First-Year Students Introduced to the Chicago Legal Community

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
September 24, 2012

Sixty-six floors up in the Willis Tower, overlooking Downtown Chicago and the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, the Class of 2015 began to get to know one another.

Snippets of their conversations revealed excitement, nerves, and backstories:

“I’m from New Hampshire/North Carolina/California/Ohio/Russia.”

“This is where we approach people awkwardly and try to make conversation.” (giggle)

“I worked in Chicago two years before Law School.”

“I’ve never really spent any time in Chicago, but here I am!”

The soon-to-be 1Ls at the Law School spent their first day of Orientation sampling some of Downtown Chicago’s important legal and business sites for a taste of what kind of work they might do when they graduate. The Sept. 17 excursion was optional, but most of the first-years chose to go. The ones who did were rewarded with a broad view of the many things they could do with a career in the law.

“It’s nice to be out in places I could potentially work after law school,” said Catalina Santos, ’15, who just graduated from Harvard University with a degree in political science.

Throughout the day, the students were hosted and welcomed by dozens of alumni, and escorted on their visits by 14 2L and 3L students. They started the day with breakfast at Schiff Hardin – that was the impressive Willis Tower view – where they heard from Robert Riley, ‘78, Firm Chairman and Practice Group Leader, Product Liability Group.

He said that anyone could agree that the Law School is the “most rigorous” in the country.

“No one will do a better job of teaching you to have a brilliant mind,” he said.

From there, the class split up into groups to participate in two of three activities: Observing oral arguments in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, observing a trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and touring the Chicago Board of Trade.

At the Seventh Circuit, they saw Judges Frank H. Easterbrook, Diane P. Wood, and William J. Bauer. The students likely will get to know Easterbrook and Wood even better in the years to come, as both are Senior Lecturers in Law at the Law School.

One group in District Court observed a Medicare fraud trial which featured video recorded by wire as evidence and a young lawyer leading the prosecution. And at the Board of Trade, students toured the agricultural and financial floors. They saw the chaos of the pits, full of traders with tablets strung around their necks, gesturing wildly at each other in their special sign language.

Soon after, at the One South Dearborn office of Sidley Austin, the group listened to a panel of judges discuss what they wish they knew when they started law school. Each judge had his or her own advice. They cautioned especially against tunnel vision on one career path this early in the students’ careers.

“Be flexible,” U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman said. “Keep your options open. You never know where they will take you.”

Judge Donald R. Cassling, ’76, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, reminded the students to treat each other well and stay in touch, because they will be working in the same legal community someday, and those personal relationships are invaluable.

“Lawyers have it in their power to do a tremendous amount of good,” Judge Wood reminded the students. That doesn’t just mean doing pro bono work, she said, but rather “it’s the way you conduct yourself in your day job.”

U.S. District Court Judge Robert M. Dow drove that point home: “There is no correlation I have seen between success in litigation and being a jerk,” he said. “Don’t be the lawyer the jokes are talking about.”

The rest of the day was spent at various sites, including general counsel offices, boutique firm Bartlit, Beck, Herman, Palenchar & Scott, the Federal Defender Program, and the Legal Assistance Foundation. At the Legal Assistance Foundation, public interest-minded students got a tour of the offices and a run-down of what daily life is like for a lawyer serving the poor. After that, the day ended at Jenner & Block, where again the students were treated to breathtaking views of the city and a panel of attorneys from different walks of life explaining how they excel in the law while still finding time for themselves and their families. Finally, Tasneem K. Goodman, ’02, a Partner at Akina Corporation, gave a lively presentation on the dos-and-don’ts of networking. (An example: Goodman’s 300-yard rule dictates that you cannot say anything about someone you met at an event, negative or positive, until you are at least as far away from the event as three football fields.)

In their downtime between sessions, several students talked about coming to Chicago Law as the culmination of longtime dreams.

Min Shen, ’15, is from southeastern China but moved to Columbus, Ohio, to complete his MBA at Ohio State University in 2010. Law school was always his final plan, but he wanted to perfect his English first, he said.

“I always heard the U.S. has the best legal system in the world,” said Shen, who chose Chicago Law because of “its reputation, its ranking, and the city dynamics.”

For Shen, the uncertainty of starting Law School is part of the excitement.

“I look forward to whatever is ahead of me,” he said. “I’m just open to anything, any possibilities.” 

In post-event surveys, 100 percent of respondents said they’d recommend participation in the optional day to another 1L. The next day, Sept. 18, they visited museums and other landmarks around Hyde Park to acquaint them with the community surrounding the university.