My Time at W&L Law: Katie Gray

grayWith less than a month left in the 2012-2013 academic year, we asked several of our third-year students to reflect upon their time at W&L Law. Today, Katie Gray takes on the topic.

As we near the last 41 days of law school, I find myself feeling exactly the opposite of what I anticipated feeling upon completing one of the most rigorous fields of study: a longing to return to 1L year. Instead of rejoicing that I am done with school forever, I am shockingly sad to leave.  Instead of celebrating my move to a city with more than three bars, I am strangely going to miss the stress-free decision of what bar to go to, knowing that whichever one I choose, 15 of my friends will be there, and my purse could sit unattended all night only to be retrieved unscathed the next morning. Instead of reveling in the fact that I will never again have to outline for an exam, the O.C.D. in me realizes that I will never have another excuse to make a ridiculously long, color-coded document that involves more time creating headings than absorbing all of its information.  This is it.  This is the last 41 days of school…ever.  As someone who came straight to law school from undergrad, with no experience in the “real world,” it’s a frightening, but exciting feeling to end what seemed like a career in itself: being a student. Yet, I can’t think of a better place to complete my student career, and I walk away confident that there is no better law school, no better professors, and no better friends that could have prepared me for the real world. I walk away having watched the blossoming of a relationship of 2 great friends, from the day they met 1L year to the day they got engaged. I walk away with 8 new, life-long friends from my clinic who I could not be prouder to call my future colleagues. I walk away with valuable lessons from the mistakes I’ve made, but also the challenges to which I’ve risen.

As our countdown to graduation forges ahead, each day I realize something new about W&L that I will miss—yesterday it was Millie in the brief stop, who never fails to crack me up with her cynical one-liners that greet me each morning; today it was the immense (yet pathetic and horribly lazy) satisfaction I get from snatching a lower-level parking spot.  For the past 3 years, this place has become home to me.  As a native Texan, if you had told me 4 years ago that I would be living somewhere called “Lexington, Virginia,” I would have responded that I could never survive in a small town in the “north” where queso is called “cheese dip” at Mexican restaurants. You might have heard that everything is bigger in Texas, and I am living proof of this—after graduating high school with 1,200 students and college with over 50,000 students, moving to a small town and attending one of the smallest law schools in the country initially seemed like it would be a difficult, if not impossible, adjustment.  But it didn’t take more than two hours the first day I arrived for me to realize that there would really be minimal “adjusting” involved.  Within an hour, I had met my roommates, had already recognized how lucky I was that we were all normal after depending on Facebook to find each other, and was walking one block over to another 1L’s house where I befriended 4 more people.

It soon became clear that it was the smallness of this place that would define my experience. Although I will soon be returning to a big city—where my purse can no longer have sleepovers at the bar and strangers will no longer greet me in passing—my experience at W&L has provided truly valuable life lessons beyond the classroom, and beyond what any larger school in Houston, D.C., or New York could provide. There were three distinct qualities of W&L that instantly attracted my attention at admitted students’ weekend, all three of which have proven not only true, but have exceeded my expectations about law school.

First, W&L’s small student-to-teacher ratio appealed to me, as someone who lacked a single relationship with a professor in undergrad. What I didn’t realize is just how much this would affect my education and experience. The small size of W&L allows for individualized attention to every student who seeks it, whether this attention comes in the form of ensuring that you secure a summer internship tailored to your interests, or in the form of professors leaving their doors open and genuinely welcoming questions about anything from torts to general life advice.

Second, and perhaps most remarkably, despite W&L’s geographical distance from major cities, our professors are world-class…literally.  At admitted students’ weekend, W&L’s most attractive feature was its palpable commitment to its Transnational Law Institute. And yet, despite all of the amazing international opportunities—whether it is the wide-array of upper-level international classes, trips to the European Court of Human Rights, or working with lawyers representing Gitmo detainees—what is truly phenomenal about W&L is the team of international “all-stars” who also happen to be our professors.

Half way through my first semester 1L year, I discovered that my torts professor, Johanna Bond, had extensive experience working on issues such as domestic violence and human rights abuses in countries around the world, including Macedonia, Bulgaria, Uganda, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. My transnational law professor, Mark Drumbl, practiced international arbitration before being appointed as co-counsel for the Canadian Chief-of-Defense-Staff before the Royal Commission investigating military wrongdoing in the UN Somalia Mission, and served as defense counsel in the Rwandan genocide trials. My 2L year, I was honored to work as a student editor under Russell Miller—the co-founder of the world’s leading online, peer-reviewed law journal, the German Law Journal. And then there is the beloved professor, Thomas “Speedy” Rice, who runs various programs at W&L that afford students far-reaching opportunities, from assisting JAG attorneys defending prisoners at Gitmo, to partnering with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to train communities in Liberia on the harms associated with extended pre-trial detention. From the day I knocked on Professor Rice’s door to seek advice on securing an internship in Cambodia my 1L summer, he has considerably impacted my law school experience…all before even taking a class with him!  And this is the norm at W&L.

The third feature that drew me to W&L is its commitment to ensuring that every student graduate with substantial practical experience. No matter what legal field you wish to enter, W&L’s third year program almost certainly has an externship, clinic, or practicum to cater to your career goals. I am currently a student attorney in the Criminal Justice Clinic, which provides representation to indigent clients facing criminal charges. As a future public defender, I have the incredible opportunity to work with Professor John D. King, who spent the majority of his pre-teaching career as a Supervising Attorney at one of the most prominent public defender offices in the country, the Public Defender Service for DC. The first day our clinic met in September, I remember being terrified at Professor King’s warning to all of us that we were largely on our own, and that his role would be minimal in our representation of clients. The thought of having someone’s life and liberty in my hands before I was even certified to practice law was, frankly, alarming. Now, as I prepare to enter my career, I realize the immeasurable value of Professor King’s approach—not only am I certain that I can competently represent future clients and confidently stand before a judge to try a case, I am also at an extreme advantage to other newly-graduated prosecutors and defenders.

We may not realize it yet during the madness of the homestretch to graduation, but I think it is safe to say that we will all miss our lives in Lexington—the five minute drive or walk to school, the brightest colored leaves Fall has seen anywhere, kegs on the lawn every Friday, the frequent BBQ’s, Halloween at the Ruins, wine tasting at nearby vineyards, and a familiar face everywhere you go.  W&L is truly a place like no other. No matter what law school you choose, it will inevitably be 3 of the most demanding years of your life. This is absolutely true at W&L. But what makes W&L special is the ability to have a life during those 3 years, and to walk away remembering the people you studied with rather than the countless hours you spent studying.

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