“Your personal guide to Vanderbilt Law School.”
by Jennifer Johnston
Devin Rourke ’14 remembers the day a large black box landed with a thump on her front porch in Austin, Texas. Among the contents of her long-anticipated acceptance package from Vanderbilt Law School: the Obiter Dictum, a nearly 150-page personal guide to law school life prepared by 1Ls at the end of their first year as a gift to the next class.
“I drove to my parents’ house and took the O.D. with me. We were using it to look up apartments and find out about life in Nashville. I realized right then that my mind was made up. I was going to Vanderbilt,” Rourke said.
Soon after starting her 1L year, Rourke was elected to the Ambassador board as vice president for admissions and became the O.D.’s next executive editor. She and an editorial staff of 14 members of the Class of 2014 are now finishing up production on the O.D. edition that applicants accepted into the Class of 2016 will receive this spring.
Begun by students in the 1980s—possibly earlier—as a way to provide useful information and advice to admitted students, the O.D., as it is affectionately known, is a Zagat guide to life at Vanderbilt Law School and in Nashville. Unassumingly presented as a spiral-bound notebook printed on standard copier paper, it offers comprehensive, practical advice about preparing for law school classes, coping with the Socratic method of teaching and taking law school exams, finding an apartment and roommates, the importance of taking some time away from law school (“Go to Bar Review!” one current student urges), a guide to local eateries and bars, and listings and reviews of local services ranging from veterinarians to laundry. “It’s a critical recruiting tool, and it’s become an important reflection of the law school’s culture,” said Ryan Willard, associate director of admissions and recruitment. “Some schools send out T-shirts or bumper stickers. We think this is much more helpful. For a lot of admitted students, the O.D. — beyond any other information they get from us or any other school— is the most telling thing about Vanderbilt’s culture. It shapes people’s interest in the school and gets them excited.”
The O.D. is definitely intended to be persuasive. Begun in the pre-Internet days (Willard cherishes an edition produced in the early 1980s using a typewriter), it continues as a vital information resource that each incoming class of students revises and updates for a future incoming class. The fact that it also happens to be a fun read—well-written, pithy in places, and updated every year—only enhances its value as a recruiting tool. “It’s really cool to show students who have never been to Vanderbilt or Nashville what it’s going to be like to be here before they actually come,” Rourke said.
Willard notes that the O.D. plays a particularly valuable role in dispelling outdated perceptions of Nashville, thanks to its detailed descriptions of the realities of life in Nashville and at Vanderbilt. “We’re sending the O.D. to admitted students all over the U.S. and in foreign countries,” he said. “Some know nothing at all about Nashville; what others know about Nashville may be wrong. That’s one reason the O.D. so helpful to us. Instead of me telling admitted students what life here is like, they read descriptions written by students who also share their thoughts on the school. That has instant credibility.”
Todd Morton was pleasantly surprised to discover the Obiter Dictum when he joined Vanderbilt as dean of admissions in 2005. “The longstanding tradition of current students investing their time and energy to produce a publication designed to recruit new students and ease their transition to law school makes an incredibly powerful statement about Vanderbilt’s culture,” he said. “It comes straight from the heart, and reveals some truly extraordinary people at a very special place in American legal education.”
Morton’s belief that the O.D. had a strong positive impact on admitted students’ decisions to choose Vanderbilt was confirmed by the results of a recent survey.
“Vanderbilt’s admission package was far better than anything I got from any other school,” one student wrote. “The Obiter Dictum in particular made me feel like I had a true understanding for the school, city and student body that I was about to join.” A second student commented that receiving the O.D. “immediately made me feel part of the community.” A third, a student who “had never been to Nashville and needed to consider a big move to make Vanderbilt a reality” not only appreciated the “great information about life in Vanderbilt and in Nashville,” but added, “Such a thoughtfully assembled acceptance package was a great first impression from Vanderbilt.”
The sense of community the O.D. conveys definitely played out in reality for Rourke. “I wanted to go to a law school where I could make friends and have relationships beyond just networking with people and making professional contacts,” she said. “Law school is challenging, so it’s great to go to a school where I belong to a supportive community.”
Fortunately, editors such as Rourke don’t face the complicated task of updating and producing the reams of helpful information the O.D. contains alone. They assemble an editorial team of fellow students, who work on the O.D. over the summer. Section editors comb over the details, confirm listings, fact-check apartment rates, add new hangouts and delete obsolete ones. This year, they devised a new section on local food trucks.
However, producing the O.D. is a juggling act for every editor and the volunteer staff, which Rourke managed while working in the Vanderbilt Legal Clinic. Despite the challenges, new flourishes included a section on 10 things not to do at your first Bar Review, more quotes from current students offering practical insights and advice, and more humor. “We can do these kinds of things because we have so much information to start with, thanks to the work of previous editors,” she said.
Current favorite law school hangouts include downtown Nashville’s Paradise Park, known for cheap pitchers of beer, patty melts, outstanding corn dogs, great live bands, and a chance to mingle with tourists, bachelorette parties and the occasional real cowboy. Tin Roof, a less tourist-ridden bar that features live music, is another hot spot. “We usually own the back bar and dance floor,” the O.D. listing promises. A listing for the Red Rooster warns, “This bar is crawling with visiting SEC football fans on weekends in the fall.”
The sections on Nashville not only include calendars of annual arts and music festivals and events, but also good places to run and cycle. “It’s fun to share the things we’ve discovered and to show we have fun,” Rourke said. “Nashville’s a great town if you want a life outside of school.”
The O.D.’s success attracted the attention of students at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management, who have offered the O.D. staff a business opportunity to share their material. “Owen also has a stake in attracting the kinds of students who would enjoy the Nashville community and Vanderbilt,” Rourke said.
Rourke believes that one important advantage of the O.D. is that it offers prospective students a clear picture of the culture of the law school and life in Nashville, enabling them to determine if Vanderbilt is the right fit for them. “There are people who are going to be happy here and people who aren’t,” she said. “That’s the case for every school.”
To ensure she made the right decision when considering law school, Rourke returned to her hometown of Austin after graduating from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, to take a year off. “I wanted to make sure law was actually what I wanted to do for a career,” she recalled. She took the LSAT, submitted her law school applications, and waited. She worked as a pet groomer and in a shoe store that soon went bankrupt and began to long for days that were not filled with dirty dogs and smelly feet.
The O.D. she found inside her glossy admissions packet from Vanderbilt gave her a jump-start in finding a pet-friendly apartment within walking distance of Vanderbilt. She found a dry cleaner, a doctor, a vet and more. “I still pull mine out and use it,” she said.
The law school’s personal touches, like the O.D., were what set Vanderbilt apart when she was choosing a law school, according to Rourke. “Law school is not going to be easy and parts of it will stink,” she said. “But if you come to Vanderbilt, you’ll be with great people learning interesting stuff—and the rest is just details.”