Senate President: Sean Berens
Good Afternoon, faculty, administrators, friends, and family—and congratulations to the Columbia Law School Class of 2013!
I would like to begin with a thank you. Thanks to Student Services and to everyone who worked tirelessly to put on this ceremony, and in a downpour, no less. And I wouldn’t be on this stage, or even at this school, without the love and support of my family. And I’m sure that is true of most people here. So, my final act as a representative of this class is to lead us in saying, simply, thank you. Thank you to everyone here and thank you to those people that we carry in our hearts, though they are unable to be with us today.
Alright, so this is it. We’re done with law school. You’re on this earth for 80, 90, maybe 100 years if you’re lucky, and you spent three of them here. Was it worth it? I’ll tell you what, The New York Times doesn’t think so. It seems like every week they have a new story about the questionable value proposition of going to law school.
Entry-level salaries are falling in real terms, the government’s not hiring lawyers like it used to, and nobody knows how billing will work in 10 years. Hmmm.
Well I can’t speak about the monetary value of this degree we’re getting because I don't know.
But maybe something else was going on here. Maybe there is something to be said for the simple journey that we took from that first day of legal methods to this last day that we spend as a class. Honestly, you were an impressive group of people when you arrived here. I know admissions told you that during orientation, but I’ve spent the last three years with you all, and I know that it’s true. It’s not bluster or marketing, it’s fact. So, you were impressive when you arrived, and yet you were timid. In Legal Methods, 100 students, all of whom had carefully completed the assigned reading, would sit in class and hesitate to answer even simple questions. After all, you wouldn’t want the professor to stay on you and ask you the hard questions, too. It was like Jurassic Park. If you don’t move, the dinosaur can’t see you.
But we aren’t like that anymore. That hesitation is gone. It’s not because we know all of the law. I heard that law school teaches very little black letter law at all. NO, the change has been in the value that we place on our own reasoning abilities. We used to be timid in applying the law, but now we might just sit up in class and say to our distinguished professor, former Supreme Court clerk, and legal luminary, “NO, I disagree.”
I disagree. Those two words are going to get harder to say. We’re going to work in large law firms, busy legal aid offices, and for judges who are appointed for life. Wherever we go, I don’t imagine that our superiors will be looking for our disagreement. They’ll want our devotion, our focus, and most of the hours heretofore reserved for sleeping, but not our disagreement. Disagreement is risky and it makes people mad. It’s not worth doing for its own sake. But, sometimes it is the right thing to do. After these years with you, I trust that you have the brains and, much more importantly, the hearts to know when you should disagree.
So, when people try to tell you to value economic security over your public interest dream, or when a politician tries to sell you on a bad policy, or when your boss tries to convince you that the bundling of subprime mortgages is actually a pretty good idea, remember what you learned here. Stand up and say what needs to be said. Some members of our class have already begun to stand up. Some of you were mysteriously absent from classes this past September and October because you were working on political campaigns. Some of you were predictably absent from events because you spent so much of your free time working with clinics and externships to protect the interests of disadvantaged people. Some of you on the Human Rights Law Review assisted Professor Liebman in publishing Los Tocayos Carlos. You stood with him and said YES, the U.S. has, almost certainly, executed an innocent man, and we need to make some changes so that it NEVER happens again. Your efforts thus far have been impressive, but I think that you’re just getting started.
It’s true that if you choose to speak up, you are going to be challenged by brilliant people, but that’s what happened here. You wanted to submit, defer, and avoid being embarrassed in the event that you were wrong, and your professors wouldn’t let you. They required your input, your reasoning, and your voice. Well, what this three-year span in our lives has meant, the value of this degree was, I hope, that we discovered something that has been true all along. Our voices belong in the conversation. I look forward to what you have to say.
For more about Sean Berens ’13, visit his student profile.