Friends and family, faculty and staff and most importantly, graduates. I am honored to be with you this morning and I congratulate each member of this class of 2009. You had a lot of help to get here today. You should take a few minutes to thank those important people who helped you, counseled you, paid your tuition and told you what you needed to hear. This is as much their celebration as it is yours.
It is customary to tell a commencement audience how honored you are to be at their graduation but I want you to know I really mean it. I know how much this day means to you and being able to share it with you is very special.
I feel a real connection to your class. Two members of your class agreed to begin a one-year clerkship in my chambers in a couple of months. We look forward to Sally Richardson’s return. She was an intern summer before last and everyone in my chambers became very fond of her. And her work was outstanding.
I also look forward to working with and spending time with Jerome Moroux. Jerome is a very special case. His dad, Tony, who died much too young, was my very first law clerk in 1976, when I was a baby judge on the trial court. Having Jerome in the office is almost like having a grandson as a law clerk.
Speaking of law clerks, I have had over 80 clerks in my 32 plus years
on the bench from law schools all over the country. Some of my best clerks were from LSU. Andi Carroll-Professor Carroll to you, an LSU grad-was one of my all time favorites and if you have been in one of her classes, I know you can understand why.
I know I am standing between you and the real celebrations to follow and I will not keep you long. I ask for your attention for no longer than 10 minutes.
Almost 50 years ago, when I was in your seat as a law graduate, I was so glad to be finished with law school. I thought it would never end. I barely remember the commencement speaker except he was exhorting us to do our share of pro bono work and public service. As important as public service is–and it is important–like most graduates that day, I was focused on more immediate, practical concerns such as getting a job and taking care of my military obligation.
So fully recognizing that you have immediate pressing problems such as repaying student loans and getting a job, I have learned a few lessons during my journey of almost fifty years since law school and I can’t resist making a few suggestions.
Just remember: a little luck, integrity and hard work are the keys to success as a lawyer and in life, generally.
As you begin the practice of law, realize that life is full of surprises. It will not always be easy and it will not always be fair. No job, including the practice of law, is always heart poundingly exciting. Like all jobs, it has its tedious, repetitious side. But it should also be fun, and in my experience, the practice of law is fun. If you absolutely hate practicing law, I hope you can find something else to do. If it is not fun, what is the point? Remember, you always have choices. Although I know it doesn’t seem so to you now, life comes at you fast and passes very quickly.
Don’t discount the role of luck in the course of your life. But you must be able to recognize your luck and be able to act on it. My wife had an uncle who was very successful in business. I asked him how he did it. He said, “Well, I was standing beside the river and saw a log float by and I grabbed it and rode along until I saw a faster log and I grabbed that one and on and on down the river.” So many people I know look at their life as a series of fortuitous events.
I am frequently asked by my law clerks after we become friends, “How can I get to be a federal judge?” I am always a little embarrassed to say that I can give them only two hints, neither of which is very helpful. First, you have to be in the right place at the right time, most for which is fortuitous. Almost every federal judge I know thinks that their appointment was the most improbable one ever made.
In addition to being in the right place at the right time, the other related point is that when a judgeship or some other potential opportunity comes along that you truly want to take advantage of, go for it. It may never come your way again. As the great philosopher Yogi Barra said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Lawyers are trained to be risk adverse and advise clients how to avoid risks, but it is rare that we achieve real success without taking risks.
But the willingness to act on and take advantage of those lucky breaks make the difference between success and mediocrity. You can also make your own luck by building relationships. In a world focused on technology, people remain the X factor.
It helps to work for and with a variety of people and garner supporters along the way. We all need support and encouragement from friends to put us in a position to achieve our goals. And that works both ways-we should give as much support and encouragement as we receive. In fact, giving support is the best way to get support. Opportunities come from our relationships with others. Luck is not as random as people think. There are other ways you can make your own luck: by demonstrating your integrity and by having a strong work ethic.
First, firmly bottom your career on honesty and trustworthiness. This includes small matters as well as more important ones. We should see ourselves now as honest and trustworthy. We must have integrity as human beings above all else. The alternative is to make no particular decision on that subject and wait for an occasion that requires us to decide whether to act honestly or not. Either I am a trustworthy person because that is who I am, or trust is something that depends on with whom I am dealing and what is at stake. A lot of people have found that it is a critical mistake to allow circumstances to determine their integrity and character. Those of us who deal with the criminal side of the docket see sad examples of this in case after case. When Bernie Madoff began his career as a young accountant and stockbroker, I doubt that he intended to become the biggest thief in history or spend the last years of his life in prison. My hunch is that he allowed circumstances to determine his character.
I am not saying it does not take courage to be an honest person. It does. Often it takes more courage to refuse to yield on the small corruptions of practice like when a partner tells you to fake a certificate of service, than to resist a major fraud. Some will say that the small cheats are just part of practicing law. Not so. A lawyer who cannot be relied upon to tell the truth or be trustworthy will quickly find himself an outcast in the legal community. You must decide to be an honest lawyer and an honest person.
The other practical point is hard work and good preparation. Alvin Rubin, a great lawyer and judge who taught in this law school I believe over 30 years and mentored and supported me and so many lawyers and judges, was quick to tell anyone who would listen the importance of being well prepared. He always made the point that some of the best lawyers he dealt with did not graduate at the top of the class and perhaps because of this, they made a special effort to always be well prepared. I agree with Judge Rubin that no matter how much brain power you have there is no substitute for hard work and thorough preparation.
Dedication to honesty, hard work and taking advantage of opportunities are the keys to creating your own luck.
That is my message to you. I am happy to welcome you to the legal profession, and I know you will do us all proud.
Thanks again for allowing me to join you.