Commencement Address by Dean Chemerinsky
May 16, 2010
Graduates of the class of 2010, congratulations! Today is a day for you and your loved ones to celebrate the tremendous accomplishment of your graduation from DePaul College of Law. Today is likely an end to decades of formal schooling. Today, you begin your professional career as lawyers. Today, you have graduated from one of the finest and most demanding law schools in the country.
This is not simply the hyperbole of a commencement speaker. Like many of you, I spent three years at DePaul Law School. Mine came, not as a student here, but as a young professor.
There was a best-selling book a few years ago, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. I wanted to talk with you for a few minutes about how almost everything I needed to know for my career, I learned at DePaul Law School. I thought that I’d take a few minutes to tell you about my experiences here and hope that perhaps some of the things that I learned might be useful to you.
After graduating from law school, I initially worked as a trial attorney at the United States Department of Justice and then at a small public interest law office. My wife was a law student at Georgetown Law School. In March 1980, I was at Georgetown waiting for her one day and reading the bulletin boards. On one was a two-year-old letter from the dean of DePaul Law School, Richard Groll, encouraging LL.M. students to apply for teaching positions.
My wife and I were both from Chicago and thought of moving back after her graduation from law school. I always had thought that someday I would like to teach and though I wasn’t an LL.M. student and the letter was two years old, I wrote to Dean Groll. Almost immediately, Jim Colliton, the Associate Dean, called me and explained that Dean Groll had died. Dean Colliton explained that DePaul had completed its hiring for the following fall, but that if ever I was going to be in Chicago, he’d be glad to have lunch. I said that by coincidence I would be in Chicago the following week to be with my family for the Passover holiday and we arranged to have lunch.
Dean Colliton, who passed away last year, took me to a delightful lunch and explained to me the process of going on the market to become a law professor. He gave me a tour of the school, introduced me to a few faculty, and said that he’d be in touch the following year. To my surprise, a week later he called and said that a professor, Maggie Livingston, was going to be on leave and since they were moving Constitutional Law to the first year, they needed a teacher in my area. I was invited to interview and I was offered a position.
I began teaching here in August 1980. I remember going home after my first day of classes and telling my wife that I had found the job that I wanted to have for the rest of my life. Teaching a law school class was exhilarating, even thrilling, from the first moment, and it has remained that way for me to this day.
I found DePaul a wonderful place to teach. I had great students and terrific colleagues. I had outstanding mentors, especially in Jeff Shaman and Stephen Siegel. They were incredibly patient with me and made me feel that I could ask any question, no matter how basic. I took frequent advantage of that. They offered invaluable advice as I began to write law review articles and they carefully read my drafts and provided detailed comments. They created a warm community that made my wife and me feel welcome and surrounded by caring friends.
At the beginning of my third year at DePaul, in the fall of 1982, I was diagnosed with cancer. It happened suddenly; on a Thursday, I was in the doctor’s office complaining of a swelling and on Monday, I was in the hospital having surgery. During the week I was home recovering from the surgery, each day a different member of the faculty dropped by to bring me lunch and to keep me company.
It was a frightening and difficult time. I was teaching three classes that semester and for three months went in the middle of each afternoon to Evanston Hospital for a treatment that made me feel terribly ill. Yet, I was determined to not miss a class and I didn’t. In hindsight, I realize I wanted to keep control over what I could while faced with a disease I could not control.
But it was also still a happy time. A week to the day after my cancer surgery, my wife learned that she was pregnant with our first child. During that same semester, I became involved in wonderful pro bono projects. Together with Jeff Shaman and a lawyer at the ACLU, Susan Bandes, I helped to draft a Freedom of Information Act for Illinois. Jeff and I went to Springfield to lobby for it. I learned that the unflappable Professor Shaman has a deep fear of flying on small planes. Ultimately, the act was passed and remains the law today. I also became very involved in the first mayoral campaign of Harold Washington and served for a time as his debate manager.
In November of that year, to my surprise, I began to receive inquiries from other law schools about whether I was interested in leaving DePaul. One of them was the University of Southern California. Although I grew up in Chicago, I always have hated cold weather. I used to watch the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day with my father and seeing the 80-degree temperatures, say that I wanted to live there some day. DePaul was wonderful, but it could not compete with the California sunshine. In the summer of 1983, we moved with a 6-week-old baby to Los Angeles.
As I look back on these very special, even magical years at DePaul, I realize that I learned so many lessons that have guided me for the decades since. One lesson is about the importance of being open to new opportunities. Perhaps you sit here today with a plan for the next several years of your life, maybe even for longer. Maybe it will turn out that way. But there will be opportunities that you cannot imagine now and my experience convinces me of the need to be willing to take the new and unexpected path. I never could have imagined becoming a law professor a few years out of law school or moving to California a few years after that, but I am so glad that I did.
I also learned the importance of having great mentors. The reality is that no matter how good the law school, we all need additional training when we begin our professional careers. I know that all I have accomplished, or will accomplish, was because of having people like Jeff Shaman and Stephen Siegel to advise and guide me.
Another of the most important lessons I learned was how crucial it is to have work that I love. I hope that you will find happiness – indeed find joy – in the practice of law. For me, the hardest part of being a law professor is hearing from former students that they are unhappy in their careers as lawyers. I am in touch with many students that I have taught since I began as a law professor here in 1980. Many are enormously happy in their careers. Their experience reassures me that it truly is possible to find great pleasure in being a lawyer.
But some are terribly unhappy. National studies confirm that many lawyers are not happy. A University of Chicago study, entitled “Job Satisfaction in the United States,” found that being an attorney is the second most prestigious profession in the United States, but that lawyers are not in the top 12 professions in terms of satisfaction and happiness.
This would be a strange message for a law school graduation except for the fact that in every study a majority of lawyers do express happiness and satisfaction with their careers. I have absolutely no doubt that you can find joy in being a lawyer. But it may not come in your first job or even your second. The reality of the hiring process is that of all the possible positions that lawyers can hold, only a narrow range hire right out of law school. Countless positions – being an in-house counsel, being a federal prosecutor, holding many positions in federal, state, or local governments, working in many small law firms, being a law professor – require some experience.
If you are not happy with your job, change, and if needed, change again. A study by the National Association of Law Placement Directors found that over 33 percent of law school graduates will change jobs before their third year of practice. There is so much you can do with your law degree, there is no need to settle for less than a very high level of happiness and satisfaction in your professional career. I wish for each of you that you should find a job you love. We all spend too much of our lives at work – and you have worked too hard to get here – to settle for anything less. I also learned at DePaul the joys, and at times the frustrations, of doing pro bono work. We always hear when there is an injustice that someone should do something about it. Now, with your law degree, you are that someone.
As lawyers, you will have the chance for tremendous power: to take away lives and to save them; to protect freedom and to compromise it; to protect our environment or aid in defiling it, to help companies do good things and to help them do bad things. DePaul law school has done such a good job of teaching you to think and to contemplate, but most of all today, I want to remind you to care – to care about the consequences and effects of what you do on people and on society.
No matter what field of law you go into, you can devote some of your time to helping individuals and causes who lack the resources to afford representation. No matter what field of law you go into, you can work to make people’s lives and your community better. I know how easy it is to make excuses for not doing so. But I also know that we make time for what matters to us. And the model of so many others shows that no matter what field of law you go into, you can find the time if you want to really make a difference.
Finally, I learned what a dear friend, who I met through a DePaul colleague, called the “Pothole Theory of Life.” All of us, as we travel the roads of our lives, will hit potholes. There often is no way to know when they will come or how deep they will be. Mine, while at DePaul, was the cancer I suffered. My friend who coined this phrase was diagnosed with cancer at almost the same time, was then cancer free for 14 years before it returned and he succumbed at age 47.
The point of the pothole theory is to constantly remember the fragility of our lives, how they could change in an instant. It is to enjoy, indeed cherish the time between those potholes. It is to truly enjoy and celebrate moments like this one.
There is a wonderful scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where a group that has shared an intense experience is about to go its separate ways. One of the group stands on a table and says, “In the years ahead, whether we find success or fall into misfortune, still let us remember how good once it was when we are all together, united by a good and kind feeling that made us perhaps better than we really are.”
If law school made you better – more knowledgeable, better at thinking, more aware of injustice, more caring – then you have accomplished all you could in the time that you have had here. Then now is truly time for commencement, a time to celebrate the completion of this chapter in your life and the beginning of the next.