Aziz Huq Welcomes New Students to the Law School

Address to Incoming Students
Aziz Huq
September 23, 2010

The following speech was delivered by Assistant Professor of Law Aziz Huq at a dinnner in honor of this year's entering students, held on September 21, 2010:

New arrivals at the University of Chicago Law School are typically burdened by fears and hopes. I should know.  I was one a year ago.  Some concerns and aspirations are well grounded.  Some are not. So it’s useful to know which trepidations should be left at the door and what folk wisdom about the law school to respect. 

Start with an underappreciated virtue of a tenure at the law school.  Most of you will rarely again spend your working days inside a design masterpiece of mid-Century Modernism. The central law school building, the six-story sheath of articulated black glass echoed in a reflected pool, was designed and completed just before the death of its architect, Eero Saarinen, in 1961.  The Finnish-American Saarinen was one of the most professionally celebrated architects of his day.  Perhaps you have arrived or departed from his TWA terminal at Idlewild Airport—now more prosaically known as the Jetblue terminal at JFK.  If you have, perhaps you’ve enjoyed the building’s graceful curves, which billow out to echo the arc of a plane’s wing or the majestic leap of a cathedral’s nave.  Or perhaps you have visited his Gateway Arch in St. Louis, his 630-foot gateway to the West.  Like those structures, the law school building, reworked and revived from the inside out in the past decade, is a monument of high Modernism, one of the most important architectural movements of the past century.

Perhaps the folk wisdom you have heard about the law school induces you to think it resembles Saarinen’s Modernism: austere, distant, and somewhat cold.  Perhaps you have heard about the famous “Socratic method”, the pedagogical method of question-and-answer dialogue preferred in Chicago classrooms, and dominant through the first year curriculum.  Perhaps you have some sense that Chicago is the home of the law and economics movement: a methodological commitment to parsimonious models of rational choice hitched historically to a strong presumption that market transactions supply the preferred modality of social interactions.  Perhaps you are expecting (or fearing) being chiseled (or deformed) into shape by a flinty, unyielding and distant professoriate.

It would be unfair to tell you those expectations are unfounded: Chicago was and remains an intellectual leader in the application of rational choice methodologies drawn from economics. Later this week, for example, we have convened here a conference on rational choice analyses in the study of constitutional design, organized by our faculty, but drawing together some of the most important legal and political scholars working in the US and UK today. 

And it is true that the Socratic method, as applied here, is more rigorous and demanding than at our peer institutions.  Is that a bad thing?  This past summer, I was holidaying with a friend who attended Stanford law while dating a U of C 1L.  She remarked being struck by the fact her then-partner studied, actually studied!, for classes, and that, many years later still recalled the fundamentals of contracts and property that now elude her.  Is the fact that we take seriously the labor of learning, that we ask students to take it seriously too by arriving prepared to class, a problem?  I have a hard time concluding so.   

At the same time, I think there is something profoundly misleading about these folk mythologies, just, in fact, as there is something awry in the image of Saarenin as the austere prophet of Modernism.  Few of you, I suspect, will have visited the Saarinen-designed headquarters of the John Deere Co., in rural Moline, IL.  Critics compare that site to the Katsura Imperial Villa, built in the 1620s in Kyoto, because of the way it seems to float, dematerialized and light in its buolic setting.  Saarinen, it turns out, was a far more versatile and fluid architect than is generally thought.

So it is with the University of Chicago law school.  It is emphatically not the case that there is an intellectual hegemony or cartel at this school. To the contrary, it’s my sense that Chicago has a diversity of methodologies, of intellectual pedigrees and positions, and of approaches to the law that is simply unmatched.   Where else can you find two of the nation’s (and arguably the world’s) leading moral and analytic philosophers teaching law?  Where else will you find pioneers in the empirical study of global constitutions?  Where else will you find the most important expositors of “living constitutionalism,” one of the most important interpretive approachs to our Constitution?   Institutions’ reputations typically lag a decade or so behind.  Chicago’s is no exception.  

And do not be put off by the rigor of the Socratic method.  As a reasonably small and physically enclosed institution—and I say nothing now about the fabled Chicago winters—Saarinen’s law school design means that you will find yourself sharing coffee with your professors, chatting with them in the elevator, going with them to lunch, going to their homes for our “Greenberg seminars,” which our upper-level students can take.  Again, the density and quality of interaction between faculty and the student body can be elusive to the arriving eye of a 1L.  But it’s there.

All this is to say that the law school is an intellectually diverse, many splendored place.  Whatever your previous training or experience, I think you will find the opportunities to which you have access here unparalleled.  The only way to lose is to not take advantage of them.   

The diversity of opportunity here at the law school is matched by a variety in postgraduate opportunities that is often ignored. I do not need to tell any of you that legal profession has changed since the financial crisis of 2008. Clearly, it is no longer the case that graduates at law schools need only roll out of bed and find some slippers to secure a prestigious and remunerative law firm position.  But the experiences of our graduates suggest that it is easy to overplay the concern and to respond in ways that diminish the value of your opportunity here at the Law School.

For one response to uncertainty might thus be to shrink one’s intellectual horizons—to take “safe” classes, and avoid our rich theoretical offerings in legal philosophy, game theory in the law, and public law etc. I believe that the experience of our graduates shows this response to be a mistake.  As an initial matter, employers value intellect. They know that’s what they get from Chicago.  Grades and recommendations, not a bland transcript, communicates a desirable employee.  To shrink horizons now out of preemptive concern is to trade a certain benefit for a very uncertain and elusive gain.  I hear tell from Dean Schill and Vice Dean Strahilevitz, who both interact daily with our alumni, that for our graduates the University of Chicago law school is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience due to the range and the depth of intellectual engagement here.  Foregoing that lifelong gain for a fleeting, likely false hope seems to me a bad bargain.

And why sitting on this room today, breath baited for an unknown future, why should you set your sights low?  Among the narrow pool of Supreme Court clerks during the past five years, 12 have graduated from the University of Chicago.  Stated otherwise, in expection 2.4 members of the One L class will spend a year in another architectural hot spot—Cass Gilbert’s marble-encrusted Court building at one C Street.  (At least one of you might want to decide whether the the 0.4 will be her left side or right side).  Perhaps you will be one of them.  Perhaps you will count one of them as among those lifelong friends you made at law school.

Our graduates who do not end up on C Street emphatically do not have shabby careers.  They go on to found businesses, to be pioneers in advocacy here and abroad, and, yes, even to inspire and educate new generations of students in the classroom.  Reflecting Saarinen’s oeuvre, the pathways from the law school are diverse and electic.  Make the most of your experience now so that as many of those pathways as possible remain alive to you.  

The practice of architecture," said Saarinen, "has to be measured in elephant time.”  What he partly meant, I think, is that the impact and sense of buildings becomes apparent only with the passage of time.  The same is true, I think you will find, of the education that awaits you.

Welcome to Chicago.

Aziz Huq