Dean Schizer Addresses the Class of 2012
Congratulations, everyone. Today is a day you will always remember. Your family and friends are so very proud of you, and rightly so. You now join a community of remarkably talented people—the graduates of Columbia Law School. Members of the Class of 1962, who are celebrating their 50th reunion this year, have joined us today to march with you and to welcome you into our alumni community. Please join me in thanking them for being with us.
I know you have a sense of how much you have learned during your time at Columbia. Think about your favorite classes, and how much you enjoyed engaging with the professor, the material, and your classmates.
You also spent many pleasant hours with your classmates outside of class. You debated the merits of derivative suits and of Downton Abbey. You shared callbacks, the Barrister’s Ball, and late nights in Drapkin Lounge. You ate a shocking amount of pizza. In all of this, you formed friendships that will last a lifetime. In the coming years, you will take special pride in the accomplishments of your classmates, and you will constantly run into each other as your careers evolve.
You have joined a profession that is dedicated to one of humanity’s greatest achievements—the rule of law. A just and efficient legal system is the bedrock of freedom. It depends on wise and determined stewardship from the legal profession, an honor and a burden that now falls on each of you. Dedicating yourself to the rule of law is an inspiring goal.
But I realize that the day-to-day rhythm of your life as a law student was not inspiring at every moment. After all, the exams weren’t particularly fun. No one feels nostalgia for hours spent preparing a résumé. And it is not easy to look for a job in a challenging market.
Even though your life at Columbia has had many high moments, then, there were a few less-than-inspiring ones as well. This is important to remember as you move on to the next phase in your careers. In the next few years, your intellectual and personal growth will continue at a rapid pace. You will learn a tremendous amount in a short period of time. Sometimes, you will have so much fun that it won’t feel like work. Yet along with the satisfaction—even exhilaration—that comes with developing new expertise, you will also experience moments of exhaustion, boredom, and stress.
This is to be expected. The most worthwhile things in life are not pleasant all of the time. After all, even the greatest of vacations involve time spent on airport security lines.
Another example is raising children, something many of you are already experiencing and I hope others will experience someday as well. Being a parent is one of life’s greatest privileges. You help launch a new generation, you laugh with them, and you see yourself in them. But the details are not always glamorous. When the children are young, you change diapers, pay bills, and get up in the middle of the night. As the children grow older, you try to communicate through the fog of adolescent rebellion, pay more bills, and worry about their futures. Raising children can provide the most satisfying moments in our lives. Just ask your parents how they are feeling today. But even so, not every moment is equally fulfilling.
Likewise, the life of a young lawyer is a mix of inspiration and routine. Navigating the learning curve in our profession can be satisfying and even exciting. At the same time, there is truth in the cliché, “no pain, no gain.” If you are having a difficult stretch in your job, the answer sometimes is, “This is to be expected, and it’s worth it.”
But remember that pain does not necessarily lead to gain. In some cases, if you feel unhappy, you should think about moving on.
How do we know the difference? How do we know whether stress or unhappiness is just a cost of an otherwise positive experience, or is evidence that we need a change? Forgive me, but it’s customary to give advice at Commencement. So in the rest of my time with you today, I will offer four thoughts about making this sort of judgment in the years ahead.
First, how much are you learning in your job? With each passing month, are you developing insights and skills that make you more effective? Are you forging professional ties that will be of value to you? Or is the work stale, so that you don’t feel challenged? Keep in mind that this test applies not only to your first job out of Columbia, but to every one you ever have. If you aren’t growing, it’s time to move on.
Second, do you enjoy the company of your colleagues? Are they as impressive and entertaining as your friends here at Columbia? If the answer is “yes,” that is a significant advantage. If the answer is “no,” that’s a cautionary signal.
Third, do your colleagues play by the rules? There is an old saying that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and five minutes to throw it away. You should stand for the proposition that excellence and the highest ethical standards go hand in hand. They are inseparable. You will invest a great deal of yourself in your work. You should be able to take pride in your successes. You should be confident that your work advances your values and ideals. This feeling is better than fame and money.
That brings me to my final point. You need to commit your professional life to a goal that is broader than yourself alone. If you dedicate your talents and energies solely to your own comfort, you will not be fulfilled. At the end of the day, you will regret pursuing the wrong dreams.
I never thought I would quote the Talking Heads at Commencement (and I’m not sure you are old enough to know who they are). But they wrote a song more than 30 years ago called “Once in a Lifetime,” which makes a similar point. Don’t worry—I won’t sing it—but here’s what they say:
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. And you may find yourself in a beautiful house . . . And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?” . . . And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house!”. . . My God! What have I done?
In other words, this is not what I aspired to achieve in life or the person I meant to become.
A more elegant articulation of this point can be found in Ecclesiastes (or Kohelet in Hebrew). The author, King Solomon, was reputed to be the wisest man of his time. He built the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and brought his kingdom to new heights of power and prosperity.
Yet in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is cynical and even jaded about his accomplishments. “All is vanity,” he writes: What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun? . . . All things are wearisome. . . . What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
Solomon experiments with material pleasures as a way to seek happiness, but finds them wanting. Instead, he offers us three ways to be fulfilled. The first is the satisfaction from being good at what we do: “There is nothing better,” he says, “than that a man should rejoice in his works.” The second is being trusted: “A good name,” he says, “is better than precious oil.” Third, he urges us to be committed to those principles that we hold paramount, so that we organize our lives around what we believe.
Well, lawyers who are true to their beliefs and committed to making the world a better place will always be busy and challenged. As Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
The world desperately needs your talents. We live in a time of so much promise. For example, the technological marvels available to us now could hardly have been imagined when the Class of 1962 sat where you sit now. In many ways, humanity’s progress in the past few decades is miraculous.
Yet we also are grappling with grave problems: economic stagnation, fiscal overcommitment, political instability, global terror, and nuclear proliferation, to name just a few. Meanwhile, key institutions in both the public and private sector are at risk of buckling under the weight of these challenges. Just as the most magnificent monuments can crumble from neglect, the same is true of these institutions. We need talented and public-spirited people to dedicate themselves to addressing these daunting challenges.
This means that your moment has arrived. In the coming decades, the world can either get a lot better, or a lot worse. With your talent, energy, and commitment, you can make a real difference. I believe you will. So consider that your final assignment from Columbia Law School. Congratulations, Class of 2012. We expect great things from you. Thank you very much.
It is now my great pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker, the Solicitor General of the United States, Don Verrilli, Class of 1983. I said earlier that you will all take pride in the successes of your classmates. I can tell you that Don’s classmates take enormous pride in what he has achieved, and also that none of them are at all surprised. Don was the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review. He clerked for Judge Skelly Wright and Justice Brennan. He led the appellate practice at Jenner & Block and then entered government service as Associate Deputy Attorney General in 2009, then as Deputy Counsel to the President, and then Don became the 46th Solicitor General of the United States. Don is also deeply devoted to the Law School, and we will have the privilege of presenting him with the Law School’s highest honor, our Medal for Excellence, this coming February. Please join me in welcoming Solicitor General Don Verrilli.