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Life at Penn Law Outside of the Classroom

April 13, 2018

Hi Penn Law Class of 2021!

As finals loom (for me and possibly many of you), I thought we could all use a dose of constructive procrastination! And for those of you in the workforce or rockin’ funemployment, hopefully this’ll make for a nice coffee break.

My name is Justin Prelogar, and I got to meet a lot of you at Admitted Students Weekend, Preview Day, or maybe both. The best part of getting to meet so many of you was two-fold for me: 1) it became abundantly clear that the Admissions Office selected incoming 1Ls who seem as intelligent, enthusiastic, and nice as everyone else I’ve met here at Penn; and 2) I’m pretty jazzed to know that many of you are going to channel/draw on those qualities as you immerse yourselves in your coursework, extracurriculars, and the Penn community at-large.

While Reid told you about Bowling League and other current students have discussed life in Philly and at Penn (see other posts), I want to dive a bit deeper and share with you the different levels of extracurricular involvement here at Penn. I’ll speak to some of the pros/cons of each, and why I think Penn does a great job helping students find the balance that works best for them. Hopefully, this will provide a useful window to those curious about what the extracurricular world looks like, especially given the narrative regarding the challenges of 1L coursework.

As you’d expect, students are generally involved in a few organizations and are tucked into those spaces to varying degrees. One joy of 1L (depending on how you look at it) is that your schedule is pre-determined, which means you can pretty quickly get a sense of the time-demands of your classes and identify where you have some wiggle room. There are basically three levels of involvement in on-campus organizations: not very involved, membership, and board membership. I’ll touch on each of these and then address clinics at the end since they’re a bit unique.

To preface though, my favorite aspect of 1L activity-involvement is that 2Ls, 3Ls, and faculty all realize 1Ls have a lot on their plates, which means the organizational demands of 1Ls who join on-campus organizations are generally low and/or optional. This means you can either join a couple of organizations without much demand on your time OR, if you’re like me and struggle to make decisions, you can get involved in a bunch of organizations, which allows you to still contribute to the organizations in a meaningful way and to make more personally informed decisions on what you’d like to continue as you head into 2L. You can also grab coffee with people from different organizations who can tell you what their organization is about and how you can best get involved.

To the levels, first, “not very involved” can manifest in two ways: 1) you live in a cave, hide from the outside world, and do nothing but pour over your casebooks, or 2) you’re not formally a member of XYZ org, but enjoy attending the lunch programs (speakers, panels, etc.,.) the organization puts on from time to time. While it’s entirely sensible (and advisable) to approach your studies with the utmost care and attention, I discourage the cave approach. From a personal standpoint, your mental health matters and seeing other people and seeing daylight are important. The value of the second approach here is you have complete discretion over when you want to participate/not participate and your involvement is more event-centric than organization-centric. You don’t have to be a member to be enriched by its programming. What’s more is that by engaging—to even a limited extent—with the programs Penn Law puts on (i.e. second approach), you may learn about something you didn’t know you loved, find useful connections between concepts within a given class or across classes, and make yourself a bit more engaging when you talk to prospective employers…being able to reference both the incredible depth of legal knowledge you derived from your classes and also the application of a particular concept to a real-world problem.

Second, membership. This one is very straightforward and is only a slight step above “no formal involvement.” If you’re interested in the content of an organization, but don’t want to be required to do/attend things then this is for you. Membership basically lands you on a listserv so you get a specific emails about upcoming events or opportunities to get more involved—helping with events, staffing a table to speak with students about initiatives your org is trying to get support for, etc. This is almost always optional which still gives you the freedom to calibrate your involvement as you like. Of course, all the benefits I referenced of just attending the events are carried forward here, unless you become a member and don’t attend anything. It’s also a good space if you’re pretty sure you’d like to get more involved as a 2L, after you totally win at 1L.

The final and most involved option is board membership. If you like the organization, want to get involved at the ground level to maybe run it one day as a 2L or 3L, or just really want to learn all you can about X topic, then you should apply to be a 1L board member. Orgs will usually send out these applications in the 2nd/3rd month of school, after an activity fair and after most people have had a chance to explore and sign up for membership. For most organizations, board membership includes making an announcement in your classes about upcoming events, helping coordinate or plan events, or tabling to inform students about your organization’s latest initiatives. Unlike membership, board membership carries a bit higher expectation of involvement. This captures all the benefits of either occasional attendance at events or membership, but includes the added benefit of giving you a more substantive role, which is great both for your own edification and to share in interviews with prospective employers and others. A key piece to consider here is that even in this space, many organizations are sensitive to the demands you face and if there is a particular “mandatory” event you can’t attend, other board members are often flexible in allowing special exceptions to try to make sure you’re covered. They realize the point of the organization is not to jeopardize your studies and are responsive when there may be a conflict.

Clinics are a bit different from other organizations and are probably best understood in their own light. There are a few project-based organizations that have a higher-than-average threshold of involvement. Organizations like International Human Rights Association (IHRA), Penn Law Immigrant Rights Project (PLIRP), and many others have research or tabling events that are more frequent and are all pretty optional. As such, those can take up quite a bit of time or very little time depending on your level of interest. Then, organizations like Penn Law Advocates for the Homeless (PLAH) or the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic (CASAC) require a level of involvement over the course of each semester that is a bit more demanding than other organizations. As a member of CASAC, it’s been my experience that the increased demand has been commensurate with the benefits I’ve derived (both tangible and intangible) and I’ve enjoyed being able to help a lot of people. It has been a serious chunk of time though, and that was important to consider when I applied. Other activities are seasonal: Mock Trial for instance, which a bunch of 1Ls participated in, took place in January, but otherwise, had very low time demands for the bulk of participants.

The extracurricular space really is whatever you want it to be, and there are a world of students and faculty here to help you make the choices that fit with your interests and are right for you. You really can dabble to your heart’s content and learn a lot that way!

To give you a sense of what I plugged into, I joined:

  • Custody and Support Assistance Clinic, where we help people for 3 hrs. a week with their Custody and Child Support needs.
  • Post-Acceptance Committee (which is AMAZING!) where we meet during spring semester and help plan Admitted Students Weekend and Preview Day.
  • Jessup International Moot Court where as a 1L you watch and learn as 2Ls and 3Ls write a brief on an international legal dispute and then argue their respective positions at competition. It’s a six-person team, so fascinating and tight-knit.
  • National Security Society 1L Board where it’s mostly a couple of events except for an incredible national security simulation in the spring. This year, Penn represented the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and our team mentor was former-DNI, James Clapper.
  • Mock Trial, where there’s an intramural tournament and external competitions you can do (I did an external competition in Chicago and participated in the intramural, our team won the intramural, which was awesome.).

I was loosely active in Boxing Club and assisted on a couple of International Human Rights Association (IHRA) projects. I attended a world of events hosted by basically every organization under the sun, and my biggest issue all year has been trying to figure out which one to attend when there were multiple going on simultaneously.

Like I said, you can do anything at Penn. I embrace the idea that you learn a lot from classes and can round out that education/begin to put that knowledge to use through the extracurricular opportunities here. The students, faculty advisors, and administration are incredibly supportive of students and organizations, and if the existing universe of options is missing something you want to see, they are ready and willing to help you make it a reality. I’m not a 2L, so I can’t tell you a whole lot about the world of journals and externships, but within the universe of Penn, I can say for certain you’ll never run out of incredible things to do.

I hope you will all come here and plug into our community in your own way so we can work with you and learn from you, both inside and outside the classroom!

As you know already, we’re here if you need us and are more than happy to answer any/all questions you have! For now though, I look forward to seeing you all again in September, you delightful Class of 2021!!

Warm regards,