2013 Barer Fellows

My Experience in the Law School

By Charles Mutasa (Zimbabwe)

My law school experience at UW in the last quarter is unique to me. Not everyone is like me or have the same perceptions and approach. Prior, to joining the law school, as a civil society activist, I enjoyed working in the non-profit (NGO) sector doing policy advocacy, research and analysis. I travelled extensively and attended quite a number of global development-related meetings convened by the UN, the OECD, the World Bank, the Commonwealth Foundation, the African Union and many others. In the process of attending these meetings, I worked with a number of human rights lawyers who were seeking to apply their legal expertise to development issues. They encouraged me to study law while I encouraged them to study development issues so that both of us will be holistic in our thinking and approach. In 2013, through the Barer fellowship, I got an opportunity to study law at UW.

Wow! It’s amazing to study law, especially as an LLM in a foreign land like the USA where you first need to understand the American system then understand how lawyers navigate through such a system. For me, I had to go a bit further, I had never been in a law school and here I am studying for an LLM degree in Sustainable International Development (SID). One thing I always reminded myself was that I know what development issues are about and the unfamiliar legal terrain served to ‘academicize’ it and apply the use of law to the whole matrix.

One Professor reminded me that all of us (the LLM students from outside the US) were all strangers to the American legal system and on equal footing-whether as lawyers from elsewhere or novices in the legal field, but I never believed it and still thought I would have a hard time keeping up with everyone else. But as time went by, and as we did one assignment after the other, I began to understand that all of us have something new to learn and our past academic experiences and professional exposure were all important to our success in the LLM (SID) program. Attending the Summer Institute in Transnational Law and Practice prior to beginning the LLM program was very helpful for me. It made me understand and appreciate what was before me in the law school. Although the summer program was heavily packed and moved at a faster rate than anyone could imagine, it was an eye opener and a good starting point for a person like me who had no real idea of what my life adventures had got me into. While most of us had done our utmost not to look scared, I doubt there were few who, like me, did not feel somewhat shaken. And yet, coffee and snacks had made these sessions, despite their mandatory attendance, feel festive.

Studying case law was something else. In the summer program we were advised that though case law may seem difficult at first, there is no way an American law graduate student would be able to avoid it. In the fall, the American Legal System and Method course, a degree requirement, absorbed at least as much time, as did our other 2 courses combined. The course kicked off with reminding us of some key concepts and issues from our summer program. More than one of us said, “I would really like law school if it weren't for the Socratic method and core grammar.” At the same time, we each understood, with reluctance, that the ability to master the American Legal System and Method course will influence our later courses, our understanding of the US system and future career opportunities. The need to understand cases, especially the use of Westlaw and Lexis Nexis electronic packages was a different ball game altogether. It took time and persistence to find one’s direction in this hodgepodge.

Not everything was really challenging. The social life within and outside the law school was quite encouraging. Meeting the Barers, attending an American football match, going out for a theater show and visiting a museum were some of the lighter moments while in law school. Global Mondays and lots of social and club meetings over lunch hours has been inspirational and motivating. The Center for professional development teachings on resume writing, interview skills and job-seeking methods have been helpful in letting me find my fit in the legal field. Attending the Global Washington conference in mid-November allowed me to meet all sorts of development practitioners and people working on the same issues I have or would like to work on in future. During Sundays, I enjoyed attending church services, which here are traditionally short and precise compared to my African experience. Culturally speaking, I find both my lecturers and Seattle residents not formalistic about anything. I brought a suit to wear for some important occasions, but I have never put it on, as the important ‘suit’ occasion has yet to arrive. Everything here seems casual, in jeans, T-shirts and the like -That’s Seattle!

I am trying to take pride in my small accomplishments and remind myself that I have made it this far, and take things day-to-day, and quarter-by-quarter. It seems so far so good! I have become a law student and I am among lawyers! If I make it to June 2014, then, I will add an LLM to my academic accomplishments. Networks and new contacts have been established and hopefully those will yield something greater. I look forward to the next quarter to link up with students from other departments outside the law school. I am hoping to take some course in the Evans School of Public Affairs, linking law, public policy and management issues.

Last updated 1/28/2014