Dean Schizer's 2008 Graduation Speech
Graduation Address to the Class of 2008
By David M. Schizer
Congratulations, Class of 2008. You have lived a very full and busy life since I first welcomed you to the Law School – and since our day together at Shea Stadium. You have marked up casebooks and written papers and exams. You have absorbed a great deal of information very quickly and learned "to think like a lawyer." You have formed friendships that will last a lifetime.
You have earned a celebration – and I know that these past few weeks have been filled with joy. But they also have been tinged with sadness as we mourn losses from the earthquake in China and the cyclone in Myanmar. Our hearts are full of sadness for these tragedies, just as they are filled with pride for all of you.
You now join an exceptionally talented and influential group – the graduates of Columbia Law School. They are represented today by the 50th reunion class, the Class of 1958, who marched with you today – thank you, Class of 1958.
In the 150 years since our law school was founded, our graduates have provided leadership in government, the nonprofit world, and in every sector of the economy all over the world. What will your contribution be? What star should you follow? It is exhilarating to have the range of choices that you have, but it is a bit daunting too. Which path should you choose?
Remember that there is no "one size fits all" answer to this question. Everyone is different. Some yearn to appear in court, while others are terrified by this possibility. Some enjoy coordinating a group effort, and others prefer sitting alone at a word processor. The next few years will be a voyage of self discovery, identifying which professional challenges most engage your mind.
This is not to say that you will love your job every minute. You will work hard, and you will be tired and stressed much of the time. A job that fully utilizes your talents will be demanding, even frightening, especially early in your career when you are climbing the steepest portions of the learning curve. With time and experience, you will master this fear. You may even come to like this pressure, as you realize that new challenges keep a job exciting and interesting. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.”
In that spirit, you should aim high. Don't say to yourself, "that job would be great, but I could never get it" or "achieving that goal would be so fabulous, but I could never pull it off." It would have been easy for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Class of 1959, to conclude that gender equality was a low probability goal, not worth pursuing. Who would have thought that the Supreme Court – populated by nine grey-haired men – could be persuaded to change the law so fundamentally? Sometimes, the greatest achievements in life are unexpected, even surprising. So you have to try. You have to believe that nothing is beyond your reach. The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work out. That's a better result, in my opinion, than wondering what might have been if only you had tried.
As you make career decisions, be sure to follow your own heart, even if it leads you in unexpected directions. Not long after Bob Shaye graduated in 1964, he founded a movie production company called New Line Cinema from his Greenwich Village apartment. Before long, he was producing low budget hits like Reefer Madness and Nightmare on Elm Street and, eventually, blockbusters like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So don't feel as if you have to do what everyone else is doing. If your first job is not a good fit – if you dread your work day, instead of looking forward to it – then find something else. You owe it to yourself to do what you love to do.
Pursuing ambitious goals will take a lot out of you, so don't waste energy and time clashing with your colleagues. Choose a place where you like the people. Treat them like allies, not rivals. Don't worry about claiming credit or currying favor. Focus instead on doing high quality work, and on helping colleagues when they need you. This role is personally satisfying, and it also earns the gratitude and respect of your peers. You can't be completely indifferent to the politics of your institution, but don't be guided by it. It is far better to say and do what you believe is right – better for your state of mind, and also for your career.
The “high” road is the happy road. If you live by exacting ethical standards, you will inspire confidence in others and feel pride in yourself. At the same time, the one career-ending mistake you can make – the one way you can derail what otherwise will be a sterling career path – is an ethical lapse. All you have is your reputation, and you shouldn't trade it for anything. A good friend once said to me, “You can always get another job or another client, but you can’t get another reputation.” It's better to be proud of who you are than of what you own. Your conscience is your most important constituency. If a voice inside you is saying, "no one will ever know," that's a clear sign not to do what you are considering. You should act as if everything you do will appear on the front page of The New York Times. If you wouldn't mind having your family read about it, then you are living the right way.
Your family and friends are your greatest source of strength. Indeed, you would not be here today without the love and support of the people closest to you. One of the greatest challenges you will face is balancing your personal and professional lives. Clients and colleagues will want more time and attention than you can give, and you may feel that you do not have much left over for those closest to you, but don't make that mistake. At the end of the day, your impact on the world is greatest through the people you love. You matter more to them than to anyone else. They will be forgiving, but don't make them forgive too much. Your successes will be sweeter, and your disappointments will be easier to bear, if you have the love and support of family and friends.
The truth is, there will be disappointments and frustrations along the way. No job is glamorous every minute. You may have colleagues who don't appreciate you, clients who are unreasonable, or a boss who takes her frustrations out on you. You may face long commutes, health problems, large mortgages, and issues with children. Your life will not be perfect – no one's is.
People deal with setbacks in different ways. Some focus on the negative, while others are able to emphasize, and savor, what is good in their lives. For some people, a positive state of mind comes naturally. Franklin Roosevelt, Class of 1908, could project optimism even after he had lost the use of his legs to polio, and was called upon to lead the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. "The only thing we have to fear" he famously said, "is fear itself." This sort of innate optimism is good for those around you, and it is also good for you. Don’t dwell on what you wish you could change. Instead, appreciate the high points of your life. Every day is a gift – and you don't get an unlimited supply – so savor each one.
Perhaps the greatest gift you have been given is to be born talented in a world that values your talents. You will be rewarded generously – with interesting work, respect, and financial security. But in a different time and place, this might not have been true. I am convinced that if I had been born in pre-historic times, I would have been eaten by a saber- tooth tiger long ago. We are all fortunate to be born in an age that values intellect, and empowers us to pursue our dreams.
In this crucial way, your happiness is tied to the community's well being. As members of the legal profession, you – more than anyone – are charged with the solemn responsibility of upholding our ideals through law. In becoming a member of the bar, you take up one of humanity's highest callings: You will support and operate a system of law that harnesses the ambition, creativity, intelligence, and generosity in human nature, while constraining our darker impulses. The tragedy of humanity is that ambition and greed are such close cousins. The same qualities that produce life-enhancing innovations can also degenerate into chilling acts of brutality.
Hobbes was right about the state of nature, and he wasn't dreaming it up. Anarchy – a world without law – is a terrifying thing. We see glimpses of it in every age and in every part of the world, including our own. Roving gangs fight each other, and an even worse fate can await those on their own. Government is essential to preserving order. But the wrong government – a government without the rule of law – can be just as bleak. The gangs wear uniforms, but there is no justice, and the strong still prey on the weak.
The great genius of our system is a constrained government, whose officials are accountable and whose powers are limited. Citizens can concentrate on living happy lives, on pursuing their dreams. This is what our legal system does. But the rule of law is a precious and rare condition in the world, requiring dedicated guardians who protect and refine key institutions and defend our ideals. This cannot happen without you. We need your commitment, your contribution, and your sacrifice. I know you are up to the task. You have been trained for it, and you are ready.
Congratulations, Class of 2008. We are so very proud of you. Enjoy this momentous day and, as you go out into the world, please keep us in your hearts. You will be in ours.