An Inside Look at Orientation Week

J.D. and LL.M. students arrive on campus to begin their Columbia Law School journey.

In Dean Gillian Lester’s first meeting with the Columbia Law School Class of 2020 on August 14, she addressed a serious topic: How to think like a lawyer.

Citing research from McKinsey & Co. that nearly half of all human occupations can be automated with existing technologies, Dean Lester noted that the law isn’t one of those professions, much to the relief of the incoming class.

Why not? Because the fundamental job of a lawyer is to think.

“Thinking like a lawyer, as you will discover, is part analysis and part craft,” she said in her welcoming talk. “Thinking like a lawyer means learning how to frame an issue and to argue all sides of a question, including the side advocated by your opponent. It means learning the weight of legal precedents, and how to apply those precedents to new challenges. Our profession is timeless and indispensable, and your being here today only reaffirms that idea; it secures it for generations to come.”

Members of the J.D. Class of 2020 and the LL.M. Class of 2018 experienced a week jam-packed with social events and skills-building sessions designed to familiarize them with the Columbia Law School campus, faculty, and values. Students met with peer mentors; heard about financial aid, and public interest and private sector career resources; and attended trainings on sexual assault prevention, academic integrity, mindfulness, and creating a culture of inclusion.

There were also sessions with Columbia Law School’s affinity groups and for those who are the first in their family to go to law school; community service projects; and dozens of activities to introduce students to the city of New York. LL.M. students and their families, converging on Morningside Heights from countries around the globe, enjoyed an evening happy hour get together, as well.

Faculty Words of Wisdom

Professors offered students advice about the best way to make the most of their time at the Law School, including how to meaningfully engage with faculty during four sessions titled “What We Want You to Know.” In one such discussion, Professor Vincent A. Blasi told students about a well-known judicial opinion on the First Amendment, an eloquent concurrence written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927.

The opinion, which came in Whitney v. California, a case affirming a felony conviction against a woman who had participated in and helped organize the Communist Labor Party of California, was incredibly important for the doctrine of free speech and famous, in particular, for the line that “more speech, not enforced silence” is the “remedy” for evil.

But Blasi wanted to share a different point about the opinion: The concurrence took 23 drafts to write, and the first seven or eight drafts weren’t anywhere near good enough, he said. The point? Even the best among us need practice, and that’s what law school is for. His colleague on the panel, Professor Kathryn Judge, agreed.

“It’s a lesson about giving yourself permission to make mistakes because that’s how you’re going to figure out who you are and what you want to say,” she said.

A Force for Good

At every turn during orientation, administrators and faculty encouraged students to be a positive force in the world. Reflecting on recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia stemming from a protest by white supremacists, Dean Lester urged students to take part in the Law School’s “strong culture of engagement,” to listen to and learn from each other, even when they don’t share the same views on an issue.

“The tragic events over the weekend in Virginia remind us that our political and social trajectories as a people and a nation are currently under strain—under as much strain as they have been in my adult life,” she said. “Lawyers and law schools can and must play a critical role in navigating these challenges.”

Some Team Work

Orientation featured lighthearted moments, too. During her welcome address to incoming J.D. Class of 2020, Dean of Admissions Nkonye Iwerebon ’93 singled out two unsuspecting students for an assignment. The challenge? To be feted with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“We’re singing?” asked Matthew Halchak ’20 who along with Sam Thompson ’20 was celebrating his birthday in addition to the start of his legal career.

“No, the class is singing!” Iwerebon replied to laughter. “Teamwork!”

The entire auditorium then broke out in song, marking perhaps the first collective action by the group, which Iwerebon jokingly called the “Class of Perfect Vision-aries,” a play on their 2020 graduation year.

Iwerebon said she expected great things from the talented cohort, which includes a hip-hop artist, a magician, neuroscientists, television hosts, financial analysts, religious leaders, an Olympic torchbearer, a sparring partner for an elite boxer, and others from all walks of life, socioeconomic levels, and countries on nearly every continent.

“Today, then, marks the beginning of limitless possibilities,” she said. “While no one knows where this path will ultimately lead, what counts, in my view, is that you make the most of your time here, that you have many thought-provoking dialogues, remain true to the passions and aspirations that fueled you before your arrival, and develop lifelong friendships.”

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Posted on August 22, 2017