I’m honored to have been chosen by my fellow students as the JD class speaker. Often speakers are chosen for their wit, their eloquence, or their ability to inspire. I don’t fall into any of those categories, so my humble goal today is to get through the next few minutes without embarrassing myself, Duke Law School, or any of you for selecting me.
In recent weeks, a number of individuals have informed me that I am about to enter the “real world.” The implication is that somehow the last three years, and the years of education before that, were not “real” — or at least less “real” — than the world we are about to enter. Sure, many of the problems we tackled in law school were dreamed up by our professors after watching far too many Philadelphia Eagles games or Desperate Housewives episodes . And I realize that many of us would like to think that some of the things we said or did over the past few years were not real. But the truth is that our law school experience was every bit as real as the years stretching out ahead of us. We helped real people through our participation in clinics and pro bono work. We developed real relationships with our peers and our professors. And some of us even won real championships in things like bowling and softball.
More likely, these well-meaning individuals are using “real” as a code word for “hard.” Law school has not been a walk in the park, but we can all acknowledge that some challenges lie ahead of us. Namely, in just a few short months, we have to take and pass the bar. Some day soon, we’ll have to get up and go to work every morning wearing at least business casual, pay our bills — including student loans, and worry about impressing our clients and colleagues. And we’ll have to do all of this while trying to maintain a fulfilling personal life. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, Above the Law recently reported that the legal profession is imploding. What does that mean for us? It means that we are entering the “real world” with more uncertainty than any law school class in recent history. But in spite of this uncertainty, there are many things we can be certain of as we leave this wonderful place.
We can be certain that when we leave here we will have obtained a top quality legal education. We will have been tested by one of the top law schools in the country and not found wanting. At Duke’s graduate and professional student convocation in 2006, former Dean of the Law School Katherine Bartlett — in a speech about the dangers of elitism — remarked that less than 3 percent of Americans have professional degrees. Add to that the fact that only a fraction of those 3 percent earn degrees from a school as highly esteemed as Duke. I remember at the time thinking how fortunate I was to be part of that group, and I am even more thankful now. While having a degree from Duke Law does not make us “better” than anyone else, or insulate us from the effects of a recession, it does mean that we are better equipped to weather the current economic troubles than many of our neighbors across the country.
We can be certain that the important and weighty issues that attracted us to law school in the first place — things like justice, equality, and liberty — are still important and weighty issues. At times, we lost sight of them. These lofty ideas seemed far removed from on-campus interviews and the mundane procedural rules that demanded much of our attention. But all the while we were coming to understand more deeply why these issues matter, and we were being equipped with skills that we can employ in their service. Our obligation, as members of the legal profession, to work in pursuit of these goals — not against them — is constant., whatever our chosen career path.
We can be certain that personal and professional fulfillment are within our reach. The promise of financial security that drew many graduating law students to law firms across the country is no longer a guarantee. If there is a bright side to this — and I believe there is — it’s that perhaps we will begin to focus more on things like qualify of life and quality of work. We will take this opportunity to align our professional plans with our personal goals and priorities, instead of adjusting them to fit the profession. We will remember what we were passionate about at the beginning of law school, and reassess our plans to make sure we have not inadvertently abandoned those goals.
Finally, we can be certain that members of the Duke Law class of 2009 will emerge across the nation and around the world as leaders in the legal profession, business, government, and their communities. The depth of talent in this class is remarkable. I am honored to be part of it. Instead of letting the current economic turmoil deter us from reaching our goals, we will view these challenges as opportunities. This isn’t new to us. We didn’t decide to come to law school seeking the path of least resistance. We came to law school because we knew it would present us with the capacity to think critically about difficult situations and work toward creative solutions.
To the professors, staff, family, and friends who have supported us during our law school careers, thank you. To the Class of 2009, congratulations on your accomplishments. It has been an absolute pleasure to make this journey with you, and I wish you much success in the years to come.