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President Lawrence advises students on law school

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Section: News

January 28, 2011

Law school rankings from the U.S. News and World Report do not fully portray all of the criteria that students should consider when applying, university President Fred Lawrence said during a reception at the Hiatt Career Center on Wednesday evening.

Lawrence, himself a graduate of Yale Law School, said that Harvard, Yale, Stanford and University of Chicago belong to the most elite group of law schools in the country, but outside of the top tier, it is difficult to rank and compare the next 20 schools by numbers.

But he added, rankings can change and many lower-ranked law schools use large financial aid packages as a way to attract top students being offered less money at more competitive schools.

“One of the glories of this country, with all of its problems, is that we reshuffle the deck occasionally,” Lawrence said.

Some law schools have particularly strong programs in specialized fields such as patent law, international law, and legislation or lobbying, so it is unfair to compare them all on one ranking list, Lawrence said.

The Pre-Law Society helped organize the event along with Hiatt Pre-Law adviser Nancy Waggner. They plan to host several others this semester, including a law school panel with Brandeis Alumni and a seminar on the first year in law school, according to the society’s president Christopher Lau.

Lawrence explained to students that the rigors of a first year in law school are different from the challenges of an undergraduate education. Many law professors, including Lawrence, call on students at random and ask them to defend their positions and ideas, not to intimidate, but rather to create an environment similar to a stressful day in a courtroom or in a private firm.

“On your worst day in law school, nobody goes to jail,” Lawrence said.

Having spent his career in private practice, government and academia, Lawrence advised students to enjoy the surprises that their careers and lives present.

“Only in retrospect does [life] feel to be a straight line,” Lawrence said. “It’s got a lot of zigs and zags when you’re living it.”

Admitting that if former GW Law School Dean Michael Young had not left to become president of the University of Utah, then he may never have ended up as dean at GW Law or president at Brandeis, he told students to accept uncertainty.

“You don’t always know the path that’s chosen for you,” Lawrence said. “I think if you accomplished all your dreams in life, your dreams aren’t big enough.”

Lawrence clarified that although he knows many common jokes about law and the legal profession, he does not find them funny.

“I happen to have this old-fashioned belief that this is a great and noble profession,” he said. Growing up, “much of the most interesting social change seemed to involve lawyers in one way or another,” Lawrence said.

In modern U.S. legal history, he cited the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as evidence of the social change that lawyers and courts can use to create improvements in society.

Lawrence’s diverse legal background includes work in private firms such as Dwyer & Collora, LLP in Boston and Kramer, Levin, Nessen, Kamin & Soll in New York as well as serving as the Chief of the Civil Rights Unit for the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York.

While many people complain about the work in private firms, Lawrence said that he enjoyed all of his work, both in public and private practice. At the private firms, “I didn’t hate it for a moment.”

“I learned what it meant to practice law at the highest level with integrity,” Lawrence said about his work in the U.S. District Attorney’s Office.

In his role as president, Lawrence has already used many of the skills he acquired through a career in law and legal education.

“Whatever people say about lawyers, they rarely accuse us of being impulsive,” he said. “We believe in process because that’s what knits communities together.”

Lawrence joked that he recently told Senior Vice President and General Counsel Judith Sizer, “the major way in which your life is about to change is you finally have a boss who likes lawyers.”

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