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Bookends, Reflections and Jake…

January 12, 2011.  Jake Klonoski was a 1L starting off his winter quarter and I asked him to be a guest blogger.  Fast forward to June 16, 2013 and Jake is walking across the stage at graduation with his daughter in his arms.  Where did all the time go?  I thought it only fitting that Jake be a guest blogger once again.  Kind of like bookends.  He was there in the beginning to give some advice and now here he is again to reflect back on the past three years.

Jake is on another tour of duty – in Kabul – as I type this.  Katie and Maddy are here at home.  Thousands and thousands of miles separate them, but those ties are ever so strong.  Stay safe, Jake.  Come home soon.

Thoughts on Three ­­­Years at SLS

By Jake Klonoski

Remembering the two long lines of velvet tams, family with excited waves and clicking cameras, and the rising notes of Handel’s “The Trumpet Shall Sound” while the Class of 2013 recessed from the graduation ceremony that completed our three-year journey, it is difficult to identify—in that moment or the years leading up to it—any lesson so important that it outshines the sparkle of daily thoughts and reflections that flash through the Stanford Law community.  One of the downsides of being in a place of such creative and inexhaustible minds is that it is nearly impossible to come up with an original reflection that has not been shared more eloquently by a classmate.

Failing to spot any universal exhortations, let me offer a completely personal one: if you have a child, take your child onstage with you to accept your diploma.[1]

Now, child accompaniment is not without risks.  Carefully thinking through the neonatal pick-up BEFORE getting in line to wait for your name to be called is critical.   There is the possibility of the on-stage meltdown.  And woe to the law student who fails to consider how to unload the bundle of joy after descending the stage—juggling the diploma and the infant for the rest of the ceremony, in fear of an ear-piercing cry during the dean’s “Charge To The Class” prevents proper reflection on the gravity of the moment.  You can count yourself lucky if the only disruption is an emphatic yawn.[2]

But the crescendo of applause for the baby accepting a diploma, from audience and classmates alike, makes all the stress worthwhile.  The cheering intensity from onlookers at least doubles, which has the added effect of stunning a carried child for the critical stage-crossing, diploma-receiving moments.  Whether the kid emerges from this stupefied state into smiles or into tears is a question of temperament, but regardless, your official graduation photo, no doubt snapped at that moment, will be suitable for framing and conversation years later.

But a graduation baby is important for more than just future conversation. The cheer that arises from onlookers is more than simply the normal excitement at a cute miniature human.  Instead, a law school baby is a testament to the strength of our law school community, proof that a class has moved beyond the bonds of legal professionalism and grown towards being something more akin to a family.

For one, it seems to be biological instinct to avoid beginning a family at times of danger or uncertainty. [3] Some sense of security in one’s surroundings and in the future seems a prerequisite to take the chance of bringing a new life into the world.  Not every law school offers such assurances.

Secondly, it seems impossible to maintain a law school workload with a newborn without support from your law school community.  Without classmates willing to share notes with an expectant mom slowed by morning sickness, summarizing readings skipped during missed classes, and reassuring a new parent that “no, that lecture missed while your child was sick really wasn’t all that important,” beginning a family can be a recipe for a quick burnout.  But with supportive classmates—like those who threw my wife a baby shower—a baby’s arrival becomes a source of communitywide celebration.

Lastly, the attitude of the faculty and administration is critical.  How much understanding of real life enters into the academic realm?  Is your school the intolerant and uncharitable environment of “The Paper Chase” or are you at the kind of school where the Dean of Admissions offers to babysit?  Do your professors share their tips for training a newborn to sleep through the night?  Does your clinical professor allow you to arrange your trial workload to ensure you can spend precious time with your new family?

A graduation baby offers witness to the fact that a law school has done more than simply prepare its students to take the bar exam.  It has created a home for its students where it is possible to live outside the casebooks and outlines, to enjoy life as more than simply a number with an “L” after it, worrying day after day about securing a job as a law firm associate or judicial clerk.  Though a graduation baby demonstrates this phenomenon, the benefits of a school with such a culture repeatedly touch every student personally and professionally over the three years, and for many years to come.

For the Stanford Law Class of 2013, over a dozen babies were born to a class of 189.[4]

But counting births is not the only, nor the best evidence of Stanford Law being something special among law schools.  And this reflection is intended to be more than a proud father crowing about his baby.  Certainly you don’t miss out at Stanford Law if you aren’t ready or interested in starting a family.  Rather, what makes Stanford remarkable is how much faith it gives in those around you and the community at large, and how much support it offers you if you are willing to take difficult or exciting personal risks, whatever they may be to you.  In my three years here, again and again, as life intervened, the community within the law school proved itself to be exceptional.

In 2010, following the first quarter of my 1L year, when I lost a brother to suicide, I found great comfort in the small kindnesses and support of classmates.  And from professors, there was thoughtful patience and compassionate understanding.  Looking back now, I realize how easily I might have given up on law school and how reasonable such a decision would have been.  Reflecting on that time today, I believe staying at Stanford Law gave me more support than I would have gotten anywhere else.

The next year, when ordered to return to military service and travel across the Pacific with the Navy following the tsunami and nuclear disaster in northwest Japan, the first few weeks of the quarter brought emailed readings from professors and excellent notes taken by classmates.  When I came back, my classmates welcomed me into study groups and patiently caught me up on what I had missed.  Without that support, there is simply no way I could have avoided an academic leave of absence from law school.

These are dramatic illustrations from one student’s experience, but they demonstrate something I witnessed each day: classmates supporting classmates, professors investing in students, and Stanford staff creating a community where all serious (and even some trivial) needs are addressed.

I personally will never forget the day I came into the library after tearing my coat sleeve on a fence.  I asked the librarian at the front desk for a stapler so I could temporarily staple the sleeve together until the end of the day.  Taking a look at my problem and insisting staples were not the best solution, she insisted that I leave my jacket with her.  She said she’d look into what could be done. When I returned a few hours later, she had sewn the jacket back together.

There is simply no place like Stanford Law.  Without a doubt, it offers up a first-class legal education, both in the classroom and with its clinical programs.  A list of the amazing legal minds and professional opportunities at the school writes itself.  But it is the community that is built each year, the woven fabric of mutual support and lasting friendship, that makes the law school experience here exceptional.

Following graduation, while at a legal conference in July, I ran into a recent graduate of a peer law school from a large city in Massachusetts.  After watching my 14-month-old, Madeliene, toddle between my wife and a flock of birds during one of the breaks, the recent graduate asked how it had worked starting a family while in law school.

“Well,” I began, “My wife did the hard work, but I was lucky enough to go to Stanford Law. . .”

Her cinched face stopped me.  “It’s not right,” she interjected with a scoff, “At Stanford you guys have the chance to actually enjoy going to law school.  Who ever heard of such a thing?”

“It is just not right,” she repeated, shaking her head as a bird Madeleine was chasing sprang into flight.

As the students in the graduating class of 2013 study for the bar and take flight, it occurs to me that perhaps our three years were abnormal, that we simply enjoyed good fortune and an overabundance of good people in our class.  Ours was after all the class that began with Stanford’s football team winning the Orange Bowl and ended with victory in the Rose Bowl.

That is why at future SLS graduations I will watch for graduates with their children crossing the stage with them, and I will cheer a bit louder for each of them, their remarkable families, and the community that makes it possible.  Each child tells a story about the kind of school Stanford Law is, the trust students are willing to place in those around them, and the hope Stanford inspires for the future.

To each and every one of you who helped build this supportive community—thank you from me and my family.

And as a final note, if you are the fool who forgets to arrange a baby hand-off with your family and you end up terrified in your seat with your child, unable to really concentrate on what the Dean is saying, it turns out that the Dean’s Charge is uploaded to YouTube a few days after the graduation ceremony.  And it no doubt will be worth your full attention.

For your sake, I just hope your baby is as heavy a sleeper as Madeleine is.

___________________________

[1] Were this graduation stage imagery to portray my family situation accurately, I would be holding our daughter and my wife, Katie, would be carrying both of us.   Mothers are amazing!

[2] The baby’s, not yours.

[3] Certainly the New Jersey baby boom following Hurricane Sandy offers an alternative narrative of babies springing from times of great distress.  Regardless, I acknowledge the risk of a law student claiming any knowledge of science, patent lawyers aside.

[4] More than just SLS community support, Stanford is a uniquely wonderful place to begin a family due to the informed conversation in birthing class about which contraction tracking app is the most user friendly and which lactation app is most effective in the days after birth.  And in Silicon Valley, if the app doesn’t work well, no doubt a parent in the birthing class is working on Version 2.0.

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