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Aug 08

Stanford: The First Week

I had planned to meet with three other grad law students upon arrival at San Francisco Airport – Jesse, Daryl and Vincent (a Kiwi, a Singaporean and a German respectively). I arrived at about 1pm, but Daryl’s flight was delayed and Vincent’s flight had been cancelled. So Jesse, Daryl and I shared a shuttle heading for Stanford with an American family, the parents of which we discovered were both Stanford alumni and were overflowing with praise for the university. Eventually, we made it onto Stanford’s sprawling campus some hours later, entering by the much-postcarded Palm Drive.

Stanford’s campus is without doubt beautiful, but almost completely impractical. I was told that the campus was the second largest in the world. Although I have my doubts about the veracity of that claim, there is no doubt that the campus is huge. It would not be overstating things to say it is at least 6 times larger than UNSW’s Kensington campus. The academic core of the campus is made up of a variety of single storey and low-rise buildings, based on a hodgepodge of early 1900s architecture. Scattered around these are an array of student residential buildings, including my home precinct of Escondido Village which is entirely populated by a variety of graduate students (walking through the area is somewhat reminiscent of walking through a retirement village). There is no apparent logic to the arrangement of buildings and bewildered new visitors are often found wandering around the grounds with a map in hand. I know I still am.

Getting around campus on foot can be punishing. Even staying on campus, it takes 15 minutes to walk to the law school, and I am living relatively close to it. Back in Sydney, I was staying off campus and I could get up to the law school in 12. Consequently, many students use a bike to get around and bike racks are happily ubiquitous. But ultimately, Stanford and the surrounding suburbs (Palo Alto, Mountain View, etc) are made for cars. In fact, the whole of California is made for cars. One of the biggest problems with Stanford is that there are no supermarkets or national bank branches on campus! It’s currently summer holidays and there is no public transport to the local Wal-mart or Safeway. And even if you get there somehow, there’s the problem of carrying things back home – when you’re moving in, there’s a lot of stuff you need to buy.

Fortunately for me, my flatmate has a car and he graciously drove me (and three other law buddies) to Wal-mart for our first shopping run. The car was loaded to the brim and it was with a great deal of humor that we squeezed everything into the trunk, under the seats, and on top of laps. The car was virtually dragging on its mudguards as it chugged out of the carpark. My flatmate is a really nice guy. He’s a Californian doing a PhD in applied physics (researching something along the lines of manufacturing a laser capable of reading/writing discs with the potential to store 400 gigs of data).

Stanford does provide a free shuttle service called the Marguerite which has stops around campus and also in surrounding areas such as Palo Alto. Unfortunately, my experience with it has led me to believe that it is notoriously unreliable. The whole system is partially broken and I could think of many things that could make it better – such as marking shuttle stops clearer, marking shuttle stops with directions/arrows, keeping timetables posted at the stops up to date (especially as the buses operate on a different schedule during summer), overlaying the shuttle route maps on the main campus map and most of all, making sure that routes are contiguous. We were trying to get back from the Bank of America, only to find that the bus terminated mid-route and we had to switch buses. So we switched buses and were on our way again. Only to have that bus terminate. Then we had to wait 10 minutes for the next bus to come along. This did not happen to us only once.

The weather has been decent, although not what I expected. It’s the tail end of summer and daytime highs reach the low 20s. Mornings are cold and I need to wear a jumper in the evening. Still, it’s been sunny and from what I hear, it doesn’t rain.

Yvonne graciously took me out to dinner at the main Google campus and gave me a tour of it a few nights ago. The place is insane (in a mindbendingly good way)! It was everything I’d read about and more. The best way for me to describe it is that it has such a vibrant university atmosphere – so much so you don’t feel like it’s a workplace. Visitors commonly wonder how any work gets done. Arriving there at 6.30pm, I found people playing beach volleyball, people swimming in swimming pool “treadmills” (complete with lifeguards), dogs cavorting on the lawns and a continuing bustle of Googlers in totally casual attire. Controlled chaos is an apt descriptor of the work environment inside. The whole deal might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to me it is a dream. And I mean, how many people can say, “Let me take you out to dinner at my workplace,” and actually make that sound like a really attractive proposition?

Today was the first orientation day for us new LLM and JSM students. A really diverse crowd of law students – we have people from Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Kenya, Japan, China, Singapore, Thailand and New Zealand (and me from Australia). Lots of people from Japan and China actually (they comprise maybe 25% of the total intake). I was surprised that there wasn’t UK representation, but then I found out that our resident Thai went to high school there and studied at LSE. Everyone seems pretty nice and down-to-earth, which is terrific. Not too many cultural differences at this stage, apart from some differences in types of humour (a joke not understood and not explained can be counterproductive!) and Jesse having to readjust the pronunication of his name (with the Great Kiwi Vowel Shift, he normally says “Juss-ee” which is then interpreted as “J.C.”).

Class starts on Monday and part of the assigned reading is the famous Hawkins v. McGee (the “hairy hand” case), which is basically the American equivalent of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company (the “carbolic smoke ball” case), although the former is about contractual damages and the latter about offer and acceptance. Hawkins appears to be used as the first case that law students are exposed to in the US. However, as our lecturer has insisted on us calling her “Muffie” (her real name is Beth), I doubt my first day will be a Professor Kingsfield-ian experience as depicted in the Paper Chase:

“Mr Hart. Could you recite the facts of Hawkins versus McGee?”

Incidentally, there is a library here, the Green Library, which has 14000 DVDs for overnight hire (including blockbusters, indie flicks, foreign films, etc). I need to rent the Paper Chase since I haven’t actually since the whole movie…

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