Thursday, March 5, 2015

I get by with a little help from my friends

KU Law students with Professor Bill Westerbeke

From left: Law students Jennifer Hackman, Professor Bill Westerbeke, Joni Bodnar, Ashlyn Lindskog, Andrea Horvath and Suzanne Hale.



I began a little routine during my last semester of my 3L year at KU Law. It starts with dragging myself out of bed and giving myself a pep talk as I blankly stare into my closet for 10 minutes.

“OK, Ashlyn. You can do this. You can be a person today. You’re almost done. Who cares what anyone says … leggings are absolutely pants.”

The necessity of this routine probably stems from a number of different places. First, I really hate putting on pants. Second, the law school grind seems so familiar and “old hat” that it requires an extra dose of motivation at this point. “3L-itis” is a very real thing, and coming out the other side of a three-year long panic attack offers some perspective. It will all get done because it always does. Having a clearer picture of what you’re capable of keeps the panic at bay, and you’re left bouncing between elation at the prospect of getting your life back and the terror of launching a professional career and assuming the adult responsibilities that come with it.

Law school is temporary. It doesn’t last forever. This is both good and bad. Good, because law school is tough and exhausting. Bad, because as the memories of pure panic fade and those moments you shared with your peers come front and center, the last thing you want to do is give them up. It may be fair to analogize law school to childbirth: The mind blacks out all the painful parts so that when it is all over the whole experience feels more meaningful than exhausting.

KU Law students with Professor Bill Westerbeke

From left: Bri Hanschu, Alison McCourt, Jennifer Hackman, Lauren Bavitz, Ashlyn Lindskog, Suzanne Hale   Andrea Horvath.

I don’t know the science of it all, but what I do know is that I don’t remember the mechanics of surviving as clearly as I remember studying for 1L finals with a group of my friends and laughing hysterically at how unprepared we all felt. I remember having whiteboard races to see who could get the information out the fastest and yelling at each other while we competed. I remember taking over a classroom during 2L finals and bringing snacks and a space heater and trying to teach each other legal concepts. I remember hosting baby showers and engagement parties and finding any excuse to celebrate. I remember golfing with my professor and dancing at the various law school events. And I remember how reassuring it felt to be surrounded by people who not only understood my daily struggle, but truly wanted to see me succeed. The kind of people who share in your little victories as if they were their own and refuse to allow you drop of out law school because you don’t have any clean clothes.

The best advice I can offer is to be aware from the beginning how special the relationships you form in Green Hall are. Take the time to build relationships and nurture them throughout your time as a law student. If you do that, many of your peers will turn into friends and confidants and the kind of people you’d wake up for at 4:00 in the morning to analyze a conversation from the night before. KU Law offers you this incredible opportunity to not only create professional relationships that will last throughout your career, but to leave with lifelong friends who will support you even after you’re all gone. The type of friends who will confidently refer clients to you in one breath and question your competency as an adult in another.

Those are the moments you want to take with you when you leave Green Hall, and it is my sincere hope that when you’re a 3L giving yourself a pep talk to get through the last 83 days, you are reminded of how lucky and grateful you are for the opportunity to share this experience with some of the most brilliant, loyal, supportive, encouraging and inspiring peers. It will all get done and you will eventually be an attorney, but for what my opinion is worth, it’s better to be an attorney with really awesome friends and really awesome stories.

Ashlyn Lindskog is a third-year law student and KU Law student ambassador from El Dorado, Kansas.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Judicial Clinic ‘puts things in perspective’ for 2L

Maureen Orth
Second-year law student Maureen Orth aspires to be a litigator, and just halfway through law school, she’s well on her way.

“While you learn a lot in your first year, there’s a lot that you don’t understand until you’ve actually seen it,” Orth said. “Getting to be in the courtroom and getting to see different proceedings has really helped flesh out my academic coursework and understand how it all fits together.”

Through KU Law’s Judicial Clinic, Orth works with Chief Magistrate Judge James P. O’Hara of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, a 14-year veteran of the bench with private practice experience. Her duties include observing proceedings, writing orders, reading motions and getting feedback from the judge and his clerks.

“You have unique access to judges at the state and federal level, and equally exciting, you have access to his or her clerks,” Orth said. “I’m getting feedback on my writing from those same people who are researching and writing for the judge. That is an invaluable experience to get in law school.”

The clinic serves as a sort of living laboratory, with Orth learning case law in class one day, then witnessing how those legal concepts play out in the courtroom the next. She recalls taking Criminal Procedure as she was observing criminal proceedings in the courtroom, seeing how search warrants were used and how special agents and U.S. attorneys presented testimony. This semester Orth is taking Evidence and witnessing firsthand how parties enter evidence at motion hearings.

“I can see the benefits of being prepared versus using boilerplate objections,” Orth said. “I can see how what I’m learning will be applicable in the future.”

Beyond the technical aspects, Orth has been welcomed into the Kansas City legal community, learning each judge’s stylistic conventions and building a valuable professional network.

“As someone who does not have anyone in their family who practices law, a lot of the proceedings were unfamiliar,” Orth said. “I’m hoping to practice in the Kansas City area, so familiarity with how the courthouse works is helpful.”

Her courthouse colleagues have offered Orth everything from research and writing tips, to input on career opportunities and advice on which classes to take. The Judicial Clinic also offers a welcome departure from time the classroom, providing a glimpse of life after law school. “Sometimes in law school it can feel like you’re on pause because a lot of people our age are working already,” Orth said. “To get up and go to work feels all the more closer to being a worki
ng professional. You’re working on court orders and doing research that affects someone’s actual case, as opposed to the hypotheticals in class. It puts things in perspective.”

Ultimately, the clinic offers students the hands-on experience employers are seeking in addition to an understanding of theory and case law. “There are few things more valuable that KU offers than the clinic experience,” Orth said. “Law is so interesting from a theoretical standpoint, but until you actually see how it plays out in court, you don’t understand how it all comes together.”

- Maureen Orth is a second-year law student from Prairie Village, Kan.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Some secrets to law school success

Jordan Carter, KU Law student

Networking, anxiety and keeping things in perspective

It's February of my 3L year, and I am flying high. Instead of reading for my one real class, I go to trivia night with my roommates. Instead of writing yet another draft of my Law Review note, I watch “The Bachelor” (#TeamWhitney). Instead of stressing out over Lawyering assignments, I plan weekend trips to visit the friends I can finally make a priority in my life again.

Man, I hate myself just reading that. I'm sorry.

Here's the thing: Like anything else you’ve jumped into blindly, it gets better with time. Two years ago, I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even last year, I felt like I was sinking in a never-ending pit of stress, anxiety and competition. But I slogged through, and it got so much better. To some extent, this is just a natural product of time and experience. Shoot a thousand free throws and you get better at shooting free throws. Do a bunch of musicals and you get better at doing musicals. Take a dozen law school exams and, hey, guess what?! You get better at law school exams. (I am fairly certain this logic is true – I haven't played sports in a decade, and the musical thing is but a lifelong dream).

That said, in the nostalgic and sentimental cruise down memory lane that inevitably accompanies every senior year I’ve ever done, I have been reflecting on the whole law school extravaganza and there are some things I wish I had known earlier. Here are a few of them, compiled from both my own thoughts and with some input from my fellow upperclass comrades who have also conquered this monster of a ride:

You have to network

I can’t count the number of times someone said, "You've got to network!” and the number of times I said “.... but I don’t want to.” I hate networking. It makes me uncomfortable and weird, and all I want is to run away from meaningless small talk about the cold winter we’ve been having and how much work law school is. But, alas, it is so. so. important. It’s the only way to get a job – all the As in the world won’t cover up your extreme awkwardness when you are forced to chat with a dozen people in the span of a callback interview. But it doesn’t end there. Law school events, from summer internship parties to visiting speakers to random conversations with professors in the hallway pretty much begin and end with small talk. Most of us are interchangeable based on our resumes – good grades, involvement in frivolous college organizations that we bill as “leadership,” a study abroad experience that was really a nonstop party, a couple of unpaid internships – so you have to be a functioning human in person. With opinions. But not too many opinions. NEVER HAVE TOO MANY OPINIONS because you will anger someone, and that someone will be a law firm partner, and then you’re done. So I would tell 1Ls to network, but network wisely. Network with care.

All you have is your reputation

Perhaps a piggyback on the last point. [Side note: How many times have you heard, “I’m just going to piggyback off that idea...” in law school classes? More than a thousand? Definitely.] Anyway, I’m going to piggyback real quickly. I think all legal communities are relatively small, but that is definitely true in Kansas and the Kansas City area. It can be a great thing: one small connection, and you're basically walking into a web of opportunities. But it can also be a not-so-great thing: one small connection, and you’re basically walking into a web of disaster. The legal community is small and news (and gossip) travels quickly. Watch what you do and watch what you say because it does follow you for the length of your career. Be nice to each other, and make friends wherever you can. You will need these connections because you will truly be around the same people for the rest of your life.

Anxiety is OK

I have always been fairly anxious, but I managed it fine until law school. This environment was completely new and demanding in a way I wasn’t ready for, and I went a wee crazy for a little bit. I wish someone had told me it was going to happen, or at least when it happened that I would be OK. I will forever be grateful for my best friend, Celina, who was one of my roommates at the time of my anxiety-induced brain fog situation (Google it: It’s real and it’s scary). One desperate night I tried to explain to her what was happening, and she told me in her best nursing student/calm friend voice, “It’s just stress. You will be OK." And even though I probably freaked her out, that is what I needed to hear in that moment. Because it was just stress. And I was OK. But to have a semester’s worth of anxiety, fear, stress and self-doubt come crashing down on you in a flaming explosion where it seems like you are literally going insane was really not what I was anticipating when I started law school. So I would tell incoming law students or 1Ls or maybe even 2Ls who are facing a new batch of stressors: It’s just stress. You will be OK. And also: Go to the doctor, man! No one wants to talk about mental health because we are Strong People Who Don’t Need Help, but sometimes we need help. And that’s OK.

Ask for help to figure out the rules of the game ASAP

None of us know how to do law school. Starting day one, we have to read 20-30 pages a night for each class and are expected to be able to talk about every fact, every rule, every issue, every policy rationale, every dissent, and how everything fits together. OK ... go! And then we are expected to condense it into a brief synopsis that you could memorize and apply to any set of facts. And then we are expected to eloquently articulate it on a three-hour exam and do it better than everyone else in the class can do it. I wish I had reached out to someone and asked him or her to go through a week’s worth of law school with me. Just sit next to me and guide me through it, like an older sibling teaching her little sister how to tie her shoes. I wish someone had explained how to be prepared for class without overstressing the night before. I wish someone had made me figure out time management. I wish someone had explained to me how to outline. I wish someone had shown me how to write a law school exam, one that just gives the professor what he or she wants instead of being a jumbled mess of rules and cases. I mean, I get that we all have to figure that out on our own, it’s all part of the “process” or whatever, but as long as we’re talking about things I wish I had known, I’ll add this to the list.

Nothing is a disaster

So simple to say, so hard to remember. These are not my words (thanks, Emily!) but they sum up the message perfectly. We are in law school, which is such a privilege. We get to spend our days talking about abstract theoretical concepts and hypotheticals. We are so lucky to have the chance to get graduate degrees in a country and a world where that’s not a reality for everyone. My worst days in law school are heavenly compared to so many people’s lives. The things that stress me out are inconveniences – a lot of reading, a lot of pressure, a lot of information crammed into my head – but they are not problems. I wish someone had made me remember that. I wouldn’t have listened, clearly, because I get too wrapped up in my head and lose perspective. But I wish I had done a better job of remembering that it would be fine, that I would pass my classes and graduate and be a lawyer and it would not matter how my final trial in Trial Ad went or if my Law Review paper was not superb. The little failures or the bad days just do not matter in the long run. It will be fine. Nothing is a disaster.

Keep on marching. Savor the good experiences, and do your best to move past the bad. Three years honestly flies by; one day you’re nervously sitting alone in the hallway in your OCI suit, wondering how you can be so sweaty in January, and the next thing you know, you’re booking hotels in the middle of Missouri for the bar exam and hoping your friends like you enough to be character references for your application. 3L year does arrive. And once it does, it’s glorious.

Jordan Carter is a third-year law student and a KU Law Student Ambassador from Topeka, Kansas.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Why I Teach: Andrew Torrance

Andrew Torrance never thought he would be a law professor. “I thought I would be a veterinarian, or maybe a doctor,” Torrance said. “I was accepted to medical school in Canada, but I decided to do a Ph.D. instead. I think my deferral to medical school is still in force, so I suppose it’s not too late to become a physician.”

Torrance always had a passion for science. While pursuing his Ph.D. in biology at Harvard, he developed an interest in policy, and a mentor encouraged him to consider law school. Torrance added JD to his list of Harvard credentials, then went to work for Fish & Richardson, a firm specializing in Intellectual Property law. “It was a great time to be a biotechnology patent attorney,” Torrance said. “The Human Genome Initiative was in full swing, there was exploding interest in inventions involving biotechnologies like genetic engineering, stem cells and gene therapy, and there were all sorts of wonderful applications of these scientific breakthroughs.” He spent four years working on patent prosecution and patent litigation involving genes, genetically engineered organisms, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

In 2004 Torrance became patent counsel for a multinational medical device company, Inverness Medical Innovations. “It was fun to learn how to be the client and to work on strategy, not just to focus on specific, isolated individual projects whose end results I would rarely get to see,” Torrance said. He helped supervise several of the company’s subsidiaries and helped develop and defend the company’s large portfolio of patents to cover the molecules and methods they developed for cardiac diagnostic devices.

While Torrance was working in industry, his wife, herself a dean at Harvard University, noticed a job posting for a professorship at KU Law. “The description was so precisely tailored to my interests that she thought I should apply,” Torrance said. He joined the KU Law faculty in 2005.

Though Torrance enjoys more creative freedom and greater autonomy as a professor, he applies the same rigor to his scholarship that he did working for his former law firm and company. His biggest challenge is finding enough time to explore his ideas. Some of the research that inspires him the most involves applying scientific approaches to legal research.

One project, with coauthor Bill Tomlinson, professor of information and computer science at the University of California Irvine, involved an online simulation game that enabled players to invent things virtually, patent them, sell them, buy them, license them and sue each other for patent infringement.

“We asked questions that are almost impossible to ask in the real world,” Torrance said. “Our first finding was the most controversial. In our game, under our particular conditions, we found that a system without patents generated more innovation than a system with patents. We’ve replicated that finding each time with varying conditions.”
    
Torrance’s research informs his teaching approach and sparks interesting dialogue in his classes. “I bring my research into the classroom all the time,” he said. “Today we talked about the possibility of copyrighting DNA. My students could not look to case law for an answer, because there is none yet; instead, they had to apply existing legal principles to a brand new issue in a rigorous way.  They seemed to enjoy exploring this new idea. My hope is that forcing them to think creatively about legal questions for which there is yet no precedent will help prepare them for the many novel legal issues they are sure to confront during their careers.”

Professor Torrance (second from left) and his students in the Virgin Islands.

In other cases, Torrance takes his students out of the classroom and immerses them in the research environment. One of his most popular and rewarding teaching experiences was developing a field-based course in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Students do extensive reading to prepare for the course and conduct field research for a biodiversity law paper during their time abroad. The class meets with attorneys, developers, environmental groups, legislators, parks services and federal government officials, federal and territorial judges, landowners, and other citizens with vastly different perspectives about biodiversity.

“Students come away with an understanding not just of existing doctrine in biodiversity law, but also how legal issues develop and evolve, sometimes unpredictably, in the real world among real people,” Torrance said. “Sometimes we have literally stood between groups of people having very different interests: one group driving bulldozers to remove tropical forest for new luxury houses and the other with placards, bullhorns and handcuffs for attaching themselves to trees they hoped to save. My students have often had the great privilege of talking to both sides about what role the law has to play in deciding how biodiversity should be used.  There is no better way to learn the law than to do and experience it in the midst of vigorous conflict.  

“Teaching has been one of the highlights for me here at KU. I love how much teaching is valued by both students and professors. I love to teach, and I love to do my teaching in ways that stray somewhat from traditional approaches.”

Torrance credits KU Law with supporting his unorthodox approaches to scholarship and teaching. “I have wonderful colleagues, none of whom has ever tried to discourage me. They've bent over backward to accommodate the weird topics I study,” he said. “KU has been the perfect place for me. It’s been a fantastic launching pad, with supportive colleagues and great students. I look forward to what I will be able to do here in the future.”

Professor Torrance’s scholarship is available to download for free on SSRN.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What Happened in Wichita

It’s 12:55 PM. My web browser is open and my fingers, clammy with sweat, have just finished typing an email crafted to execute a very particular objective. My cursor hovers over the “send” button. It has to be hit precisely within 15 seconds of the clock striking 1:00 – no sooner, no later. The extensive time trials I conducted earlier through Microsoft Outlook had confirmed as much. I’ve chosen to sit on the blue couch outside the school’s Career Services Office as I’ve reasoned it would afford my data packets the shortest route to my target’s computer. I have a pretty good idea what the odds are, but I know if I can pull it off the returns will be incalculable in comparison. It’s 1 PM. I count to 10. I hit send.
              
Less than one minute later, my target emerges from the office. It’s already over.

No, I didn’t just launch a malware attack against KU Law’s servers. I did, however, successfully send in my RSVP for an event that, for me and 19 other victorious 1Ls, amounted to a full-scale city invasion for just under 24 hours.

An invasion in the best sense of the word, mind you. The “24 Hours of Wichita” event put on by KU Law’s Career Services department in conjunction with the Wichita legal community has by far been one of the best and most enjoyable experiences I’ve had, period. The anticipation for the event really can’t be understated. The 20 spots opened to the 1L class were filled in under a minute as Dean Thompson’s inbox was inundated with eager missives just like mine.

Given that my only familiarity with the city was driving through it on my way back from a spring break road trip, I really had no idea what to expect. In the weeks leading up discussion amongst those event-bound included what we’d be wearing, speculation about where we’d be going, and anxious feelings about what we’d be doing to try and not seem completely intimated as we mingled with partners of some of the state’s largest firms.

Fast forward to the day of and we arrive in Old Town, which is smack dab in the heart of Wichita. The place is actually super modern, we toured some recently developed apartments that can attest to the fact, but I get that “New Town” as a name doesn’t really conjure up the same sort of whimsical yearning you want tied to a sense of place. The name of the district really does capture that sort of romantic 19th-century city aesthetic of old-brick buildings and streets, adorned by grandiose lampposts luminescent with nostalgia for the past as you walked on by.

KU Law students explore Wichita's Old Town.
Walking actually turned out to be half the allure of the city. I’d liken it to downtown Lawrence in that you can literally walk anywhere you’d want to go on a night out and then walk back home again. After touring a little bit, we went back to check into the hotel (we got GIFT BAGS – I was like, “What is this, the Oscars?”), changed clothes, and then walked over to a fancy restaurant called Oeno (don’t try to pronounce it) to mingle with the aforementioned scary lawyers.

Put short and sweet, they all turned out to be incredibly welcoming and easy to talk to. The cocktail/tapas hour was one of the best parts, a classic good food, good drinks, better people type situation. To have these individuals take (very valuable) time out of their day just to come hang out and talk with us was both rewarding and encouraging, because it showed me that the Kansas legal community is genuinely interested in my development as a young professional despite my bewilderments and as of yet unarticulated career goals.

And the city is definitely appealing to my young professional self. After a couple hours of mingling, the 20 of us left for a night out on the town. That’s its own separate series of blog posts. It was, I’ll say, “Wichitawesome.”

We wake up early the next morning to split up and grab breakfast with more area attorneys at different local breakfast joints and later regroup to head over to the art museum. I personally love art, and although I know next to nothing about it, the museum did not disappoint. You would have never guessed that there were famous paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Norman Rockwell in the middle of Kansas, but they were there among many other inspirations.

There was a LOT more occurring here, there and everywhere in between. I could write a short novella about this trip and the friends I made on it, but I’d like to conclude by saying that I was indeed inspired by the lengths KU Law and the community at large will go to see to it my legal education is supplemented with intensely personal and fulfilling experiences. Did I mention the firms footed the bill for the entire thing? I really could not be more grateful. And that honestly goes for all of the opportunities Career Services has put on so far, ranging from this event to a fashion seminar to bringing in over 100 different legal employers in one night just to talk to you about what your options actually are as a KU law grad. My suggestion to any entering 1Ls would be to take advantage of as many of the prospects the Career Services office and Kansas legal community has to offer you, because they all have the potential to be just as satisfying as this 24 hours of Wichita trip ended up being for me.

Getting good at hacking computers may not hurt either. Just a thought.

— Cody Wood is a first-year law student from Leawood, Kansas, and a KU Law Student Ambassador.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How to shop like a KU Law 1L

Cody Wood and Ethan Brown, KU Law Student Ambassadors

First-year law students Cody Wood, left, and Ethan Brown

When I started law school, I thought that I had things pretty well figured out. I mean, I had survived for more than four years on my own in undergrad, and that had worked out for me.

Not so, my friends, not so.

Things are different here. Classes are (basically) in a whole new language. I’m surrounded by incredibly brilliant people (I think we can all agree that this is not the norm for undergrad campuses). Even my shopping trips in law school are quite different from how they were in undergrad. Back in the day, I’d saunter in to Walmart (around 1 a.m., of course), grab a cart, and begin my long, aimless meander through the store. I never had a specific, pre-determined list. I might have one or two things in mind, but for the most part my inner-dialogue while shopping went something like this:

     Did I need shampoo or body wash? Eh, I’ll just get a combo and call it good.

     Aw, heck yeah, pizza rolls are on sale! I can fit 17 bags in the freezer, right?

     I should buy some fruit or vegetables or something. How do you tell if an avocado is ripe? I guess I’ll just try a few.

I think you get the idea. By the end of the trip, I probably couldn’t even tell you why I had half the stuff in my cart, let alone what I had originally come to the store for. Probably for the better, my law school shopping trips have come a long way. They are direct and pointed missions. I move through the aisles like a cat on the hunt (maybe more like a dog … a big dog. I’ve never been very graceful, and I tend to bump into things a lot).

To save you the trouble of learning as I had to, I’ve compiled the essential shopping list of a first-year KU Law student. You, too, can have efficient shopping trips during which you don’t forget any of the essentials. I would recommend adapting as needed to fit your circumstances, but I feel that this should cover a wide range:

New coffee maker
That one-cup-at-a-time Keurig just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Sorry. I recommend going for capacity here, rather than features. Really, something industrial might be best.

New shoes
Oh, you’ll have the best of intentions. You’ll tell yourself that you’ll wake up early enough every morning to get one of the coveted parking spots close to the building, but it won’t last long. When you eventually give in to making the trek up the hill from the far lot, you’re going to want something comfortable.

Ingredients for that fancy recipe you’ve been wanting to try
It’s your turn to host the “family dinner” that your small section has every weekend. These people really have become your support system/life lines/best friends, and you’d like to impress them. You’re thinking something that has asparagus in it. That’s always popular.

Dinner rolls and whichever wine is on sale
Because, let’s face it, there’s a very real chance that the aforementioned recipe won’t work out. It’s great that you’re trying new things, but it’s still good to be prepared.

Flu shot
Just give in. Your mom has been bugging you about this one for a couple of weeks now, and she has a point. Being sick is the last thing you want on your plate when trying to study for finals. Besides, you really need that 20-cent-per-gallon gas discount that they’re giving to anyone who gets the shot.

Ear plugs
For some reason, you decided it would be a great idea to live with your best friend, a music major. You have no complaints about his personal hygiene, which is great, but his practicing isn’t always conducive to your studying. I’d skip the little disposable foam earplugs and go for something sturdier. Maybe something that guarantees maximum sound blockage. He’s not just any music major, you know … he’s an opera major.

Potted plant
Spruce up that study carrel! Make it yours! The touch of life provided by something as simple as a plant will make your hours in the library much more comfortable. And, if it turns out that maybe you aren’t completely ready to be responsible for another living thing, you won’t feel as bad as you would if you’d gotten a goldfish.

Cookies
On second thought, skip the cookies. You go to KU Law now. That means you live in a town where you can have cookies delivered right to you, day or night. (Yes, it’s a very real thing. I wouldn’t lie to you about cookies.)

KU gear
Whether you’re an out-of-stater like me or you grew up in Kansas, you’re a Jayhawk now! Rejoice! As a KU Law student, you are part of a great community in a great town, and that is something that you'll want to show off!

OK, so maybe this list is a little too specific. All joking aside, law school will be a very different experience, no matter your circumstances. There will be challenges, and your life WILL change. The important thing is to adapt and go with it. Hang in there and have faith, my friends. If I can do it, anyone can. Just ask my (very much still living) carrel plant.

Ethan Brown is a first-year law student from Dallas and a KU Law Student Ambassador.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Trailblazing judge reflects on career

Twenty-two years ago, I took the oath of judicial office to the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. I was the 23rd individual, and the first woman, to hold that position. Few are blessed with the opportunity to do something which is historically unprecedented. So I approached my swearing-in ceremony on October 30, 1992, with an acute awareness of that fact, a reverence for the judicial system which has served us so well and a thrill which even now is almost beyond belief.

People often ask whether I always hoped to become a federal judge. The answer to that is no – a resounding no. When I started law school at KU in 1972, no woman had ever been on the United States Supreme Court. Only one woman had served on a federal court of appeals. On the trial court level, we had only four women in the entire federal judiciary. Back then, it was common for bar organizations to meet in private men’s clubs – as a lawyer, I remember having to take the service elevator in the kitchen of the University Club to attend bar luncheons. The idea that I might become a federal judge was too far-fetched to warrant serious consideration.

Fast forward 40 years. Today we have 249 women in the federal district courts – 23 percent of the total. Women represent at least half of the legal talent pool in America. And we have a way to go in the federal judiciary, but the day is over when women only appear in high places as token performers.

As I said, I did not start out with any far-fetched notions of becoming a judge – let alone a federal judge. Almost by accident, I became a municipal judge in Prairie Village in 1990. For two years I addressed the entire range of human foibles: drinkers, speeders, window peepers, exhibitionists, picketers, property code violators, and so forth. Calvin Trillin, who wrote for The New Yorker, even picked up on one of my cases – where an irate store owner threw a jar of gefilte fish at a customer and broke the customer’s windshield. To be fair, Mr. Trillin wasn’t much interested in the fact that I had broken the glass ceiling in the Prairie Village judiciary. He was mostly bewildered that a kosher grocer would sell gefilte fish in a jar.

Fresh out of law school, from 1975 to 1978, I was a law clerk for the Hon. Earl E. O'Connor in the District of Kansas. I came to the clerkship, more or less, by indirection. In 1975, I graduated near the top of my class at the University of Kansas Law School. I had set my sights on large-firm practice in downtown Kansas City, but like the other 12 or 13 women in my class, I soon found that this option was beyond my reach. In the end, almost by default, I took a law clerkship position with Judge O'Connor. It was not my first choice, or his. Judge O'Connor had never employed a woman law clerk and he was not enthusiastic or optimistic about the prospect. He was, however, true to his school - KU Law. In the final analysis, I received my clerkship because Martin B. Dickinson, in his capacity as then-dean of the KU School of Law, asked Judge O'Connor to give me a chance. By the time I left my clerkship three years later, my inauspicious introduction to the federal judiciary was a source of candid amusement to both me and Judge O'Connor. Little did either of us dream what the future had in store.

When I had the chance to fill Judge O’Connor’s vacancy in 1992, and to return to the court family where I had begun my legal career, it was extraordinary in every respect. To work with Judge O’Connor again, to enjoy such learned and accommodating colleagues – the whole experience has been a challenge, a great energizer and a privilege beyond compare. I owe it all to a great legal education at KU Law, and fantastic mentors among its faculty, administration and graduates. 

Kathryn H. Vratil, L'75
Chief Judge Emeritus
United States District Court for the District of Kansas