2020 AALS Presidential Address

The Power of Words

The Meeting of the AALS House of Representatives

By AALS President Darby Dickerson, Dean, UIC John Marshall Law School

AALS 2019 President Vicki Jackson

I am incredibly honored to serve as the 2020 President of the Association of American Law Schools. The AALS was founded in 1900—120 years ago—and serves as both the membership association and the learned society for legal education.

This dual responsibility of serving law schools and their deans as the institutional membership organization and serving individual faculty members and administrators as their learned society is unique among higher education organizations. And that unique duality requires unique and visionary leadership.

We are most fortunate to have Judy Areen, a true legend in legal education, as our Executive Director. She has recruited and cultivated a talented, dedicated team that works tirelessly to serve law schools and law professors so that the AALS is a strong and effective voice for legal education; a forum for knowledge sharing and professional development; and more recently, a center for important research about legal education and law school leadership. Judy, under your leadership, the AALS has matured in so many ways.

I know that many of the AALS staff members are currently working in other parts of the hotel to facilitate a smooth conference, but Judy, I’d ask that you and any AALS staff present stand so that we might thank you for your service and leadership.

Over the past six years, I’ve also had the privilege to serve with amazing AALS presidents, each of whom has brought incredible strengths, creativity, and passion to that role: Dan Rodriguez, Blake Morant, Kellye Testy, Paul Marcus, Wendy Perdue, and Vicki Jackson. I’ve learned a great deal from each and aspire to build on their foundation of excellence.

I want to extend a special thanks to outgoing president Vicki Jackson: Vicki, you are among the smartest, most thoughtful individuals I’ve ever met. You are careful and caring. You think things through completely. You listen. You are inclusive. You take all perspectives seriously. You communicate with respect. You have honored us all with your service. Please join me in congratulating Vicki for a job well done!

I also want to thank:

I treasure your support and hope that I have earned your trust and confidence.

The theme I’ve selected for my presidential year, and for the 2021 annual meeting, is “The Power of Words.” I chose this theme for many reasons. First, lawyers and legal educators are professional communicators. Words are the instrument with which we practice our craft. Second, I am a legal writing professor, so the theme pays homage to my specific field.

Third, words and language make us human. Indeed, many believe communication is the most important skill a person can master. And for good reason: it is estimated that an average person speaks about 16,000 words per day,1 and reads hundreds, if not thousands, of sentences each day.

And fourth, I was excited about the interesting program possibilities. As I prepared this presentation, I enjoyed brainstorming potential sessions, such as:

I look forward to the creative programming developed by the sections and by individual faculty members through submissions for Hot Topics, Open Source, and other calls for proposals.

Words are powerful tools. They can inspire social movements, evoke emotions, and create allegiances. They can help, and they can heal. But like many tools, words can be wielded as weapons to hurt and hinder, and to mislead and manipulate.

Words translate our imagination. They can form bridges to connect us and walls that divide us. Words can comfort and isolate, empower and belittle.

Words are ephemeral yet can have lasting impact. Consider the Yiddish proverb, “A blow passes, but a word remains.”3 And think about the continuing influence of our great founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—and the inspiring speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.

Darby Dickerson, Vicki Jackson, Leo Martinez

2020 AALS President Darby Dickerson (Dean, UIC John Marshall Law School), Vicki Jackson (Harvard Law School), and Leo Martinez (UC Hastings Law) at the Meeting of the AALS House of Representatives.

Among the U.S. presidents, Lincoln understood that words were a powerful tool of persuasion.4 He toiled over his speeches, considering and reconsidering each word he used. His Gettysburg Address, at only 278 words, “is viewed as a singular moment in repairing a disjointed union.”5 And the Emancipation Proclamation, with only 703 words—including 505 with only one syllable6—ultimately freed 3.5 million enslaved Americans and led Frederick Douglass to declare it as “perhaps the greatest document of social reform in American history.”7

Words can create nations, literally. On a recent trip abroad, I learned that Iceland gained its independence through peaceful protest and a series of persuasive letters to the King of Denmark.

Even small words can have great power. Consider, for example, an apology: with three short words, “I am sorry,” a past harmful act can be forgiven.8

Words can also have neuroscientific power. For centuries, many cultures have believed in the spiritual force of language: consider prayer, confessions, hexes, and curses.9 Over time, “these ideas have moved from the realm of magic and mythology” to that of scientific inquiry.10 Just as exercise can change our bodies, “mental activity, such as learning and using language, can change the physical structure of our brain.”11 Fearful words, like “poverty” and “death,” can trigger fight-or-flight responses in the amygdala,12 and negative words, like “no,” can release stress-producing hormones and neuroreceptors that can interrupt normal brain function.13 Fortunately, the power of positive thinking has also been validated clinically.14

The power of words to shape perception has been proven by researchers in controlled experiments. In one study, psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer showed subjects a film of two cars colliding. Later, some subjects were asked how fast the cars going when they “bumped” into each other, while others were asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other. As you might imagine, those who received the “smashed” question indicated that the cars were going faster than those who received the “bumped” question.15 As Dr. Deborah Tannen observed, “This is how language works. It invisibly molds our way of thinking about people, actions, and the world around us.”16 And the former litigators among us recall the subtle word choices we considered when developing our cross-examinations and closing arguments.

Words in the form of laws give rights and impose responsibilities. Those words can separate children from parents; unite two people in matrimony; imprison people for crimes; and condemn individuals to death.17 As Professor Emily Hartigan explained in her article “The Power of Language Beyond Words,” law is “the medium through which we intentionally dispense pain, advantage, freedom and death.”18

I’m sure many of you can think of words that hold power or special meaning for you. They might be “yes,” “love,” or “justice.” I’d like to briefly explore the power of three words relevant to legal education and my year as president. Each includes a challenge to the legal academy.


Last month, Brandeis University announced that it has added “caste”—a social hierarchy that exists in some South Asian communities—to its nondiscrimination policy.19 But we in the legal academy also have a caste system.

In 2002, then-Dean Kent Syverud published “The Caste System and Best Practices in Legal Education.”20 Syverud explained that most American law schools include seven castes, from highest to lowest:

He also identified 10 best practices for legal education. Given time constraints, I’ll share just three:

Best practices encourage student-faculty contact, inside and outside class, to facilitate feedback, encouragement, and inculcation of skills and values.

Best practices encourage active learning. Students must talk about what they are learning, write about it, and apply it to their own lives and work.

Best practices give prompt and frequent feedback.21

Syverud observed that because some of the best practices were identified with some of the lower castes, those in higher castes were reluctant to adopt them, which in turn inhibited student learning.22 He also observed that those in the lower castes often suffer from lower salaries, lack of security of position, and lack of respect.23

Over the past 17 years, the academy has made progress. I stand here as evidence of that. In addition, we have a few other deans—and dozens of associate deans—from the legal writing, clinical, and academic support fields. Some non-director law librarians are gaining improved status and security. More faculty in podium courses are incorporating more formative assessments into their courses.

But more work needs to be done. We need to strive to eliminate “caste”—a system meant to divide—from legal education. We need to recognize the similarities in the work we all perform and to appreciate, not denigrate, the differences. Raising some up does not diminish the work of others. Instead, it improves the whole of legal education. Because I’ve worked at three schools that have made significant progress in improving status for legal writing professionals, clinicians, academic support specialists, librarians, and staff, I know that abolishing the caste system is both a realistic call for action and one that will benefit our students and the legal profession.


Some have postulated that we are living in a post-truth era. While I understand that “truth” is hardly absolute, I find it disturbing that some leaders, especially those trained in the law, more readily embrace spin than candor.

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct call for lawyers to “render candid advice,”24 exhibit candor toward the tribunal,25 avoid making false statements of material fact or law to a third person;26 and, if serving as prosecutors, disclose exculpatory evidence.27

But while the role of candor has traditionally been central to the legal profession, it seems to be eroding, especially in the face of ubiquitous—and frequently misleading—spin control.

As legal educators, we can help reverse this trend by using the power of our words to teach rigorous analysis, help students distinguish appropriate advocacy from dissembling and half-truths, and model professional conduct that transcends the minimum standards required by the model rules.

As a profession that embraces candor above spin, we can regain the respect and public trust we need to advance and enhance democratic institutions and the rule of law.


I’ve been a law dean for almost 17 years. And one of my favorite and most frequently-used sayings is, “The only constant is change.”28 Another favorite is Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”29

One of the most powerful examples of someone using words to bolster change came from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who, at a recent U.N. Climate Action Summit, exhorted:

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!30

We can use our words to create change. We can use our scholarship to inspire policymakers and others who hold power to enact changes that will create a more just and equitable society. We can write op-eds and blogs to help citizens understand the value of civic education and the rule of law. We can design our curricula and use our classroom time to help ensure that our students become life-long learners equipped to adapt in a rapidly changing world.

And with that, I leave you with this final challenge: The presidential themes of my two immediate predecessors were Wendy Perdue’s “Building Bridges” and Vicki Jackson’s “Pillars of Democracy: Law, Representation, and Knowledge.” Let us use our best, most powerful words to model for our students—our world’s future leaders and problem-solvers—how to build bridges to protect those most valuable pillars of democracy.

Thank you again for extending me the honor of serving as AALS President. I wish you all the best for 2020!


1 Matthias R. Mehl et al., Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men? Science, Aug. 2007, at 82, available at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Richard_Slatcher/publication/6223260_Are_Women_Really_More_Talkative_Than_Men/links/53e18ec00cf2235f352bcf51/Are-Women-Really-More-Talkative-Than-Men.pdf.
2 E.g., Northeastern University School of Law, The Syntax of Justice: Law, Language, Access & Exclusion (Mar. 30–31, 2017), https://www.northeastern.edu/law/news/events/2017/syntax-justice/index.html#_ga=2.36739240.921874738.1577642905-1235261334.1577642905 (conference homepage).
3 Michael Moore, Word Magic, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, July 2015, at 289, 292.
4 Mary Frances Berry & Josh Gottheimer, Power in Words: The Stories Behind Barack Obama’s Speeches, From the State House to the White House loc. 143 (Kindle ed. 2010).
5 Id.
6 Id.
7 Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words ch. 5, loc. 1823 n. 1 (Kindle ed. 2006).
8 Moore, supra n. 3, at 292.
9 Id.
10 Sayuri Hayakawa & Viorica Marian, How Language Shapes the Brain, Scientific Am., Apr. 30, 2019, at https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-language-shapes-the-brain/.
11 Id.
12 Andrew Newberg & Mark Robert Waldman, Words Can Change Your Brain 24 (2012).
13 Id.
14 Id. at 30 nn. 19–21 (citing various clinical studies).
15 Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words loc. 259 (Kindle ed. 1998).
16 Id.
17 Emily Hartigan, The Power of Language Beyond Words: Law as Invitation, 26 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 67, 79 (1991).
18 Id.
19 Greta Anderson, Prohibiting Caste Prejudice on Campus, Inside Higher Educ., Dec. 20, 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/12/20/university-adds-caste-nondiscrimination-policy.
20 Kent D. Syverud, The Caste System and Best Practices in Legal Education, 1 J. ALWD 12 (2002).
21 Id. at 17 (emphasis in original).
22 See id. at 18–19.
23 Id. at 19.
24 Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 2.1.
25 Id. at Rule 3.3.
26 Id. at Rule 4.1(a).
27 Id. at Rule 3.8.
28 Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying, “Change is the only constant in life.” Janet Singer, The Only Constant Is Change, PsychCentral, https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-only-constant-is-change/ (last updated Oct. 8, 2018).
29 For background on this saying, see Quote Investigator, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/10/23/be-change/.
30 NPR, Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s Speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summer (Sept. 23, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit.