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Commencement 2012 Faculty Speaker

Steve C. Gold, Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Clinic

It was love at first sight.

On August 25, 2009, as I stood in the front of Room 70 on the first day of Torts class, I immediately began to feel a special bond with you, the Class of 2012. I have had the privilege to teach nearly half of you, both day and evening students, and I am deeply touched that you have asked me to say a few words to you as you graduate.

On that day I saw 96 women and men of every conceivable skin color, with ancestors from all over the planet. Your parents earned their livings in the state legislature and on delivery trucks and a hundred other ways. I was reminded of how fortunate I am, after practicing law for many years, to find myself teaching at this law school: a school that lives its commitment to diversity and opportunity as it lives its commitment to excellence. As the son of immigrant parents whose lives were disrupted by World War II and who never had a chance at an education, I value those commitments and feel a close kinship to you.

Gold Commencement 2012
“It’s fashionable these days to question whether law schools teach the skills lawyers need. That’s something this law school works hard at. So many of you earned credit in a clinic or a supervised externship, or did a mock trial or moot court, or taught kids about Street Law, or earned a red carnation today for doing pro bono work even while you were still in school. There’s lots more practical wisdom to be gained, but you have lots of tools already!”

But we had something else in common that morning in room 70. You were sitting in a Torts class for the very first time. I was standing in front of a Torts class for the very first time. Boy, were we scared.

But we settled into our discussion of a hypothetical “Collision in Newark” involving a hypothetical student who had just graduated from this law school. By the way, more red-light running happens on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend than any other time, so after the reception, please be careful out there!

I’m sorry, I can’t help myself. I teach Torts! It makes you paranoid.

We got through “A Collision in Newark.” Eventually we even got through Hammontree versus Jenner (the first case in the textbook), and all the rest, and here you are. You’ve completed your legal education.

Mark Twain said that education is “the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.” I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I certainly did my best to guide you to miserable uncertainty in my classes.

You’ve completed your legal education. Are you ready to be lawyers?

It’s fashionable these days to question whether law schools teach the skills lawyers need. That’s something this law school works hard at. So many of you earned credit in a clinic or a supervised externship, or did a mock trial or moot court, or taught kids about Street Law, or earned a red carnation today for doing pro bono work even while you were still in school. There’s lots more practical wisdom to be gained, but you have lots of tools already!

Still, for most of you, most of law school involved sitting in a classroom with a Professor at the front and silently thinking, “Please don’t call on me, please don’t call on me . . . .”  And many of you may wonder whether that type of legal education will really help you in your careers.

Let me reassure you: by telling you a true story of my very first ever appearance in federal court.

I was quite new at being a lawyer, working for the government, and my supervisors asked me to write a brief about one of the central issues in a big, important case. When they said I could do the argument, I was so excited! It was just like being in the Constitutional Litigation Clinic.

I worked really hard to prepare. When the big day came, the judge – the judge was terrific! He let me do my whole presentation, listened very attentively, and at the end, this is what he said to me:

 “Let me see if I understand your argument. You think the government can prove A, B, and C. And you think that legal standard XYZ applies, so if the government proves A, B, and C, the government wins. Is that right?”

“Yes, Your Honor, you understand perfectly.”

And the judge leaned back in his great big chair up on the bench and looked up at the ceiling for a second or two. And then he leaned way forward and looked right down at me and said: “Well, think again!”

Don’t let anyone tell you that the Socratic method has nothing to do with the real life practice of law.

We hope you’ve learned something about how to be a lawyer. But we hope that you’ve also learned something about how law fits into life and society.

We put that into many of our courses, but there’s one course specifically about that: Law and the Humanities, taught by our beloved Professor Saul Mendlovitz, who started teaching at this law school before I was born. Lately he’s been helped by our Dean and other colleagues. Law school credit for reading literature! What could be better than that? But I happen to know that no more than two dozen of you ever took that course, and I don’t want the rest of you to miss it entirely.

So let me mention that “It was love at first sight” is not just the first line of this speech. It’s the first line of a great novel by Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

Catch-22 tells the story of a young man named Yossarian, a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps in World War II. He knows and does his duty but as he sees more and more of the horrors of war – the horrors that those of you who have served know all too well – he decides that what really matters is just getting through it – finishing his combat tour of duty in one piece. It’s a novel about surviving and enduring.

It seems to me that enduring is a good theme for the Class of 2012. You endured three or four years of law school, of course, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. But there’s so much else:

You endured starting law school either right at the beginning of a historic financial collapse (that’s you evening students) or in the midst of a full blown recession (that’s you day students).

You endured Hurricane Irene and the flooding and misery that came with her. 

You endured epic snow storms one after another after another, 10, 20, 30 inches, in almost every semester you were here, and to top it off you endured five inches of snow last October that brought down tree limbs and left some of you without electricity for a week.

And, just for fun, on the second day of class in your last year of law school, you got to enjoy an earthquake. In New Jersey!

Through it all you persevered to your goal: 84 credits. At least you knew what your goal was. In Catch-22, Yossarian has a moving target: his selfishly ambitious commanding officer keeps raising the number of missions his crews must fly to complete a tour of duty, above and beyond what other squadrons must do, because he thinks that will make him look good.

I know you will not be like that squadron commander. But you may end up working for people like that – watch out for them!

Catch-22 is full of deeply flawed characters. If Professor Mendlovitz has a character flaw, it is this: he roots for the wrong baseball team. It is inexplicable. A Boston Red Sox fan on this faculty! And he is not alone. You know who you are, Professor Ball.

For these poor misguided creatures I will tell a story of a baseball player who exemplifies the highest character. That player is named Mariano Rivera.

For those of you who don’t know, for 15 years Mariano Rivera performed one very specific role: pitching at the end of games when his team was leading, but not by much. It’s a pressure-filled job and he did it better than any other person has ever done it. He did it with professionalism, humility and class, enjoying but not exulting in his successes and accepting responsibility for his rare failures. And he did it all for one team: the New York Yankees. There is no love lost between the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Two years ago, Rivera’s contract expired, and he was free to negotiate a new contract with any team. The general manager of the Red Sox called Rivera’s agent and made a very large offer.

According to sports writer Peter Gammons, Mariano himself, not his agent, called the Red Sox’ general manager to respond to the offer. This is what he said: “I really appreciate what you've offered, I am honored. But before we go any further, I cannot deceive you. I cannot do it. I do not think it would be right. I respect the Red Sox, I love Boston, but it would not be right to pitch in a Red Sox uniform at this point in my career. Money isn't worth doing the wrong thing.”

Now I know that some of you are just hoping for the day that any employer offers you any money to pursue your chosen career, so it’s hard to think about having to choose between money and doing what’s right. But you are talented, hardworking people. You will find success. And whether it involves money or not, someday you will be in a situation when the right thing to do is the hard thing to do. When that moment comes, “Think again!” And be like Mariano.