15880714828_b4f517ed0d_oPhoto by JJ // Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Here’s what you need to take away from your Admitted Student Days: your only choice is to make a choice. They invited you to attend a place that’s waaay out of the box! In fact, it doesn’t fit in any box. Except, on occasion, in a lunch box, but more about that later. Mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind dwells only in a healthy body. That’s why you need at least a casual introduction to the world of educated esthetic and culinary choices you will soon be making, well before you start training your cerebellum in advanced choice theory and on doctrinal issues so intricate that they will only start to matter in appellate practice.

First, look around, take in a culture truly unlike most others.

At Columbia Law School, more than a few things work a little differently than they do at other schools to which you may have applied (and to which you may have been admitted as well). So, you are in dire need of a compass to arrive at something resembling rational decisions. There is a certain genius loci here, a spirit of the place, a je ne sais quoi to which you need to attune yourself, that comes from close daily interaction of contrasts, like exchanges between Harlem and Wall Street, and from romantic sightings between the squirrels of Central Park and the mermaids swimming up the Hudson River. It is an unapologetically pluralistic, multicultural, wildly multilingual place (one might observe more Chinese, African, Indian dialects spoken here than other schools have parking lots) that pays passionate homage to the individual and to its quirks – so long as they can be graded on a curve.

See, in 2014 this law school took a giant step in the style of Neil Armstrong: it created the Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, thereby ending decentralized uncritical thinking on campus once and for all. It bundled up disciples in a single fan club. They were not kidding: to show how serious they were about it, they hired a law professor straight out of GQ to run the place – at times in accent-free French. The same kind of slam dunk he performs on the basketball court. Rumor has it that he defected from either the Ford or the Wilhelmina agency, but both object to discovery since they have been losing fabulous-looking academic talent of all genders at a frightening pace to Columbia in recent years. Presumably, there will now be a parade of visiting scholars bumping into each other presenting rarefied notions of critical thought that are inaccessible to the Socratic method. Because – and you will face it soon enough – the Socratic method has seen better days.

Morningside Heights is no acolyte of the concept “not invented here.” In fact, Columbia innovations are ruthlessly copied later rather than sooner everywhere else. Nobody seems surprised that we are already on our second female dean and that Barbara Black was appointed 17 years before Elena Kagan (she also may have gotten better 1L grades). Stanford became aware of  female leadership potential only in 1999 (their alumni at Kleiner Perkins have absolutely no clue about it to this day, because they probably all graduated before 1999 and didn’t get the memo). In New Haven, such seismic events seem a long way off yet.

This is also the venue where nationally distinguished jurists have been known to show up with a straight face for lectures in tailored pajamas – to much critical acclaim. For a good cause – or to distract females before cold-calling on them. Which is also a good cause. Are you starting to get this feeling of inherent curiosity? It caters to all senses here. In keeping with the reputation of New York City, this law school is an equal opportunity seducer, committed to affirmative action to break down anything that stands between you and being a true connoisseur (or connaisseuse) of what life has to offer. To become that, you will need to sharpen your critical thought capabilities pretty much every step of the way. Especially if you are a foodie en route to sophistication, you will quickly grasp what I mean.

The Axiom of Choice

Some say Columbia Law School is all about individual choices, not individual mandates. It is true: we have long practiced our own version of Affordable Care here, its affordability is unbeatable, and you don’t have to be sick to qualify. Ask anyone who took a class with John Wayne: difficult choices made under great uncertainty have a way of coming due at high noon. More specifically, they come due at lunch.

Lunch diversity is a sacred ritual in all of New York, of course, but nowhere more so than on Amsterdam and 116th. It’s free. I know you heard Milton Friedman say that there is no free lunch, but people who say such things never got admitted here. That’s just Chicago talk. Sour grapes. At Columbia, we are progressive, in this respect at least, and lunch is free – although not much else is.

Ah, but true sophistication shows in the detail: the kabuki dance of deciding where and with whom to spend your lunch break plays out almost every day until you graduate.  You may not be so glad you did: after graduation, the Friedman rule kicks in again – no more free lunch.

You need to know that, at Columbia, lunch is a lot like coffee-shop internet or like antediluvian non-cable TV – it’s nominally free, but we all know how subliminal advertising works. Sneaky stuff. Still, when you consider three years’ worth of free lunches, your nightmarish tuition bill suddenly starts looking like a steal, at least relative to the interviewing skills you will hone so proficiently between those curiosity-driven meals at law firm events.

Gratuitous mid-day nourishment comes in three classic forms, our versions of the Silver, Gold and Platinum Care Plan:

The Pizza Lunch

This is our most pedestrian category, the ‘you-are-taken-for-granted’ bow to the notion of nominally feeding you. It is served at events you will find difficult to avoid in the first place, or where nobody much cares if you show up at all – in short, on occasions where no one wants to invest seriously in filling the room. Columbians are a discerning breed. Pizza is seldom thin or fresh. Gluten-free or kosher versions are still in beta testing. Attend at your own palate’s risk.

The Non-Pizza Lunch

The quintessential Columbia fare. It shows respect for target audiences – that is, you. Admittedly, it typically consists of sandwiches or, on a rare occasion, lunch boxes, but what the heck, at least it isn’t pizza. Some of it can be worth looking forward to, and it does up the temperature (and the attendance) by a few degrees right away. Expecting an audience in earnest without clearly and unmistakably advertising non-pizza lunch requires either a bona fide celebrity, legal or otherwise, or a message directly relevant to one’s career or well-being. We will see shortly why.

The Gourmet Lunch

Here we are entering a rarefied stratum of advanced taste bud yoga. Therefore the presumption of innocence correlates inversely with the Michelin stars. For gourmet lunch to taste remotely palatable, it takes a real chef, real quality materials, freshness—hence expense. So much is certain: your attendance is worth legal tender to someone, so the event is seldom purely philanthropic. Tread with caution. Either no one in their right mind could be expected to attend without that irresistible incentive, or the sponsor is sending the same message (only cheaper) as is given by flying people to an interview first class. Even firms grossing in the billions try to avoid the appearance of completely irrational exuberance, with some legitimate exceptions during recruitment season. You may conclude that Friedman had a point, after all. And, by all means, have that Beluga while it’s chilled!

Lunch, a competitive event

Like clicks on a link, attendance at lunches is the gold standard of connecting with you. The organizers are, of course, well aware why you are here, but their clients or sponsors may not be. So why conjecture? While you seem to be voting with your feet, in reality your inner Zagat casts the ballot.

Your average school day may well confront you with a troubling choice between a half dozen lunch events. Often more than two are actually compelling, while others are just lunch. ‘Split lunches’ are not done. And it is often annoying that your first choice excludes not just your access to a second helping elsewhere, but precludes you also from the substantive content of another event. Damn those opportunity costs. One of the system’s most glaring omissions is not to tape and upload contemporaneous events on the internet so you could view more than just your first choice. I guess outside sponsors’ insecure egos stand in the way of measuring the success of their efforts by internet standards– they want to see you present in the flesh and munching between doing your email and drifting off to Facebook, not just get the statistics of your clicks after hours, which would seem to be a much more honest show of interest, answering beyond reasonable doubt whether you were glued to the speaker’s lips or whether that roti roll was glued to yours. Student organizations often experience what we charitably call budgetary restraints, so their speakers and events get some slack. But, hey, they all want you present, period, even if it costs them a lunch box. You might guess it’s a weird form of flattery – but we can’t be sure who’s to be flattered.

Columbia – radically pro-choice? Unfortunately, not so fast – that’s somewhat of a myth.

I mentioned earlier that CLS is all about individual choices. Now that you caught the spirit of the place a bit, we need to parse this overbroad statement just a little.

Since 1754, Columbia has been languishing without wine pairings to accompany free pizza lunches, non-pizza lunches and gourmet lunches. Generations of deans neglected to claim their mantle of immortality by creating a suitable remedy. It’s cruel and unusual to send freshly minted JDs into a world of clients with expense accounts who may rely on them for billable advice, without providing them with so much as the fundamentals of a sommelier.

Sure, the rocks of Morningside Heights are not towering over Napa Valley, but can a menu sans Parker points still pass for sound educational policy? Concerned about precedent? Think wedding at Cana where Jesus Christ is said to have provided unlimited supply of exquisite vintages – free. So, if this business model was figured out 2000 years ago, it can’t be all bad. There is solid controlling authority: you can source-cite me at John 2:1-11. All eyes are now fixated firmly on our cool new dean in hopes that she might remedy this oversight by a stroke of her stylish and yet mighty pen. Yes, dear, the very same that signs your sheepskin.