David M. Schizer is Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law and the Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics. He is the 14th dean of Columbia Law School. He spoke to the Class of 2009 on Graduation Day.
Congratulations, Class of 2009. You have traveled a long and hard road to arrive at this exciting moment, and you now enter the ranks of the legal profession with a Columbia degree in hand. You join a family of Columbia graduates that has occupied the highest rungs of the legal profession for over 150 years.
To welcome you into the Columbia family, we are joined by members of the Class of 1959, who are celebrating their 50th reunion this year, and have come to march with you. Please join me in thanking them for coming today. As the Class of 1959 can tell you, today is one of the high points of your life. This is a day that you will always remember.
The day is bittersweet, though, because you are graduating at a complicated time for the global economy, and for the legal profession. It’s a bit like finishing a marathon only to be caught in a thunderstorm as you cross the finish line. It has been a hard year. The decline in economic activity across the globe has left law firms and public interest organizations with strained budgets. In response, deferred start dates have become the norm. Jobs have become less secure for senior and junior lawyers alike.
So let me read something to you from The New York Times, which may make you feel better. According to the Times, “the bigger firms are bloated. They staffed up to maintain a growth rate that is impossible to sustain. The heyday is over.” I realize that this does not sound like it should cheer you up. But it should, because it was written on July 1, 1991, when I was in law school. Since then, the legal profession has enjoyed a number of very busy and exciting years, and it will be so again. There is always a demand for people with extraordinary talent, like all of you.
If you think it has been hard for you to get a job, you should speak to the women of the Class of 1959. In seeking advice about their careers from well-meaning male lawyers, they were consistently told to learn steno. But although finding their first job was a challenge, these women have been extraordinarily successful. For example, Nina Appel became the first woman to serve as dean of Loyola Law School. Marie Garibaldi became the first woman to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first woman to hold a tenured appointment on the Columbia Law School faculty, and, of course, went on to serve on the D.C. Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet as the members of the Class of ’59 will tell you, they had their own reasons to be anxious when starting out in the world. In 1959, the Cold War was in full swing. If you think a global economic downturn is unnerving, the prospect of nuclear war is downright scary. But although they began their careers at a difficult time—as will all of you—things turned out exceedingly well for the Class of 1959.
Their experience demonstrates an important lesson that I hope will stay with you: There is no single career track that works for everyone. For example, Larry McKenna serves on the federal bench here in New York. Another Larry, Larry Wallace, worked in the Solicitor General’s office in Washington for thirty-five years. He argued a record-setting 157 cases before the Supreme Court, which is more than any other living person. Larry’s classmate, Harvey Miller, taught many of you bankruptcy. He joined a small firm called Weil Gotshal and helped build it into a global powerhouse. Harvey is one of the world’s leading bankruptcy experts, currently representing Lehman Brothers and General Motors.
And, of course, there are countless other success stories in the Class of 1959. You should follow in their footsteps, striking out in new directions and finding work that you love to do. The goal is not to do what you think is expected of you, but to find a job that makes you look forward to getting to your office every morning.
Good things will happen not only in your professional life, but also in your personal life. In addition to his successful career at Proskauer, Richard Goldberg takes extraordinary pleasure and pride in his daughter, Professor Suzanne Goldberg, who was chosen by your class to receive the Willis Reese Prize. Richard has two classmates who also are parents of Columbia Law Faculty, which makes the Class of 1959 a rare class, indeed. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is very proud of her daughter, Professor Jane Ginsburg, who taught many of you legal methods, copyright, and other intellectual property courses. The third member of the Class of 1959 is my mother, Hazel Schizer, who has gotten used to having a son who teaches her least favorite course at law school: tax.
Seriously, though, my mother’s love and support have made all the difference to me. She has set an example of decency, generosity, and quiet strength in good times and in bad. As busy as she always has been, she has never hesitated to help and encourage me in any way that she could. I know that I share with her all the successes that I have had, and that I will ever have. In the same way, you know that all of you wouldn’t be here today without your loved ones. So I ask you to join me in thanking them for the extraordinary difference they have made in our lives.
While it is important to thank them, it is even more important to follow their example. Remember that, however much you achieve in your professional life, perhaps the deepest imprint that you will leave in the world is on the people close to you. It takes energy and effort to nurture these relationships, and sometimes, at the end of a long work day, you will feel your strength failing. But don’t let this go. There is nothing more important in your lives.
I hope your personal lives will be as full and satisfying as your professional lives, and I have no doubt that you will find professional success. Even in these difficult times—indeed, especially in these difficult times—the world needs Columbia-trained lawyers. A perennial challenge for humanity is to harness the majesty and grandeur in human nature—the yearning to create and to improve the world we inhabit—while at the same time constraining the darker side of these same impulses, the tendency to greed, conflict, and violence. This is the role of law.
No society has enjoyed complete success in this effort, but I believe that in this nation, in this time, we’ve come closer than anyone ever has before. We have joined together to create a broad range of institutions, public and private, to facilitate the development of ideas and technologies, to preserve order while protecting individual rights, and to foster voluntarily constituted communities of faith and commitment. We have created rules of the road in which people are allowed to pursue their dreams, but without interfering with their neighbors’ efforts to find their own way.
This is an astonishingly difficult task, in which competing values and interests need to be balanced. We are constantly failing, and constantly learning, and constantly striving to do better. As the bedrock of freedom, the rule of law is a profound achievement, and each of you will play an important role in preserving and enhancing it.
It is up to you to make sure the system works. As we have seen in recent months, it sometimes doesn’t, and the results can be catastrophic. For example, any number of constraints should have prevented banks from making so many bad real estate loans, but these constraints proved ineffective. Why didn’t lenders adhere to stricter standards? Why didn’t the rating agencies conduct a more rigorous analysis of securitized mortgages? Why didn’t investors analyze these mortgage portfolios more carefully before buying them? Where were the regulators in all of this?
A good lawyer knows that there are effective ways, and ineffective ways, to pursue a goal. The devil is in the details. Who are the key players? What are their incentives? Who is supposed to monitor them? Do these monitors have good information? If you pay people each year based on the number of deals they do, they have a strong incentive to do more deals, even ones they know are too risky. If the people who are supposed to monitor them don’t have good information, or if they have their own incentives to look the other way, bad things will happen.
In making this point, I draw on the insightful work of Professor Louis Lowenstein, Class of 1953, a distinguished and beloved member of our faculty who passed away a few weeks ago. As Lou would say, there is both “sense” and “nonsense” in corporate finance. For example, his latest book, The Investor’s Dilemma, emphasized that mutual fund managers don’t always have the investor’s interest at heart. “Mutual funds,” he wrote, “conceal a deep and abiding conflict of interest between the shareholders of a fund and its managers.” The problem, he emphasized, is that managers are not compensated based on fund performance, but on the volume of assets under management. This means funds spend a great deal of money on marketing expenses, and manage the funds to fill market niches, instead of to maximize return. “One way or another, all the [fund manager’s] profits are coming out of investors’ pockets,” Lou wrote, “and they are huge.” This is but one example of a broader phenomenon that Lou regularly documented: the fact that markets go off the rails when key players have the wrong incentives, and when the people who are supposed to monitor them don’t have the necessary information.
But Lou was always quick to point out that there are some market participants who do the right thing. For example, he was a firm believer in value investing. More generally, he believed that talented people have an obligation to lead, and to set an example. Lou was an optimist, and felt that if people in leadership roles followed their conscience instead of their greed, the world would be a better place. I miss Lou terribly—everyone who knew him does—but that message remains with me, and I hope you will keep it close to you.
You can do an enormous amount of good in your professional lives, using your talent and resources to support causes that matter to you. One cannot think of Lou Lowenstein without also thinking of his extraordinary commitment to the Columbia Law Review, public interest lawyering, and the needs of the homeless. Some of you will be working after graduation as Lowenstein fellows, a program established by Lou and his wife, Helen Lowenstein. I hope that all of you will live in the spirit of the Lowenstein fellowship, giving of yourselves to bring the world closer to our ideals.
You are an exceptional group, and I am deeply proud of you. On behalf of the faculty, let me say that it has been a privilege and a pleasure to teach you. We look forward to following your many successes with pride.