Willis L.M. Reese Prize: Suzanne Goldberg
Welcome again family, friends, and 50th reunion alumni—including my own father, Richard Goldberg, and many of his esteemed classmates and colleagues.
And especially—hearty congratulations to the J.D., LL.M., and J.S.D. classes of 2009.
It is an enormous honor to be recognized in the name of the legendary Willis Reese, who I understand was taken to walking across the tops of desks as he questioned students.
To do this now, of course, would be an especially high-risk proposition—imagine asking questions while trying not to get caught in a web of laptop cords strewn everywhere.
I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here today. In a way, I feel like I am graduating alongside all of you, as I joined the faculty here when many of you were 1Ls, which means that, for many reasons, you will always hold a very special place for me.
I remember so vividly sitting in my own law school graduation—excited, somber, amazed at how quickly it all went, and a bit put off, frankly, about having to start studying for the bar exam the very next day.
When I was wearing this fashionable but uncomfortable graduation hood for the first time at my own graduation, I really couldn’t have imagined that I would spend a decade litigating gay and lesbian rights cases, and then, one day, have a chance to teach about those cases—and re-immerse myself in the world of civil procedure—from this side of the podium.
Yet, as I stand here today, having received this most wonderful of awards from you, I can’t imagine anything I would rather be doing.
That’s the funny thing about a career—you can plan, and you should plan—but for all that planning, you just never know where exactly you’ll wind up.
What I really want to do now—which won’t surprise any of you who have been in class with me—is to ask you a couple of questions; a last-minute graduation quiz before we let you go.
The subject is leadership, and the question is—how will you exercise it? How will you exercise your leadership and make your contributions?
The thing is—you don’t have a choice here. The question is not whether you will lead, but how? Or, to put the point in law school-lingo: Leadership as a lawyer is not an elective.
Why do I say this?
Because, as you all surely know by now, being a lawyer gives you tremendous power—which is, of course, precisely what many people don’t like so much about us.
But with that power comes responsibility.
I am not just talking about the power to file lawsuits and defend against them, though of course that is terrifically important.
Nor am I talking only about your power to give legal opinions to clients, to structure binding transactions and family responsibilities, or to advocate—whether for asylum seekers, criminal defendants, corporations, the government, or anyone else—though those powers, too, are terribly valuable.
But the power I am interested in at this moment comes from another source: It comes from the judgment and skills you have developed to spot problems and find solutions; from your abilities to frame and reframe arguments; to think critically and creatively about systems and institutions; to think sharply about the power of government—and how to make it work for the good, even when not all agree about what that good is, or how best to achieve it.
I want to talk with you about this power because, as Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and long-time leader of the Children’s Defense Fund, put it: If you don’t like the way the world is, you have an obligation to change it.
So, what will you do with all of this power? How will you lead and contribute?
I can’t give you those answers, of course—they are for you to figure out; but I will offer two process points to consider along the way:
For one, remember that you have this leadership power and that you need to exercise it.
I’ll share one personally embarrassing story here—it predates law school but has stayed with me on this theme of remembering your power. Shortly before going to law school, I was doing graduate work at the National University of Singapore and wound up running track for the university team. (As those of you who have seen me play basketball on the Columbia Law School faculty team in our annual Dean’s Cup game with NYU know, I’m not especially fast, but I do try . . .)
At the last minute at an international competition, the coach added me to a relay race. He assigned me to run the third lap, which is the slot typically reserved for the weakest of the team’s four runners. The idea is that the first two runners build up a lead, and the last, fastest runner can make up for whatever time the third runner has lost.
As I was getting ready for my turn, I was excruciatingly nervous and told myself that I really didn’t have to lead here; I just had to make it around the track without tripping or dropping the baton—and leave it to my teammates to do whatever it would take to win the race, since they were all very strong runners.
About halfway around my lap, though, when I had been chugging along and thinking I would survive my turn, I felt the other team’s runner close in on me—and I realized, in a flash, that I had to step up my pace, that I—as much as my teammates—had to act like I was in the lead.
As the coach told me afterwards: In that moment, I looked like I had turned myself from a loping pony into a flying horse—which I tried, with some effort, to take as a compliment.
We won the race, but what really stayed with me was this: Each of us, in whatever role we find ourselves, whether we’re the most or the least experienced in the room—or on the team—needs to step up and do all we can do to bring our own leadership to the game.
This can be especially hard when you’re a brand new lawyer—after all, although you all know quite a lot, it’s not as though you J.D.s have ever practiced law before. And even for you LL.M.s and J.S.D.s, today you too will be newly minted with your graduate degrees.
So, in some ways, everything you do will be new—and there will always be someone who has done what you are doing more times, for more years, and in more varied settings.
Still, and perhaps I should not be so directive about this—but since you haven’t quite graduated yet, I will—you must take on that mantle of leadership, because just as in that relay race, even as you depend on the others who might be faster or might have been at this for longer, they, too, will be depending on you to add your leadership to the mix.
And here is the second point: The third-leg runner in the relay—the brand-new lawyer—brings important assets, too.
One of the most important of these is humility—a healthy sense that there is plenty still to learn.
This kind of humility can be a great motivator to take in lessons everywhere you turn, so that you get practiced in listening as well as in talking, and in understanding, ultimately, that strong leadership requires both.
This early grounding in humility also matters because—shockingly quickly—you will no longer be the most junior person in the room. And with that humility ingrained, you will keep yourself learning even as you are also teaching and leading others.
So, back to our pop quiz—with your leadership, your humility, and your law degree all in hand, how will you use this awesome power and the responsibility that comes with it?
This is the part when I can assure you that, wherever your career takes you—and whatever the economy looks like—being a lawyer means that you will never run out of things to do, people to help, and places to contribute your power and vision. You will never run out of community boards to join, clients to serve, public offices to hold, opportunities to teach, organizations to create and support.
Surely, in this world of ours, there is a thing or two that you think could stand improvement: inequality, war, global warming, financial markets, overcrowded schools, overheated subways. Graduation means it is your turn to fill in the blank.
And, lest we get too overwhelmed, Marian Wright Edelman also reminded us that we must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make that, over time, add up to big differences we often cannot foresee.
So, please do take yourself seriously, and take your leadership and your humility in stride—along with your sense of humor, so that you can find the fun even amidst the most tremendous challenges.
On behalf of myself and my colleagues here, it has been our pleasure and honor to work with you and learn from you.
And please know, as you go forward, that we will be counting on you to exercise that leadership, and that we look forward to seeing—and experiencing—your very own contributions to the law, to the world we share, and to liberty, equality, and justice for all.