Commencement Address by Dean Chemerinsky
May 16, 2009
Graduates of the class of 2009, congratulations! Today is a day for you and your loved ones to celebrate the tremendous accomplishment of your graduation from Berkeley Law. Today, you have graduated from one of the finest and most demanding law schools in the country. I know to a certainty that nowhere in the country could you have received a better legal education.
This is not simply the hyperbole of a commencement speaker. There really is no finer law faculty than at Berkeley Law. And there is no finer law school dean than Chris Edley. He has truly been my role model and my mentor as a dean. And I feel fortunate that we have imported some of Boalt to our new law school at UCI in my colleague Rachel Moran and Mary Kelleher-Jones and, of course, the wonderful Victoria Ortiz, who is here today to help you celebrate this great occasion.
I was deeply honored to have been asked to be the commencement speaker here today. But I confess that I struggled about what to say in this wonderful opportunity. I thought back to my own law school commencement 31 years ago and realized that not only do I not remember what was said; I don’t even remember who spoke. I know from 29 years of experience as a faculty member attending graduations that commencement addresses should be short and funny. And if they can be shorter by being less funny, that’s even better.
At the risk of being presumptuous, I thought that I would offer you three brief pieces of advice.
First, 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 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, and 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.
Pay attention to how you feel about work each day--don’t think you should like it because your job is prestigious or you’re paid well. Think about whether you do like it. 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. The large chapter of your life which is about your career should be filled with happiness and joy.
Second, keep, protect, and follow your moral compass. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how lawyers get in trouble. The answers are remarkably the same over and again.
Sometimes, in a desire to please a client, lawyers cross lines that should not be crossed. Lawyers are remarkably good at rationalizing and justifying their behavior. Why, after all, did brilliant lawyers--some of the best and the brightest of their generation--write memos justifying brutal torture? I do not believe that those who wrote those memos were evil people, but they justified evil actions and evil resulted. The end somehow came to justify the means and the means became abhorrent. I have to believe that they wrote these memos to please their powerful clients, including the President and Vice President of the United States, and then rationalized what they were doing. They did incalculable harm to the nation and its reputation.
In your jobs--whether in firms, or public interest, or government--there will be pressure to please your clients. I fear that the economic crisis will make this worse as law firms want desperately to keep their clients.
But there are simply lines that we must not cross as lawyers. The temptations may be great. We want to help our clients who made mistakes; we want to win; we want the recognition and rewards that will come from those victories. But my late colleague and dear friend Charlie Whitebread said it best, in addressing the temptations that can get a lawyer in trouble, “When that big green door slams shut, remember which side you want to be on.” There are times when you just need to say no, no to your clients, no to your supervisors, and no even to the most powerful in our society.
Sometimes lawyers get in trouble, too, by telling themselves that they’ll do it just this once. Just this once, they’ll hide a document or borrow from client funds. The first time they anguish over it and do it. The second time is easier and then it is their pattern until they get caught.
The adversary system, too, provides a convenient excuse for bad behavior. Far too many lawyers, and especially recent law school graduates, take this as an excuse to be unpleasant, even obnoxious, and to cross lines that should not be crossed.
They falsely tell themselves that they need to do this to prevail. After over 30 years as a lawyer, I can tell you that is nonsense and just a rationalization for bad behavior. Some of the very best and most successful lawyers I know are scrupulously ethical and bend over backwards to be collegial and pleasant to all they deal with.
In fact, I have seen over and over again that bad behavior is counterproductive. I once heard a federal court of appeals judge, Robert Henry, give a speech in which he asked an audience of lawyers what is the most important part of a legal brief. His answer, as a judge, was the lawyers’ names on the cover. If you have the reputation of being ethical and decent, you will get countless breaks. The reverse also is true. I have seen lawyers suffer greatly from judges who did not trust or respect them.
I think that the answer to all of this is to keep, protect, and follow your moral compass. For everything you do, ask how you will feel about it if it is on the front page of the newspaper. If you would be embarrassed, don’t do it. For everything you do, ask how your favorite professor or Dean Edley would assess your actions. If you would be embarrassed by their reactions, don’t do it. For everything you do, ask how you would have felt about it before going to law school. That is the moral compass you came here with, follow it.
Third and finally, make a difference. Over and again, we hear people say that there is a problem and someone should do something about it. As lawyers, you are the ones who can do something.
Imagine at the end of your career there will be a book that describes what you have done with your time as a lawyer. What do you want it to say?
I hope that for each of you, yours will be filled with stories of how you used your law degree to make people’s lives better and maybe even our society a bit better. At the very least, I hope that yours will be filled with stories of how you fought to do this.
The problem is that the profession that you are joining provides incentives for ignoring this and gives excuses for when lawyers make society worse. You are responsible for what will be written in the book of your career and how it will affect others. Everyone may have a right to a lawyer, but no one has the right to your time and energy.
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. Berkeley 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.
At the very least, you can make a difference in each other’s lives. The legal profession is suffering an unprecedented economic downturn. The blog, Above the Law reports that as of April 20, 2009, 4,316 lawyers and 6,343 staff in law firms had been laid off since January 1, 2008. What is our profession doing to help these individuals? Most of you have jobs, but some don’t. What are you doing to help each other? Shouldn’t our profession be creating a fund to help lawyers who have lost their jobs? Shouldn’t you as a class be creating a fund to help your classmates who are out of work? It is a simple, but important example of how you can make a difference in the lives of those around you.
There is a wonderful scene in Dostoevsky’s 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.