Jonathan Masur Delivers Midway Dinner Speech

Annual Midway Dinner Speech
Jonathan Masur
Law School Office of Communications
February 3, 2010

Good evening. It's an honor and a pleasure to have been asked to speak tonight to you, the 2L class. The Midway Dinner is one of our Law School's great, and peculiar, traditions. You won't find a Midway Dinner (or anything like it) at any other law school I know of. In fact, it's hard to find anything that looks quite like a Midway Dinner in any other sort of organization, or within any other sort of institution. It's the type of event that both reaffirms and reinforces the ways in which this law school is different and wonderful. For one thing, we've gathered here to recognize the fact that you only have so much time left at this school. Only at the University of Chicago Law School can you find what amounts to a celebration of the economic concept of "scarcity." More on that in a moment.

As some of you may already know, by tradition the official objective of this after-dinner talk is to suggest that you should take classes from departments across the Midway. You should broaden your intellectual horizons. You should immerse yourself in the wealth of knowledge that the whole university has to offer. In the past, the law school would invite professors from other schools and departments to give this address. So a professor of classics might come to the Midway Dinner to praise courses in Roman literature, not to bury them. Or a professor from the archaeology department might be invited to speak to you about unearthing the wonders of Egyptology. Eventually, the law school decided to do away with these outside speakers. The exact reason seems to be lost to history. It's possible that the school believed that anyone who hadn't chosen to study law couldn't possibly have good enough judgment about the value of education to be trusted to opine on it. Or perhaps it made us nervous to leave your young, impressionable minds in the hands of seductive scholars from other disciplines.

Instead, we the law faculty now offer you our views on the worth of 19th Century British literature or atmospheric chemistry with the same confidence we might have if we were talking about the law of negligence or the doctrine of subject matter jurisdiction. And by the way: if you think "subject matter jurisdiction" is a nice way of describing how the law school studies law, and the history department studies history, and the physics department studies physics . . . or even if you're thinking that "subject matter jurisdiction" might be a good title for this talk . . . well, then you should probably get out of the law school a little bit. Go take a course across the Midway. More on that in a moment as well.

The Midway Dinner is peculiar of course in part because it's the celebration of a midway point, rather than a beginning or an end, which are what we usually pause to recognize. This is a moment of transition for you, as you enter the final half of your time at the law school. And of course it is a time of transition for the law school itself, as well. The law school's moment of transition coincides almost perfectly with your own. You are thus the lucky class that will have the chance to experience half of your time here under the old regime, and half under the new. It's always tempting to look back at an old regime with a sense of nostalgia. But I don't think that's appropriate. To be very honest with you, many people thought that the old regime was overly rigid, excessively difficult, and not fully responsive to the realities of the modern legal education. Many students think that the new regime will be a major improvement. And they might very well be right. The new regime I'm speaking of is, of course, our new, two-tiered substantial writing requirement.

Now, there has also recently been a change in leadership at the law school. The law school's eight wonderful years with Saul Levmore as dean have just ended; and the exciting new deanship of Michael Schill has just begun, also nearly coinciding with the midpoint in your time at the school. Here, I think our feelings about the change probably mirror your feelings about the passage of your time in law school. We are very grateful for how terrific and challenging and productive the last years have been, and grateful to the dean who helped make it so; and we are excited and optimistic about what the next years (and the new dean) will bring.

So this dinner is a celebration of transition, both for you and for the law school as a whole. And, as I said, it's also a celebration of scarcity. We are, in some very real sense, recognizing that you don't have much more time left at this school. Now, there certainly aren't very many other places or occasions where one celebrates a diminishing resource in quite this fashion, though some examples may be springing to your minds right now. Nonetheless, I think there are a couple of important instances where this occurs. I want to concentrate on two that I think are particularly interesting. Coincidentally, both are religious. Regrettably, I am quite far from being an expert in theology. But I'll try to pull this off on a wing and a prayer, so to speak. I hope you'll bear with me.

The first example is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is, as they say, the festival of lights. I'm sure many of you already know the story. In the Second Century BCE, King Antiochus IV, King of the Seleucid Empire (in what is now Syria) had captured Jerusalem, looted the sacred Temple, and effectively outlawed the practice of Judaism. Judah Maccabee and his brothers led a revolt against the Syrian occupation. The Maccabees eventually succeeded in driving the Syrians out of the city and recapturing the sacred Temple. However, the Maccabees discovered that there was only enough oil to keep the menorah, the sacred candles in the temple, burning for one day. The candles were supposed to stay lit every night, and it would take eight days to prepare more oil. The Maccabees nonetheless lit the temple lamps, and lo and behold the oil burned for eight days-a miracle, it was believed.

The second example is the Christian miracle of the loaves and the fish. As the story is told, Jesus was followed by a large crowd of people to a remote location. The people had not eaten in quite a long time, and all they possessed by way of food were a few loaves of bread and a few small fish. But Jesus and his disciples sat the crowd down, broke the loaves and the fish into pieces, and started passing them out among the people. It turned out that the few loaves of bread and fish that they had were enough to feed the entire people, with even some pieces left over. Again, a miracle.

By the way, if anyone has similar stories from other religions, or even secular ones, I'd love to hear them. And you should all note how much better you're doing here than just loaves and fish. Not to mention the fact that there was more than enough to go around. On the other hand, the after-dinner program is not as good. So I suppose it's a mixed bag.

Now, what can be gleaned from these two religious examples? (And by the way, if you're already hard at work extracting the legal rule from these two ancient-era precedents and getting ready to apply it to a modern case. . . well, you should probably think about taking a class across the Midway. Branch out a little bit.)

So what can we learn? Well, one way to understand the story of Hanukkah and the tale of the loaves and the fish is simply as miracles: in times of need, God provided. That might be the correct understanding of one or both of them. But I want to propose an alternate interpretation of these two stories, one that focuses more on the human agency involved. I want to suggest that perhaps both Hanukkah and the loaves and the fish are stories about the wise stewardship of scarce resources. (By the way, a few days ago I proposed the idea to a colleague that Hanukkah is actually a celebration of scarcity. Before I could explain, he jumped in to ask, "Is it because you only get one present?!" Suffice it to say, that is not the reason.) So perhaps the oil didn't burn for eight days because god performed a miracle. Maybe instead it burned for eight days because the Maccabees took care to husband every drop, to apportion it precisely, and to burn it slowly and deliberately. Maybe the loaves and the fish sufficed to feed the entire crowd not because god performed a miracle, but because the people shared it carefully, wasted not a single morsel, and made certain to savor every last crumb. Maybe what we celebrate about these events is that people, faced with a scarce precious resource, made absolutely the most of it. They made it last until they were well and truly finished with it. They took it upon themselves to reap every conceivable benefit from it until it was exhausted.

As you have undoubtedly long since understood, that is how I think you should spend your final year and a half here at the law school. You are in possession of a very precious resource: time at this law school, and at the University of Chicago more generally. This is a resource that few people are ever afforded, and which I know you have paid very dearly to acquire. You know, and I know, how valuable it is.

So I want you to treat it commensurately with that value. In part, that means recognizing that there is much more to life here than the next exam. Lawyers can be unbelievably interesting and clever people. You have undoubtedly had many fascinating conversations with lawyers, and with other law students, and with law faculty. But lawyers are also not the only interesting people in the world. More to the point, you have a lifetime of spending time with lawyers ahead of you. If this is a question of scarcity, "time with lawyers" is not something that you will find in short supply as you go forward.

So I urge you to venture out across the Midway and experience what they have to offer out there. The university is an unfathomably intellectually diverse place, overflowing with brilliant thinkers and provocative theories. Go and take a course on Virginia Wolfe's London. Take a course on Amazonian Local Knowledge. Take a course on Love and Eros in Japanese History. Not all of Chicago's Best Ideas can be found in the law school. (Though I hasten to add that it has more than its fair share!) To pass up the chance to experience some of the intellectual breadth that the university has to offer would be to miss out on a truly singular opportunity.

I want to convince you of the value of the academic life that you can find on the other side of the Midway. But beyond that, I want you to think of this admonition to "go across the Midway" as a metaphor for a broader suggestion that you take advantage of all of the intellectual resources available to you here (well, not here, but at the law school, of course), even if they don't exactly fit your plan for finding the shortest path from point A to point B. Remember: you didn't come here just to get a job. Or a credential. You came here to get an education.

So, if you think you want to be a corporate lawyer, don't just take business law classes. Enroll in a course on constitutional theory, or jurisprudence, or legal history. You're going to have plenty of time to think about corporate structures and tax consequences, but not as many opportunities to think about legal realism and Madisonian Democracy. If you think you want to do public interest litigation, don't just take constitutional law and federal jurisdiction and privacy. Try out tax. Or bankruptcy. Or secured transactions. To those of you who wouldn't otherwise think of taking classes so far outside of your principal interests: you'd be surprised how interesting these courses are when they're taught by the Chicago faculty.

When you arrived here in the Fall of 2008, Dean Levmore spoke to you about having a 40- or 50-year plan, rather than a one-week or one-year plan. Part of that 50-year plan, I think, is building for yourself the experiences and memories that you will want remember fondly for the next 50 years. You have limited time left here in an institution probably unlike any you will ever find yourself in again. You should use it to do things that you may never have the chance to do again. So make every day last as if it were eight. Savor every last morsel of knowledge and learning. And when we reconvene in a year and a half at your graduation, we'll celebrate your wise stewardship of the time that you had here, even under conditions of scarcity. That, after all, is the Chicago way.

Thank you.

Jonathan Masur