2010 Willis L.M. Reese Prize: Alex Raskolnikov
Thank you Katherine. And thank you the Class of 2010 for this great honor.
It feels wonderful to win this award … to be able to address you and your families today. You know, this graduation is even being webcast, so some people are watching this on the Internet right now! I know for sure—they are my relatives.
Yes, it feels wonderful addressing you today, but I must tell you that getting here often felt anything but wonderful. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that my road to this happy day has been marked by disappointment, rejection, and failure.
I can give you many examples, but I only have time for two before they turn off my mic. The first sad story is from my law school days, the second from my time in private practice.
I remember my first law school class very well. It was a small group session in torts, with a brilliant professor who seemed to know everything about the subject, and a bunch of super-smart classmates who seemed to know almost as much as the professor did. And there I was—having no clue. I was intimidated, nervous, but determined to participate. So 10 or 15 minutes into the class I raised my hand and answered the question. Or I thought I did.
What followed was the most deafening, debilitating, and desperate silence I’ve ever experienced. The professor looked at me, scratched his head, and uttered: Well, you’ve just restated what I said. . .
At this point, I had no idea what he said. . .what I said. . .and what I should say to get out of this terrible situation. That was it! I couldn’t even distinguish a question from an answer!!! My professor surely thought I was an idiot. My classmates thought the same. The best thing I could do was to drop out of law school before they kicked me out for complete incompetence.
And that was the first day of classes.
My law firm story isn’t much happier. I was practicing for a few years, and, as many mid-level associates do, I sought career advice. When I asked my first mentor for an evaluation, he was generally positive. I’m doing good work, he said. My clients like me, other lawyers like to work with me. Things are going pretty well. But. . .but, he said, even though I’m a pretty good tax lawyer, I really should be doing something else. I should, he said, become a banker.
Now, he meant it in the best possible way. But when a fifth year associate is being told that he should do something else … well, let’s just say this doesn’t sound very promising.
So I went to my second mentor. He started with the same encouraging summary, and then he said the dreaded word. But, he said … you really should think … about becoming an academic.
Let me tell you — that did NOT make me happy! Not only my two mentors thought I should be doing something else, they couldn’t even agree on what that something else was! My career as a tax lawyer looked pretty shaky at that point. And I was already 38! How many other careers could I have?
Well, things worked out. I didn’t drop out of law school, and I’m having a great time teaching tax here at Columbia. What’s the point of telling you this? There may be a lesson here for you, and maybe even more than one.
This is not the best time to be graduating from law school. Some of you didn’t have jobs until very recently. A few still don’t know what they will be doing in a month or two. It’s upsetting, disappointing, and frustrating. I know—some of you told me this in person in the past couple of months. It’s not fun.
Take a deep breath. You’re bright, energetic, and talented graduates of one of the best law schools in the country. Tens of thousands of lawyers and law students could only wish they were in your shoes. It may seem that things will never improve, that you’ll never have a good job, never repay your loans and so on. But this is total nonsense—of course you’ll do great!
And if now and then you need a concrete reminder, just remember that a guy you awarded the teaching prize to almost dropped out of law school after his first class because he thought he’d never succeed there.
Most of you do have jobs. Some will even get paid for not working—how bad can that be?! But still, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you guys got a bad deal. If only you graduated five years ago, you’d have law firms, government agencies, and public interest organizations falling all over themselves to get your attention. Fancy dinners, endless lunches, boat cruises, baseball games, and—as importantly—a great legal career would be laid out right in front of you for the taking. Instead, you have to struggle, overcome adversity, and deal with uncertainty. It’s hard not to feel that you got shafted.
Well, maybe you did. . .but not nearly as much as you might think. It is true that Columbia graduates had an easier time on the entry-level job market five years ago. But the thought that this guaranteed a trouble-free and rewarding career was a pipe dream even then! Many students who graduated five years ago quickly realized that they didn’t like their jobs. They were unhappy, unsure about what to do and how to do it. They faced uncertainty, sometimes rejection, and often difficult choices—just the stuff many of you have to deal with now.
Nothing is ever guaranteed, nothing is ever laid out of the taking, it’s just a question of whether reality sets in at graduation or a few years down the road.
And to remind yourselves of that simple fact, remember that the guy you awarded the teaching prize to was told to look for a different job by two sympathetic mentors five years into his legal career.
And the last point. I understand that many of you are not getting what you wanted: not your preferred practice area, not the firm you hoped to join, or not the city you wanted be in. Your dream job is being delayed while you have to take what’s available. It feels like you’re wasting time.
If you forget everything I said until now, remember this—you’ve got PLENTY of time! Most of you will change jobs several times, and change your minds about your jobs on multiple occasions. You may think you want to do litigation and realize a year from now that you’ll be much happier doing tax. You may think you want to work for the government and realize three years from now that you’d rather work for ACLU. You may think you want to do corporate restructurings and realize five years from now that you’d rather be a food critic. Or a masseuse. Or even an academic!
Things change. It’s a long career. And you have time to try things out!
When I was the age of most of you, I was a metallurgist at a small automotive factory in Michigan. By then, I have already left two jobs and one country. And since then I’ve been a law student, a practicing lawyer, and a professor. And I still have good 20 years to try out a few other things!
So take your time. Do whatever job you happen to start with well, keep an open mind about opportunities, and good things will happen. You’ve accomplished so much during your time at Columbia. You will accomplish much more in years to come.
Congratulations and thanks again for this wonderful award.