Student Posts

Merging Theory with Practice

Options can be both a blessing and a curse. When it comes to selecting law school classes, it is no different. Having two electives during 1L spring semester was one of the greatest gifts of law school. Those classes gave me a chance to remember why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. True, I did find property law to be more interesting than I expected it to be, but a semester of international human rights law was what I needed to get my blood pumping last winter.

I have never seen myself as an academic. I like to think I am much more of a practitioner, who wants to know how the topics in class will influence my future practice or current events. I tend to get frustrated in class discussions about theory that separate the issues from real world problems and potential solutions. But this January term taught me to enjoy the beauty in the intersection of theory and practice.

I took a course on building the rule of law. It was co-taught by one of our professors, Professor Gilbert, alongside an attorney, Professor Sutherland, who had worked for the State Department in developing the rule of law in a province in Afghanistan. The practical perspective of the course combined with my prior interest in the rule of law quickly drew me in. Over the course of the week, I found my ever-practical self drifting into questions based primarily on theory.

During the week, we discussed topics like how to define the rule of law, how to create legal change, and how culture influences the rule of law. All of our discussions were set against the backdrop of Professor Sutherland’s experience in Afghanistan. It was the perfect marriage of theory and practice. When deciding how to create legitimacy within the judiciary, he had to think through theoretical issues like cultural norms, but he also had to address practical issues like judicial robes and courthouse space.

About midway through the week, I started to realize that theory is not detrimental to resolving practical issues; and in many cases, it is helpful to explore the theory first before charting a plan of execution. I still probably won’t sign up for a jurisprudence course anytime soon, but I learned a valuable lesson last week. I can keep searching for practical applications in my courses, but I also shouldn’t shy away from exploring theory and asking those with me to consider the practical ramifications of the theories we discuss in class. When it comes to the law, we do our profession a disservice if we divorce the one from the other. Who knows what my course load will look like next year, but I am excited for this coming semester as I continue to learn to appreciate the theory alongside the practice.


Amber Strickland is a 2L from Centreville, Virginia. After spending her undergraduate years enjoying small town America in the cornfields of Ohio, she joined the fight to end bonded labor in India while interning with International Justice Mission. When not reading for class, she can be found procrasti-baking or cooking.

Student Posts

Changing “The Plan” and Asking the Right Questions

Before even the first day of law school, I thought I had it all figured out. I would focus my courses on environmental law, work both summers in the field, and then apply for a fellowship to work for a non-profit environmental organization after graduation. I came to law school specifically to do this work. This was The Plan.

I have found that environmental law is many things: increasingly important, hugely impactful, and, well… Not for me. This last realization came slowly and was exceedingly difficult to admit. It came to a head my 1L summer when I was working for an environmental non-profit. There I was, interning at a top-notch, nationally and internationally recognized organization, as I had longed for. I was humbled to be there, continuously busy, and, somehow, surprisingly, bored.

Surprise soon gave way to distress, which gave way to a minor quarter-life crisis. If I didn’t actually like the practice of environmental law, then what in tarnation was I doing in law school?! And why didn’t I like it as much as I thought I would? Prior to law school, I had been active as a citizen lobbyist, environmental journalist, and general rabble-rouser in various environmental justice movements; I had liked all that work.

Turns out, none of my experiences before law school had clued me in to what environmental law actually looks like for those who practice it––it is overwhelmingly administrative, technical, and regulatory, with minimal direct client interaction. This recipe works for a lot of people (I now know many), but I quickly learned that I am not of such ilk. This summer, I found myself yearning to work one-on-one with clients in a way that seems rare or nonexistent for most environmental lawyers.

Granted, I could easily have ignored all of these feelings. I could have convinced myself that my passion for environmental issues was enough; that law isn’t supposed to be exciting; that “the cause” itself is all that matters; that this was The Plan. But that is nonsense––that’s not the future I want for myself, nor the lawyer “the cause” needs. So after much brow-furrowing and hand-wringing… I scrapped The Plan. I meditated. Gazed inward. Gazed outward. Scoured books and faces. Asked questions. I asked lots of questions.

As a result of that process, I am now happily focusing on civil rights and poverty issues, working on projects in much more client-centric areas of the law. (Despite this shift, I remain passionate about what brought me to law school, and am currently serving as President of the Virginia Environmental Law Forum.) This is not to say that I have completely figured out where in the public interest law world I will ultimately land. But I do know that I am closer now than I once was, and, given a few months hindsight, I can more clearly see that “figuring it out” is precisely what law school summers are for––for determining not only what you are passionate about, but, perhaps more importantly, what type of work you will be happy doing on a daily basis, for many decades. Finding a satisfying balance between the big picture and the smaller one is an ongoing struggle, perhaps even lifelong. But I believe it is also a necessary one, and, ultimately, brave. (I will try to remind myself of this the next time I furrow my brow and wring my hands and ask myself where do I go from here and what do I really want to be doing with this one lovely life? Because those questions will undoubtedly come––and I will be better off for asking them.)


Rachel Ellen Simon is a second-year law student from Lexington, KY. She holds a B.A. in Theater Arts from Carleton College (Northfield, MN), and an M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University (Boone, NC). Rachel has previously worked as a professional stage actress, darkroom photographer, bartender, and freelance journalist. She enjoys eating cheese and reading Virginia Woolf novels to her cat, Virginia Woolf.