Happy academic new year! August and September are marked by the arrival of new students and the energy and excitement they bring. Each year at this time, deans and faculty hone their message of welcome. Some years we focus on the broad range of opportunities that a law degree offers; other years our welcome is filled with advice on how students can get the most from their education. This year, though, my focus will be more external: reminding our students of the role of lawyers in our society and the expectations that go with that role. From an informal survey of fellow deans, it sounds as though many others are planning to emphasize a similar theme.
The following is a brief version of my message to students.
To the class of 2021, welcome. You are in for an exciting and challenging education that we hope will provide the opportunity for an equally exciting and challenging career. Your education here will be transformative: You will acquire new knowledge and skills that will open your mind and open doors. And your education will enable you to transform the world. You’ll soon find that law is the connective tissue of our social order. It structures everything from our most intimate family relationships to our most public political processes. Your legal education will enable you to be doctors of our social lives. People will turn to you for help both in their private affairs and their public interactions. When our democracy is ailing, it is lawyers who can, like doctors at an accident scene, step in to assist.
Becoming a JD–a doctor of laws–will require not only that you study hard, but also that you approach your studies with an openness and curiosity. Reading cases in law school is our equivalent of the human anatomy lab. You will be exposed to the hidden structures of our legal systems, and some of what you see will be beautiful and inspiring while some will seem to you ugly and pathological. But like a good doctor, you must try to understand it all. Do not isolate yourself from views that you disagree with. Engage, listen, and learn.
You are all no doubt excited about what awaits you, and maybe a bit apprehensive, too. You should know that your faculty and staff feel the same. We are excited to get to know you and to watch you develop your professional knowledge and skills. Like you, we may be a bit apprehensive—though for different reasons. We know that we are educating the lawyers who will shape our world for the next 40 years, and we know that world will be filled with challenges. We will need leaders and peacemakers. We will need fierce advocates for change and those who can help us maintain stability. We will need innovators who find solutions to our legal problems and who can also see the problems with our legal solutions. And we will need lawyers who can do all of this with dignity and civility.
In short, we are counting on you to assure the health of our social order and our democracy. That’s what lawyers do. It is an awesome responsibility but one that we are excited to help you prepare for. The world needs doctors and it needs juris doctors too. Welcome to the beginning of this journey of transformation.