1L Dinner 2014 Keynote Address
Thank you, Dean Scott, for that generous introduction.
You, the Class of 2017 assembled here today, have arrived at Columbia from all corners of the country; and the globe. . And I welcome you. Although I expect to give many addresses like this to future incoming classes, I have a feeling this one will prove the most memorable: For I, too, am arriving at Columbia from afar, in my case from the west coast, where I have lived and taught for many years in two different states: Northern California and Southern California.
So in a sense this great law school is welcoming us together.
And that’s what makes this moment very, very special to me. You, Class of 2017, and I, are embarking on a fantastic journey, starting tonight, TOGETHER.
I have no doubt that each of you has a variety of reasons for choosing to come to Columbia. So do I. I thought I might share with you a few of my own observations when I was on the outside looking in, and why I wanted so very, very, much, to come here.
I wanted to come to Columbia Law School because of its breathtaking intellectual wingspan, the sheer excellence of its students and faculty, and because it has confidence—without attitude.
I wanted to come to Columbia Law School because it has a powerful heritage and yet it is poised, even hungry, to pursue bold ideas and to take risks.
I wanted to come to Columbia Law School because it is infused with and by the magnificence and excitement of Manhattan – a place like no other.
And somewhat relatedly, I wanted to come to Columbia Law School because it’s virtually impossible to get a decent hot dog anywhere in San Francisco.
I‘d like to take this moment of welcoming to do two things: offer a few words of advice, and ask for your collaboration.
Be brave, and be engaged.
Be brave. You are already smart, accomplished, and ambitious. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here. And in the next three years, the Columbia faculty and staff will devote itself whole-heartedly to training you to be among the most sought-after law graduates on the planet. So you have very bright futures.
Which is all the more reason to take some chances while you are here. Taking risks allows you discover new things about yourself. It makes life more interesting. It makes YOU more interesting.
Furthermore, the profession has become very dynamic and you will find many opportunities reinvent yourself during the course of your career. Why not use law school as a laboratory for that kind of personal entrepreneurship? We will do everything in our power to give you the confidence to stretch yourself just a little bit beyond what feels safe. And if you take a chance and you fall, we’ll be here to catch you, as will your classmates. And I ask each of you to be there to encourage one another, and to catch each other when you fall.
Being brave isn’t all about weighty career choices – it’s also about challenging yourself on a daily basis. Perhaps speaking in public makes you break out in a sweat. Make yourself volunteer in class once a week. Or maybe you are someone who never slows down. Learn to meditate. Maybe you know you want to do business law. Great. But also take a course in constitutional jurisprudence, or international human rights, or voting rights, or law and literature. For most of you this will be the last chapter of your formal education and so now’s the time. Be brave.
My second piece of advice: Be engaged. In our time together, we must build a culture of engagement: engagement with the university, engagement with industry, engagement with the city, engagement with society, engagement with one another. Together, we will branch out beyond the walls of this law school and beyond legal doctrine to find connections between what we do here and what goes on in the world around us.
This is partly a call for interdisciplinarity – to understand as scholars and students how law connects with other disciplines. Something you will learn as you begin to study law is that we are not just teaching you how to read cases. We are teaching you to be really good problem-solvers – that is our true, great, talent. And those skills are transferrable across subjects matters, sectors, and industries. One of the best things you can do for yourself while you are here is to expand your versatility as a problem-solver even more by learning from others around campus: take a course in the School of International and Public Affairs, the business school, the school of public health, or environmental science. Or attend a campus lecture by one of Columbia’s many nobel laureates, or a visiting head of state.
But calling for a culture of engagement is also a call for cosmopolitan citizenship. I ask you to play your part in building at Columbia Law School a culture of lively engagement with myriad domains of civil society. I hardly need to sell you on this vibrant city, the greatest city in the world. But I do want to tell you that your three years here will pass quickly. Immerse yourself in this city’s teeming culture, its commerce, and its architecture. Do it partly for the joy of it, but also as an observer of how law functions in public and private life. And partake. Despite the immense wealth of good works that go on every day under the roof of this law school, we can and must find still new ways to use legal tools to improve the world around us, both domestic and global, through voluntarism and public service. Take a clinic that does work in the community or overseas, or take a job as a research assistant at one of the law school’s many research centers, or even devise your own initiative, which the law school will try to support in every way it can.
And perhaps most important: Engage as a COMMUNITY. The people in this room will not only be with you for the next three years, but they will continue to play key roles in your life long after you walk the graduation stage in 2017. Some will become your partners in law; some will be partners in life. (I hope none will be partners in crime.)
You will form lasting friendships not only with classmates, but also with your professors and mentors, with the staff of the law school who share your triumphs and disappointments, and with our alumni, the generations of Columbia graduates who preceded you and who support you every day in countless ways that are not always visible to you.
A community requires care in its cultivation and stewardship. It will ask of you humanity, kindness, fairness, and sometimes forbearance. But make no mistake: This will be one of the most important and enduring facets of your time here and beyond. It is a tremendous gift, and it is already well underway.
If we succeed here together, you will not only be trained to be the best lawyers in the nation. You will be the leaders of the next generation. The brave, cosmopolitan, and humane leaders of the next generation.
I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks that what attracted me to Columbia is that it has a deeply distinguished legacy and yet it is still hungry. A former colleague of mine who passed away earlier this year, a legal scholar and economist named Suzanne Scotchmer, wrote an article she titled, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.” Her argument was that great innovation almost always builds on the great achievements of the past. She was talking mainly about technology. But this metaphor fits our law school as well. Columbia Law School, with its great history, could rest fairly easily on that history. But that is not what we are here to do. Columbia Law School is poised not simply to stand on the shoulders of giants; it’s poised to LEAP.
So here we are, at the beginning.
I have a lot of ideas for the kind of community we can build together but I can’t do it alone.
Your curiosity, your guts, your tenacity, your friendship, your leadership – all of these will be essential to the success of this project.
Class of 2017, let’s get started!