On a Wednesday evening in January, William Tell, a 33-year-old 3L at USC Gould School of Law, was sitting in the backyard of the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills, a few blocks away from his apartment, sipping a scotch and munching on a bowl of pasta. At the moment, Tell is the only law student in America who goes home to the woman on the cover of Cosmopolitan — he’s engaged to Lauren Conrad, the reality TV star-turned-lifestyle entrepreneur who is regarded by many, including Martha Stewart, as being something like the next Martha Stewart.
More than a decade before his stint as a figure of tabloid fascination, Tell’s first act was as a guitarist in early ’00s pop-rock band Something Corporate, a band that was playing stadiums, arenas, and late night television shows by the time he was 22.
Clean-cut and wearing a simple grey sweater and skateboarding shoes, Tell laughs a lot but speaks with a hint of careful distance. He makes clear that he guards his privacy and would not have consented to an interview with a publication whose focus was his romantic life. But I wanted to ask Tell mostly about his unique experience as a law student, so I connected with him on LinkedIn, emailed him to explain myself, and now here we are….
Is William Tell your birth name? You probably get asked this about twice a week but I have to.
Yep. Actually, it’s William Tell II.
You said we couldn’t do this interview at your apartment because your girlfriend was having friends over. Why did you say girlfriend instead of fiancée?
Fiancée seems like such a fancy word, you know? It makes me think of that Seinfeld episode where someone keeps saying fiancée in an annoying way.
[Pause.] Oh yeah, the episode where Elaine is trapped in a conversation with a woman who keeps asking about the whereabouts of her fiancé and then Elaine suggests that a dingo ate him.
Tell me about how you came to law school.
I started college at Cal State, Chico, when I was 18, but I didn’t find it very… intellectually stimulating. So I came home after my freshman year and talked to my parents about it, and I told them I wanted to take a year off to try to do music. I had five goals and I told them that if I didn’t achieve them within a year, I would go back to school. My goals were to get a major label record deal, have this level of manager, play this size venue, et cetera. Within the year, I’d joined the band and things had gotten going and we had a major label deal after about nine months. But I didn’t know that would happen when I made the proposal to my parents. I think about it now, like, “What the hell was I thinking?” But times in the music industry were different in 1999.
Did you know your lawyers while you were in the band? Did that influence you wanting to become a lawyer?
There were five of us in the band, so not everybody needed to talk to the lawyers. But you grow up hearing stories of people trying to rip you off in the entertainment business, so we wanted someone we could trust and somebody we felt was genuine. Sometimes, the lawyers came to our shows. [Laughs.] Actually, one of my attorneys is still a very close friend of mine. She’s an executive at Capitol Records now. She always told me that I would be a great lawyer, which didn’t bode well for my career as a musician. [Laughs.] Also, the other guitarist in my band is a lawyer. He’s an M&A attorney in Orange County. He’s helped me a lot.
You left the band in 2004. What happened?
I wanted to try writing songs and singing rather than playing guitar and singing backup, so I left and started working on my own music. I signed a solo deal a year or two after I left the band, went out and toured and did the whole thing, and then, after a while, it got to the point where I was approaching 30, rapidly, and I hadn’t struck it big on my own. I’d had some success, but music is a young man’s business. You really need to be between 17 and 25 to break in, although there are exceptions. I thought about being on tour when I was 40 and I looked at my friends who were really successful in music and they didn’t seem that happy. And I looked at my friends who weren’t really successful and they seemed even more bummed. And the music business wasn’t exactly banging down my door. So I went back to school.
For undergrad, right?
Yeah, to the music industry program at USC. I didn’t need a degree in music business and I didn’t really want to go back to undergrad, but I had to get a college degree in order to go to law school. I wanted to go to law school because I’d always been fascinated by government, politics, history. I thought the legal system was so fascinating! And being a lawyer gives you a route to professional autonomy if that’s what you want.
Was it strange to be studying music business in college after, you know, having succeeded in the music business?
Oh yeah, it was surreal to say the least — professors would ask me, “William, how does this work now?” Other students would email me for advice. And at the same time, even though I’d been in the band, I was doing what I had to do to afford school. I was almost 30 and I’d moved back in with my parents in Orange County, which was an hour and a half from school. I worked really hard to get the kind of grades I needed to get into law school, so I was a little burnt out by the time I got to 1L.
Are you having a similar experience in law school in terms of being in the band or maybe your relationship/engagement? You’re sort of a pop culture object of interest.
Sometimes other students ask if it was true that I was in the band. And people I don’t know congratulate me in the hallways because they read that I got engaged. That’s pretty weird. But honestly, I’m not that interesting. I’m a guy in my 30’s who’s engaged and going to school. I don’t know if there’s much that’s interesting about me.
Do you talk to your fiancée about what you’re doing in school?
She’s extremely supportive of me being in law school, which is funny because I mostly come home and want to forget about it or to talk about what I’m doing at work [at LA entertainment law firm Ziffren Brittenham]. She’s definitely interested in what I’m doing at school though. And it comes up at weird times. Like, a while ago, we were watching [legal drama] Suits, and I remember saying that what was happening in the show wasn’t exactly the way it worked in real life.
What classes are you taking during your last semester in law school?
Criminal Procedure and a few entertainment law courses.
Do you know how you’re going to study for the bar yet?
I think we’re going to move down to Orange County for a few months while I study.
Did you read that New York Times story about studying for the bar in exotic locations?
Yeah. I kind of thought it said something negative about who law students are, i.e., that a lot of people getting their law degrees are from pretty fortunate circumstances. What does that mean for our legal system? Obviously one Times article is not indicative of an entire class of law students, but I hope there are enough people becoming lawyers who can’t afford to do something like study in an exotic location.
Do you spend time with other students or do things at school outside the classroom?
Well, I spend a lot of my time outside the classroom at work and with my fiancée. To me, and I don’t know if this works for everyone, but the most important thing in law school is making connections, getting good internships, and working your ass off at that those internships. Plus, after 1L year, I didn’t see people from my section very much. That’s a weird thing about law school — the first year you’re so intertwined, and then you just disperse. And it doesn’t help that I live 45 minutes away from school. But I was a member of the Jewish Law Association last year.
I didn’t know you were Jewish? I mean, I guess I didn’t know you weren’t Jewish.
[Laughs.] I’m not! I’m the only gentile member. I guess I have a little Jewish envy? [Laughs.] I joined because a lot of my friends were in the club. They came up with a pretty good title to get me in: Interfaith Outreach Coordinator.
Now that you’re almost done with law school, are you glad you went? Would you encourage people in positions similar to yours, if there are any, to go?
[Pause.] Virtually everyone I knew before going to law school told me not to do it. [Laughs.] But I’m not really in a position to give someone else advice. I know that for me, it was the right thing to do, but you just have to know that it’s what you really want because it’s a huge investment of time, money, and effort. Otherwise, it might be a fool’s errand.
(This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.)
UPDATE (9/14/2014, 2:30 p.m.): Congratulations and best wishes to Lauren Conrad and William Tell! The couple got married last night.
David Shapiro is a 2L at Brooklyn Law School. He also wrote a piece for The New Yorker today.