Chancellor Weiss’s Remarks to Law Graduates May 22, 2008


Governor Jindal, President Lombardi, Members of the Board of Supervisors, Colleagues, Parents, Friends… and Members of the Law Center Class of 2008:

Class of 2008, this is a proud day for all of us and for all of you.

Although you leave us today, we are confident that you begin—that you “commence”— a future of accomplishment, professional satisfaction, and public service.

You have a rigorous foundation in both the common law and the civil law that qualifies you to practice skillfully not just in Louisiana, not just in the other 49 states of the United States, but throughout the world.

We confidently expect that you will be leaders—in this State, in your communities, at the bar and bench, and in the nation. And not just any leaders—but leaders who stand for positive, reasoned, honest change, and who care about the lives of others.

Today is a particularly special day for me because your class is the first to graduate during my tenure as Chancellor. From my first days here when Ashley Johnson and Delon Lewis came to talk to me about BLSA, to Carrie LeBlanc’s guiding me through Hats and Canes, to your enthusiastic participation in the new Chancellor’s Student Advisory Board, to Susie Sinno, Ben DiPalma, and Barret White coaching me for my cameo appearance in Assault and Flattery, to Chris Hester’s stalwart support for our funding initiatives in the Legislature only a week ago—you have been with me every step of the way.

Class of 2008: you will always be in my heart.

What is most important today, however, is not what will remain in my heart, or that of my faculty colleagues who share my fondness for you. No, what’s important is what you will take away from the Law Center when you go forth from here-what will remain in your hearts and your minds.

Let me suggest to you, and to those who love you who are here with you today, that there are four tightropes you will have to walk in the years to come.

First, you will face the tension between your will to win for your clients and your need to preserve your reputation and your integrity.

Reconciling these two values is no small challenge. Indeed, the Rules of Professional Conduct expressly require us to represent our clients’ “zealously”. On a more practical level, for better or for worse, success in the profession, and the clients that come with success, are determined to a considerable extent by a lawyer’s ability to win cases and win points at the bargaining table.

My advice to you, as you can guess, is to shy away from winning at all costs. Play within the rules. Give your opponent a break if you can. Don’t slice the baloney too thin. Keep an eye on your reputation for playing it straight with other lawyers and judges. Live to fight another day.

In fact, there is a paradox at work here: Not only can you win and keep your reputation and integrity intact—but by doing so, in the long run you will win more, not less. You have no greater asset than your credibility and trustworthiness with fellow lawyers and judges. Guard it with the utmost care.

The second tightrope you will walk is the one that runs between putting in all the hard work necessary to succeed as a lawyer and having a life. Let’s face it: Good lawyers work very hard.

But, as a very wise mentor once warned me, our work does things to us, not just for us. So again you must walk the tightrope, being careful that you don’t lose precious moments and precious relationships in a Faustian bargain with success. Don’t ever lose sight of those folks who are here today, those who got you here and kept you here and who will stand behind you as your career unfolds.

So, as a client of mine once wrote in a “how to” business book, BE THERE for the people who count in your life—for birthdays, holidays, engagements, weddings, celebrations, crises, and, yes, even at times of great loss. BE THERE. They will remember it, and so will you.

And take the time to smell the roses along the way. Plan your vacations. Take your vacations. You’ve heard the old saw—”the law is a jealous mistress.” Tell Mistress Law to get lost now and then. Again, there is a paradox: You will be the better lawyer, not just the happier person, if you do.

The third tightrope you will have to walk is the one that runs between avoiding rigid dogmatism, on the one hand, and staying away from paralyzing moral relativism on the other.

As for dogmatism, there is no surer recipe for failure as a lawyer than too much confidence in your own point of view. Lawyers call it “falling in love with your own case”. No, instead you must be able to absorb ideas and approaches other than your own, to give them their due in a fair and measured way, and then, and only then, arrive at some conclusions about how those ideas stand up against your own.

And even then do not fall into the pitfall of rigidity and orthodoxy, for tomorrow you may discover—indeed, you almost certainly will discover—something new that causes you to rethink that which today seems so clear.

Judge Robert Sack of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York put it well when he said, “there will be times when you will be hounded by all manner of doubt. And others around you will seem so sure.”

But, Judge Sack reminds us, when you are tempted to be “so sure”, remember Oliver Cromwell’s plea . . . : ‘I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.'”—THINK THAT YE MAY BE MISTAKEN—a legend that the great judge Learned Hand said should be written “over the portals of every church, every courthouse, and at every crossroads in the nation . . .” The spirit of liberty, Hand wrote, is “in part the spirit that is not too sure that it is right”.

The trick, however, is to keep an open mind without giving in to moral relativism in which all arguments seem to have more or less the same validity and you cease to believe in much of anything.

And so you must carefully safeguard that most valuable tool you picked up in your very best classes here: the ability to think critically about legal and policy arguments and to reach a reasoned conclusion about which arguments make sense, and which don’t. Otherwise, you’ve lost your moral compass and indeed become that most pejorative term for a lawyer—nothing more than your client’s mouthpiece.

The late Judge Alvin B. Rubin, one of the Law Center’s greatest alumni and teachers, had a good formula for ferreting out a bogus argument: he called it “a chain of impeccable logic that leads inexorably to the wrong conclusion.”

Keep an open, but a critical mind, and both will serve you well.

The fourth and final tightrope you will have to walk is, perhaps, the most important, the most fundamental of all. It’s the tightrope that runs between using your formidable legal talents as a force for good and a force for evil, in your profession and in your community.

Let me share with you an image, an analogy, that I think will drive the point home.

One of the first legal concepts, or supposed legal concepts, I ever learned came from my father, who, bless his heart, was not a lawyer. When I was very young, my father told me that “the law” “treated” a prizefighter’s hands as a deadly weapon. This meant, he explained, that if a professional boxer beat up another person in a street brawl, as distinguished from an organized fight, he could be charged with assault with a deadly weapon just as if he had shot someone with a gun or hit someone over the head with a crow bar.

Now, I have no idea whether my father’s rendition of the law of boxer assaults was right or wrong, but I think the notion of a boxer’s skill as a weapon provides a good analogy to the skills and the learning you have acquired in the course of your legal education.

The rules, the skills, the mental and verbal dexterity you have learned can serve as a thing of beauty, something to admire, a strong force for promoting the common good… but, like the prizefighter’s fists used in the wrong way outside of the ring, they also can be put to very destructive use.

You now have the ability to talk yourself, and maybe even other people, into almost anything. You have the ability to find loopholes, to sell the 10% argument 30% of the time, to conceive and articulate legal defenses and subterfuges that can be used to justify the worst kind of anti-social or even criminal behavior.

And all you have to do is pick up the newspaper to know that every month, every year, there are wayward members of our profession who do just that. Some get away with it, at least for a while. Most ultimately don’t.

Be aware of what you are doing. Use your legal fists with the greatest of care. They can keep you out of trouble, or they can get you into trouble.

Before you leave us, I offer one final hope for your future. Long after you have forgotten the rules of law you have learned in your classes, long after you have forgotten the particulars of your first moot court argument, long after you have forgotten case names and code sections and even the names of Supreme Court Justices, what will stay with you are the ideals and the dreams you had for yourself when you came and went, through our doors, day by day for the last three years. What’s important is not whether your ideals and dreams square with mine or with those of the faculty or with those of any of your classmates. What is important is that for the long balance of your careers, you nurture, and remain able to get back in touch with, the values that were in your head and your heart while you were students here: what is just and unjust, fair and unfair, right and wrong. Please don’t ever lose your ability to summon up the sense of injustice you felt when you saw a law or a legal institution fail real people.

Class of 2008: May fortune smile upon you. May your sense of injustice stir you to action, move you to set things right, to curb unfairness within the noble confines of the rule of law. And may the better angels of your legal nature remain with you, now and forever, as you quest for justice in the days to come.