My Time at W&L Law #4

by Jennifer Dean

With graduation less than a month away, we asked several of our third-year students to reflect upon their time at W&L Law. Today, Jennifer Dean, takes on the topic.

Jennifer Dean

Jennifer Dean

I will always remember the last mile into Lexington.

In four days, my parents and I had driven from northern California to Virginia. Taking a cross-country road trip with my parents was a surprisingly fun experience—our bond was reinforced by close proximity and a penchant for books on tape. Even though the AC failed halfway through Kentucky, we remained optimistic as we drove into the East Coast’s warm, humid embrace. Roughly 2,600 miles from home, we finally crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and found the exit sign that steered us into Lexington.

One of the first things I remember of Lexington was the rhythmic cry of the cicadas. Their steady chant became the soundtrack against to my first few days in my new home. After a few hours of unpacking what little my Honda Civic held, my parents boarded an airplane to return to California. It was then I realized that Lexington represented a new beginning for me—a realization as motivating as it was daunting.

I chose Washington & Lee because the law school was different from almost every other law school I researched. I remember first visiting the campus during one of the Open House sessions and immediately liking the combination of history, personal feel and an ambitious curriculum. Touring the campus on a warm afternoon in April, I took in the beauty of the Colonnade, the eclectic collection of artwork displayed around the law school and the many amenities available on the undergraduate campus. However, I was most impressed by the third year program.  Hearing how students received hands-on training through a combination of real and simulated practice experiences cemented my decision to enroll at W&L.

On the night of my last exam during my first year, the third year program was the farthest thing from my mind. In front of me was a small stack of study aids, my outline for Contracts and a ticking clock that served as a constant reminder that I was one night away from the end of the semester. When the exam was over, I remember walking out of class and into two feet of snow feeling emboldened. Six months earlier, I was a twenty-something who lived on the other side of the country. Now, I was a 1L who just finished her first semester of exams without fainting. I felt as if I could do anything.

My newfound courage continued in my second year. Despite having little experience with Mock Trial during college, I competed in every Moot Court competition. Being a competitor in Moot Court was by far the most enriching experience of my legal education because the competitions involve so much of what it means to practice law. In the Negotiations competition, my partner and I were seated across from another pair of law students who were our adversaries but not in the traditional sense. To succeed, we had to work with our opponents to further our client’s interests.

In the Davis competition, which focuses on appellate advocacy, I was alone in front of a panel of my peers where I had to argue persuasively while addressing a quick succession of questions from the bench. In the Mock Trial competition, I put on a dramatic flair during opening statements, attempted to cooperate with hostile witnesses and navigated the rules of evidence. Above all, the most important lesson I learned from my Moot Court experience was the ability to lose. Even though I advanced in every competition, I did not win any of them. Being able to remain proud of my efforts while not taking home the gold medal allowed me to continue to compete and learn new advocacy skills. Looking back as a Vice Chair of the program now, I am grateful for the time I invested because I developed a skill set that can be put into practice after graduation.

Now, as a third-year student, in addition to helping manage the Moot Court program, I am a student attorney in the Citizenship & Immigration Clinic. Through the clinic, I represent immigrants in southern and central Virginia. Being able to learn about and practice immigration law is of personal interest to me as my mother and her family emigrated from El Salvador in the mid-1960s. Through the clinic, I helped a young Salvadoran escape persecution from one of the country’s notorious gangs and obtain permanent residency here in the United States.

Whether I am drafting a brief or meeting with my client, my cases remind me how the law affects people’s lives. When it comes to the practice of immigration law, the outcome of a case could result in having a family relocated to another country – completely uprooting the life they have established in the United States. Having experienced the impact I could have on someone’s life by navigating a maze of federal regulations, I realized my calling. As my third year comes to a close, I am interested in pursuing immigration law and seeking opportunities that will allow me to put my practical experience in the Citizenship & Immigration Program to good use.

Throughout my three years here, I have found that W&L offers something as valuable as they education they provide its students—a small-town lifestyle nestled in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley. I never really appreciated the luxury of a small town until I lived in one. Being a few blocks from downtown Lexington, I often walk to the movie theater to catch a late show or grab an espresso at the local coffee shop. Taking my dog for a jog along the scenic Chessie Trail is as easy as hopping in my car and driving just outside of town.  Lexington has enabled me to make lifelong friends. It even brought my husband and I together.

The small-town setting also allowed me to focus my energies on excelling in school. The decision to attend law school is no small undertaking, which is why it was important for me to choose the right location in addition to the right school. Although the learning curve in law school is steep, the assent is more manageable when you are working in an environment that encourages you to invest yourself in your studies.

When I pack my car in two months to leave Lexington for the last time, I will not go far. Even after my husband and I move down the road to Roanoke, we will always remember W&L as a place of new beginnings.

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