The Class of 2015 Celebrates at the Midway Dinner

The Midway Dinner is held across the Midway each February to celebrate the midway point of the law school careers of the 2L class. This year's Midway Dinner was at Ida Noyes Hall on Thursday, February 6. Daniel Abebe, Professor of Law and Walter Mander Teaching Scholar, delivered these remarks:


Good evening.

It is indeed an honor to speak to you tonight at one of the Law School’s most cherished events, the Midway Dinner. Few professors would turn down the opportunity to hear themselves speak to a captive audience of students, faculty, and administrators, and I’m no exception to that. However, out of respect for your busy schedules and in the tradition of an after-dinner speech, I promise that I will do my best keep my remarks between 60 and 90 minutes.

As I thought about what to say tonight, I began to worry that I’m not the best person to speak intelligently about the tradition associated with the Midway Dinner. I was worried because I wasn’t confident that I fully understood it. Of course, like the generations of students before you, I have been privileged to hear my colleagues beautifully describe their conceptions of the Midway Dinner. They have spoken so eloquently about its history and meaning. In trying to leave my conception of the Midway Dinner with you, I will start with what I think is the tradition.

As many of you know, the Midway Dinner is both metaphor and reality. It is metaphor in that we symbolically dine here, in Ida Noyes Hall, on the other side of the Midway Plaisance, to send you a subtle yet powerful message: the Law School doesn’t have a monopoly on the great ideas associated with the University of Chicago. You should not be afraid to cross the Midway and expand your horizons, challenge your strongly held convictions, and engage with new ideas. Imagine a law school that so cares for its students’ education that it says, “Go, take classes somewhere else! See what the world of ideas across the Midway has to offer.”

The Midway Dinner metaphor is consistent with reality. The University of Chicago Law School, perhaps more than any other, embraces an open, rigorous, and constructive exchange of ideas. And many of those ideas grow from our deep commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship and education. The Midway Dinner is also reality in that it marks something real: the midpoint of your experience at the Law School. It marks a stage of your intellectual and personal development, the moment when the tools of legal analysis seem a bit less like a foreign language, and the beginning of a career as a successful lawyer is within reach. This is the traditional message of the Midway Dinner. Although it is an important message, I am still left wondering if we need the Midway Dinner to communicate it. Let me explain.

I don’t know the vast majority of you but nearly all of you arrived here with undergraduate degrees in various disciplines. Some of you also earned graduate degrees before going to law school. Still others are pursuing joint degrees with different academic departments across the Midway. In other words, all of you already know that there are great ideas taught beyond the confines of our special Law School. Moreover, upon arriving here as 1Ls, you immediately heard about our proud commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship and learning. Upon starting classes, you were introduced to a first-year curriculum that includes Elements, a course uniquely Chicago in its conception. In Elements, you were introduced to different modes of legal analysis that draw from disciplines situated across the Midway. Even a glance at the Law School’s faculty webpage shows our commitment to crossing the Midway, as many of your professors have backgrounds in philosophy, history, economics, and political science. If there is anything that we try to communicate at the Law School, from the moment you arrive for Admitted Students Weekend until the day you graduate, it is the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to law, intellectual breadth, and rigorous thinking. If all of this is true, why do we need the Midway Dinner?

In fact, it might seem odd to celebrate the midpoint of anything, especially with a formal dinner and a boring speaker! We don’t celebrate with the pilot midway through a flight, we don’t celebrate with the dentist midway through a cleaning, and we certainly don’t celebrate with you midway through an exam! Just imagine, midway though your Contracts exam, Professor Baird arriving with a delicious cheese plate or, midway through your Torts exam, Professor Levmore passing out a lovely fruit basket to encourage you as you plow through a multiple page issue-spotter.

Finally, it is not just that the Midway Dinner might seem odd but that the term “mid” often has negative connotations. Think of the mid-career manager at a corporation worried about being downsized, think of the young litigator, forgetting his argument mid-sentence, even think of the stereotypical balding man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, desperately trying to regain his lost youth by either buying a Porsche or buying new hair. Call me in 10 years and I will tell you what I decide. So, again, if the message has already been delivered and the concept of a Midway Dinner seems unusual, why are we here tonight?

Let me answer that question by offering my understanding of the Midway Dinner. The Midway Dinner is a fantastic symbol of what makes this Law School unique and great, not because of the metaphor or the reality, but because the Midway Dinner gives you an opportunity to reflect. Tonight, the Law School is offering you a chance to think about where you have been, where you are, and where you want to go. In a world of constant distraction, feverish multitasking, and the endless pursuit of the next goal, pausing tonight for the Midway Dinner gives you the opportunity to think and reflect. You might not realize this but you have a precious commodity: you have something approaching the certainty of time. And what I mean by that is in life, your life outside of and after law school, you lose the certainty of time. When you start a new job, you don’t know how long you’ll work there; when you buy a new home, you don’t know how long you’ll live there. Perhaps more poignantly, when you meet someone special, you don’t know how long it will last, and as we have tragically seen this year, when you live life, you don’t know how much time you have. But now, at this moment at the University of Chicago Law School, you have something approaching the certainty of time. You know almost exactly how much time you have left in school and, as a consequence, you have the opportunity to think and shape your future.

So what should you do with this opportunity? Some of you might think that reflection is unnecessary because you already know what you want to do. You’ve decided to be a transactional attorney and want to focus the rest of your education on corporate law. Maybe you want to be a litigator and plan to take courses on trial advocacy. Perhaps you are committed to doing public service and public interest work and want to take advantage of our clinical offerings. These are all wonderful career and life paths, with the potential to bring much professional and personal happiness. It is not my place to say what is best for each of you; like the Law School, I don’t claim to have a monopoly on all the good ideas.

But, if you take the opportunity to reflect, let me make a gentle suggestion. Think of your remaining time at the Law School not only as a chance to deepen your understanding of the law, but also as a chance to widen your understanding of the world. And across the Midway is the world of Chinese history, postcolonial political theory, and the causes and consequences of nationalism. Across the Midway is the world of the philosophy of Al-Farabi, Russian literature, and sports economics. Across the Midway is the world of South Asian civilizations, the sociology of race and gender, and the writings of Maimonides. I can’t do justice to all that the world across the Midway offers, but if you take the opportunity to see it, you might return to the Law School a bit more open to ideas and a bit less certain in your views. And you might even return as a well-rounded lawyer and a more enlightened person.

So, in hindsight, maybe I was wrong about the term “mid” in Midway. After all, you can always right the ship, midway through the voyage. You get your second wind, midway through the race. And you get to cross the Plaisance, midway through your law school journey. Now I didn’t have a Midway Dinner when I was in law school. But, luckily, I had a midway moment as a mid-level associate at a law firm. I took the opportunity to cross the Midway and take classes in the political science department at the University of Chicago. Every person’s path is different, but I hope you have a midway moment, too.