As you look at me before you here today, I suspect that at my age, I must appear to you at your young age to be a bit Mount Rushmore-like. Certainly you can tell that I’m a member of the “facelift generation” and not the “Facebook generation.” Nevertheless, it is my purpose today to share a few thoughts with you about the practice of law and your future as graduates. Your life can be greatly enhanced by the degree you are receiving today, depending on how and to what extent you use that degree to make a positive impact on the lives of others.
At age 14, I left home and attended the seminary through high school and one year of college. It was a wonderful experience in every aspect. But at age 19, in that summer of 1964, I reluctantly concluded that the clergy was not my calling. Then, of course, I had to tell my mom and dad of my decision. So at our family dinner on a Sunday evening, I finally worked up the nerve to tell them I was not returning to the seminary that fall. My mother (who by then saw me as the next pope) asked, “What will you do with your life?”
I responded, “I am not totally sure, Mom, but I think I’m going to try and become a lawyer,” to which Mom said, “My God, from a saint to a sinner!” But then, of course, Mom immediately came around the table and gave me a big hug. She was a wonderful mother, and I’m especially glad to remember and honor her on this Mother’s Day.
This weekend is also the culmination of another important celebration: Law Day. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the first Law Day, at the urging of the American Bar Association, on May 1 of each year, as “a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law.” Since then, every U.S. president—joining hundreds of courts and bar associations across our nation—has recognized Law Day and the weeks surrounding it as an annual opportunity to proclaim our ongoing commitment to constitutional democracy and to the rule of law.
For Law Day this year, our ABA theme is “The Legacy of John Adams: From Boston to Guantanamo.” We honor the important legacy of John Adams as the first of 26 U.S. presidents who were members of the legal profession—representing by far the most common career background of our commanders in chief.
John Adams was an early embodiment of our profession’s ideal, “Equal Justice under Law,” which is inscribed for the ages across the portico of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. In 1770, he represented the British officer and soldiers accused in the “Boston Massacre” killing of five colonists protesting in the streets. Although he was a prominent leader in the American colonial resistance, the 35-year-old Adams agreed to take on those cases.
Adams’ role in these trials is a model of devotion to the rule of law and to the zealous defense of the rights of the accused, even in cases involving unpopular or controversial clients or causes. His able defense was motivated by his faith in due process of law, in what he would later famously phrase as “a government of laws, not of men.”
“Officers of the court”—as John Adams demonstrated, this title demands an extraordinary level of professionalism. You are now, with this graduation and your JD degree, entitled to take the “dreaded” bar exam. Given the consistent success of Chase grads on the bar exam, you should feel justifiably confident that with intense preparation and more hard work, you’ll pass with flying colors. You will become an officer of the court. “Officer of the court” is the most important and most meaningful title you can earn professionally, whatever your career path or achievements may turn out to be.
Professionalism should characterize you and your law practice throughout your career, in other words, representing the best interests of others, whether in the courtroom, at a deposition, or at a real estate closing. First and foremost, our privilege and our responsibility are the representation of others as we put their interests before ours in all professional matters. Professionalism is even more important today for you and for your future to achieve the highest levels of professional success.
Every day, we are reminded that the economy is creating serious consequences and changes for our profession at all levels and in many practice areas, including corporate law, mergers and acquisitions, real estate development, and so on. One might suspect that professionalism and such things as fiduciary responsibility and ethics might be subject to compromise in the face of hard and changing economic times such as we have been facing in the past several years. But that is not the case.
Professionalism is never out of date. Fiduciary responsibility and ethics in general are timeless and essential to the continued vitality and success of our legal profession and to your own future success—especially in tough economic times.
Many of us in my generation likewise began the practice of law in tough economic times. For most of us, there was no such thing as a high starting salary— or big-firm security. We started in smaller firms and worked exceedingly hard to develop and grow in the practice of law. We took everything that came in the door as we struggled to build a practice and name recognition. We worked to build a reputation for dependability and to create visibility. For all of us, professional success begins and ends by our being the best lawyer each of us can be through long days and many nights and weekends of “hitting the books.”
Carry forward the same work habits that have made you a success in law school: study, work hard, and put in long hours. There’s no excuse for less than excellent legal service. Like many lawyers, my law practice, my legal career, my life . . . have all been enhanced through volunteer service, through doing well by doing good.
But service in the organized bar, the community, or in pro bono work is never an excuse for falling short on law school academics or on lawyer responsibilities to clients in your career. Likewise, not being paid for service is never an excuse for less than excellence.
The ABA is a tremendous vehicle to develop your reputation for quality law practice and professionalism. Active members build a network of relationships, which lead to referrals. Numerous continuing legal education courses assure skill building and state bar requirements. And there are many volunteer service and leadership opportunities at the national and international levels
Always remember, practicing law is not what you do. It is who you are. And don’t forget as a lawyer that your volunteer service in the community, as well as in the profession, is a privilege and a responsibility and may often enhance your professional reputation even more than your success in court or at the negotiating table.
From the beginning of your practice of law, consistently allocate a certain percentage of your time to pro bono representation and to volunteer service in your local or state bar association and in the American Bar Association. This will demonstrate to others your commitment to the rule of law and to our profession.
Your success in the practice of law, whatever specialty or career course you choose, will consistently come down to one question—a question you should ask yourself every day: How do I make a positive difference in the lives of those I am privileged to serve?
Hopefully, my comments this evening regarding professionalism will be of some help to you as you chart your own course for professional success. Thank you again for letting me play a small part in this very special day for you, your family, and your friends.