Keynote Address: George W. Madison '80
George W. Madison ’80 was nominated to be the 30th general counsel of the Department of the Treasury by President Barack Obama on April 20, 2009. He was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and sworn into office on September 9, 2009.
Thank you, Dean Schizer, for the kind introduction.
Congratulations to the incredible men and women of the Class of 2011! I am deeply honored to help you celebrate this wonderful day with your parents and friends, and the distinguished faculty, alumni, and guests of this venerable institution. I also wish to acknowledge the presence of my fiancée, Jules Thomson, and her mother, Louise, and my daughters Kristin and Jillian.
This is a wonderful day for all of you. You’ve taken on difficult assignments. You’ve passed tough exams. You made it through a rigorous and interdisciplinary curriculum. We call today’s ceremony a commencement for good reason. It doesn’t just signal the end of one endeavor, it is also the moment that you begin another. The next journey is just about to begin.
You should be proud of yourselves, but you cannot forget that this is a moment of pride and accomplishment for your families and loved ones, too. This is their journey, as well. And for their patience, love, and fortitude, they should be thanked.
To return today to the place where I first studied the law is a great privilege for me. I studied contracts with E. Allen Farnsworth, corporations with Bill Cary, securities regulation with Harvey Goldschmid, and constitutional law with Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I am grateful to be part of this distinguished institution, and to welcome you into Columbia Law School’s alumni family.
The family that you are now a part of reaches back to its roots more than 150 years ago. It includes presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, history makers like activist Bella Abzug and Attorney General Eric Holder, and unsung heroes like Paul Robeson and Judge Robert Carter. You stand on the shoulders of giants today, and we expect great things of you.
Now, some graduating classes have headed into a world of relative stability, where the world was orderly and events more predictable. The best advice at those moments is: “Don’t screw up.”
But as you know, this is not such a time. You are receiving your diploma at a point where the tectonic plates of the world are shifting. The path forward is uncertain, and our time demands that you reimagine, redesign, and remake our world.
As FDR said: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations, much is given. Of other generations, much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”
When I was preparing this speech, I thought back to the moment more than 30 years ago when I sat in one of those seats and listened to someone of importance speak. And I want to tell you what I remember from that speech: absolutely nothing other than “congratulations.” Not wishing that trend to persist, I have tasked myself with providing a few nuggets of advice, based on my experience, for your next 30 years.
This advice can be distilled into three concepts: First, you are an exceptional group of people. Continue to be exceptional! You have received an outstanding legal education and have great opportunities ahead of you. While your talent is a privilege, there is also a heavy price to pay for it. Second, your background imposes on you the obligation to lead through public service. Finally, to be effective, leadership requires unwavering adherence to the highest standards of integrity, ethical conduct, and character.
As I look out at you assembled here today, you are, by any reasonable measure, the most accomplished and qualified graduating class in the storied history of Columbia Law School. The competition to be admitted has steadily increased. Given the long line of Columbians who have contributed so significantly to this country and to the world, this is quite an accomplishment.
But, notwithstanding the arms race in law school admissions statistics, I am sure you will acknowledge your indebtedness to the faculty and administration of this school, and the University as a whole, for providing you with a first-class legal education and an unsurpassed credential.
Columbia has a long tradition of nurturing leaders. These include Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justices from John Jay to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and many others. There are also many Law School alumni with whom I serve in the current administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder. In addition, your faculty members have made significant personal contributions, including Robert Jackson, Trevor Morrison, and Sarah Cleveland. In the years ahead, it will be your turn to lead.
We live in a complex and dangerous world. Your leadership will be critical! My own career has largely been in law, financial services, and government. But unexpected events are a constant across all eras and industries. My time at Columbia in the late 1970s, depicted somewhat fictionally in the show The Bronx is Burning, was a time when the city was touched by violence and its own financial crisis. But also think of the Great Depression and New Deal, the “Greed is Good” era of the 1980s, or the Great Recession of the last few years. No matter in what era you live, distinct skills are needed to confront the challenges of the day.
For instance, the world is already very different than it was three years ago. When the J.D. candidates applied to school in the fall of 2007, the housing market had gone through an unprecedented boom. Credit was easy and cheap. The Dow was soaring. Only a few prescient observers were talking about looming signs of trouble in subprime mortgages and foreclosures. Just a few months later, in September 2008, when most of you had just enrolled, Lehman Brothers collapsed, the financial markets panicked, and for the first time since the Great Depression, the United States risked a complete collapse of our financial system. Americans questioned the safety of their money in the nation’s banks. We were at the brink of an abyss.
Extraordinary actions by the government (under two administrations) averted total disaster. The government had to intervene to save the global financial system. The leaders who stepped up did so unselfishly to help prevent economic catastrophe. They came together, regardless of political party, ideology, or background and worked together to face the crisis and stabilize the financial system. Among others, Secretary Paulson, Chairman Bernanke, and now-Secretary Geithner worked tirelessly in a time of need for the good of the country.
We take for granted now that it occurred, but it had no precedent. We have recovered from the worst of the crisis, but the lessons are haunting, and the cost was painful.
During the crisis, leaders acted amidst panic and chaos; as many before them, they worked in the “fog of war” and had to make wrenching decisions under extraordinary pressure.
They did not have perfect information. Indeed, because of the lack of integrated regulation prior to the crisis, they had to rely on fragments of information when making hugely consequential decisions. They also operated in the thin air of a flawed regulatory structure and were without a roadmap or any pre-set contingency plans. Bold, urgent, and remedial actions were required.
Not all of the decisions were perfect, and it is easy to nitpick them in retrospect, but on the whole, they succeeded. They quelled the panic, restored stability, and prevented disaster. These events, the crisis and the recovery, form the bookends of your time at Columbia.
What lessons can we draw from this epoch? Here is the first leg of my three-legged stool of advice for you today. Your exceptionalism is a blessing, but also a burden. As I said at the outset, you are an extremely talented graduating class—and you will have many remarkable opportunities during your careers.
You are entering a prestigious, but also hard-working profession. It can be hard to compartmentalize. Your work will sometimes compete with your family and personal interests. New technologies have changed the pace of the delivery of legal services. It can be exhausting. With BlackBerries and cell phones, clients often demand rapid responses—no matter the time of day or night.
Each of you will have to navigate your own path in this regard, but I offer a few words of wisdom. Do not rest on your laurels! Have a plan—for your career, but also for your life. Be focused and disciplined. Decide what you are passionate about, and develop the relevant skills and expertise. Ultimately, as an attorney, you are worth what you know. Learn it well. Do not leave one employ until you have mastered the content and the qualitative skills necessary to succeed.
However, I also caution you not to be unimaginative. Don’t fall into the false comfort of just doing one thing. The world is ever-changing. Antitrust professors use buggy whips as an example of an industry that has become obsolete. Other industries will follow. Don’t be content to be an expert in just one thing. Stay curious. Take risks. Keep learning.
In addition to professional learning, get involved in the larger professional community. Be active in your bar association, volunteer for a nonprofit, participate in your town government or place of worship. I talk to many young professionals who say, “I don’t have time to help others.” Make time. Busy as you may be, there is almost no job where you can’t be somewhere one evening a week or on Saturday morning.
The potential rewards are abundant. Not only will you make a contribution and feel more fulfilled, but you will also broaden your professional networks and acquire new perspectives. Live a purposeful life, rich in experiences and people!
The second leg of the stool is the importance of leadership and public service. Leadership in times of crisis calls on character and courage; the character to confront problems honestly, and the courage to make unpopular decisions. Sometimes leadership means not succumbing to the loudest voices. We must instead have the poise and courage to make our own best judgments and accept responsibility for the consequences.
What lessons can we draw from the events of the recent financial crisis? At a high level, that the world is unpredictable and ever-changing. We don’t know what the next challenge will be. We only know there will be other unforeseen events and other times of crisis. You must be prepared for anything.
Most important, the country needs your leadership and talent. Public service is not only a privilege and great responsibility, but also it is the highest calling you will have from your country. Your skills and education uniquely qualify you to serve your country for a short period of time or for your entire career. The rewards may be more intangible than the private sector, but it is honorable, consequential, and essential to our system. You should view public service as an act of citizenship.
The final leg of the three-legged stool is integrity and ethical behavior. Without these, nothing else matters, and the stool falls over.
Leadership is practiced by example. Leaders earn the right to lead by modeling highly ethical conduct. Your personal reputation and integrity are your most valuable assets. As former Senator Alan Simpson put it: “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” Or as Mark Twain said more simply: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
Do not compromise your values. No matter the financial penalty, or how tempting it is in the short-term, ultimately, it will not be worth it. This is true professionally, but also as a person. True integrity will make you a more trustworthy friend, a better family member, and a better spouse. Over the long run, the happiest and most fulfilled people that I know are those who have been guided by doing right—they have lived in accord with their highest state of consciousness.
It is easy to talk about integrity, it is a harder thing to live it. Telling the truth is easy when it’s popular. It is much harder to do when the truth is inconvenient, or not part of the prevailing narrative. In the legal profession, your word is your currency. You are all very talented, and will impress people with your insight and analysis. But you must ground these in candor and trust, or else they will be meaningless.
In your role as an attorney, wherever you work, you will be asked to make judgments and give advice. Some questions will be black and white—like “what font size is required for filing a brief in the Second Circuit?” Sorry, I don’t mean to belittle important questions.
But the more frequent, more interesting, and much harder questions will be about shades of gray. No matter what you do, there will be times when you will be encouraged, expressly or otherwise, to stretch the law, bend the rules, or compromise your values. This can be very hard, especially as a young attorney. But have courage. You must speak what you think, say no, and even walk away, if needed. It may seem difficult at the time—but in the long run, there is no substitute for a reputation for honesty and integrity. Especially in the face of pressure to bend.
In the end, your epitaph should be: “She was tough but fair,” or “His word was his bond.”
You have accomplished a great deal already in your lives to be here today, graduating from Columbia Law School. But this is just the beginning of your journey. And keep in mind, what you do, the way you conduct yourself, the decisions you make, they won’t just be for yourself, or for the ones you love, these choices will help steer the direction of your country. The arc of history is yours to shape.
Let me make a prediction: Thirty years from now, you will not remember me. Not to worry. This is not about me. But do remember my three legged stool of advice. First, be exceptional, in every sense of the word. It is a burden, but also a privilege. Second, you have an opportunity to lead—and the world needs you to put those skills to their highest use. Finally, in doing so, always act with integrity. It is the most important thing that you have—and only you are responsible for it. In the end, we are judged by the degree to which we live and embody our principles and ideals on a daily basis in dealing with each other, and with the world.
As President Obama said: “[A]ll it takes is one act of service—one blow against injustice—to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that ‘tiny ripple of hope.’ That’s what changes the world.”
Thank you so much to the Columbia Law School Class of 2011. I am profoundly honored to be part of your ceremony today. Congratulations on your graduation!