A few weeks ago, I stumbled across Matthew Boutte’s blog while looking for more information of Gewirz, the student residence at Georgetown Law. Both the content and the regularity of his posts helped me get a better picture of what life might be like for me in a couple of weeks. I got in touch with him, and he’s been very open to my questions. So much so that he generously agreed to answer a whole swath of them so that I could post them here.
Because the interview was rather long, I’ll be posting it in pieces. In Part One, Matt talks about choosing GULC, his first impressions, and the first few weeks of law school.
1. What most attracted you about GULC, and how did you decide to apply and then go there?
There were three factors that developed over time that kind of directed me towards Georgetown.
- First, I wanted to go to a big law school for the broad selection of classes and access to different resources (professors, programs, events, etc.) However, now that I’m having to register I’m kind of regretting this criteria. Just kidding! But it is overwhelming; there are so many classes available and that I’m interested in, many of which you can’t find at other law schools.
- Second, I’ve always wanted to live in DC. I don’t know why, I just always have. I’ve always been interested in history and government (I think I read the Constitution for the first time in second grade – most people in my ConLaw class had never read it before). I wasn’t opposed to going to law school elsewhere, but it would be a big plus if I could go in DC.
- Third, I was interested in a school with a public interest and social justice orientation. As a Jesuit school, Georgetown fit the bill. I have really been impressed with the emphasis on these things on campus and amongst the faculty and with the opportunities that are provided. Especially getting into your second and third years, there are a lot of opportunities for practical service with clinics and other programs.
I applied to a lot of schools and talked to a lot of people throughout the whole process. When I got into Georgetown I was surprised to find that everyone assumed that I would accept the offer right away and go there. I still hadn’t made up my mind and still had other places to hear back from! But I guess I didn’t realize how favorably I had been talking about Georgetown all along. So that was a nice little confirmation for me along the way.
2. What was your first impression of law school and of GULC in particular?
I came to Obama’s inauguration at the last minute with a friend from college and knew that I was interested in law school and possibly Georgetown, so we went all the way over to the main campus to check out the law school, only to discover that the law school was all the way across the city, only a few blocks from where we were staying. By the time we got back to the law school it was dark out and we only had a few minutes so we (literally) ran through two buildings. I later discovered that there were three more buildings. I think I was a little frustrated, tired, and flustered after all our trekking, so my impression was probably less than optimal.
After accepting their offer, I wanted to see more of the campus but couldn’t find any pictures other than the generic ones of the outside that they have on their website. Luckily, I found a group on Facebook on which someone had posted lots of pictures of the campus, including pictures inside Gewirz. So that was really nice – at least I would recognize the campus when I showed up in August!
When I first showed up last August I was ecstatic. I took my two huge suitcases up to my room on the tenth floor, put them down, snapped a few pictures to post on the blog, and then took off to explore the campus. I explored it very systematically, going floor by floor in Gewirz, and then building by building with the rest of campus. I was so excited to finally be seeing all the things I’d only seen in pictures.
When class started I was just as ecstatic. I’d read up on all my professors and was excited to finally meet them in the arena. My heart was racing when they were cold calling, but it wasn’t fear, it was adrenaline.
3. Generally speaking, has Georgetown lived up to your expectations so far?
Absolutely – it has exceeded them.
Law school and the law aren’t exactly what I expected, but no one knows exactly what it is until you’re here. I’d done a lot of reading about law school, had watched movies like The Paper Chase, and had talked to a lot of people, so I had a general idea of what it would be like. I know a lot of people who had no idea what it would be like. They didn’t even know what cold calling was or that it would happen. I think that general shock made a lot of people miserable, some for just a little while, some for the whole year.
Going in, I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy the study of law and the law school atmosphere, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I have loved the study of law (a 2L recently told me that it seemed like I enjoy it more than anyone else he knows). I’ve met a lot of people and have really enjoyed getting to know them. I was a little afraid coming in that I wouldn’t like the environment because it was too competitive or arrogant and stuff like that. Luckily, with only a few exceptions, that hasn’t been a problem at all. I think a lot of the people are very grounded and humble, which is very refreshing.
4. How did you prepare for law school?
a. Did you access any resources (books, mentors, prep courses) for help?
Before law school the only thing I did that could be considered academically preparatory was to read Law School Confidential. It was pretty helpful getting a general idea of what school would be like and a few specific suggestions.
The only materials I used during the year were the textbooks. From my observations, most people use hornbooks and commercial outlines and stuff like that because finals are coming up and they didn’t do the work along the way, so they’re behind and are looking for a faster way to cover all the material. Some people use these types of materials to supplement the textbooks, but most of them just end up complaining that they aren’t that helpful or thorough or don’t cover the same material that we’re doing in class. I guess that goes to show what happens to the people who are relying on them exclusively.
b. Are there any that you’d especially recommend or recommend against?
Because I didn’t use anything besides the textbooks, I can’t really recommend any. However, I would definitely suggest getting a cope of Black’s Law Dictionary. It’s awesome. I was given a copy as a gift before I left and it has been incredible. I don’t know how people go without it. They don’t look up the technical meanings of things and then are all confused.
c. Looking back, what was the best piece of advice you received regarding maximizing your academic success?
I didn’t receive this piece of advice, but I think it’s the best I can give, and I’ve mentioned it in other places. Stay on top of the work. There will be little incentive to do so, other than the final that’s a long way away. But just do the work. Whatever it takes to make yourself do it. It will pay off.
In general, I think the best piece of advice I received was to not lose myself in all of this. That’s ultimately what matters anyway. There are people who are completely changed by law school, and in most cases that probably isn’t a good thing. I have no desire to have that happen to me, and I think it’s important to keep it in the forefront of your mind.
d. Is there any piece of conventional law school wisdom that you think is actually awful/overrated advice?
I don’t know if it’s awful, but I (and several others I know) received a piece of advice over and over again at the beginning of the year that I didn’t think was helpful and was possibly even detrimental. Everyone kept telling us to not start outlining until the middle of November. Time-wise, that’s fine (although it would have been less hectic if I’d started earlier) but it really robs you of understanding earlier in the semester, which affects your understanding of later material.
Spring semester I updated my outline each Thursday afternoon and evening, which was great. I had the benefit of better understanding all the material along the way and of having more time towards the end of the semester.
Granted, their advice was not completely terrible. Basically they said to brief our cases each week and then outline it all at the end of November. Briefing is good for a while to get used to talking about the facts, the holding, the procedural posture, and all that jazz. But there’s no need to do it for a whole semester. Do it for a while to get the hang of it and to learn what’s important, and then start outlining. That’s how I would modify their advice.
e. In terms of school supplies, are there any must-haves (beyond the obvious) you’d recommend?
Although I get teased for it, I’m a big proponent of the five color highlighting scheme. I basically use a different color for facts, reasoning, procedural posture/holding, issue, and citations. I never have any written notes before class other than that highlighting and stuff I write in the columns of my textbooks, which is great. It makes reading go much faster. So lots of highlighters of different colors are a must for me.
A big desk is also a huge help. The giant one in Gewirz is great. I just bought a desk for this year, but haven’t put it together yet, so I’m hoping it works out.
I got a Kindle at the end of the year and LOVE it! I wish I’d gotten it at the beginning of the year. I didn’t really read anything for pleasure during the year, which I regret. I think I would have read a couple pages each night if I’d had the Kindle because of the convenience.
f. How long did it take you adjust to the pace of law school and settle into a routine? Is there anything in particular that helped you to do this?
The first couple weeks can be a little bewildering. For example, there generally isn’t any introduction in any of the classes. The professor just walks in and starts asking questions about Marbury v. Madison or the hairy hands case. They start talking about technical concepts without any explanation of what they are. Just remember, it will all come together.
Another thing that’s hard at first is the pace. The first week I think I read every case three times or so. I was looking up almost every word outside of the facts (and even in the facts required some work to decipher some of the time). Obviously you’ll get faster as you learn the legalese.
Another disorienting thing is that you have no feedback about how you’re doing. No tests, papers, quizzes, and probably no individual contact with the professor. Don’t even worry about it. Do the work and you’ll do fine.
As for a routine, I didn’t have much trouble developing one. I basically woke up, went to class, read, took a break to swim, and read some more. If there was anything else I wanted to do, it had to come after all that other stuff was done. I also like to use my weekends to get ahead for the next week, especially during the spring semester when I had a better grip with what was going on and could keep more in my head. So I’d read for all of Monday’s and Tuesday’s classes on Friday or Saturday. That would make the week go much more smoothly.
g. What has been the most challenging aspect of your first year?
The most challenging thing for me this year was probably missing my hometown. I love it there. I miss being able to go downtown and seeing people I know all over. I miss my family, my friends, coaching, and my church.
Academically, one of the hardest things was the feeling that the law was indeterminate, which I talk about below.
Another hard (or maybe just annoying) thing was what I call “name dropping.” The first few weeks when you’re meeting everyone there are some standard questions: where are you from; where’d you go to college; what section are you in; what do you want to do after school; are you living in Gewirz? A lot of people are from Ivy League schools and aren’t afraid to point it out. I’ve said elsewhere in here that for the most part people have been humble and grounded, and I think that’s true. This whole thing was pretty temporary and it ended pretty quickly; I think people were just doing it out of insecurity at the beginning of the year.
h. What was the biggest surprise you encountered at law school? And, or alternatively, is there anything you wish you’d known going in?
I think the thing that was most startling to me was the sense that the law was indeterminate. I think this is a problem that pops up for a lot of people in a couple different ways. Some people will spend all this time trying to reconcile differences in cases (granted, often this can and should be done, but not always). Or some people will see cases that appear to oppose each other and then come to the conclusion that they’re horribly confused and that they must be missing something.
The key here for me was to remember that most of the cases we were reading were close calls or instances of the law turning in a new direction. If the case was easy it wouldn’t be in our casebook. The rules we derive will take care of most of the problems that we encounter in practice, but not all of them. Those are the ones that end up in the casebook because they’re a tough call that could go either way – that’s why is seemed indeterminate to me. Realizing this won’t necessarily help you understand the case, but it will give you a little perspective about what’s going on. And it may help a bit on the final where almost everything will be a wobbler – it’ll help to remember that.