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August 21, 2008

Oregon Law Welcomes Class of 2011

Last week the University of Oregon School of Law welcomed the 183 members of the Class of 2011. The Convocation Ceremony’s speakers included Associate Dean of Student and Program Affairs Jane Gordon, Assistant Dean of Admissions Larry Seno, President of the Student Bar Association Joe Kraus, Oregon Law Dean Margie Paris, University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer, and Court of Appeals Judge David Schuman.  Following are the remarks delivered by Seno, Paris, and Schuman.

Larry Seno, assistant dean of admissions:

This morning, we warmly welcome the 183 members of the University of Oregon Class of 2011.  This class was drawn from 2124 applications, the largest number ever received by the law school.  This represents an increase of 103% over applications received 10 years ago for fall 1998 and 22% more than we received five years ago for fall 2003.

The class is comprised of 46% women (2007: 42%) and 21% students of color (2007: 19%)  Residents comprise 33% (2007: 39%).  Our students come from 31 states.  Among the top five are Oregon (61), Washington (25), California (24), Colorado (7), and Texas (6).  There are 99 different colleges and universities represented.  The top five institutions include 25 “Double Ducks” from the UO, 11 from the University of Washington, eight from Oregon State, five from UCLA, and four from Berkeley.  Sixteen students hold advanced degrees.

The average age of the class is 25, with ages ranging from 20 to 52.  Nine students report alumni ties, three are military veterans, 27 are college athletes, and 29 were political science majors, in one form or another.  Almost 29% of the class reports having had some legal experience before coming to law school, and 45% have lived, worked, or studied abroad.  Language ability beyond English was reported by 40% of the class.  Three quarters of the class also report public interest/public service experiences.  We are honored to have been the caretakers of this special class for the last several months.

In this year of an application increase, my thanks, especially, to the hard-working members of the admissions committee: Dick Hildreth (chair), Barbara Aldave, Suzanne Rowe, Merle Weiner, Jessica Merkner, and 2L Laura Koths.  Much gratitude is due the admissions staff, particularly persevering in the face of staffing transitions and with the introduction of a new applicant software program.  Thank you to Jessica Merkner, Tee Muntz, and Heather Tranberg, and our now graduated work-study student, Sonu Allen.  Praise, too, to 2L Rebekah Murphy, our connections coordinator, and Jemine Mode, our minority outreach assistant, and to our student tour guides.  So many of you, in other offices, and in many, different ways contributed to this success this year.  I am appreciative of your generosity.  Mahalo.

Margie Paris, dean of the University of Oregon School of Law:

We have called this assembly to welcome you to the University of Oregon School of Law and to begin your education as a lawyer.

The significance of this moment of beginning makes it fitting that we formalize it and mark it with fanfare. As the scholar Edward Said has explained: “Beginning is not only a kind of action. It is also a frame of mind, an attitude, a consciousness.”

Thus, the fact that you are beginning a course of study today signifies not only that you are taking the first step toward achieving your Juris Doctorate degree, or for some of you your Master of Laws, but also that your mind is open, that you sit here today with an attitude of hope and expectation (and perhaps nervousness), and that you are conscious of the largeness of this moment in your life.

I don’t know what first days of school were like for you when you were young, but I cherished mine. I loved the smell of new pencils, the neatness of my desk. I loved flipping through the enticing new books that held so much promise. I always made tons of resolutions — about how thoroughly I would study, how deeply I would inquire, how generously I would treat my classmates, and how frequently I would impress my teachers. Of course, I never completely lived up to these resolutions, but the very fact of making them — and of having inventoried myself, and of having collected my best self for the upcoming endeavor — these were the precious gifts left by every first day of school.

It is this heightened consciousness that I would like you to mark and hold on to for a while — this moment in time when your faculties are gathered and your energies focused and your resolve the greatest. This is the beautiful essence of beginnings.

If I were writing your resolutions, what would they look like? There would be three.

First, I would have you immediately recognize your fellow students for what they are: your future professional colleagues. The person sitting next to you may someday be a judge before whom you are arguing a case. Resolve never to let your colleagues see you behave unprofessionally. Abolish — at least in front of them — all petulance, immaturity, temper, meanness. With them be larger, more generous of spirit, than you ever thought possible.

Second, I would have you strive always to be honest — to yourself, your colleagues, me, the faculty and staff — to everyone, in fact. The profession to which you are called demands this of you, although honesty requires courage. You may have questions about what honesty demands in any particular circumstance. In that case, resolve to seek an opinion from someone whose judgment you respect — if all else fails from me — so that you can inform your own judgment with the benefit of another’s.

Finally, I would have you resolve to take responsibility for your share of the joint intellectual enterprise that we engage in here. What does that mean?

Resolve to step up as an important participant in that enterprise, both in the classroom and with your study colleagues.

Resolve to be not simply a passive absorber of ideas, but to inhabit full your role as a graduate student — responsible for creating ideas, for subjecting them to analysis, debate, and critique, for advancing our knowledge of the law.

Resolve to approach your professors with an attitude of respectful equality.

Resolve not to be a kid anymore. Resolve to respect yourself while challenging yourself.

Resolve to come to the classroom having read, having thought through. Resolve to get past the details of the material that you read in order to reach a deep understanding of legal doctrine—its roots in human behavior, its strengths, its failings, and its relationship to a specific time and a specific culture.

Resolve to engage in discussion and exploration; resolve to take risks.

There’s a song by the group Green Day that sums up what I’m saying to you today:

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time

It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right

I hope you have the time of your life

David Schuman, Court of Appeals judge:

Over the next week of two, you will be receiving a lot of advice about how to brief cases, how to prepar
e for class, how to study for exams, how to maintain your physical and mental health, how to study for the Bar Exam, and how to get a job when you graduate. I’m afraid I’m going to add to this advice overload. I’m going to advise you about how to protect your soul. I realize that it is pompous and pretentious for me to say that, but that’s one of the fringe benefits of being a judge, and a gray-haired judge at that: you get paid less than a first-year associate at a big law firm, you work staggering hours, but you’re allowed to give pompous and pretentious advice.

Like many sermons, mine this morning will explicate a text. I have not chosen my text from the Bible, but from the next best thing: from Dante. In the thirty-fourth Canto of his Inferno, Dante depicts the ninth and deepest circle of Hell, where Satan dwells in person, a three-headed monster chewing on the eternally tortured bodies of history’s greatest evil-doers. This is the circle farthest from the grace and harmony and enlightenment of God’s grandeur and of the human community. Due to what must have been an oversight on Dante’s part, there are no lawyers in the Ninth Circle. The place commands our attention this morning anyway, because one of its features make it relevant to modern practitioners of the legal profession: its demographics.

Readers are frequently surprised at who qualifies for permanent residence in the Ninth Circle. Dwelling elsewhere in Hell, in less punitive regions, are the greedy, the mass murderers, the false prophets, the child abusers, the drunks and the thieves. The deepest level is reserved for those, like modern lawyers, whom the world might judge as paradigms of success: the politically and socially powerful, those of distinguished talents and dedication, those like Satan himself, who before the fall was the most glorious and gifted of the angels and sat at the side of God. The Ninth Circle is reserved for those who were blessed with talent and power, but who abused and perverted these gifts and in so doing betrayed their fellows, their creator, and themselves.

My theme this morning, is that the reason people laugh at lawyer jokes is the same reason Dante’s audiences cheered the plight of the inhabitants of the Ninth Circle: In both instances they see what they consider to be the just desserts for those who have great power and have let it run amok.

Many people, perhaps you among them, come to law school because they correctly understand that attorneys have a state-granted monopoly on access to forces that can move the system and make it do good things. Law school is where we come to obtain the power to promote our values.

But during our three years of legal education, as we become more and more adept in the mysteries of power, too often a strange metamorphoses takes place. Power corrupts or in any event, something happens to the altruism even as the empowerment proceeds.

I refer to what happens to our values when we begin to confuse what is legal for what is right, what we can lawfully get away with for what we should do, as though any action, no matter how obstructionist, obnoxious, dishonorable, deranged, demented or cruel that is not literally prohibited by some rule of positive law or code of legal ethics therefore carries an ethical seal of approval, if done in the service of a paying client.

Meanwhile, as the distinction between what is right and what we can legally get away with blurs, and the super-ego atrophies, the empowerment continues apace. By the end of the third year, on the threshold of membership in the profession, you will receive not only a diploma, but the proverbial keys to the city as well. You will have not only exclusive access to the levers that move the system — the forms and rituals of transaction, administration, legislation and litigation — you will also have a quantity of power that can only be called magical and terrifying. If you were a member of a different culture and you had this power an anthropologist would call you a witch or a wizard, and you would be either venerated or ostracized, but in either case you would be feared. Because you will have the power to utter a few special words of hocus pocus, or make a few marks on paper, or punch a few buttons on a telephone or a computer, and by those actions alone inflict pain, humiliation, and perhaps ruinous financial expense on you clients’ enemies or your own. By those actions alone you will be able to call down upon these enemies the official machinery of the judicial system, knowing that this machinery itself, with you now licensed to operate it, can cripple all who are involuntarily drawn into its range even as it officially vindicates them.

True, you can use your power well. But only a constant and active exercise of self-discipline will prevent you from corrupting it and thereby earning yourself a place in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

I want to ask you now to grasp some knowledge that you already have and to hold it close during the next three years and beyond, because it can protect you from perversion of power.

As of now, since you are not yet J.D. impaired, you probably believe that “law” is much more than the result of litigation. It is principally the rules forged in the public arena by ourselves and our elected representatives. Ideally it should be the sinew of the community, the community’s values made manifest, the fruit of the public discussion and debate about what constitutes or promotes a life of virtue — and not what some judge says about who wins some private dispute, usually about money. Socrates from his cell calls the laws of Athens, even as they are poised to execute him, his mother and his father, that which gave him his identity and his roles, which bound him to others in a web of support and obligation and in so doing it is possible for him to be a human and not a beast.

I urge you to try to see your legal training not only as a process by which you become a certified pit bull or hired gun, but also as preparation for the profession of law in the larger sense, to see your access to the machinery of the system not only as a means to promote the private interests of litigants but to forge a public life worth living.

I urge you to enlarge your sphere of concern so that it includes not only argument on the service of private wealth, but debate over the nature of the public good. This opening up of yourselves to your community, I suggest, can be your inoculation against that perversion of power that is the hazard of our business.

Socrates tells us that no evil can ever befall a good person. Socrates was no fool and neither am I and neither are you. We all know that a good person is as likely as a bad one to get hit by a truck. What Socrates meant was something like this: A person with a well-ordered soul is immune from the only kind of evil that matters, which is corruption and perversion. To what extent you are good people remains to be seen. Some would say that your three years in law school will reduce your chances. I disagree. I believe that if you attend to the difference between what is right and what is merely legal, and if you see the law as what ties each of us to our fellows, you can enjoy life in a profession where you wield principled power and do it with abundance of heart.

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