My University of Washington School of Law Commencement Address: “It Depends”

The UW School of Law held its commencement ceremony yesterday. Unlike other schools, UW does not invite outside dignitaries to speak. Instead, the graduating class selects one faculty member and two students to each give a speech lasting about five or six minutes.GatesHallBG

This year’s graduating class was the first class of students I ever taught, so I was extremely pleased and honored that they selected me as their faculty speaker. I was also extremely pleased that I spoke at the start of the program and therefore did not have to follow the two excellent student speakers, who were the keynotes of the ceremony.

As one of my colleagues always reminds me: You never want a single-use presentation; if you put work into something, make sure you can use it a few times. So with that in mind, I’ve turned my outline/notes into a written “script” of sorts and I’m posting it here. Thoughts and comments welcome!

It Depends

Thank you Dean Testy, faculty and staff colleagues, graduates, and all of the friends and family in the audience today to celebrate this occasion. Thank you for being here. I am particularly honored to speak today because this graduating class was my first class as a law professor. Their time at the law school has been my time at the law school. And so, though of course I’m excited for all of you today, I am also a little nervous because I have no idea what this place will be like without you. It’s been a great three years, but maybe everything will fall apart next year; maybe it will be terrible. I don’t know. I doubt it, but I really have no idea.

As Dean Testy mentioned, I teach in the first-year legal writing program. And not surprisingly, first-year students ask me a lot of questions:

How many subsections should this argument have?

Do I need a case citation at the end of this sentence?

Should I use some federal authority to support this point?

Fortunately, I’m a law professor, so I can answer these questions. These are simple questions and I have a simple response. That response is this: Eh, it depends.

I imagine, at least at first, this is a frustrating answer for new law students to hear. They’ve spent a lot of time, money, and effort to get to law school, and here I am, unable to give them a straight answer to a simple question.

Ultimately, however, I hope—and I strongly suspect—that the students eventually understand this response as interesting and perhaps even empowering. Because when the answer is “It depends,” what the answer depends on is what the student is trying to accomplish.

This does not end today at graduation. Saying “It depends” is not some trick law professors use when we don’t know the answer to a student’s question. Okay, sometimes it is a trick we use when we don’t know the answer. But the vast majority of the time “It depends” is an invitation for the student to take ownership over a legal question.

This will continue as you enter the practice of law. The mission of a lawyer depends on the preferences, needs, and situational context of the lawyer’s audience—of the relevant decisionmaker on a given issue, whether that’s a judge, a supervising attorney, a client, or even opposing counsel. When faced with questions as a lawyer, the answer is often “It depends.” It depends on the preferences of these decisionmakers. But those factors can be opaque. And lawyers new and old alike can struggle determining precisely what the answer depends on.

As a new lawyer, you’ll be more effective at navigating those moments if you approach each task—no matter how mundane—as if you were a solo practitioner with the success or failure of the entire case resting on your shoulders alone. For some on this stage, adopting this state of mind will be easy. You’ll actually be a solo practitioner, or a prosecutor with immense discretion, or a defense attorney with little oversight.  And when I say this will be easy for these lawyers, I mean it will be “easy” in the way that it’s easy for an eagle to learn how to fly. You will be kicked out of the nest and you will not have any choice.

But for others, whether you’ve decided to work in a larger office or are still determining your path as a lawyer, the decision to take ownership of legal decisionmaking must be made more intentionally. Introductory tasks like reviewing files or drafting research memos can seem like drudgery if you view them as items on a to-do list for you to check off before you can finally escape the office. But from the perspective of a lawyer—a full partner in the client’s mission—even seemingly mundane tasks are immensely important.

Thus far, when I’ve said an answer “depends on” context, motivations, or preferences, those have all been external factors: the client’s context, the judge’s motivations, the supervisor’s preferences. But for you graduates, many decisions as a lawyer will depend on what you want—what kind of lawyer you want to be, what kind of profession you want to be a part of.

As a young lawyer, your personal values can be difficult to voice. Law is an extremely hierarchical field. But hierarchy just means that in a disagreement between two lawyers, one lawyer’s view is going to win out. It does not mean that both views cannot be heard. You will be a new attorney, which means your bar number will be larger and your office will be smaller than the attorney assigning you work. But that does not mean your personal values don’t matter.

Your values matter on issues large and small. Let me give you a common example: A supervisor gives you a research assignment at 5:00pm. It is okay, it is not disrespectful to ask “When would you like me to have this done?” Of course, the supervisor is going to say “As soon as possible!”

How should a new lawyer respond? It depends. If you’re free that evening and work has been slow, then go ahead and stay late, work through dinner, and get that assignment done before tomorrow morning.

But if you have dinner plans with your family, or concert tickets to see a show with your friends, you are allowed to say that. “I’d love to work on this project and I’m excited to get started. But I have concert tickets tonight. Is it okay if I turn to this first thing tomorrow morning?”

Now, do you keep it vague and perhaps let your supervisor believe that you’re going to the symphony? Or do you give the specifics and disclose that you’re seeing Taylor Swift at Key Arena? It depends. How much of your personal business do you want out there in the workplace?

Of course, sometimes the client or the judge will need your work now. You’ll need to cancel your plans. You may have an injunction hearing the next morning at 9:00am in Snohomish County. Emergencies happen. This is the business we’ve chosen.

But that possibility doesn’t mean you can’t ask. I have seen too many young attorneys become the passengers instead of the drivers of their legal careers. If your road to success in this profession requires you to silence your values and silence who you are, then you’ll likely find that holding on to that success will require the continued silencing of those values. And then years from now you’ll realize that what you’ve achieved is not success at all, but a prize you didn’t want for winning a game you never wanted to play.

Your values matter—for you and for the future of our profession. And your actions in service of those values matter. They are necessary for the practice of law to progress on numerous critical issues, such as allowing for a healthier work-life balance, or rejecting and reversing the practices that have caused the law to become the least diverse profession in this country.

Thus far, your values have brought you here—to the University of Washington School of Law and your graduation today. What happens next, for you and for our profession? It depends. It depends on you. We all look forward to finding out. Thank you, and congratulations.

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