The Five Stages of 1L

Ruoxi Zhang
Staff Writer

There are five stages of grief. Perhaps there are five stages of 1L as well.

“The School of Athens” by Raphael exemplifies Philosophy, and many art historians suggest that almost all great ancient Greek philosophers can be found in the painting.

Stage 1: Illusion

You might have imagined that law school would be somewhat similar to the scene depicted in “The School of Athens”—studying in a grandeur hall, learning from masters of their fields, debating with peers, and finally, gaining a firmer grasp of this aloof, abstract idea of “the law.” As you read and brief cases in the library, eat lunch in the Vanderbilt courtyard, make new friends, and listen to the deans tell you that you belong here, you are filled with hope for your law school career.

“Ashes” by Edvard Munch is part of an uncompleted series called “The Frieze of Life” that explores themes of guilt, shame, lust, betrayal, and impotence.

Stage 2: Frustration

Law school can transform from “The School of Athens” to “Ashes” within the span of a few weeks. In “Ashes,” Edvard Munch depicts a pair of separated lovers. One cowers in grief or fear, while the other looks slightly frenzied and lost—when lovers are consumed by the hot flames of passion their love turns to ashes.

This theme parallels a law student’s experience, where passion is lost in the obscure and convoluted language of some judges, or in contradictory precedents. The law is not settled. On rare occasions, the doctrine actually makes sense. But sooner or later, complications will revert you to a rattled and frustrated state, looking just like the couple in “Ashes.” The only relic of “The School of Athens” may be the Socratic method, often leaving embarrassment rather than enlightenment anyways.

The 1893 version of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. There are four versions in total.

Stage 3: Panic

In November and April, when the memos, briefs, outlines, internship applications, and practice exams all pile up, and the only topic of discussion is exams, nothing is more appropriate than “The Scream.”

Stage 4: Enlightenment

When you finally calm down and study, you are able to see some recurring themes in the law, such as the trend from formalism to functionalism and from rules to standards. Modern art has taken a similar path, detaching itself from restrictive academic art and embracing the changes new technologies promote. Artists are free to explore less formal aspects of representation. In “Vision after the Sermon,” Gauguin paints the field red, using the color to express a passionate or even fervent ambience rather than to depict a life-like field.

“Vision After the Sermon” by Paul Gauguin.

Stage 5: Acceptance

You accept that despite your professor’s best efforts, you might never be able to answer the question—“What is the law and what does the law do?” You accept that sorting out every rule is not the goal because the law is evolving. You accept that legal study is about looking at things from different perspectives, which is why working together is so beneficial. You find that “The School of Athens” is, in fact, not too far from reality. Above the fresco, there is a separate tondo bearing the phrase: “Seek Knowledge of Causes.” Is that not what you have been doing in law school all along?

Professor Profile: A Conversation with Visiting Professor Melissa Murray

UC Berkeley School of Law

Professor Melissa Murray is joining the faculty of NYU Law for the 2017-18 academic year on leave from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, where she served as interim dean. Murray’s research focuses on the roles that criminal law and family law play in articulating the legal parameters of intimate life, and encompasses such topics as marriage and its alternatives, the legal regulation of sex and sexuality, the marriage equality debate, and the legal recognition of caregiving.

While Murray is only teaching one class during her visit to NYU Law, The Commentator still wanted to give students the chance to get to know more about one of Berkeley Law’s most beloved professors. Over the summer, Professor Murray answered our questions about her relationship with New York City, her family’s Hamilton obsession, and what she’ll miss most about Berkeley (spoiler alert: she doesn’t like socks very much).

The Commentator: We are excited to have you join us at NYU Law for the semester. In what ways are you hoping to engage with communities here in New York City? Are there things you’re looking forward to working on while you’re here? Some non-law related activities you’re looking forward to doing while you’re here?

MM: I love New York City—I was born in Brooklyn and lived in the city after law school.  I’m looking forward to learning from the terrific faculty at NYU, as well as faculty at the area law schools. I’m also excited about having more opportunities to collaborate with organizations like the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Women’s Law Center—it’s so much easier when you’re on the same coast!  In my free time, I’m looking forward to introducing my kids to the city.  They’re dying to see “Hamilton” on Broadway.  I hope they’re saving their allowances.

What has been your favorite part of teaching at Berkeley? What will you miss most about Berkeley while you’re in New York?

MM: My favorite part of teaching at Berkeley are the fantastic students! I will miss my friends, the California weather, and not wearing socks while I am in New York.

Walk us through an ideal day off—what would you do with a whole day of free time?

MM: Did I mention I have two children under the age of 10?  I haven’t had a free day since 2007.  But if I did, I would sleep late and not make anyone breakfast.  Nor would I bring anyone’s violin to school because he/she forgot it. I’d probably just veg out and read.  

What are you reading right now? Have you read anything over the past year you’d like to share with students?

MM: I just finished reading “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I loved.  It grapples with questions of race and identity in a way that I found really insightful and illuminating as a first-generation American.  Right now, I’m reading “A Kind of Freedom” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, which is amazing.  Full disclosure: Margaret was my student back in 2007.  She was an amazing lawyer, and she’s an even better novelist.  This is a fantastic debut novel!

What is an album or song that you’ve been spending a lot of time listening to lately?

MM: My whole family is obsessed with the “Hamilton” soundtrack.  You really have not lived until you’ve listened to your six-year old belting out, “SON OF A WHORE AND A SCOTSMAN” at top volume. Obviously, we’re terrific parents.

Do you have a go-to recipe to share?

MM: I hate cooking, but when I have to make something impressive, I make Southern Living’s Million Dollar Poundcake, which is made with an insane amount of butter. It’s always a hit, but after eating it, you’ll have a food baby.

So then—the obvious follow-up question: cookie, pie, or cake?

MM: Cupcakes. Always with real buttercream frosting.

What television show that you’d consider a “guilty pleasure” have you been watching lately?

MM: I know it’s anti-intellectual to admit this, but I LOVE TV. I like to watch late at night after my kids have gone to bed and I’m doing mindless tasks (laundry, etc.). Right now, I have a bunch of different shows in rotation: “Game of Thrones,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “black-ish,” “Master of None,” “Big Little Lies,” “Insecure,” “Being Mary Jane,” and some BBC stuff like “Victoria” and “The Great British Bake Off,” which I watch with my daughter.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share with NYU Law students that perhaps you haven’t been able to say to us yet?

MM: I’m really looking forward to getting to know you and your school!

Rikers Will Close, but No Time Soon

Victoria Wenger
Prison Reform and Education Project (PREP)

On June 22, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio released a 51-page report detailing the city’s intention to close down the Rikers Island jail complex. In his letter introducing the plan, the Mayor conceded that the effort to close down Rikers facilities will be no “quick fix,” but rather a “long and difficult path,” which is projected to take as long as a decade.

The Mayor’s intent to close the notorious jail complex was first announced in late March. Celebration by those leading the campaigns to close Rikers dissipated as details of the protracted plan were revealed. Organizers and impacted community members contend that the plan does not show enough urgency to eliminate abuses on the island or offer sustainable alternatives to ensure the rights and safety of detained people.

Victoria Wenger

“New Yorkers at Rikers – mostly black and brown – continue to suffer in deplorable conditions and face routine human rights abuses,” said Glenn E. Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA and a leader of the #CLOSErikers movement, “Changes must be made to ensure that people detained at Rikers are in a safe and humane environment until closure is possible.”

The ongoing process to close Rikers Island, and the simultaneous mobilizing efforts to expedite its closure and address the needs of people detained there in the interim, provide unique circumstances for New York City law students to engage with criminal justice law outside the confines of lecture halls. Law students in the United States, and certainly those at the multiple law schools in the New York metro area, are required to take a criminal law course as part of the core doctrinal curriculum. Yet these courses, often taught exclusively through the study of prior court decisions, rarely explore the lived experiences of criminal defendants beyond the brief facts written in case holdings. NYU Law students in particular have the opportunity to bridge this divide by working directly with people who are currently, or were formerly, incarcerated at Rikers.

In collaboration with the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, NYU Law students can interview people who have been placed in solitary confinement, record their statements, and present them to the NYC Board of Corrections.

“I can’t imagine being beaten by officers, chained hand and foot to a table for four hours a day, and often being denied essential medication, while awaiting trial on an isolated island with no one to see or hear my cries for help,” said Shaina Watrous, a rising 2L at NYU Law. “For the young man awaiting trial, who I interviewed through PREP’s Solitary Confinement Project, this horror was his reality.”

Other law students can learn about the hurdles people face following incarceration by working in partnership with students at St. Francis College in Brooklyn who were formerly incarcerated and are now pursuing undergraduate degrees. And any student can follow, learn from, or even lend support to, the #closeRIKERS campaign.

Unless current plans change, Rikers Island will remain open during the full duration of law school for any student beginning their legal education in New York City this year, and for years to come. While the need to close the infamous jails remains urgent, the process towards that end provides a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of people who continue to be detained there. The decade ahead is a critical time for people within the legal field to learn from those most impacted by it.

What Happens After the Collapse of the Skinny Repeal?

Daniel Weinstein
Health Law and Policy Society

In the Senate’s midnight healthcare vote on July 28, 2017, Senators Murkowski (R-AK), Collins (R-ME), and McCain (R-AZ) joined the Democratic caucus in voting against Republicans’ most recent attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), commonly known as Obamacare. This latest attempt, known as the “Skinny Repeal,” was a watered-down version of previous repeal bills that would have rolled back the insurance mandates for individuals and large employers, while also eliminating a series of taxes that help fund many ACA programs.

While the Skinny Repeal may seem attractive at first, such a bill could have potentially disastrous effects. Supporters of repeal bills argue that such efforts will stabilize the individual state insurance markets. However, the Skinny Repeal would have had the opposite effect: the lack of an enforceable individual insurance mandate would incentivize many healthy individuals to forego coverage, thereby stripping insurers of essential premium dollars that offset the costs of sicker individuals also insured through their plans. In short, the Skinny Repeal would have caused health insurance premiums to soar.

Obamacare is in no way perfect, as many on both sides of the aisle agree. The problem is that the Republican establishment is intent on a complete repeal-and-replace, and will not consider viable alternatives. This makes a fix politically impossible. So where does healthcare reform go from here?

The first option is one favored by President Trump: pressuring Majority Leader McConnell to change the Senate rules and eliminate the filibuster. This would allow Republicans to pass a repeal bill with just 51 votes in the Senate. However, currently there are not 51 votes to pass such a bill, as evidenced by the three failed repeal votes in the Senate in late July. Furthermore, Senators on both sides of the aisle are in favor of preserving the filibuster.

Another option is bipartisan legislation to stabilize states’ individual insurance marketplaces. In the House, a group of 40 moderate representatives calling themselves the “Problem Solvers Caucus” offer a proposal that would fund cost-sharing subsidies, create a stability fund to help compensate insurers for their customers’ medical costs, repeal the medical device tax, and narrow the employer mandate to businesses with 500 or more employees rather than 50 or more. In the Senate, Republicans still can introduce new amendments to the American Health Care Act of 2017. Committee hearings to explore options for shoring up insurance markets are expected starting in September. However, it seems both efforts are doomed due to leadership moving on to tax reform or digging their heels in for full repeal-and-replace.

While Obamacare is far from imploding, the Trump Administration could still further destabilize it. In fact, it has already started to do so by circulating information regarding Obamacare’s supposed imminent collapse, halting enrollment advertising, and directing the Internal Revenue Service to process tax filings that do not indicate insurance status, which undermines the individual mandate. Additionally the Administration could stop providing upkeep for the federally-facilitated marketplace which runs exchanges for 38 states, severely damaging Obamacare’s infrastructure. The Administration could also drop its pending appeal in House v. Price, an action that would end subsidies to insurers and make coverage largely unaffordable for those who need it most. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has allowed 16 state attorney generals to intervene. This means that even if the Trump Administration drops the pending appeal, the states can continue to defend the subsidies.

These are only a few of the many ways in which Trump could try to dismantle the ACA. However, with every county in the country now offering at least one insurance option to its residents through the ACA marketplaces and a looming budget battle that could permanently fund the cost-sharing subsidies at issue in House v. Price, the Trump Administration is running out of both time and options to achieve its healthcare policy goals.

As Refugees’ Plight Worsens, a Legal Aid Group Steps up the Fight

John Muller
International Refugee Assistance Project

Word of the Fourth Circuit decision came via Twitter. That felt appropriate. The same platform that had helped fuel the Arab Spring and the political ascent of Donald Trump now carried breaking news from their collision in a Virginia courthouse all the way to Beirut, where a group of Americans huddled together in a bar, grinning triumphantly at our phones.

Five law students had traveled from NYU to Lebanon in May with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a legal aid and advocacy organization created by students at Yale Law School in 2008. When I joined IRAP, in the fall of 2016, our job had seemed straightforward: work in small teams to help refugees through the painfully slow legal process of resettling to the United States. But then came the presidential election and a pair of executive orders denying U.S. entry to immigrants from a group of Muslim-majority countries—the same countries our clients were desperate to flee.

Literally overnight, the travel ban changed the nature of IRAP’s work. On Friday, January 27, an IRAP client named Hameed Darweesh arrived at JFK Airport with a special immigrant visa in hand, only to be detained by immigration officials and threatened with unlawful deportation to Iraq. Attorneys from IRAP and elsewhere rushed to the terminal that night to help. The next morning, protesters gathered outside in a crowd that grew so massive that police blocked the entrances to the airport. Rather than dying down, the protests spread to a plaza outside the federal district courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn, where that evening Judge Ann Donnelly issued an emergency stay blocking parts of the order nationwide and allowing Darweesh into the country. It was the first in a series of legal victories IRAP would win against the ban.

During the spring semester, IRAP’s policy arm sprang into action. Students drafted research memos for the litigation efforts and led phone-call drives to keep pressure on Congress. IRAP v. Trump reached the Fourth Circuit on appeal while a simultaneous challenge to the ban gathered steam in Hawai’i. At law schools across the country, IRAP case teams kept pushing their clients’ applications forward, hoping for the best.

When finals ended, I flew to Lebanon with members from several IRAP chapters to learn about our organization’s operations in a country with over a million Syrian refugees. We received training on refugee law and the history of the Syrian conflict. We met with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who warned of a deepening crisis, and with a U.S. diplomat who seemed embittered by his inability to help.

Then, on Thursday night, as the group unwound in a hotel bar packed with young shisha-smoking Beirutis, our phones buzzed with good news. The Fourth Circuit had roundly rejected the travel ban, which it said “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.” IRAP had won the appeal. I bought a beer for Justin Cox, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center who had worked for months on IRAP’s case. He skimmed gleefully through the 205-page opinion, pausing to tweet congratulations to the dedicated advocates who had helped earn the victory.

Twitter was already speculating about whether the Supreme Court would grant certiorari. But in Beirut, we had more immediate concerns. There were intake interviews scheduled for the next morning with prospective clients, Syrian refugees who came to IRAP’s office each week to try to secure a future beyond Lebanon for their families. One by one, we pocketed our phones and headed upstairs to bed. There was still a lot of work to be done.


Behind the Fight to Save Medicaid

Erin Shea
Disability Allied Law Students Association

This summer, the disability community was threatened to an extent that it had not been in years. A small group of people were meeting behind closed doors, crafting a bill that would fundamentally alter Medicaid, a program many people with disabilities depend on. At times it felt like there was nothing the community could do to stop it.

The Senate’s secret health care deliberations had dangerous implications. Each proposal decreased federal funding for Medicaid, meaning a decrease in funding for services that many people rely on.

People were scared about what the proposals meant for them and their loved ones. Would they have to go back to living in an institution? Would some of them die because they wouldn’t have access to the care they needed? Every proposal the Senate was considering would have set the disability community back decades.

So, the community took action. We protested and rallied our allies. We crafted informational materials for Senate offices and we met with staff, asking them what information might best help their boss make an informed decision.

Most importantly, people with disabilities made themselves visible. They led protests at Senators’ state offices and at state capitals and flooded Capitol Hill from all around the country, sharing their stories. They staged “die-ins” outside of Senate offices, lying on the floor to simulate death. They disrupted the motion to proceed vote with protests in the Senate Gallery and Hart Senate Office Building, chanting, “Kill the bill! Don’t kill us!” and “I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid!” Hundreds were arrested in the process, but they felt that their lives were on the line, and they spoke out.

The battle finally came to a head, ironically, during the week of the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That landmark civil rights legislation promised equal opportunity for people with disabilities, and while that has not quite been its effect, it has done a tremendous amount to integrate people with disabilities into society.

The health care bills that we were fighting, including the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act (ORRA), the American Health Care Act (AHCA), and the so-called “skinny repeal” bill all flew in the face of the advances championed by the ADA.

The votes came in at 1:30 in the morning on Friday, July 28. As it became obvious that the skinny repeal bill, the last of the proposals to be considered on the Senate floor, had failed, I was reminded of the crucial role that activism can play in shaping law and policy.

Without the months of opposition waged by people with disabilities and other affected groups around the country, Senators could have easily signed on to legislation without investigating, recognizing, or appreciating the real impacts. But, the unrelenting pressure from activist groups slowly changed the public discourse. That change trickled up to the Senate, giving three Republicans the political will they needed to break with their party. That’s the power of activism.

Addressing Burnout in Human Rights Lawyering

Selene Nafisi
Law Students for Human Rights

In my early morning commute to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) building in Beirut, Lebanon, I passed by dozens of Syrian refugee families. They wait for hours under the scorching summer sun hoping for an opportunity to tell their harrowing stories in exchange for assistance. Yet demand outweighs supply. Many refugees walk away disappointed, with only what they had when they arrived—vulnerability.

Even with technical assistance and the support of governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the situation for Syrian refugees in the region remains dire. Lebanon hosts over 1.1 million Syrian refugees—the highest per capita refugee population in the world. Refugees in Lebanon are largely barred from working, and many face discrimination and abuse. Only 1% of refugees in the country—those deemed most vulnerable by the UNHCR—are referred for resettlement to other countries.

As the Syrian conflict swells into its sixth year, it becomes difficult for human rights practitioners to manage feelings of exhaustion. This seemingly inevitable emotional response is detrimental to human rights movements, which draw on continuous solidarity for those most affected.

Exhaustion is not unique to the Syrian context. Legal advocates in the U.S. also struggle with burnout from the increasing challenges and demands that arise in their work. From criminal justice reform to immigration to healthcare, advocate fatigue depletes momentum from movements for social equality and human dignity.

As legal advocates, what actions should we take when feeling overwhelmed by the complexities of the challenges we face?  

We should focus on actively reminding ourselves of the stories we present and why.

When advocating for human rights, we sometimes focus on the broader issues, populations, and institutions at the expense of thinking of the individuals—our clients—whose lives we aim to improve.

There was a moment—perhaps a series of moments—in our lives when we felt so deeply moved—perhaps even outraged—by something. That something ingrained in us a feeling so powerful that we consciously reacted by choosing to become advocates.

When we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, or defeated, we must remember that something that is unique for each of us. For me, that something is captured in the stories, faces, and memories of my family and friends, who had no choice but to leave their homes and lives forever behind.

As advocates, we must nurture the spirit of that something by directly engaging with our clients. The people I impact now and in the future are not, and will never be, those friends and family members that led me to law school. Yet their stories live on in the lives of those I hope to accompany through my work.

By focusing on our clients, we are reminded of how human rights work operates most significantly at the individual, human level. We should open ourselves up fully to our clients’ experiences—feel their fears, mourn their losses, and celebrate their victories. We become effective empathizers, storytellers, and lawyers.

Margaret Satterthwaite, NYU Professor of Clinical Law and Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), says that “connecting to people’s lives and having proximity to how human rights are violated” is fundamental to effective lawyering. She continues, “Lawyers must advance the stories people tell about their own lives.”

Whether in offices, courtrooms, or on our morning commute, we must feel that something by keeping our clients’ stories alive as we advocate. In the words of Asma Peracha, ‘17 and former LSHR co-chair, “​As wearing as human rights work can be, all the things you care about are a part of your work, directly or indirectly.”