May 28, 2000, 2:00 p.m., e.d.t.


MAY 28, 2000

Thank you Dean Young for your kind introduction.

It is a pleasure to be here today, and a privilege to have the opportunity to deliver the commencement address at George Washington University this year. I graduated from law school 48 years ago, and was unable to attend my graduation ceremony on the west coast because I was serving as a law clerk back here in Washington. So the closest I can come to identifying with the combination of elation and anticipation which you must feel on receiving your degrees is the time I left Washington bound for Phoenix, where I had accepted a job in a law firm. I was to be married that summer, and between us, my wife and I knew one other couple in Phoenix. I had visited the city one other time in May, when the weather was warm but pleasant, but that visit had not prepared me for what Phoenix was like on the first day of July. As I came out of the mountains to the northeast and descended into the Salt River Valley, where Phoenix is located, I saw a thermometer on a bank which registered 110 degrees. I was reminded of a story that my great uncle had told me about Arizona.

[Episcopal mission]

I became the ninth lawyer in what was then one of the two largest firms in the city -- the entire county at that time had a population of 300,000 and hunters could shoot mountain lions within 25 miles of the city hall. I spent 16 years practicing law there, having largely a trial practice based on referrals from other lawyers. I enjoyed all of it, and the structure of the law practice at that time was such that I was able to earn a decent living, while still finding time for my wife and children and some civic activities. Lawyers were not nearly as time conscious then as they are now; this meant that they probably earned less money than they might have, but had a more enjoyable life.

In 1969 I went to the Department of Justice as an Assistant Attorney General, and in 1972 to the Supreme Court where I have been ever since. Each of you will undoubtedly look back many years from now, upon your lives, the same way I am doing now, and I will give you a few bits of advice which may or may not be of help in looking ahead to your careers. Law graduates such as you are in a very fortunate position today. The demand for your services has never been higher -- or the pay better -- and you are likely to have an opportunity to do interesting work. For those of you desiring to go into governmental or public interest work, you will also have the opportunity to become an advocate for a cause in which you believe. Compare this with the lot of many less fortunate citizens -- who either through lack of preparation or lack of ability are forced to spend their working lives gong to work day after day not with a sense of anticipation, but with a sense either of boredom or dread.

But just because you have the ability and education to do challenging work you will be faced with choices beginning now, and continuing from time to time throughout your professional lives. And how wisely you make these choices will determine how well spent you think your life is when you look back at it.

Probably none of you in the graduating class, and few of you in the audience, will remember the play and movie entitled You Can't Take It With You. It was a good movie, starring Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, and a very good supporting cast. Lionel Barrymore plays the part of grandpa Vanderhoff, an eccentric old man who retired from business sometime ago to simply do as he pleased. In the course of the movie, he says:

"How many of us would have settled thirty-five years ago for what we are today? It is only a lucky few who can say they even came close."

There are a couple of different ways to interpret this remark. One can say it means that you should never aspire to anything, and you will therefore never be disappointed. But this is the counsel of cynics. A more sensible reading is to say: aspire all you wish to be the governor of your state, or the CEO of some large corporation or the President of a university. Certainly a high percentage of law students are pickers up of gauntlets and these are each very demanding gauntlets. But recognize that for these positions, many are called but few are chosen. Develop a capacity to enjoy pastimes and occupations that many can enjoy simultaneously -- love for another, being a good parent to a child, service to your community. All of these take time, and their rewards are much less dramatic than being chosen for high office. But if you have missed out on high office, and have learned to enjoy these other fruits of life, maybe when you look back after 35 years you will be able to say that you did at least come close.

Right now I am sure most of you are trying to decide, or have just decided, what offer to accept as you enter the legal profession. I left the private practice of law 30 years ago, and though I try to keep up with it through two of my three children who are lawyers and my former law clerks, everything I know about practice today is obviously hearsay. But it does seem to me that some generalizations are warranted.

If one looks at two hypothetical models of law practice -- realizing that there may be multiple variations of either -- the first would be to go with a large firm in a large city, and the second would be to go with a small firm in a small city. The large firm in the large city offers the benefit of a higher associate salary to start, and probably does some cutting edge litigation or transaction work. But in a firm like this only a small part of the cases go to trial, and much time -- remunerative time for the firm since the work can be leveraged -- is spent on discovery and document review. That work can be very tedious for those who are actually doing it, however profitable for the firm.

Large firms in large cities try to hire the cream of the crop, so to speak, of law graduates, and since they must now pay them more than ever they are bound to emphasize more than ever their need for billable hours from associates. So the pluses, speaking very generally, of a large firm are maximizing your income as an associate, and perhaps getting the opportunity to do some interesting work. The drawbacks are the relentless demand for billable hours which may leave less time than one would like for a personal life.

The second model is a smaller firm in a smaller city, where you will certainly receive a smaller salary than you will in a large city. There will be less novel litigation, but the chances that you will actually go to court and try a case are probably much greater. Here you will have more time for your family, for civic activities, and hobbies, and will be able to feel more a part of the community in which you live than if you worked in a large firm in a large city.

I am sure all of you are aware, some painfully, that opportunities for employment depend very much on your performance in law school. But for those whose careers in legal academia have been undistinguished, I can report there is hope. There were two recognized leaders of the trial bar when I practiced in Phoenix many years ago: one had finished in about the middle of his class at the University of Arizona College of Law, and another had attended the night program of one of the law schools here in Washington without gaining high academic honors. And for those of you who have done very well in law school, and seem to be riding a wave of success, I remind you of the old Irish saying: "You should be nice to the people you meet on your way up in the world, because you will probably meet them again on your way down."

For all of life's disparities in talent and wealth, each of us is given exactly the same amount of time in each hour, and in each day, and in each year. It is a limited amount, and it is impossible for anyone to be so rich in "time" that he can enjoy every single one of the things which time may buy. So, as I have said earlier, there are choices to be made. But it is very important for each of us that these choices be made consciously, with as much knowledge as possible of their consequences. You should consider these choices not only in terms of financial reward, and enjoyment of work, but in terms of how much time they will demand. The Greek philosopher Theophrastus said more than 2000 years ago that "Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend." The French satirist Rabelais said pretty much the same thing 1800 years later: "Nothing is so dear and precious as time."

I congratulate each of you upon receiving degrees on this happy occasion, and wish that each if you, when you look back 35 years from now, will think that your life has been time well spent.