To the Class of 2014
Dean Michael Wolff shares a few words of wit and wisdom to the newest SLU LAW graduates, who celebrated their hooding ceremony on May 15.
To the Class of 2014:
The last temptation of a dean is to offer gratuitous advice to students as we finish a successful academic year and bid “so long” (but not goodbye) to an accomplished class of graduates. We know there is a light that flickers in the brains of most women and men who come to law school, a light that is a desire to help others, to be active and effective citizens of the community and to serve the public interest.
And the temptation for me – impossible to resist – is to sum up some of the lessons we hope we have imparted and to offer advice that we may have neglected to share with you.
We who are privileged to be your teachers want you to be effective lawyers and that means we want you to be effective as citizens, as colleagues, as leaders, as human beings. So I offer some parting shots – some favorite pieces of advice.
I selected these bits of advice by the following exacting criteria: (1) I shamelessly borrowed some them from those whom I have known over the years, (2) I quoted just enough from famous authors to give the appearance of profundity or research, (3) some of these bits of advice I have violated to my great regret, and (4) all of them would fit nicely into the high school commencement speech I never was invited to give.
These are random pieces of advice. They are not the Ten Commandments; there are ten, of course, but you are free to violate them pretty much without fear of damnation.
You can get a lot accomplished if you are willing not to take the credit for it. A corollary: if you want power, give it to others. Control freaks actually control very little.
If someone confides in you, keep the secret. If you share the secret, even with your most trusted friend, it no longer is a secret.
Learn from your clients and your co-workers. They know more about life than you do. That may be why they are your clients. And your co-workers – including especially those who may not have law degrees – often are wiser than you.
When someone offends you, write that person a message if you feel the need. Tell him or her exactly how you feel. Be sarcastic. Then do not send it. If it is an email, save it in your “drafts” and look at it in a week. Then delete. If it is a letter, put it in a drawer not in an envelope. Whatever you do, do not post it on social media. Email and social media can rob us of the time to think things over.
People will forget what you said, the poet Maya Angelou observed, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
You do not really need to screen your telephone calls. Years ago when I was in Legal Services, in a fit of what seemed like misguided egalitarianism, I decided that if I was “in,” I was “in” for everyone. If I needed to get work done, uninterrupted, I was out for everyone. It still is true – but now, I am sad to say, hardly anyone calls.
You are entitled to your own opinions. But not to your own facts. Strive to be accurate sources of information. When I was lobbying occasionally over the years, I learned that there are three sources of power in politics and government: money (for campaigns), votes and information. If you have no money to fund campaigns and do not control a major bloc of votes, the only thing you may have to offer is information. Accurate information sometimes is enough. Inaccurate information (also known as “lies”) can rob you of your most valuable asset – your reputation.
Learn from your failures. When I taught trial advocacy, I told students that you learn from cases that you lose – because you re-try them in your head for years – and probably learn not nearly as much from cases that you win. Admit your mistakes in the active voice: “I was wrong,” not: “Mistakes were made.” If something isn't working, try something else. Here's a definition of insanity: Doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. But I digress.
Digress. Let your thoughts wander, think about things other than law, politics or public affairs . . . like science, religion, art, music, “Dancing with the Stars.” Whatever. Legal training teaches us to be focused, to get to the issue, to the point that we come to regard our clients, our loved ones, our non-lawyer friends as little bundles of irrelevancies. Are they really?
- Pay attention to the light that flickers in your brain. It's asking you: Is this why I went to law school? I hope you think about that question often. And my fondest wish for you is that the answer – always – will be “yes.” You cannot do better than to follow the flippant but sage advice of Mark Twain. “Always do right,” he said. “This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”