerships and whatnot.  They didn’t want to poach me while I was at a law firm.  But as soon as I started signaling that I was ready to move on,  less than 24 hours later, they were like, ‘Are you real? Are you serious about leaving?  ‘Because if so, we’d been waiting for you to signal that you were ready to go’.

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