From the Tonight Show to Texas Law Review

Sydney Jean Gottfried applied for Texas Law while working in late night TV in New York City, and she’s brought her background and talents to Austin. 

Gottfried grew up in Richmond, Virginia, earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Georgetown University, and then stayed in Washington, D.C. to work for NBC News. In that role, she wrote scripts based on NBC News reporting for iHeartRadio stations nationwide. 

Sydney Jean Gottfried
Sydney Jean Gottfried ’25, photographed by Callie Richmond.

She then moved to New York City, where she was a monologue writers’ assistant and an associate producer for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” 

During her work on an episode of The Tonight Show, Gottfried discovered the appeal of Austin and The University of Texas at Austin and enrolled at Texas Law in August 2022. She currently serves as editor-in-chief of the Texas Law Review, works as a research assistant for the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center, and is enrolled in Texas Law’s Supreme Court Clinic. As a 2L, Gottfried served on the board of OUTLaw, the law school’s LGBTQ+ affinity group, and worked as a teaching assistant for 1L Property. She was also recently inducted into the Friar Society, the oldest honors society at The University of Texas at Austin with “a deep-rooted commitment to philanthropy.” 

This spring, Gottfried was a contributor to Texas Law Magazine, the school’s new biannual publication for alumni, interviewing Diane Brayton ’96, a vice president and chief legal officer of The New York Times.

We recently spoke to Gottfried about the career that led her to Texas Law, her leadership roles at the school, and what’s next on her fascinating professional journey.  

The Tonight Show! What was that like? 

Amazing! The Tonight Show is stacked with talented and creative individuals and I was grateful to get to work with them on so many incredible projects. It was hard and sometimes stressful, but very exciting to watch the segment you worked on go to air.  

I started out with the monologue team, where I conducted news research and fact-checked content for the show. This was during the Trump presidency, when all of late night became a bit more newsy and political. Having been a government major who worked in news, I couldn’t believe I was actually getting paid to read newspapers and watch the news all day.  Then I was promoted to associate producer and worked on topical comedy and signature bits for the show like “Hashtags” and “Thank You Notes.” I loved learning more about comedy from the writers on the show. I’d like to think the experience made me funnier. My classmates can be the judge.

Was law school always the plan after that? 

No, what really made me decide to go to law school was all the cable news I watched as a writer’s assistant. I noticed that many of the sharp journalists and political panelists I admired had something in common—they were lawyers. When I made that connection, the wheels started turning. 

Most people I knew thought I was crazy. Who leaves late-night TV to go to law school? I didn’t necessarily want to leave media, I just wanted to learn more about government and the law. My hope is to use my law degree in a media setting at some point in the future.

How did you choose Texas Law? 

In 2019, the show came to UT. I did tons of research on UT and Austin to help the writers and producers put together the episode. Compared to New York, Austin seemed charming and different, and I remember thinking it looked like a fabulous place to be a student. When I decided to apply to law school, I remembered what a good time everyone had making the show and added Texas Law to my list. 

Sure enough, when I came for admitted students day, I was impressed by how friendly everybody was—at the law school and around the city. It seemed like a place where I could enjoy being a law student, and also a 20-something.  

And how has that turned out? 

Even better than I hoped. I feel lucky to be challenged and learn new things every single day. Texas Law is a very supportive community and has a lot to offer. I feel grateful for the friends and mentors I’ve made, who have made my time as a student so enjoyable and have exposed me to new experiences and ideas.  

After my 1L year, I had the chance to work for the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School. I worked on First Amendment and Freedom of Information Act litigation and gained a deeper appreciation for the essential role that free speech and a free press play in society. It was great to combine law and media and to realize that I’m interested in press freedom work specifically. 

That’s great to hear. Turning to your numerous roles at Texas Law, you’re the editor in chief of the Texas Law Review. What’s that like? 

Busy! I get to work with professors from all over the country and an excellent editorial board of fellow students to publish cutting-edge legal scholarship. Every day presents new challenges and new opportunities. One day we’re planning a symposium; The next we’re proofing drafts to make sure they’re just right. 

We just finished the final Issue of Volume 102 with an excellent Symposium issue on Mercy, organized by Professors Lee Kovarsky and Jennifer Laurin. From here, we’ll jump straight into Volume 103. At this point, we have selected most of what we publish across our seven issues. Spoiler alert: it rocks! 

Has your TV work experience informed your editorship at the Law Review? 

My pitch for being EIC was that I thought producing late-night TV alongside a large team on a tight deadline was going to be similar to editing a law review and getting it out on time. Balancing quality and timeliness is not always easy. Having experience with that equation has been helpful. 

There are more similarities between a law review and a television show than you might expect. On television, you’re making content that showcases the talent. At TLR, the scholarship we publish ultimately belongs to the scholars who wrote the pieces. We try to make their work as thorough and presentable at possible, but authors get to call the final shots. 

The workflow of both entities is also similar. On television, you work with a variety of production departments to produce individual elements that come together to form a cohesive whole. The same is true at TLR. Our Articles, Notes, and Featured Content teams all work on different essays that become a single issue. The Managing Editor and I complete final edits on every piece to maintain consistency.

As EIC, I try to keep the sense of humor I gained in late night. Challenges certainly come up, but it helps to keep them in perspective. 

Separate from the Texas Law Review, you’ve also planned two events this spring semester with the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center.  

Oh, yes! The first was on New York Times v. Sullivan’s actual malice standard and the current state of defamation law. We had Justin Nelson from Susman Godfrey, who recently represented Dominion Voting Systems in the blockbuster defamation suit against Fox News; Lyrissa Lidsky ‘93, who is a professor at the University of Florida studying defamation and the First Amendment; and David McCraw, who is the lead newsroom lawyer for the New York Times. Amy Sanders, who is a professor at the Moody College of Communication and teaches journalism, moderated the event. It was great. There are huge defamation settlements coming out right now and calls to overturn the actual malice standard. The panel discussed whether that actually seemed likely to happen. 

I also moderated a panel on drag bans and the First Amendment that was co-sponsored by OUTLaw. We had Professor Caroline Corbin from the University of Miami, who studies the First Amendment and equality issues. We also had Chloe Kempf ’21, who works with the Texas ACLU and was part of the team that challenged SB 12—the Texas drag ban that was struck down on First Amendment grounds. She was joined by drag performer Brigitte Bandit, who is one of the plaintiffs that challenged the law. 

Sydney Jean Gottfried
Gottfried in the Eidman Courtroom, photographed by Callie Richmond.

You’re an OUTLaw board member, too, right? 

Yes. This year I served as co-director of social events with Luca Azzariti, another 2L. We recently hosted a mixer with queer affinity groups from the business and medical schools. My partner is an MBA student at McCombs, so that was a treat. 

You also led the efforts on requesting a new course? 

OUTLaw’s President, Adrienne Allen ’24, and I requested a course that would cover LGBTQ+ legal topics. We worked with Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Susan Morse and it came together as Emerging Issues in Gender Identity, Sexuality, and the Law.

This spring it was a one-credit weekend class, but it’s coming back in fall 2024 as a two-credit class. It was co-taught by Shelley Skeen, who’s the Southern Regional Director for Lambda Legal, and Maddy Dwertman ‘14, who’s built a pretty significant pro bono practice at Baker Botts centered on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights.

We learned about legal issues facing the queer community in Texas. Both faculty members have been involved in significant litigation around those issues and were able to share their experiences in court. The class ended with an advocacy exercise where we argued against one another. It was fun to see my classmates in action. They’re going to be great lawyers. 

After the semester ends, what’s next? And following graduation? 

This summer, I will be at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. I was drawn to the firm for its First Amendment and appellate litigation practice areas. Lisa Blatt ’89 chairs Williams & Connolly’s Supreme Court and appellate litigation practice—she was also on the editorial board of Volume 67 of the Texas Law Review! Her work at the firm definitely drew me to apply. 

After graduation, I hope to clerk. (Update: Ms. Gottfried will clerk in the chambers of Judge Royce Lamberth on the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia in 2025 and Judge Florence Pan on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2026.- Ed.) Long term, I’d like to pursue media law opportunities. My experience in the Supreme Court Clinic has also piqued my interest in appellate litigation and Supreme Court work. I enjoyed researching new areas of law, thinking about how the law should work, and figuring out how to pitch that theory to the Court.

Category: Student Spotlight