Willis L.M. Reese Prize: Carol Sanger
I have always known that the Willis Reese Award was a great honor, but I had no idea that receiving it would be so much fun.
It is true that I have just got off a plane from New Zealand, where I was attending a family wedding (not mine!). And so the first thing I want to do is to express my deep gratitude to Dean Schizer, the Class of 2007, Air New Zealand, and the American pharmaceutical industry for making it possible for me to stand before you today.
When receiving an honor like this—and there really is no honor quite like this—one wants to make a good impression, to get the words just right. And even though you and I have known each other for the past three years, speaking in front of your parents, step-parents, grandparents, aunties, partners, husbands, wives, and children—you know, the people we talk about in Family Law—is another matter. It could make a person nervous.
To bat away my own nervousness, I told myself: “Don’t be silly. What’s the worst that can happen addressing 5,000 people in the center of campus after a 36 hour trek from the Antipodes?”
And that is exactly the moment that my mind turned to one of my favorite comfort novels—Kingsley Amis’s 1954 comic novel of academic life, Lucky Jim. “Jim” is a terrible professor, who lives in well-justified fear that he will be fired the minute the semester is over. (He’s the leading candidate for the anti-Willis Reese Award.) But Jim gets a reprieve of sorts. His Department Chair assigns him to deliver a public lecture in front of the whole University and Jim’s entire career depends on the lecture’s success. Jim is intensely anxious about the event, and one of his “friends” suggests that Jim steady his nerves with a small glass of sherry. Jim agrees that this is an excellent idea. But one thing leads to another, and it takes a small vat of sherry before Jim’s nerves are under control.
As he lurches to the podium, he stumbles and drops his prepared speech all over the floor. Flustered, Jim quickly gathers up the pages and shuffles them back together. He then mounts the podium, faces his audience, and with great confidence begins his lecture: “In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen….”
Now, in thinking about poor Jim, my own nerves were calmed as I came to realize that even if all went really wrong for me today, there could be no more fitting phrase to mark this event than “In conclusion…” And so I have a few—a very few—concluding remarks.
I know that graduation speakers—even those who just want to say “Thank you” and sit down—are traditionally supposed to “leave you with something.” But from a faculty perspective, it is too late for that. Over the last three years, we have ready given the task of “leaving you with something” our best shot. I guess you can say we’ve been leaving you with something from the very start. The faculty’s achievement has been to give you—each in our own way—an array of ideas, of rules (and standards), ethics, puzzles, and inspirations: a framework for thinking about and practicing law.
I know most of you are planning to practice law. This is good. There are deep satisfactions in being and in becoming a lawyer. And, too, within a few years, many of you will be able to buy and sell all of us seven times over.
But as you know from my work with the Teaching Program, and the work of almost all the faculty sitting before you today, I hope that some of you will sooner or later want to join us up here. The view is terrific! But we don’t do this for the view alone. More to the point, teaching law to students like you is the best job that most of us can imagine having.
But back to the “conclusion.” I’ve given some thought to the differences that graduating from law school makes to daily life, and I want to mention just two. The first is that you will find you have much more time than you had since you first rolled into Legal Methods. It isn’t that you will necessarily work fewer hours, but you will feel much less guilty when you aren’t working—and that frees up a lot of time.
But the conclusion of law school also brings you to something more daunting and more interesting than the “no-study, guilt-free zone.” It means that you have aged out of being a student, and now begin to make choices that do not always fall under the comfortable rubric of “keeping your options open.” I know of course that you are all geniuses at “keeping your options open.” You split your summers, hedge life with clerkships, and some of you can even outfox the drop/add period. (You know who you are.)
But I have always thought that a hard and perhaps defining aspect of adulthood is making choices that in some way cut off other choices. You choose a particular path, a firm, a job, a city, a partner—and other paths will not be taken. I don’t mean that everything becomes fixed and frozen, but only that you will find yourself more often pressing “Save and Send” than “Save to Draft.” For those of you who took Family Law this term, you might say you are now own writing your own narratives. To steal again from Family Law, you start making decisions “reverently, discretely, advisedly, and soberly.”
Finally—and in conclusion—I want to point out that just because something has formally concluded does not mean that it is over. We continue to think about books we have read or music we have heard long after we have put the book down or turned the phonograph off.
The same is true for the legal education that concludes today. I am sure you will return to it repeatedly for professional reasons and fondly for personal ones.
It has been great fun and a wonderful part of my own on-going legal education to have taught you, whether in small-section Contracts or stadium-sized Family Law. Thank you for including me so specially in this great day. From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of my colleagues, I wish you and your families the warmest congratulations. I hope you will stay in touch.