Santa Clara Law School Commencement Speech May 19, 2007

Graduation Speech

U.S. Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman

Santa Clara University School of Law
May 19, 2007
Santa Clara, California

Father Locatelli, Dean Polden, Honorable Trustees, Distinguished Faculty, Members of the Class of 2007, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today, I come home to Santa Clara and receive a law degree with you.  Thank you for allowing me to share this special day.  I didn’t make my law school graduation in Chicago because I was too busy with the California Bar Review course.  I have always regretted missing that graduation, especially in light of the fact that I have never practiced law in California.  If you remember anything from my remarks this morning, I hope you will retain this little practice pointer:  try to sit for the Bar Exam only in states where you will actually practice law.

President Locatelli, I like what you’ve done with the place since I studied here in the 1970s.  Moving The Alameda from its dangerous route through the center of campus deprives students of the challenge of running that gauntlet from the dorms to class.  I trust the casualty rate has dropped.  It is a huge improvement.

It’s always good to see the venerable Mission Church and its powerful reminder of the religious influence in this world-renowned institution for higher education.  As the years have passed I have come to appreciate even more my rigorous Jesuit education in wrestling with issues of morality, ethics, and respect for others—the cornerstone on which much of our secular law is based.

Inscribed on the cross opposite the Mission Church are the words “He that shall persevere to the end; he shall be saved.”  I found that piece of scripture comforting as I struggled through my course work at Santa Clara.  I have thought a lot about its message as I tackled the work of my professional life.  Aside from its obvious religious meaning, I believe it applies equally to the challenges of secular life.  I have come to understand, however, that perseverance need not be a solitary burden.  No one is an island, forced to go it alone, and today is as much a celebration of your academic perseverance as it is a recognition of the efforts of those who have helped you reach your goals.

It is safe to say that none of us would be here were it not for the support of someone else.  Parents, friends, spouses, teachers, and children all share in the achievements we acknowledge today.  I am reminded of the words chiseled on the tombstone of the great industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie:  “Here lies a man who knew how to enlist in his service better men than himself.”  The epitaph is a fitting attribution to those who support each of us, enabling us to exceed our personal limitations and excel through the power of cumulative strength and collective endeavor.  To the extent that I have been modestly successful in my legal career, I owe a debt of gratitude to a great many people upon whom I have called for their able teaching, their prescient mentoring, their unwavering collegiality, and their steadfast support, which in no small measure have contributed to whatever I have done.  Even today, the quality of my work would suffer without the indispensable teamwork of the women and men who staff my chambers.  I salute you, the class of 2007, and also acknowledge those people in your lives who have helped ensure your individual successes.

Whether or not you ever actively practice law, a legal education is an excellent investment in your future, the future of the community in which you will live, the state, and the nation.  A law degree will equip you with the intellectual tools to do well and to do good, no matter what you do with your life.  But I can confidently predict as you sit here today that you cannot know what you will ultimately do with this powerful tool.  Indeed, the opportunities are limitless.

I will tell you of my earliest memory of the first day of my own law school education.  There were about 75 law students gathered in our first class—contracts.  No one knew anyone else.  We were seated randomly.  When the professor entered the room, it was clear that he meant business.  Disposing of all the typical first-day pleasantries, he began his lecture without hesitation.  To this day, I swear that what I heard during the next ninety minutes was little more than gibberish.  I felt like we’d been the butt of a cruel joke.  Indeed, I found by the end of the class period that my head was spinning with legal terms and subtle nuances of the law that seemed impossible to grasp.  Before we headed to our next class, torts, I said to the student next to me, and to the two people on the other side of him, “How about we get together and talk about some of this stuff?”  There I was, not two hours into my law school career, and I knew I needed some serious help—help tackling law school’s academic rigors and, more importantly, help maintaining my sanity.

Thus was born a study group that changed my life.  We met at least once, sometimes twice a day.  We outlined the casebooks, we reviewed lectures, we debated, we argued, and we constantly challenged one another.  Each of us honed our skills—all with one single-minded goal—to make it through law school.  In the process, we became lawyers.
Luckily, we had some success.  Three of the four of us made it onto the Law Review—two articles editors and an executive editor.  One went on to clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger and to have a peerless legal career in Washington, D.C., including a stint as an attorney in the White House Counsel’s office under President Bill Clinton.  I could not have known on graduation day how helpful that friendship forged in law school would later prove to be.  Another member of our study group became Managing Partner of Bartlit Beck, now a highly regarded litigation boutique in Chicago, which began several years ago when a small group of partners left the firm of Kirkland & Ellis.  You know what happened to me.

What happened to the member of our study group who didn’t make the Law Review?  Well, he took a two-hour elective seminar in real estate law, practiced for less than two years, and is now a Senior Managing Director of The Blackstone Group in New York, a multi-billion dollar commercial real estate business, becoming fabulously wealthy.  There’s a lesson there somewhere.

My point is simple.  The work you have put into earning this degree can and will open many doors for you.  Whether you choose to practice law or parlay your experience into a successful career in the business world, or return to the academic world, you have the tools to do great things.  For additional proof, look no further than the 2008 presidential race, which includes at least five lawyers:  Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and John Edwards.

I love our profession.  And I am passionate about adhering to the principles embodied in the Rule of Law.  You need only look to the fragility of various governments around the world which rise on great hope of a better life and fall when they fail to embrace the cardinal principles we lawyers worship.

Adherence to the Rule of Law engenders the sole test of legitimacy in a democracy—the consent of the governed.  Maintain their trust by your fidelity to first principles and you will have their full support.  Disregard the Rule of Law and you may very well lose more than your exalted position in society.  It is no secret that public opinion polls reveal some disrespect for our profession.

But make no mistake.  The law degree you receive today attests in no small measure to the strength and legitimacy of the Rule of Law.  It is now your sacred obligation to insure on behalf of your future clients that they abide the agreements they have solemnly entered; and that disputes are honestly adjudicated in an adversary system of justice by strict compliance with carefully structured rules and procedures in the courtroom.  We’ve come a long way from our historical experience of uncivil confrontations where might makes right.  After all, it was not that long ago that disputes were decided in trials by combat, confessions were extracted on the rack, and imprisonment was at the whim of the Sovereign.

Today you will receive more than a parchment that will hang in a place of honor on your office wall.  You will be welcomed into membership in a sacred and honorable profession that protects the freedom of the individual and places individual rights on a higher pedestal than the interests of the State.  It is a profession founded on the Judeo-Christian traditions of respect for the dignity of the person and the love of others.  It is a system of laws, and not of men; a system that holds as its cardinal principle that no one is above the law.  In this country the Rule of Law embraces the paradigm that the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land and that our government is subject to various checks and balances; and that both are ultimately beholden to the consent of the governed for their legitimacy and our nation’s very existence.  

This piece of paper you are about to receive will arm you with a very powerful arrow in your quiver; one that will enable you to do well and do good.  Because your law degree is such a powerful tool, I caution you to take your ethical obligations seriously.  In dealing with others ensure that your word is your bond.  Know that your position within your community will rise in direct proportion to the quality of your work and the way in which you conduct yourself.  Let your actions serve as an example to everyone.  When in doubt, ask yourself, “Would I want what I have done detailed on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper?”  If the answer is no, take a different approach.

Conducting yourself in an ethical manner will pay dividends both for the profession as a whole and for your individual careers.  During the confirmation process that culminated in my appointment to the United States Court of Appeals, I was gratified by the support I received from lawyers who had been opposing counsel in cases I handled throughout my career.  Simply put, people remember professionalism and courtesy.  Conversely, they never forget the opposite. 

Keep that maxim in mind because adhering to a high standard of professional conduct will place you in fine company among the many distinguished alumni from the Santa Clara University School of Law who have used their education to do well and do good.  They include, among others:
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren;
Edward A. Panelli, former Justice of the California Supreme Court;
Phyllis Hamilton, Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California;
 Leon E. Panetta, former Congressman and Chief of Staff to President Clinton;
Eugene M. Hyman, Judge of the Superior Court for the County of Santa Clara;
Tom Dunlap, former Vice-President and General Counsel for Intel Corp.;
Carrie Dwyer, General Counsel and Executive Vice-President for Charles Schwab Corp.;
Elizabeth Harris, Senior Corporate Counsel, Safeway, Inc.;
and
Thomas Romig, former Judge Advocate General of the United States, and Dean of Washburn University School of Law in Kansas.

Many other alumni of this distinguished institution hold partnership and associate positions at prestigious law firms across the country.  And untold others are solo practitioners who are heroes to their individual clients, seeing them through difficult divorces or a brush with the criminal law, addressing problems in running a business, or helping to save the environment, to name but a few accomplishments of Santa Clara graduates.

You have chosen a particularly opportune time to join the legal profession.  Internet privacy issues, worldwide personal jurisdiction in cyberspace, human cloning, bioethics, and the human genome mapping project, with its attendant question of access to DNA profiles by insurance underwriters, or its beneficial use to exonerate innocent persons convicted of crimes they did not commit, are but a few of the legal challenges we must address.  As the law struggles to keep pace with emerging science and technology, you will have a unique opportunity to put your hand on the tiller and influence the course of the law, whether that direction comes from making policy, advocacy, counseling, or adjudication.

We also stand at the cusp of a monumental period in our nation’s history—an era of profound impact on the development of the law, and a time that empowers lawyers with the tools and ability to influence that development—whether for good or for ill.  The war on terror has raised important civil rights, national security, and detention issues.  These concerns have also sparked a nationwide debate about the most effective and humane immigration policy, and how best to resolve the very personal legal disputes that arise within the complex web of immigration laws.

Soon you will become officers of the court.  No matter what you do with your law degree, do not lose sight of the fact that these technical rules you have been asked to master are the foundation on which our system of justice is built.  And do not forget that these rules must be applied fairly and consistently to have any force.  Unlike the legislative or executive branches, the judicial branch does not control the purse or the military.  Our legitimacy depends on the quality of our work, the persuasiveness of our opinions, and their reasonableness.  For ultimately, it is our ability to maintain the respect of the people for the quality of reasoned decisions that insures the survival of the “least dangerous branch” of our government.

Recently the judiciary has been subject to criticism from both the legislative and executive branches.  Indeed, claims of “judicial activism” and “legislating from the bench” have become popular fodder in the news media.  Allow me to join my colleagues who have chosen to speak out decrying these criticisms—criticisms that challenge the very independence of the judiciary.  A judiciary free from political influence is vital to safeguarding the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.  That we sometimes reach politically unpopular decisions in no way undermines the need for our independence.  Time and again we have seen political opinion change with each election cycle.  The judiciary does not have the luxury of such flippancy.  Indeed, as retired Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently put it, if we’re not making someone mad, we probably aren’t doing our jobs.  Lest we underestimate the seriousness of these increasing challenges to the judiciary, Justice O’Connor reminds us that, though the path from democracy to dictatorship is a long one, “we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”

I ask that you conduct yourself as best you are able to safeguard the sanctity and independence of our judicial system; for statutes and constitutions do not protect the judiciary:  the people do.  In that regard, the responsibility rests with you, the newest generation of lawyers, to act as our advocates and as goodwill ambassadors to the public we serve.  Help protect us so that we may all carry on the work of protecting the precious rights granted by our Constitution.

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I commend you on achieving your law degree.  No doubt that there will be more accolades to come.  Whatever you do with this special commission, do good with it.  Thank you for the honor of addressing you today.  I wish you every success in your future careers.  I am confident you will make Santa Clara proud.