Today, I have the honor of being the commencement speaker for the John Marshall Law School graduation. Commencement Address
Professor Jonathan Turley
John Marshall Law School
Thank you, Dean Corkery, members of the faculty, and graduates of John Marshall Law School.It is a great honor to address the 2008 graduating class of John Marshall Law School and to receive this honorary degree.
As a litigator, I must confess to having a particular interest in securing a John Marshall degree. When I was a student at a neighboring law school, we often had a certain fear of John Marshall students when it came to the bar. We had long heard the rumor that John Marshall students actually learned the criminal and civil codes. Indeed, you can imagine my shock when I discovered that the Hegelian Interpretation of the Property Code was not an actual bar subject.
This phobia of John Marshall students was reaffirmed this year in the latest bar results which show an astonishing bar passage rate of 90% of John Marshall graduates. If this trend continues, the bar may simply combine future John Marshall degrees with licenses to save everyone the time and trouble.
For my part, I now have a John Marshall degree to intimidate opposing counsel and reassure clients that I can find my way around a courtroom with the best.It is, therefore, a great honor to join you in the ranks of John Marshall degree holders and also to welcome you to the community of lawyers.
You have entered a unique profession and John Marshall has long had a reputation for producing great litigators and lawyers. I love being a lawyer and frankly I do not know why everyone’s not a lawyer. Of course, we must acknowledge that we need doctors. After all, we need someone to sue. For those doctors in the audience, I am just kidding.
Seriously, I could stand here to tell you all of the advantages that can come from the practice of law, but they are obvious. There are great financial and social benefits from being a member of the bar. However, with such opportunities come equal dangers.
As you graduate today, the bar is reeling from recent scandals of leading attorneys charged with crimes around the country. Two federal judges are facing criminal charges in the Fifth Circuit. Various state judges are facing removal or criminal charges and leading lawyers in politics (including most recently the Mayor of Detroit) are facing possible perjury and felony charges. There is a host of lawyers caught up in ongoing financial scandals from Enron to the mortgage crisis involving counsel. We need to be open and honest about what these flawed lawyers represent about our profession. Perhaps we can learn as much from the fallen as we can the famed members of the bar.
The greatest thing about the law is that it is a profession that can give you anything you want in life. That also happens to be its greatest danger. The terrible thing is that you will get out of the law exactly what you demand from it. If you ask for only material rewards, it will deliver.
I hope that you do not take that course; that you do not live your life like some Monopoly game where you can go around as many times as you want. You go around once in this life. In the end, there are too many lawyers in their 50s sitting in their large homes in Evanston with their trophy spouses and 2.3 children – with no idea who they are or worse yet, who they might have been.
It is the worst type of personal crisis because lawyers know that they could have been anything; they could have found their voices in a hundred different ways – but they remained silent. Now, they can name everything they own, but they cannot comfortably answer who they are.
Don’t let that be you. You can have all the comforts of life AND reach your own potential if you only resolve to live your life creativity and aggressively.
That is what makes this moment in your lives so electric: your life will be either a triumph or tragedy of your own making. Let it be a triumph.
The most important way of finding your own voice and your destiny is to remain grounded in something other than the immediate practice of law. Find something true that can be used the measure the truth of falsity of other things in your life.
You are surrounded by some of those true anchors today. Around you sit the family members and friends who watched you evolve from an annoying little kids into professional adults. They didn’t love you because they thought it was a good investment in case you became a J.D. or M.D. They loved you unconditionally – often despite yourself.
For me, my family gives me perspective and protection that I need to make decisions as a lawyer. I have four kids under ten. When I am not contemplating faking my death in a boating accident, I have come to realize that they are thing that gets me through the most intense moments of my professional life. Things are always very important in court, but nothing is more important than they are.
For you, it may be art or religion or some other foundation. However, when you find that one true thing, you cannot compromise it because it is the one thing that will keep you truly alive and grounded. Last week, in the midst of two terrorism cases on the trial level, I found myself staying up to past midnight to finish the Cub Scout pinewood derby racers for two of my boys. (One wanted a Kirby car and the first task was to learn what the heck a Kirby was).
At the early morning hearing the next day, I looked horrible but I felt great. First, those are some really hot looking cars. Second, I built them with my boys. At that moment, a five-ounce piece of wood became the truest thing in my life. I could have razed the Justice Department building the next morning because I knew who I was – I am the father of Benjamin, Jack, Aidan, and Madie. I am also a lawyer.
Back in Ireland, the Turley family has a motto that is rather long in Gaelic. I always dismissed it as depressing in a quintessentially Irish way: Consider the End. That’s it. Consider the End. I used to joke about it.
As I have grown order, however, I have come to understand that family motto more. It is not about how you die but how you live. Consider who you want to be in the end.
We all have our heroes. My personal hero is Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not simply a desire to be really tall and really thin. Atticus Finch was every inch the perfect lawyer and the perfect father. He was grounded in his family while committed to the fundamental principles of the rule of law. When he stood in front of the mob who came to lynch his client at the town jail, he knew that he could not step aside as lawyer.
In the final scene, after he lost the case for his innocent client, Tom Robinson, Finch remained in the courtroom alone. In the upper gallery sat the African-American community who were not allowed to sit downstairs and rarely ever saw even an attempt justice for a person of color. They sat quietly as Finch’s daughter nicknamed Scout sat with Rev. Sykes. As Finch turned to leave, the silent crowd stood and Sykes turned to Scout and said “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
In the end, we all must pass before our family and answer for our decisions.Of course, Atticus Finch was not real. Moreover, I am sure that my students and this class would not fail that Atticus Finch moment. I truly believe that most lawyers would stand before that courthouse door and refuse to move. Indeed, in the last seven years, many have done precisely that.
The problem is not the biggest challenges but the smallest ones. It often takes far more courage to refuse to yield on the small corruptions of practice like when a partner tells you to fake a certificate of service. It takes far greater courage for a young associate to say no on that occasion than to face a mob. There will be many who will tell you that the little cheats are just part of the practice of law. Don’t believe them. It is not their choice, it is yours. You must decide what type of lawyer and what type of person you want to be.
One of my favorite passages is found in A Man for All Seasons when Sir Thomas More is confronted by his daughter Meg who begs him to sign an oath supporting the King – even if he didn’t believe it. Just a signature would save his life, but More refused. He tells his daughter:
“When a man takes an oath, Meg, he is holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
When we begin this life and this profession, we all start like More – holding ourselves in our hands like water. Through the years, hardships and pressures tend to force our fingers apart. It is often the small concessions that loosen our grip to let a bit of ourselves drip away. If you yield, you can find yourself at the end of your life looking into your hands and wondering where you went and who you are. There is no greater tragedy than a life unlived to its potential.So this is my charge – and my wish – for each of you. Keep your fingers tight. One of the best ways is to grip on to something true and don’t let go.You have choices and you have dreams today. Don’t let them drip away in a thousand careless concessions. Keep you fingers tight and hold on to those things that define you as a person.
You have earned a great honor today. You have accomplished much. After you receive your degree, you will leave this place and your family will stand as you pass by. They – and your faculty – have great expectations in you. So keep your fingers tight, hold on to this moment, and make the future your own.
So, as Chicago’s great Studs Terkel often said, “Take it Easy, But Take It.”
Congratulations to you and your families and again thank you for allowing me to be a small part of this great occasion.
Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington Law School