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Alumni Q&A
Alex Patterson '07: From Tax Law to Tough Mudder

alexander Patterson '07
By Brian McNeill

Alexander Patterson ’07 is in-house counsel and chief marketing officer for Tough Mudder, a grueling obstacle course competition held around the country that is billed as “probably the toughest event on the planet.”

In advance of a local Tough Mudder competition in October, Patterson returned to the Law School to describe his transition from a job in the tax law department of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell to his current position.

Prior to joining Tough Mudder, you spent a couple years practicing federal tax law. What caused you to decide to give that up?

Are we talking “proximate” causation or “but for” causation? OK, that is just a salute to Glen Robinson, my torts teacher. The answer is that after two years at Davis Polk in the tax department, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to practice tax law for the remainder of my career, and that such commitment was a prerequisite to succeed in that field. It was also clear to me that I had a lot of personal strengths that were not being put to use in the big law firm environment. After conversations with close mentors at the firm, I made the choice to leave to pursue other opportunities.

Which is tougher: law school or a Tough Mudder competition?

There are a lot of similarities: Both require a great deal of endurance and mental fortitude, both seemingly last a very long time, both cost a good chunk of change, and for many participants, both involve wearing costumes and drinking beer (Feb Club, anyone?). But at the end of the day, I’d have to honestly say that law school is tougher. You can get through Tough Mudder in one day. Lillian BeVier lasts all semester, and that’s just the start.

What sort of legal issues do you handle as Tough Mudder’s in-house counsel?

The issues I handle include: drafting contracts for new event venues, for vendors, sponsors, and new employees; ensuring we have the proper insurance coverage for the events; researching the enforceability of our participant liability waivers; advising on proper corporate organization for liability and tax structure; and finally, hiring and managing outside counsel in those instances in which litigation has arisen or more complex corporate matters require experienced advice.

I also oversee our relationship with Tough Mudder’s official charity partner, the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services to severely injured military service members during and after their transition from active duty to civilian life. In the last year alone, Tough Mudder participants have raised over $2 million for the WWP, something about which everyone at Tough Mudder is very proud.

Who was the toughest professor you had at UVA Law?

The toughest “professor” that I ever had was the hard-hitting combo of John Norton Moore and Bob Turner. First, they teach some pretty tough subjects, literally and figuratively: international law and national security law. Second, to do well in their classes you need to come up with novel thinking in a field that, well, let’s be honest, they basically dominate. That’s not easy. Third and finally, it is tough to debate historical facts with men who were secretly advising the president when you were 7 years old and wearing He-Man pajamas.

In what ways did your time at UVA Law prepare you for your job at Tough Mudder?

Tough Mudder’s event is not a race, but is instead a challenge. Our participants are encouraged to put teamwork and camaraderie and the welfare of their fellow Mudders above their personal performance. The same can be said about the team of employees that we have assembled at Tough Mudder. UVA Law really embodied that spirit of teamwork and camaraderie, both among its students as well as between the students and professors. Especially in a start-up company, culture is so important. The fact that my experience at UVA taught me the core value of camaraderie and fellowship rather than competition (and having fun in addition to working hard, as with the Libel Show) has helped me to become a better team player at Tough Mudder as well as mentor and manager to others within the organization.

What can people expect at the Tough Mudder at Wintergreen?

In short, a really fun day with your teammates as you face off against 10 miles and 24 military-style obstacles designed by British Special Forces to test all-around strength, stamina, mental grit, teamwork, and camaraderie.

Among other obstacles, be prepared for the Berlin Walls (10-foot wooden walls), the Chernobyl Jacuzzi (dumpster filled with ice and water), the Fire Walker (gauntlet of flaming hay bales), and the famous ElectroShock Therapy (a run through a field of live dangling electric wires charged to 10,000 volts).

Oh, and then there’s the mountain itself, where we make you run up and down black diamond ski slopes. With a course like this, you can forget your finish time, as simply completing a Tough Mudder is a badge of honor. Not everyone will complete the event, but those who do will enjoy a cold pint of Dos Equis beer immediately upon finishing and earn the coveted Tough Mudder orange finisher headband.

Any tips you’d offer to UVA Law students or others who are planning to participate?

The one tip I would offer any prospective Mudder would be to get a good group of teammates who are generally fit but who more importantly know how to have a laugh and aren’t whiners. That and don’t be afraid of the ElectroShock Therapy obstacle. It’s only 10,000 volts.

Given your experiences, what career advice would you give to current UVA Law students?

My advice would be to follow the little voice inside your head to pursue your own (even if quirky) interests. If you are at UVA Law, it means you are smart and motivated enough to carve out a career in almost any industry you want, whether as a lawyer or even a non-lawyer, as I have done.

Ultimately tax law wasn’t the right fit for me, but the challenge of trying to master something different was part of what attracted me to tackle that area in the first place, and I am glad that I did it. When it was time for me to think of what I wanted to do next, I decided to apply only to jobs that I found interesting. That involved applications to work for senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill, in research positions at NGOs like Freedom House, and even a brief consulting project exploring my interest in automated vehicles and the goal of a world without traffic fatalities.

During this search, a close friend with whom I had actually done a mud run forwarded me an article about Tough Mudder, and the concept of a tough obstacle course challenge struck me as a great business idea. Having been at a big firm in a specialized area of law, it seemed a great opportunity to work at a small company where I would not only be “exposed” to a multitude of legal issues but have real responsibility for making the right decisions. I quickly reached out to the founders—two Brits my age with an abundance of ambition and a wry sense of humor—and was successful in convincing them that they should make a lawyer one of their first full-time hires. As for transitioning to the head of the marketing department, it was a gradual shift where I simply kept getting involved on my own initiative and eventually at the right time raised my hand and said “I’d like the formal role.”

To an outside observer, the years since I graduated would not seem to have a consistent theme; but to anyone who really knows me, the consistent theme all along has been “Alex Patterson.” If I could tell only one thing to others at UVA Law, it would be to have the determination to follow your own unique interests and the willingness to take chances along the way. 

Patterson’s talk, “An (Electro-) Shocking Transition: From Tax Lawyer to Chief Marketing Officer at Tough Mudder,” was sponsored by the UVA Law Entrepreneurship Club.