Joseph "Gray" Davis '67
Class of 2009, Congratulations! This is a big deal, and you should enjoy this moment. You’ve earned it! Shortly before I graduated, a professor wished us well and told us that he expected big things from us.
A students become Supreme Court justices; B students work on, or for, Wall Street; and C students become presidents, U.S. senators, and governors.
So now you can probably guess what my grades were.
As graduates of Columbia Law, you will be given the opportunity to serve in some of the most prestigious positions in private practice or government. As defenders of the law, it will fall to you to improve the law and make it rise to the challenges of YOUR generation. With this noble charge, be neither bashful nor reticent, because the guarantees of our democracy are dependent upon your willingness and ability to serve.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. . . . Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
I know that the economy’s tough, but this too shall pass. You are at the doorstep of a great career. You will succeed, you will prosper. But remember this: No one succeeds alone. You stand on the shoulders of generations of people who have invested in you: grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, law professors, and many others who have counseled, encouraged, and motivated you to be the person you are today. The first thing you need to do is to say “Thank You” to the people who have brought you to this day. Just as they helped you when you were young, you bear the responsibility to help the next generation of young people. So I urge you to mentor young people. It will be an immeasurable benefit to them, and a source of tremendous satisfaction to you.
Let me tell you a story. As a sophomore in high school, I was trying unsuccessfully to play shortstop on the varsity baseball team when the coach, Nat Reynolds, pulled me aside and said, “Gray Davis, I’ve been keeping my eye on you, and I am convinced that you will go far in life, if you can just summon up some ambition and determination.” He gave me his home phone number and told me to call if I ever needed any help.
That single conversation changed my life. I got my act together, studied hard, and I graduated second in my class. I became the starting shortstop and captain of the baseball team. I went on to graduate from Stanford, and Columbia Law, and served as an Army captain in Vietnam. Eventually, I became governor of our largest state.
Now there were other people who were great sources of inspiration to me: my mother, wife, and my siblings. But the fact that my baseball coach said he believed in me literally sent chills down my spine. The least I could do was believe in myself. Every one of you in the Class of 2009 has the power to change a young life for the better. Spend time with a young person. Be there for them. Their lives will be better and so will yours, and they will remember you for the rest of their lives.
Now let me share some thoughts about the real world—NOT the Real World as in MTV, but the world you are going to work in every day. For short, I’m going to call it “life.” In law school, talent and hard work will generally produce a good grade. In life, however, the best lawyer doesn’t always win. Law school is predictable; life is not.
You will find that improbable things will happen to you in life. You will succeed when you did not think it possible, and you will fail when you thought victory was assured. Let me give you an example. I was running for governor in 1998. I am in fourth in a four-person race, and within the space of a few days, two unlikely things happened that allowed me to win.
U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, who was the prohibitive favorite for governor decides not to run, leaving a wealthy businessman and a congresswoman as my opponents. One would spend $42 million, the other would spend $18 million. I only had $4 million in the bank, no personal wealth, and was given no chance to win.
Two weeks later, the wealthy businessman runs an ad stressing that he was an outsider. The ad begins with a picture of me—a very nice picture. That ad ran for five weeks.
On the strength of that ad, I went from last place to first place. Apparently voters had no idea I was running for governor, but as soon as they found out, thanks to my opponent’s ad, I was immediately their preference. In effect, the Red Sea parted, and I walked through.
In life, sometimes long shots win. In your practice, pay attention to long shots. That’s how society improves and law evolves.
Take, for example, these long shots:
- Brown v. Board of Education
- Women securing the right to vote
- A woman’s right to choose being protected
- AND the next big battle will be whether or not the Supreme Court decides to recognize same-sex marriage.
Pay attention to long shots. Long shots change the world!
As governor, I fully appreciated my good fortune and went to work immediately to share it with others. I provided health insurance for one million children, signed the first bill banning greenhouse gas emissions in America, and provided more college scholarships than any governor before me.
So the lesson is simple. If good fortune unexpectedly smiles upon you, don’t go around telling people how smart you are; instead, share your success with people who are less fortunate. Of course, the reverse is true. Sometimes you will fail and be blamed for things that you had absolutely nothing to do with.
Shortly after my reelection in 2002, some of my critics began gathering signatures for a recall. In California, a recall election is held if enough people sign a petition. There is no need to demonstrate wrongdoing. Just gather the requisite signatures and another election occurs.
During the recall campaign, I was blamed for all sorts of things—a few of which were actually my fault. For example, there was a cartoon in the Los Angeles Times picturing two women wading in the Pacific Ocean. One woman says, “Wow, this water sure is cold.” And the other responds, “Ya, and that’s another thing I blame Gray Davis for!”
Ultimately, I lost the recall election. Let me say, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say, “Hasta La Vista—Baby.” That election brought a very abrupt end to my 31 years of public service. The next day, I told my wife I was disappointed that we didn’t get to finish the work that we started. But the people had spoken, and it was time for us to move on.
Before I left office, I made sure that my administration fully cooperated with the incoming one, and I have since worked with Governor Schwarzenegger on a number of initiatives we jointly support.
You will experience failure and setbacks at some point in your life—deserved or not.
I believe I am uniquely qualified to convince you that there is no defeat, no matter how devastating, or disappointment, from which you can’t rebound. We can’t always control what happens in life, but we can control our response. Do not let that setback define your life—get off the canvas, hold your head high, and move on.
You will be surprised how many good things will happen to you if you have the grace to accept what life has dealt you and the courage to continue on.
I am happy to report that today my wife and I share a wonderful life in Los Angeles. I have a successful law practice at Loeb & Loeb, and serve as a senior fellow at UCLA’s School of Public Policy. I am very involved in politics, acting as a senior statesman and mentor to candidates. So, Class of 2009, remember that people from all walks of life are counting on you to advocate for them—some rich, some powerful, and some with neither influence nor money.
I urge you to honor our profession by using your legal skills to serve those less fortunate who otherwise might never have access to justice and the guarantees of our Constitution.
Now, it is okay to pursue the trappings of material success—becoming a partner, working in the corner office, and enjoying the good life. But that is not enough. We expect more from you. To whom much is given, much is expected. Find a way to leave this world better than you found it.
Find a calling. Your calling may be to reduce injustice, inequality, hunger, homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, and countless others, but find a cause larger than yourself and dedicate your life to its pursuit. In so doing, you will have left a mark. You will have made a difference. Along the way, enjoy the ride. And tell the people you love how important they are to you every day.
Graduates of 2009, this is YOUR moment. You have worked hard. You have learned much, and you are ready to lead. I know you will distinguish this great university and make us all proud. I am confident you will build upon the contributions of previous generations.
So as you embark upon your careers, remember to strike that perfect balance; use your well-trained minds to find the answers to challenges that are sure to face you as lawyers, but also always remember to follow your heart; in doing so, you will make the world better, safer, greener, and more just.
And . . . one last thing—pay attention to long shots.
Long shots—they change the world!