2011 Willis L.M. Reese Prize: Trevor W. Morrison
Thanks Kahlil. And thank you to the Class of 2011. I’m deeply honored to receive this award. It seems like only a short while ago that I was sitting where you are, as part of the Class of 1998.
I loved my time here as a student, and I’m especially pleased today to be able to welcome all of you to the Columbia alumni family.
I’d like to take the few minutes I have today to reflect on what I think it means to study law at Columbia, and on what it means to be a Columbia graduate.
First, what does it mean to study law at Columbia?
All the best law schools in the country admit entering classes brimming with incredibly talented, accomplished people. This is certainly true at Columbia, but it’s true elsewhere too. The question all schools must face is, what to do with these people during the few short years they spend studying law?
There are a range of different approaches a school could take. Consider a couple of oversimplified options—each entirely hypothetical, I assure you.
One is to think of law school as intellectual demolition. On this view, whatever someone did before law school—indeed, whoever they were before law school—basically needs to be wiped away. The goal of law school is to strip away their pre-law misconceptions, and then to re-build them from scratch as lawyers. To pick a film reference from well before your time (and mine as well, for that matter), this is law school as depicted in The Paper Chase—whether or not it ever existed in reality.
I don’t think that’s our goal at Columbia. Law is a rigorous field of study and a serious profession, but it is not brainwashing. One of our greatest strengths is the incredible intellectual, cultural, and political diversity of the people who come here to study law. We don’t seek to strip all of that away; we instead try to give you to the tools to excel in the law in a way that best fits your unique talents, values, and interests.
Another approach a law school might take—pretty much the opposite of the The Paper Chase model—is to treat entering students as though they already have everything they need to excel in the law, simply by dint of their native brilliance and their good fortune in being admitted to a top school. This approach is prone to various exercises in self-congratulation—the school congratulating itself on the genius of its students, the students doing the same with each other, everyone feeling they’re already titans in the law just by being there.
That’s not Columbia either. We take the law seriously here, and so studying the law here is hard work. I hope you’ll agree that it’s also fascinating and can even be fun, at least from time to time. But make no mistake: these last three years were supposed to be difficult. There was a lot to learn.
Now that you’ve emerged, you’ve earned something truly valuable: a knowledge base and skill set you didn’t have before, and an entry into a profession for which you are well-prepared, no matter which direction your careers lead. In short, a Columbia law degree really means something. It may sound trite, but it’s true.
But now that you have it, what follows? That’s the big question for each of you: What will you do with your Columbia degree?
Your predecessors have done incredibly diverse things with theirs. Columbia graduates are leaders in every part of the legal profession, in virtually every part of the world. That’s a wonderful thing, and worth celebrating.
Today, though, I’d like to emphasize one particular part of what I think it means to be a Columbia graduate: choosing, when you can, to work in public service.
Government service is a noble undertaking, and it is also vitally important. To function effectively and fairly, to promote the general welfare as well as individual justice, to be an institution of laws and not of men, government requires lawyers. Good lawyers. Government is a creature of law, but the laws that create and constrain government are only as good as the lawyers attending to them. That’s where you come in.
In fact, that’s where Columbians have always come in. There is a rich tradition of Columbia Law School graduates working at all levels of government. I’m sure you know some of that tradition. It dates to the earliest years of this country’s history and includes past presidents, senators, cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices.
But it’s also a tradition that remains alive and well today. To cite just a few examples, Columbians today serve as the top-ranking lawyers in the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Treasury—Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, Jeh Johnson, General Counsel at the Defense Department, and our guest speaker today, George Madison, General Counsel at the Treasury Department. These are hugely important roles within our government.
There are many other present-day examples, as well. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, is a Columbia graduate. So is Donald Verrilli, the nominee to be the next Solicitor General of the United States.
Then there are Columbians who have spent virtually all of their careers in non-political civil servant positions—people like Larry Wallace, who recently retired from the Solicitor General’s Office after arguing over 150 cases before the United States Supreme Court, more than anyone else alive.
And, of course, there is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with a great many other Columbians serving as judges on lower federal courts, state courts, and the supreme courts of other countries.
Government is what it is today because of the distinguished service of these and countless other Columbia graduates. Many have worked in less publicly visible positions than the ones I’ve just mentioned, but their work has been no less vital. They have played a wide range of roles, including trial and appellate litigators, legal advisors, adjudicators, even negotiators. In all of these capacities, visible and less so, Columbians in government have acted on behalf of, and in pursuit of, the public interest. In my view, there is no higher calling for an attorney.
Yet before they did all that, these people sat more or less where you sit today—as newly minted Columbia graduates, their careers about to launch. They went on to do vitally important things for this country, but none of it was foreordained. When they sat where you are now, they were you.
That means you can be them. Someone among you may be the next George Madison, the next Preet Bharara, the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
What stands between you and them now is time. But time will soon speed up, and key decision points in your careers will arrive sooner than you think. When they do, if the circumstances of your lives allow, I hope you’ll choose public service. In doing so, you’ll render honorable, vital service to your country—whether it’s this country or, for those of you planning to return home to another part of the world, your home country. And you will also keep alive part of what makes Columbia Law School such a special place.
That’s for the future. For today, congratulations to you and your families on all you have achieved so far, and thank you again for this wonderful award.