Intellectual Souvenirs: The Ideas and Experiences that Changed the Class of 2015

My Chicago Law Moment is a new series highlighting the Law School ideas, experiences, and approaches that have impacted our students and alumni. Video produced by Will Anderson.

Sometimes the Law School’s impact can be felt most sharply in the little moments of realization that burst forth days, weeks, or even months after an idea has been planted — ideas that wind and grow until a perspective has shifted or the mind is operating in a slightly new way.

Consider the aspiring prosecutor who, because of a Law School defense clinic, thinks differently about sentencing guidelines and sees the humanity in each defendant, or the soon-to-be corporate lawyer who now views choice and preference through a more critical lens. There’s the student who, during three years at the Law School, lost his idealism and then rebuilt it as he thoughtfully merged legal doctrine and reality; he no longer talks about simply changing the world but about using his legal knowledge to strategically influence policy. There’s the student who became attuned to the common themes that enable him to predict outcomes in the law, and the one who dug so deep honing her own interpersonal skills as a Kapnick Leadership Development Initiative facilitator that it changed and sharpened her own professional approach.

These intellectual turning points — we call them Chicago Law Moments — are the ultimate souvenirs of a University of Chicago Law School education. For these students, and for many of their classmates, law school hasn’t been about memorizing statutes and cases but about looking at the law, and the world, in a new way. In the coming months, through stories and occasional video, we will be celebrating the Chicago Law Moments of our alumni — and we start today with alumni-to-be, five members of the Class of 2015. For these men and women — LT Edwards, Sarah Kang, Casen Ross, Valdemar Washington, and Jasmina Vajzovic — the ideas they’ve highlighted represent just a few of the many Chicago Law Moments they and their fellow graduates have experienced in the past three years. But singling them out offers a glimpse into what Law School graduates take with them when they leave.

LT Edwards, ’15: An Aspiring Prosecutor Learns to Think Like a Defense Lawyer

Clinical Professor Alison Siegler knew all about Edwards’ career ambitions when she offered him a spot learning defense work on her Federal Criminal Justice Clinic.

“She knew from the get-go that I wanted to be a federal prosecutor, and rather than turn me away, she immediately took me under her wing said, ‘Well, all right, I’m going to make you the most aware prosecutor I can,’” Edwards said. “She would pull me aside and say things like, ‘Look, this is a major issue that federal defenders deal with that prosecutors sometimes don’t realize.’ It gave me an insight that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Edwards developed a more thoughtful and analytical understanding of federal sentencing statutes and guidelines, and he learned to approach sentencing recommendations not as one-size-fits-all formulas, but as complex human endeavors.

“As a prosecutor you face many defendants, and I can imagine that it can get easy to just see the defendant as another in a long line of defendants,” Edwards said. “But I think it is important to remember that each one has a name and a family and a story behind them.”

Sarah Kang, ’15: A Deeper Look at Decision Making

The Public Choice class taught by Saul Levmore, the William B. Graham Distinguished Service Professor of Law, changed the way Kang looks at collective decision making.

“It has made me more skeptical, and skeptical in a good way,” she said. “I look at a decision now and don’t just view it as legitimate because it was a majority vote or because it followed the ‘right’ process. Now I (think): What is the right process? Did the order of the vote affect what the outcome was? Did a really strong interest group come in and influence the decision?”

The class equipped her with new analytical tools, ones that have helped her see even well-studied cases in a new way. “Now we have a completely different lens through which to look,” she said.

It’s an approach that she’s confident will impact her future work at a law firm.

“What I hope to add at a job is not that I remember things from contracts law or principles from property” law, Kang said. “It’s going to be that I bring a set of analytical tools, and that I contribute in a group setting by bringing a different perspective. (I hope) to be the person who asks why things are being done the way they are, who looks at the outcomes or the goals that are important in the decision-making process and really thinks about how to achieve those goals.”

Casen Ross, ’15: Service Trip Sparks New Thoughts About Change

During a Spring Break of Service trip to New Orleans his first year, Ross worked at the Orleans Public Defenders Office and saw, for the first time, the stark realities of a criminal justice system that felt less fair and more flawed than he’d imagined. His early idealism about the justice system shattered.

“Even when you’re learning about all these doctrines in class, you don’t really see how law is enforced on the ground, so this experience was incredibly eye opening,” he said.

But, as he moved through his Law School classes, he began to develop a more nuanced view, and he learned to connect doctrine to reality. He once again began to see paths to reform — difficult ones that would require the kind of well-honed legal thinking he’d spent three years developing. He began to see himself as part of the change, though he isn’t sure yet exactly what form that will take.

“I’m coming full circle now,” he said. “I recognize the huge barriers to institutional change, but I think there’s an audience for that sort of change. For me, it’s been about the intersection of reality and the doctrine of law. Being able to join the two together, to connect that — that was my moment.”

Val Washington, ’15: Digging Deep to Predict Outcomes in the Law

Like Kang, some of Washington’s intellectual souvenirs developed in classes taught by Levmore.

“One thing that Professor Levmore really focuses on is trying to predict outcomes in the law,” Washington said. “And so, in order to do that, he gives us a broad set of tools to analyze the law, to look at things even outside the law to see if we can really understand what’s going on underneath the surface. That’s something that has absolutely stuck with me.”

That perspective was a bit different than what he’d expected when he entered the Law School.

“I was expecting the rigor, intellectually, of digging into the law, and studying the law and understanding what the law is,” Washington said. What he didn’t expect was the focus on why the law is what it is. “Professor Levmore can’t give us the exact reason why something is the way it is, but he can give us a set of tools to understand (why) certain laws act this way, or why certain people act this way.”

Washington also learned that in Levmore’s classroom, “you’re just about always wrong.”

“Going into it knowing that is fantastic,” he said, “because it allows you to drop some of the inhibitions you might have – that need to be saying the right thing all the time – and just understand that whatever answer (you) come up with, he’s going to have 10 counters that are going to say exactly why (you’re) wrong. You drop your guard, and you start to listen and engage in what he’s actually talking about.”

It is an approach that undoubtedly led to Chicago Law Moments for many of his peers.

“It has a profound impact on your ability to learn,” Washington said. “If you can engage in that way … you can dig in and really start to understand.”