Killer Show: BU Law Alum John Barylick on the Station Nightclub Fire

On November 30th, BU Law alum and professor John Barylick gave a presentation about the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island. Barylick’s firm co-lead the plaintiff team that represented all the victims in the civil litigation. The talk was fascinating and a remarkable representation of the power of well-conducted research and dedication to finding justice after a tragedy. For those who may be unfamiliar, the Station Nightclub fire took place in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003. The club was hosting a rock band that set off pyrotechnics during the show. The pyrotechnics lit the foam on the walls of the club that was being used as acoustic padding to absorb the noise. The whole club lit up like a tinder box, and any patrons who were not evacuated within 90 seconds from the fire starting were trapped and killed. The fire killed 100 people and left over 180 grievously injured. The padding on the walls is now often referenced as “solid gasoline.”

Barylick’s team was facing a difficult task as the three main culprits of the fire, the two nightclub owners and the band manager, were insolvent. Not only that, but many believed the criminal proceedings let them all off a bit too easily. With a tragedy so large and victims with lifelong pain and suffering, finding justice in the form of monetary compensation was the only route left. This was especially relevant for the victims who were still alive and would be grappling with exorbitant medical bills and daily pain for the rest of their lives.

The team conducted masterful detective work to trace back all of the conditions that contributed to this perfect storm of a disaster. They discovered the fire marshal’s questionable increase of the club’s capacity limit and his failure to cite the yards and yards of foam padding on the wall. They used what was left of the foam (with the help of a performer who discovered pieces of the foam in his guitar case) to determine the manufacturers and used the manufacturer’s own advertisements to prove that using the foam as acoustic padding on walls was foreseeable and perhaps encouraged. They used the videos from the news reporter who was there filming stock footage (brought in by the club owners) to not only recreate the final moments of the club but also indicate that the camera man likely impeded the patrons’ ability to exit the club quickly. They used fire protection engineers to conduct tests on the foam padding in order to exhibit just how deadly and dangerous the club was. And perhaps most chillingly was the audio footage they recovered from the body of one of the victims, whose hobby was to make bootleg cassette tapes of rock shows. All of these pieces and more helped recreate the conditions and mistakes that led to this tragedy. Most importantly, they helped reveal who was at fault for contributing to this tragedy.

After determining who could be held liable, Barlyick’s team faced two more difficult tasks. The first was getting all the victims to agree to a settlement system. The next was either securing settlement or taking to trial those who were at fault. For the first task the team enlisted expert help in the form of Duke University law professor Francis E. McGovern, who worked out a system of distributing the funds that were secured. They then had to get each victim and each victim’s family to agree to the system-before any money was even acquired. The decision had to be unanimous among all victims and their representatives, which totaled over 300 people. After getting everyone to agree, the team went into settlement talks with each company or representative who they believed were at fault. Defendants ranged from the State of Rhode Island to the media conglomerate parent company of the news reporter’s local station. The settlement talks and the detective work paid off, as every defendant settled and not one case went trial. In the end, Barylick’s team secured over $176 million for the victims.

Barylick’s talk was fascinating because it perfectly exemplified how tort litigation is conducted in real life. It showed how much time and effort is needed to explore every single avenue of possibility to create the fullest and most complete picture of what happened. It showed the interdisciplinary nature of law and how fields of engineering, science, forensics, technology, sociology, and more can play very important roles in a case. The most striking aspect of the talk was how gracefully Barylick and his team handled this tragedy in regards to respecting the victims and their families. Not once during the talk did one forget the human element of this case and how devastating of a disaster this was.

This talk resonated with me, as my boyfriend is a fire protection engineer and comes from a long line of fire chiefs and marshals. It was an interesting way to see both of our worlds intersecting in such a remarkable manner. It also taught me the importance of paying attention: paying attention to one’s environment, paying attention to the role one plays in their job, paying attention to the duty one has to ensure safety in whatever capacity they can. It was easy to see how Barylick poured every ounce of energy he had into this trial and how tirelessly the team worked to secure justice. They had to think outside of the box and go from lawyers to detectives to fire protection engineers- and more. This sets an example for the type of lawyer I hope to be in the future, in whatever field I end up in. I hope to be as dedicated as Barylick and his team in the pursuit of justice.

Barylick has published a book about the fire, titled Killer Show. It is available for purchase, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in law, science, or the way our justice system works after complicated mass tort tragedies. It is well written, comprehensive, and humbling.

The Books I Read Before Law School

Since I am an avid reader, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the summer before law school started to read as much as I could for pleasure – and I threw in a few law-school related books for good measure to help get into the headspace for what was to come. One thing I will say is this, though: while reading is a great way to get a taste of the structure of law school and the legal profession, keep in mind that the actual experience of law school itself will likely vary from what you will find in books. Here are some thoughts on the four books that I read before starting at BU.

  1. 24 Hours with 24 Lawyers by Jasper Kim: I loved the concept of this book because it was broken down into 24 chapters that followed the day-to-day lives and schedules of lawyers who worked in every possible niche within the legal field. I found it helpful in the sense that it gave me a glimpse not only into the true daily work of lawyers, but also because I learned of areas within the legal profession that I otherwise would not have even known existed. Mostly, I found the book to be helpful because it made the realities of the profession more clear to me, as it is all too easy to blindly believe you know what actual lawyers do from their portrayal in the media or elsewhere.
  2. Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About American Law by Jay M. Feinman: I found this book to be the perfect resource as someone who had limited exposure to the different classes I would be taking as a 1L. Each chapter is focused on a class that a typical law student will take their first year, and even though it was dense at times, I was very happy to have read it. I would even recommend this book to those who are unsure if they should pursue law school, just to get an idea of what is to come. Needless to say, I will definitely be turning back to its pages and glancing over the chapters focused on my spring semester courses come January.
  3. The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking About the Law by Ward Farnsworth: I bought this book and only when I was about halfway through did I discover that the author actually taught here at BU for about 15 years (and served as associate dean for academic affairs) before becoming the dean at Texas Law. This was probably my favorite book out of the four that I read this past summer. I found the writing style to be very accessible, and it was very comprehensive. Overall, I felt that I learned valuable information, and again, this will likely be a resource I return to in the future.
  4. Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams by Jeremy R. Paul and Richard Michael Fischl: I read this book in August and had the hopes of reading it over again before finals in December, but at that point in time I was very, very naive as to the amount of time I would have to do this (spoiler alert: none). Regardless, I found this book to be interesting and helpful, even though at the time I read it, much of what the authors wrote of was not yet applicable. This was the first book I have ever read about taking exams, but from what I had heard about law school finals, I thought it was important to at least get an inkling of what was to come, and what strategies would be helpful. I’m making a point to skim it over again before May, now that I have one semester under my belt.

Thanks for reading!

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Whether you’re a 3L in your second to last semester ever or a 1L just trying to live through your first semester ever, some things never change. Sure, 3Ls probably have much less to stress about and definitely know the ropes of a law school final exam by now. And yes, 1Ls are not yet jaded by the dreaded curve and still put in a whole-hearted 310% effort into every exam. But, no matter where you are in your law school career, you can’t help but notice the same thing: the ever present feeling of trying to keep up with the joneses.

I never realized the accuracy of that timeless classic phrase until I got to law school and really saw it played out first hand. The law school edition of keeping up with Joneses is that feeling you get when one friend says they studied for 10 hours that day and you tell yourself you’re going to shoot for 10 or 11 hours tomorrow. Or when you’re at the printer and notice someone in your class printing 300 pages for their exam outline and you begin to question whether your measly 50 pages will even get you through the first question. And even when a friend leaves early from the library one night and you wonder if it’s because they know so much more than you and you should stay twice as long to catch up.

Growing up, I know I would occasionally compare myself to other people or notice things other people had that I didn’t. But never in my life did I ever think I would compare my studying habits to other people’s and feel the pressure to keep up with them. (Side note: law school will make you do a lot of things you once thought you would “never in my life” do). The law school atmosphere, though, is insanely competitive whether or not it tries to be. When you have that many successful, ambitious and intelligent people all taking the same classes, it’s impossible to not breed competition.

Even though competitiveness is something you just have to accept, killing yourself to keep up with those Joneses is not required and, for your own health, should really be avoided. Instead of sitting in the library by yourself in silence surrounded on every side by classmates furiously hunched over their outlines, grab a study room with friends in a different section or different classes. My favorite study habit is grabbing a room with people who are actually in my classes so we can sometimes take a break from studying to complain about studying. Whatever you do, nothing is better than knowing you’re not alone—whether its struggling to understand literally everything taught over the course of the semester or just complaining about literally every single thing that happened over the semester. Stop trying to keep up with Joneses…but maybe go over to the Joneses and ask them to share an outline or two.

Benefits of Having Had a Career Before Law School

Many people go straight from undergraduate studies to law school. For a person who has dreamed of being an attorney since a young age, this path makes sense: that person can start their dream career as soon as possible. Another benefit to going directly to law school is that you are still in study-mode and probably have relatively few other responsibilities and expenses. However, many people have careers prior to law school, and there are several benefits to that path as well. For example, I was a teaching for several years and got my master’s prior to coming to BU Law. Several skills I learned in teaching have been useful to me at law school.

Having stood in front of 30+ people all day every day, I feel very comfortable speaking in public. During 1L year Legal Writing, we had to make oral arguments in front of our class and the TAs, and I felt completely comfortable doing so… which allowed me to focus more on the argument itself than the actual speaking.

During 2L year, when I was involved in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, we had to counsel clients. Though the nature of the advice is different, I felt comfortable counseling a client one-on-one, because I had previously conducted many parent-teacher conferences in which I gave advice to parents. Also, in teaching, there is a huge emphasis on documenting everything – and the same is true in the legal field – so I am already accustomed to documentation and organization.

Also, just having been in the “real world” has given me a different perspective. I can relate a lot of what I read about to things I have experienced.   I have better time-management skills than I did in undergrad, and I know how to set limits in my life to create a work-life balance. I also feel like I have a better idea of what I’m interested in and passionate about, what kinds of work environments I thrive in, etc.

I don’t believe that either situation (going directly to law school or having a career first) is better. I simply think that there are benefits to both, and whichever one suits you best is the one that is right for you.

The Law School Stereotype

Everyone comes to law school wanting to be the perfect student. I’m willing to bet that in most peoples’ ideal world, they will get straight A’s, book their classes, and graduate top of their class with an awesome job lined up. Coming in blind, a lot of people have an idea of how that will all work out, too. There’s a law school stereotype floating around, an idea about the “right” way to go about it all, that many people get exposed to.

You know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’ve seen Legally Blonde, or watched a few episodes of How To Get Away With Murder, or maybe even just talked to someone who was in law school at the time. If that is your only exposure to what law school is like, you might walk away with a couple of preconceived notions. You might think study groups are practically mandatory, or that everyone is constantly out to get you on their way to the top of the curve. While certain aspects of that stereotype may turn out to be true for some people, but it’s important to recognize that for many, it just isn’t the way it works, and that’s okay!

Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and the strategies that work for each individual are equally likely to differ. When I first came to BU law, I remember I immediately formed a study group and we met multiple times to discuss readings and prepare for classes. After a while, I started to realize that it wasn’t working for me. At first, it seemed kind of odd to me. Isn’t that what law students do? Work in study groups?

As the semester went on, I began to realize that there isn’t really one formula to follow for law school, contrary to whatever popular thought was on the subject. Now, as a 2L finishing up my third semester, I realize how important it is to kick aside those notions, and even sometimes the things that my peers are doing, and to do what works best for me. What I have found is that my strategies for success vary wildly from some of those around me, and even personally from class to class. Some courses I rely on study groups to help me digest and understand the material. Other courses, I need to work on my own because I don’t find working with others particularly helpful. And to be perfectly honest, sometimes a study group that works great for one class doesn’t work at all when the subject matter is different.

It’s important to realize that at the end of the day, law school really doesn’t have a structured, rigid path to success, and we aren’t all just cookie cutter students. Everyone learns this idea eventually, but I definitely wouldn’t have mind coming to this realization earlier than I did. To any new law students or anyone thinking of attending law school soon, keep in mind that at the end of the day, you know what works best for you. Don’t be afraid to stray from the norm if it’s what keeps you comfortable and successful. Elle Woods did, and look where it got her.