Law School Welcomes New Students

The Law School welcomed new students last week, introducing them to the intellectual life, traditions, and resources of the institution; offering opportunities to hone leadership skills, serve the community, and engage with members of the legal profession; and celebrating the beginning of a transformative education and experience.

Take a look at some the activities via this slideshow, watch the JD class of 2022 assemble for their group photo (above), and read welcome remarks delivered at the Entering Students Dinner by a member of the faculty (below). 

Welcome Remarks by Professor Omri Ben-Shahar at the Entering Students Dinner

Welcome to the class of 2022, and the LLM class of 2020. Welcome my esteemed colleagues, and members of the Law School community.

A great honor has been bestowed upon me to inaugurate with a few welcoming words your budding lifelong membership in the Law School’s community. My first instinct was to stand here and give you some advice. Advice on how to approach the first-year enterprise. Advice on how to prepare for classes, how to study, how to engage with your peers, how to manage the pressure, in short, how to make the “most” out of this experience. As I was making some mental notes towards that now-aborted speech, I was getting even more ambitious. I had the impulse to profess to you what legal education is all about. I was concocting in my mind a potpourri of wise aphorisms about legal education as bestowing confidence, critical thinking, work ethic, pragmatism, sense of purpose, and so on. Heck, I was even on the verge of disclosing to you what is law, what is justice, and – sit tight – what is truth.

But then I paused. What was I thinking??? I surely don’t know the truth, I am struggling to understand justice, and still learning the law. As to legal education, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all formula on how to educate or how to succeed in law school. I don’t find much value in generic guidance to any question or problem, and if can give you any advice it is to reject uniform, one-size-fits-all advice. (The paradox in this injunction is not lost on me . . .). I passionately distrust guidebooks offering their secret sauce on how to … lose weight, raise children, succeed in business, win friends, build mental strength. People—you, my friends—are too different, and any meaningful advice, any meaningful treatment, has to be personalized. So for me to stand here and shower you with clichés about hard work or critical thinking? To offer you an elixir for eternal legal success? No! It would be pretentious and even dishonest.

Luckily, I stopped in my tracks. No advice tonight. So what should I talk to you about?

I want to be personal in my words to you. If you end up taking any of my classes, I’ll get to know you and then try to offer you some personalized teaching and advice. In the meantime, let me be personal in another way and tell you a little about myself and my own experience. Let me talk about my own personal University of Chicago Law School, about My Chicago, and why I love it.

I came to the Law School more than 12 years ago, from other excellent institutions. I always heard a lot about Chicago’s rigorous reputation, and admired it from afar. Already as a student, in a distant place and time, I was wowed by the novelty of ideas coming out of this campus. Chicago, for me then, was not a place. It was a paradigm, an intellectual enterprise, a citadel of human thought. As I matured into a scholar and a teacher, I was astonished by the productivity and creativity of what I discovered to be actually a very small scholarly community. When I first visited this building, with its previously austere interior, it provoked in me images of a Franciscan order, with devoted members tirelessly spreading their orthodoxy all while facing furious headwinds.

Later, when I was invited to join and become a permanent member of this community, I was—perhaps like some of you today—quite intimidated. Here is a random mix of thoughts that marinated in me as I moved here:

  • Everyone in Chicago is smarter than me;
  • I have no new ideas left in the tank
  • I’ll be the least popular teacher
  • My new colleagues will realize they made a mistake hiring me.

But, I came here and found a warm and intimate place, welcoming and deeply supportive. Already on my first day of arrival, four members of the faculty invited me to their homes for dinners. In my work, I was immediately showered with endless constructive feedback. When I offered my views, colleagues listened. Everybody’s door was—always is—open, and students welcome and encouraged to stop by.

I was struck and inspired by something completely unexpected—the sacramental commitment of my Chicago colleagues to their role as teachers. You see, faculty in most schools—especially elite schools—get to their positions, reputations, and promotions by writing fancy books and articles and developing influential ideas. Not by investing in teaching. Sadly, teaching is regarded in these other places as a secondary task, a necessity, a burden. Chicago, I expected, with its unmatched research productivity, must be one of those places least focused on teaching. Oh, how wrong I was. I found not apathy towards the classroom, but rather the greatest collective loyalty and enthusiasm for our role as teachers and mentors.

My Chicago is a place where the faculty are always available to meet students, to get to know them, to discuss an issue, or to support a student’s ambitions. The place where faculty make every effort to keep students at the edge of their seats, informed, entertained, and challenged. It is a small and cohesive sphere where faculty and students chat in the hallways and in Coffee Mess, meet in small group lunches and one-on-one consultations. The concept of office hours, as practiced at other top law schools, is a ritual shielding professors from what those places regard as the nuisance of daily student visits. Here at Chicago the doors are always open. The best part of my day is when a student walks through the open door into my office. The best part of the year is when students return from summer break and the building erupts with life and companionship. The seminars I like most are the ones that meet on winter nights at my home, where we sit by the fireplace and nourish on fresh food and ideas. So perhaps this is my emerging vision of legal education—a vision based on human relationships and personalized treatment.

Friends, we live in a turbulent time of raw civic and political emotions. It is an era in which social interactions are conducted increasingly though phone screens, where ideas and people are either “liked” or dismissed, and where the difference between facts, myths, and outright lies is painfully elusive. Our public conversation is bitter and polarized, often lacking nuance, humility, and respect. An idea that cannot fit into a tweet is doomed.

It is beyond my sociological wit to recommend solutions to this rupture. You already heard that I don’t believe in generic recipes for tough challenges. Who knows, maybe I am even wrong in thinking of this climate as a problem; I’m sincere enough to recognize that moderation and nuance are themselves political values, which other people may legitimately reject. And so I will not preach to you, but merely declare my own personal experience here, within these law school walls. In my Chicago, my ideas will be listened to respectfully; then discussed, criticized, and even taken apart. In my Chicago, my ideas will be dissected, but not my person. I will be comfortable to respond, to listen, to make statements wildly off the mark, and to reconsider. In my Chicago, I am free to change my mind, to expand my world. I hope you will feel equally comfortable, challenged, and respected. It will then be an exhilarating ride.

Welcome to Chicago.