David Weisbach: Democracy Needs to be Defended, and Lawyers Are Key to Defending It

Graduation Remarks to the Class of 2019

David Weisbach at the lectern

Thank you, Dean Miles, for that generous introduction. I am honored to be here today and to offer you congratulations on behalf of the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School. Welcome to the profession. Welcome also to the family and friends here today, who have helped to make this day possible.

Graduation speeches are supposed to be nonpolitical yet inspirational, summarizing a life lesson in seven minutes. I wrote one, focusing on the career choices you will face over the next 30 to 40 years. It was nonpolitical and attempted to be inspirational. But I woke up this morning and I couldn’t do it. As important as career choices are, it isn’t what I want to talk about.

Instead, this morning I scribbled some notes about what I really want to say. And it is not nonpolitical, or inoffensive to all, so I apologize in advance. I can see Dean Miles shifting nervously in his seat.

This is what I want to say: the world needs you. It needs great lawyers like never before. I’m 55 years old. I’ve lived through the Cold War, the civil rights movement, Watergate, the Bork and Thomas confirmation hearings, Bush versus Gore, 9/11, the Great Recession. I’ve never felt as scared as I do now. Maybe it’s an illusion, that the current moment always seems worse than the past because we know we made it through the past but we don’t know about the future. But I don’t think that’s it. Today feels different. I wake up every day a little bit terrified.

Like no time in my life, the world needs people like you. I’ve never been more proud to be a law professor than today, because my job is to help create the young lawyers, you, that our country and the world need.

Why does the world need you? You’ll have your own list and mine is surely incomplete. And you’ll likely disagree with some of this.

My biggest concern is democracy itself. I’ve never before thought that the basic structure of our democracy is under threat, but I do now. A core principle of representative democracy is that people can elect representatives of their choosing. We’ve often failed to live up to that, including disenfranchisement of vast swaths of our population. But it feels like now we are at risk of barely even giving democracy lip service. Gerrymandering has reached extreme levels, and some politicians defend it by saying, openly and without shame, that their goal is to disenfranchise people of the opposing political party. Taking away people’s votes because of their beliefs is utterly contrary to our basic principles.

Elected officials attack the core institutions of our democracy, such as elections, lengths of time in office, the power of their successors, and the basic functionings and competencies of important agencies. Foreign adversaries are doing so as well. Democracy requires faith in the process, in the outcomes of elections, and in the fair administration of justice. It requires a functioning government which can perform its duties, regardless of your views on which duties it should be performing.

Democracy also requires a robust press and a belief in a common set of facts. When people feel free to deny events that have unquestionably happened, democracy is at risk.

And in our particular democratic structure, checks and balances between the branches is a core principle. It is also at risk. I could go on.

These risks, and others, are not just additive. They multiply, each one making the others worse. I hope our institutions are strong. They will need to be. They are under tremendous pressure.

Democracy is not a given. It won’t last unless it is defended, and lawyers are key to defending it. Class of 2019: Democracy needs you.

The second item that I wake up worrying about is climate change. I work on climate change in my scholarship, so I think about it all the time. It is hard to think about climate change all the time without becoming kind of crazy, focusing day in and day out on looming doom.

It might not turn out so bad, but at its worst, it is an existential threat. It is not so easy to stop the threat because doing so requires transforming our economy and requires the cooperation of all the nations in the world. But I don’t understand why, I can’t understand why, in the face of such a threat, we aren’t doing everything we can even if it will be hard. The data are clear: there is little time to act if we are to avoid the worst harms. And the issue has become depressingly political, an issue where you signal your political tribe by denying the laws of physics, notwithstanding the consequences.

Climate change is less lawyer-focused than democracy is. To stop climate change, we need new technologies and a better scientific understanding. Solving climate change involves stuff: pipes and wires and batteries and structures. But solving climate change will also require lawyers: we need laws, treaties, and international cooperation; IP protection for new technologies; taxes, regulations, incentives, and so forth, all the domain of lawyers. Class of 2019: The earth needs you.

The final thing that keeps me up is how we treat one another, which is partly the domain of discrimination law, but it also includes policing, education, migration, and overall civility towards one another and to groups.

I have a transgender and gay son. I’ve learned a huge amount from him since he came out some years ago. I wake up happy every day that he lives in today’s world. He is happily married and lives in a loving and supportive community, something that he could not have done just a decade age. But now, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat worried about him. What if he travels to the wrong place or meets someone who hates who he is? What if our laws change? Progress that I thought we had made no longer seems permanent.

The same worries extend to people with many different characteristics. I have a cycling friend who lived in Ferguson, MO, many years ago. He describes being stopped by the police because he was driving the speed limit. Why, he was told, was he driving the speed limit, unless he was hiding something? Many of you know these issues firsthand, far better than I do. Many of you live them every day.

Lawyers are central to these issues. Class of 2019: People need you.

My list is incomplete. And my list reflects my perspective on events. You may have a different top three or disagree with my views. But regardless of the details, my message stands. The world needs you, it needs great lawyers, like never before.

How can you meet these demands? Some of you may have a cause you want to devote your life to, but most of you probably do not. I did not when I graduated. Aren’t you allowed to just be a lawyer or whatever you want to be, to pursue happiness and success like everyone else?

Yes, you are. Let me turn briefly back to my original talk. I was going to feature three graduates of the class of 1989, because I graduated from law school in 1989, and because 1989 is a nice round 30 years ago. They were Lori Lightfoot, the first black woman mayor of Chicago, the first openly gay mayor of Chicago, and the first outsider mayor of Chicago in 100 years. We are proud that she is our graduate. She is an incredible role model.

Sheila Nix. Nix worked on numerous presidential campaigns, as chief of staff to Senators John Kerry and Bill Nelson, in Springfield as deputy governor of Illinois, and at senior levels for nonprofits, including working with Bono on poverty in Africa and working on voting rights in the US.

And finally Sharon Zezima: a Bay Area tech lawyer who, as general counsel, took a number of companies public, and who founded a group designed to help accomplished women connect with each other.

I don’t know any of these remarkable women personally, but reading their biographies, I do not get the sense that they graduated law school with a cause. They all started in Big Law. Two were partners. But over the course of the 30 years since they graduated, they all found ways to contribute. They became great lawyers and took advantage of the opportunities open to them because they were great. Each has used her skills to help make the world a better place.

Class of 2019: Follow their paths. The world needs you. Congratulations on your achievements. It is time to commence.