Olson advises law graduates at 2004 commencement ceremony

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Claiming disdain for the entire genre of graduation speeches, United States Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson offered Duke Law graduates darkly humorous advice for failing in law and in life when he addressed them at their hooding ceremony on May 8 th in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The 307 members of the graduating class of 2004 included 228 students who earned the JD degree, 78 who earned the one-year LLM in American law, and one, Yoav Oestereicher, who earned the S.JD.

Directing his tongue-in-cheek remarks to the few graduates who might be determined to “go off the track,” Mr. Olson advised them to “go it alone” and resist teamwork, and instead wallow in envy and anger at the success of their colleagues.

“It is remarkable how much an organization can succeed if its members cheer on and help one another. It is also amazing how swiftly an enterprise can be undermined, demoralized and sabotaged by a few acts of selfishness, envy or back-biting.”

Mr. Olson added that cultivating a smug and superior attitude, carelessness, stifling their individuality, setting easily attainable goals, and avoiding risks, such as those that come with taking on unpopular pro bono cases and government service, would ensure failure. Alternatively, challenging oneself and engaging in public service would breed likely success.

“Every lawyer I have ever known who has spent some time working in government has come away richer in friendships, experience and perspective. They’ve become better, more versatile, and more successful as lawyers and more productive as citizens,” he said.

Introduced by Dean Katharine T. Bartlett as a man known for “his strength of purpose, integrity and judgment,” Mr. Olson noted that risk leads to insight, as successful people learn more from their failures than their successes. “Experience is important, but the quality of one’s experience is more important, and what we learn from what we experience is more important still.”

The Solicitor General concluded his speech by noting that failure will be hard to achieve for members of the graduating class. “You are talented, hard-working and resourceful or you wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “Those who endure will prevail.”

Earlier in the evening, Jeremy Entwistle employed a light-hearted tone in his speech on behalf of the JD class. Through childhood anecdotes, he cautioned his classmates to be vigilant to injustice and to take responsibility for their individual actions. He ended his speech with an energetic, a capella rendition of “My Way,” which he and his classmates said best described his law school experience.

Urmas Peiker, speaking on behalf of the LL.M. class, reminded his classmates of the value of friendship and the necessity to always be ethical, honest, open and friendly. “At the end of the day, your reputation is all you have,” he said.

In her remarks to the class of 2004, Dean Bartlett commended the scholarship, activities and energies of its members, saying they changed the law school. “What you stand for, who you are, how you view the world — have influenced your classmates and your faculty,” she said. “You are our ambassadors, and whether we remain a top echelon law school depends, in no small part, on what you do, who you are and what others come to think of your abilities, your character and your professionalism.”

The evening’s final speaker, Peter Kahn ’76, chair of the Law School’s Board of Visitors, urged the graduates to take advantage of the “extended family” of alumni, who are eager for them to succeed, and to become active as alumni themselves.

“Duke Law School, like the family it is, will always welcome you back,” he said.