Buss Delivers Midway Dinner Address

Midway Dinner Address
Emily Buss
February 6, 2008

Good evening.  It’s a real privilege to be speaking to you at this mid-point in your law school careers.

Those of you who have learned, in your first one and one-half years (more or less) to be sticklers for detail, might have noted that, while it is true that Wednesday is midway through the week, we are not lunching (midway through the day) and, besides, this quarter started and ends on a Thursday, making Monday or Tuesday more like mid-way.  And, of course, there’s the question of how one counts summers, our shadow fourth quarter, which we like to mention now and again to avoid your coming to the conclusion that, despite the impressive modeling skills of our faculty, we really can’t do math. 

More to the point, we are, at best, mid-way in some technical sense.   Some aspects of the law school experience are completely, or almost completely, behind you, and others are just beginning: 

Among those things that are already finished or nearly finished I count the following:

First, the construction, or so the Dean tells us.  Your class took the biggest hit-- guaranteeing that nearly the entire project would occur while you were here.  But, I think you will also get the most out of it.  You got to see the before, and you will see the after.   You’re the last class that had the chance, whether you took it or not, to plunge into the fountain’s slightly slimy depths after your last first year exam, and you may be the first (though the 3Ls hope I’m wrong on this one) to toast your graduation by it’s serene, zero-depth replacement.

Second, are required courses (well, almost—by the registrar’s count 12 of you are halfway through the Legal Profession course, and the other 200 still have it ahead of you).    But for the most part, your days of having the institution tell you what courses to take are over.  You are now in control of your law school education, figuring out what you want to learn both from us, and  from other departments of the university (more on that in a minute).

Third, and most important, I hope you have completely shed the fear that grips many a first-year student and the accompanying sense that there is a single best way to study law that you just need to figure out.  Most of you have left this behind (maybe so far behind that you will now deny any memory of such a feeling).  For those of you still caught in the grip—now’s the time to let it go. 

As for just beginnings, well, the most obvious is your career as lawyers.  Many of you HAVE begun, in one way or another, whether in summer jobs, work in the clinics, or providing legal assistance on a campaign.  But you have JUST begun and the beauty of that is that you can get a taste of, maybe many tastes of, what might lie ahead before you foreclose any options. 

You are also, of course, just beginning that life-long version of the study of law that the Dean encouraged you to embrace at orientation. Remember that?  I think it came right after you ran the gauntlet of administrative handshaking and then got sprayed down with Purell by Sarah Feinstein.  Maybe all that the Dean said makes a little more sense now that you have the first year-and-a-half of his 50-year plan under your belt.

And third, and maybe most notable to us--meaning all of us lifers who get signs on the back of our chairs to make sure we have someone to eat with--you are beginning to assume  leadership roles in the law school community,  roles that will leave your distinctive mark on this place long after we see you off in a year and a half. 

Most significant, in thinking about halves, is that when it comes to the passage of time, halves are never experienced as equal.    You all know the experience—the early days of any undertaking seem to last forever, and the last days flash by in an instant.  We climb up slowly, then race down the other side.  I guess this is where “over the hump” comes from, though, it is generally used to capture a sense of relief, a celebration of the ticking off of the onerous days, with the end coming into sight. 

Many of you will feel this way over the course of the next year and a half.  You will feel more than ready to be done with the school part, and onto what is sometimes misleadingly distinguished as “real life.”  But, (and you have to trust me on this one) when you are really flying down that hill toward the end, you will throw a glance over your shoulder, and realize that you are about to leave some things behind that you have come to take for granted, and that you will really miss.  So here I am, your ghost of law school future, trying to give you an advance glimpse of what that over-the-shoulder glance will show, to prod you to live your law school life, from here on out, as if it were about to end:

Over your shoulder you will see two things:

The first, is your friendships and, in some sense more importantly, your acquaintanceships with a great group of peers, many of whom could not be more different from yourself.  One of the things that likely drew you to Chicago was the diversity of political views represented here.  Had you wanted to go to a place where everyone thought like you, there would have been many better options (indeed, I’m willing to hazard that we sit more “midway” on this important score than any other law school).  Now that you’re here, you see that this philosophical and political diversity of viewpoints not only enlivens the classroom, the hallway chat, and the lunchtime talks, but it also enriches your friendships.  You came here to hone your skills of argumentation “against” those with whom you passionately disagree, and, low and behold, some of those nut cases have actually become your friends.

I hope that you will continue to make friends with those who think and vote differently, but it will get a lot harder when you leave this place.  Life has a way of separating us, not only by race, and socio-economics and faith, but also by politics.   So treasure the time you have when such friendships, or at least social comradery, is easy, and commit yourselves to building strong enough connections in your time remaining that they might survive the tugs and strains of your more compartmentalized future life. 

The second thing that you will realize you loved about law school was, plain and simple, the intellectual life.  When you’re in the midst of it, it’s easy to fall into the work-a-day view of law school as burdensome, unrenumerated labor.  But when you’re looking back, you’ll realize what an incredible luxury it was to be able to spend all day reading about, thinking about, and discussing important problems and how we can best solve them through law (or maybe the lack of law (is Richard Epstein here?))

So, my second wish for you is that, in this latter, racing-down-the hill, half of law school, you indulge, as much as possible, in the intellectual life.  Remember (back when I was speaking as  ghost of law school past)—that what you take is now up to you.  And that doesn’t just mean a choice among law school courses.  You can take up to 12 credits in other parts of the university (subject, of course, to our approval, but we are inclined, as I understand it, to approve.) Students coming before you, for example, have enrolled in the following courses, among others: Knights and Samurai, Love & Economics in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and other plays, Albanian Dialectology, and Contemporary Analytic Meta-ethics:  Moral Realism and Its Enemies. 

And intellectual indulgence isn’t just found in classrooms.  It comes in workshops, theatrical performances, and common projects.  You could, for example, attend a workshop tomorrow on Sedgwick: Queer Moments, Twisted Temporalities, 'Or Even Just Reading and Writing', put on my the Lesbian and Gay Studies project.  Or you could see a performance of Titus Andronicus at the Court Theatre this weekend that will make you wonder why you never saw it before.  You could have gone, at lunch today, to an interfaith worship service in Bond Chapel, but if you missed it, there’s another one next week, and every week Wednesday, at lunch. 

Our celebration of interdisciplinarianism, which is what this speech is supposed to be about, is really just a celebration of the depth and breadth and complexity of the world we are devoted to understanding better, and MAKING better in part, but only in part, through the study of law.  Think of it, you have a year and a half left to figure out what interests you most and what matters most, at a university that offers opportunities in abundance to pursue those interests and concerns. 

I’d like to leave you with an image.  Not of some clean mathematical midpoint, like the 50-yard-line, because that would encourage the misimpression that your second “half” of law school will last anywhere close to as long as your first.  And not some hump you got over, where the only thing worth celebrating is that you’re half-way done.  Rather, think of law school as a roller coaster ride.  Granted, the rest of law school will not be quite so exciting as a ride on the Raging Bull (though six flags is also, technically, on the other side of the midway.)  Here’s the idea.  At least in my experience, the first part of such rides is spent chugging up, up, up, sweaty palms gripping the bar tightly if ineffectively and recriminations flying about who can be held responsible for making me come along, or, perhaps more plausibly for our law school metaphor, for not working hard enough to dissuade me from coming.  As the climb progresses, the cooler heads in the group start appreciating the great view.    Then there’s a nano-second of a pause (the midway dinner?) and then you’re off, no longer anticipating, just doing it.  It’s intense, it’s pretty fun, and when you come to a stop, you think two things:  Thank goodness that’s over, and, How long is the line, can we go again? 

Sweaty palms behind you, great view all around, may the ride down be intense and even fun.  And when it slows to a stop in June of 2009, may you be ready to get off, while wishing you could go again.


Emily Buss