Visiting Law Schools
in Washington DC

DC has become one of my favorite cities in which to play tourist ever since my local clients showed me where to play. Most of the fun things are available by public transportation, and there's more to do than the average tourist can cover. Museum exhibits change constantly, and in 30 years of visiting the city I have always found something new that I wanted to see.

DC Law School The city itself can be very confusing. Once upon a time it was shaped like a diamond, or more precisely, like a square on a diagonal. It was precisely 10 miles on each side. The land that formed this diamond was ceded by the surrounding states, Maryland and Virginia. The city was divided into four quadrants (imagine an old-fashioned kite with its crossing wooden sticks) with the Capitol building in dead center. The streets in each quadrant were mirror images of each other: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd streets proceeded both east and west from the capital, while avenues A, B, and C marched both north and south. This created four different corners of, for instance, 7th and G, which were designated NE, SE, NW and SW.

After some initial confusion (and setting aside for a moment diagonal streets and circles), one could adapt to the nomenclature fairly quickly. However, for no sane reason, the northern point of the diamond is not 1st St., but 16th St. NW.

With Secession, Virginia revoked its grant of land, leaving Washington, DC as a perfect square on two sides, but with a curving natural boundary formed by the Potomac River on the other two sides. Virtually all of the South West quadrant, and a bit of the North West as well, disappeared, never to return. Without a Southwest to mirror the Northwest or Southeast, the nomenclature and layout are no longer intuitive. In addition, virtually all of the government buildings and national monuments exist in the northwest quadrant, so the entire east of the city is routinely ignored functionally, and this left an almost-quarter of the city as the seat of government.

Five of DC's Law schools -- Georgetown, George Washington, American, Howard and UDC -- are in this northwest quadrant, while Catholic is in the northeast. George Mason is not actually in DC; it's in nearby Fairfax Virginia.



Georgetown comes first no matter how I prioritize: it's the best-regarded, it's the most attractive, and it's closest to the excitement of the government and tourist attractions. Built in the early to mid 90s, the law buildings are separate from Georgetown's main campus; from the law dorm's rooftop lounge, the Capitol building dominates the view to the south. The view to the east however consists of railroad yards; the proximity to Union Station has its disadvantages.

There's no one thing that makes Georgetown's architecture stand out; it's more a matter of judicious use of wood, space, and light. The dormitory, which is across the street from the classroom and library buildings, is seen by some as a real plus, and by others as a minus. Proximity to school can be great when you've overslept the alarm, but can be a nightmare during finals week.

George Washington

and GW George Washington (known as "GW" to most of the east coast) is at the other end of the National Mall; Georgetown lies just beyond the Washington Monument, and GW is a stone's throw past the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall.  Years ago I decided that the fates did not want me to see GW's law school; every time I tried to visit, I was faced with lightning, hail, and other signs that I had best to stay in my hotel room.  Word has it however that the building has been recently renovated, and competes well with other law schools of its reputation.  

The campus at large suffers by comparison to Georgetown's; expansion during the 1970s to accommodate the first wave of Baby Boomers resulted in an excess of unadorned buildings.

Georgetown may have access to the courts and Union Station, but GW claims both DuPont Circle and Adams-Morgan as its backyard. I know that I'm overstating it a bit to give GW possession of these great neighborhoods; DuPont Circle is only a hop, skip, and a jump from Georgetown -- but it's only a hop from GW.  These two neighborhoods epitomize all that is funky, trendy, and internationally eclectic. They are in many ways the best of urban counterculture. Parking is scarce, of course, but the streets are cleaner, the flower boxes are better-kept, and late-night walks are safer than in comparable neighborhoods in Philly or New York. GW


American U American University is enough further north that it's associated more with the zoo and with Krupin's Deli on Wisconsin Avenue than with the Government Center. The law school was converted from an office building in the early 1990s, and was an excellent facility at the time. I haven't visited it recently, but according to the school's web page, the building is the same one that I visited, although now equipped with a wireless network.

American University is one of the few schools that has a noteworthy programmatic interest. Having been founded by two women, the school's commitment to both educating women and furthering women's legal rights has always been part of their mission.

Traveling east from American one encounters UDC, Howard, and Catholic.

UDC, like American, is in a converted office building, and feels less like an institution of higher education. I visited Howard during a period of major renovation, and saw more of exposed wiring and drop ceilings that had been removed than I did of classrooms and other student-related facilities. The library that I saw was in dire need of renovation. However, the University has gone one step further and built a whole new facility.

The most important thing to know about Catholic University is that it is indeed Catholic. There are crucifixes in the classrooms, in the cafeteria, even in the moot court room. The architecture, with its liberal use of stone walls and the slate floors, felt like a place St. Thomas More would have found comfortable. If you're choosing this school because it's Catholic, you'll be very happy with what you find. If you're completely oblivious to religious icons you may not mind at all. But if displays of religious symbolism make you uncomfortable at all, this is decidedly not the school for you.

Catholic U

Once you've adjusted to the ubiquitous crucifixes, the law school facilities are very nice. There is sufficient space and light throughout the building, perhaps a result of being in the less expensive eastern half of the city. The negative aspect of this location is the difficulty in finding affordable and the safe housing. This is not DuPont Circle, and you will want to shop carefully for a good place to live.  

George Mason Law school is located less than a mile from Arlington national Cemetery, and only a few miles from the northwest portion of Washington, DC. The main campus is located elsewhere, so, as with Georgetown, you will have to either travel far for facilities like student health, or make do on your own. I haven't seen the "new" facility that was built in 1999, so I won't be able to report on this building for you.  


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