I received my law degree from the University of Virginia School of law, so you may not be surprised to learn that the interview I conducted with Polly Lawson, the Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies at that law school produced a flood of memories in me. What may be more surprising is how many of them are CEE-related.
In fact, my decision to attend the University of Virginia came as a result of my experiences in Central and Eastern Europe – and the law school, in turn, was a key factor in getting me back here. A pivotal experience, in all senses of the word.
This particular story begins, believe it or not, in my infancy, in Lawrence, Kansas. It was there that I was in the room when my father, studying Russian, practiced conjugating verbs at the kitchen table, and his interest in the region eventuated a Soviet and East European fellowship at the University of Michigan, leading our family to move to Ann Arbor in the late 1960s. I inevitably was affected (infected?) by his fascination with the region, and I eventually ended up studying the Russian language in high school, and then in college took a number of courses in Russian culture and literature.
In 1993, casting about for the next adventure as I prepared to move on from graduate school, I decided to apply for a position with the US Peace Corps (an organization which, perhaps coincidentally, had first been proposed by President Kennedy in Ann Arbor some thirty years earlier). This was a bigger step than it might seem, as I had, for much of my younger life, assumed I was not smart enough, hard-working enough, or brave enough to join these dedicated and remarkable young man and women doing good and important work around the world. But fortune favors the bold, I figured, and I did want an adventure, so …
So I applied, asking for a position in … Eastern Europe. And, to nobody’s surprise more than mine, I was accepted!
They may have taken my request for a post in “Eastern Europe” a bit too literally, however; I was posted to the Russian Far East, on the Pacific Coast – ten time zones away from the cities in CEE I had been imagining. Still – after looking up Vladivostok at the library (Wikipedia and Google not yet having been invented) – I decided in for a penny, in for a pound, and agreed.
That turned out to be the right decision, as the experience changed everything about my life. I met friends – both American and Russian – I cherish to this day. I learned to learn and speak Russian, a skill for which I remain truly grateful. My mind was opened to other cultures, customs, and sensibilities – and I learned recognize the many elements of the three that we all share. And perhaps most importantly, from a personal level, I learned to embrace challenges rather than recoil from them.
I returned home to the United States in the summer of 1997, proud, Russian-speaking, and ready … and with no idea what I wanted to do next. I decided, having discovered that my youthful fears about joining the Peace Corps and my anxieties about going so far from home were baseless, to put that newfound confidence to the test and accept the other big challenge of my life I had long avoided, despite multiple recommendations from teachers in my youth: I applied for law school.
I applied to several schools, in fact, including “safety-schools,” some genuinely good law schools, and as a lark, two top-tier law schools which I was aware would never, under any circumstances, accept me. While I waited, I found a job making use of my Russian language skills as a legal assistant in the Moscow office of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, a venerable New York law firm. And it was there, in that Moscow office, in the early spring of 1998, and based heavily on an LSAT score that I remain convinced must have resulted from a computer error, that I learned I was wrong, and that one of those two top-tier law schools had indeed accepted me after all.
I moved to Charlottesville straight from Moscow that summer, ready – I hoped – to attend the University of Virginia School of Law. And again, as it had been with the Peace Corps, my ambition was rewarded. Indeed, before I knew it, I was comfortably ensconced in a remarkable program. The School of Law was diverse, with fellow students from across the United States and – via the graduate program that Ms. Lawson now heads – across the globe. It was challenging, with classes taught by widely-acknowledged and respected experts in their fields. It was fascinating, with epiphanies and newfound understandings an almost daily occurrence in a way I had never experienced. And it was, ultimately, rewarding, in a way nothing – except, notably, my experience in the Peace Corps (and perhaps my season tickets for Michigan football) – else ever had been.
Charlottesville, if you don’t know it, is a little slice of heaven. A college town located in green Western Virginia horse country about three hours from Washington D.C., with golf courses, tennis courts, and summer picnics and barbecues sharing space and competing for time with prestigious lecture programs, world class theaters and museums, and academic programs respected across the globe. Also, at Bodo’s, fantastic bagels. I loved my time there.
It’s perhaps a cliché to note how little things can trigger such strong memories. Thus, as I reviewed Polly Lawson’s interview about the law school and prepared it for publication in this issue, I was cast back to my father’s interest in Russian and Soviet studies in the 60s and 70s, my own introductions to Russian language and culture in the 80s, and my full-on plunge into Russia itself in the 90s … as well as the confidence my immersive experience provided me, which led me to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia and then to lawyering … which led me, eventually, back to Eastern Europe.
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon sang, and for my life, at least, he was absolutely right. At no point, growing up, did I ever think, “I’ll go to graduate school, join the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, come back, go to the University of Virginia Law School, become a lawyer, get a job as a legal recruiter in Eastern Europe, then launch the leading legal publication and website in CEE.” Until I was in my mid-20s the idea of any of those things happening would have seemed ludicrous. Maybe they were ludicrous. But I embrace the lunacy of this life. And the University of Virginia was a key part of that process.
And trust me. If you visit Charlottesville someday, stop by Bodo’s.