Emily Buss Addresses Entering Students

Good evening, and Welcome to the JD Class of 2015, and the LLM Class of 2013. 

It is a special honor to have this opportunity to speak to you tonight, at this dinner that launches your legal studies here at the University of Chicago Law School.  I get to impart some wise words of advice and celebrate your arrival, perhaps even say something that is designed to be funny, at which you will, good naturedly, be happy to laugh. (This is meant as a prediction, but if it is inaccurate, take it as an instruction.)

The whole posture of this brief interlude while I am standing up here and you are listening attentively, perhaps craning around a pillar to see, reinforces the impression that you have arrived at our institution, where we will teach you what you need to know over the course of three years, and then send you out into the world to be the successful lawyers we have turned you into here. 

But in fact, this sense that you are here at our law school has it backwards.  

The very basic idea that I want you to take away from my brief remarks tonight is this: This is your law school.

Now, the law is full of basic, simple ideas that generate large volumes of justifications, illustrations and qualifications, and I will engage in some of that here.  “Your law school,” could mean many things, some of them true and important, but rather obvious, some absolutely not true of this place, and some, I think, worth calling to your attention on this launch-night of your legal education.

Let’s start with the important but obvious meaning of my message:  “This is your law school.”  We chose you, and you chose us.  There were thousands of other applicants, and there are a couple 100 other accredited law schools, and here you are.  At this one.  This is your law school.  Of course, who we chose and who you chose back says a lot about this place and about you, but this is all I will say about the happy fact that you decided to come here.

Now, what I absolutely do not mean is that you should do whatever you want to do while you are here.  Hey, it’s your law school. 

This sort of “if it feels good, do it” approach to law school is, in fact, the model embraced at a superb law school roughly a thousand miles to our east.  One I attended, as a matter of fact.  It is an approach that has a great deal of appeal to students and faculty alike.  To students, because you all know a lot about what interests you, and what you are good at, and why shouldn’t you study what seems important, in classes taught in a style that is congenial to you?  It appeals to faculty, because it eliminates the hard work required to develop and deliver a curriculum that makes the best use of your three years, and to continually update that curriculum to keep up with the changing world. 

Here, for all of our love of the free market and a somewhat prevalent message that we are rational actors maximizing our utility, we are quite paternalistic about your educational experience.  We prescribe your course load for your entire first year, with one exception in the spring.  Some of us might want to require even more courses, but we are comforted to see that you all seem to understand that, even if they are not technically required, you would be crazy not to take, for example, Con Law I or Evidence or Bankruptcy, just to name a few.  We expect you to prepare for class every day, and to do that preparation with considerable care.  And we call on you, quite literally, to engage with us in class, with no more warning than that which comes from those high expectations.

To be clear, many an excellent lawyer comes out of that other law school a thousand miles to our east, but they would be even better lawyers, I am quite sure of this, if they had graduated from here.

So in what important, non-obvious respects is this your law school? I have two in mind:

The first, is almost a trick:  It sounds so generous, welcoming you by reminding you that it is your law school, but, in fact, it is a crafty way of shifting much of the work of your law school education to you.  We have a lot to say about what you study and how you participate in class, but we depend on you to make it all work.  If you study hard, listen attentively in class,  rat-a-tat down every word of your professors, and then find us in our offices to clarify the sentence that you may have mis-transcribed, you will not have a particularly successful law school experience.  We need you to be actively engaged thinking about what you are reading, and what is being discussed in class.  Do you agree?  You.  What arguments do you find compelling?  And why?  What is important, and what is just a detail?  You should be questioning everything you read, and everything you hear, from us, and from your fellow students.  And be sure not to check everything you learned and experienced before law school at the door.

This is not to say that everything you think and say will be brilliant.  Indeed, some things will be, in fact “wrong.” (Forget anything you have heard about there being “no wrong answers.” There are some, and there are also weak answers, or incomplete answers, or answers that are the right response to some other question, but not the one being asked.)  The point of calling on you to engage and to question is not to validate all your thoughts, but to validate the process of thought that works, tirelessly, to sort the right from the wrong, the stronger from the weaker argument.  So you have to be tough as well as engaged.  Don’t sweat the mistakes and the confusions.  Just keep thinking.

This reminder that you are going to make mistakes and get confused is not, as it probably sounds, the message of the smarty pants professor talking to her student ingénues.  This is how we faculty think about our own scholarship.  We appreciate our colleagues when they help us discover a weakness.  And we particularly admire our colleagues who can recognize an insightful challenge for what it is, and embrace the reworking, the rethinking, that it requires.

You have undoubtedly already heard many times, that the core of a legal education is not learning what is sometimes called “black letter law,” but rather learning to think in a different way.  You cannot retool your thinking, learn to “think like a lawyer,” unless you are actively engaged.  And to really take off, your engagement depends on that of your peers as well.—What you learn in class, that’s a start.  But you need to continue over lunch, or in a study group, or after a talk sponsored by the Federalist Society or ACS.  So, all of you, together.  Your law school.

The second sense in which I mean the phrase is as a call to you, to be true to yourselves.  If a liberal arts education in college has the effect of expanding your ideas and possibilities, professional schools constrain.  Some of this intellectual constraint and channeling is necessary, as you have chosen to prepare for one career path, and not others.   But some of it is not only not necessary, but it can be diminishing.  In giving you a new terminology, we risk reducing your eloquence, in inspiring you to think in different way, we may lead you to neglect other parts of your brain, not to mention your heart, that have been the source of considerable joy and wisdom in your life. 

Related to this, some of you may already have the impression, and many of you will form the impression at some point, that other students are more perfectly suited for this place, or maybe law school in general, than you are.  Some of your fellow students will seem to have, from day one, already figured it all out, to find perfectly obvious what strikes you as alien or even bizarre.  The socratic method, for all its considerable virtues, can reinforce this impression.  And some of your hearts will sing, and some hearts will sink, the first time one of your professors casts some essential legal principle in numerical form.  But if we do our jobs, and (sorry to say this again) you do yours, differences in intuition, strongly felt, should get pounded out into broader insights, and more rigorous thinking for all, rather than suppressed. 

You will be more happy in law school, and we will be a better law school for it, if you resist the sense that there is some archetypical Chicago law student that isn’t quite you.  This is your law school, too.

To help you inoculate yourselves against this potential indoctrination effect, I have three assignments, which you must complete before the end of the week (pass/fail) and you can repeat as needed through your law school career:

The first, is to go into the parking lot and read the bumper stickers, magnetized beribboned messages and vanity plates on display on the cars driven by our faculty, staff and students.  I realize you would need to make a point of doing this, as none of you are allowed to park your cars there yet.  A trip through the parking lot is a nice reminder of the other parts of all of us, and how diverse our lives and causes are.  You will not be surprised to see that some people support one presidential candidate, and some another, although, if the election was based on our parking lot, there is a clear winner.  You will also see that at least one driver is in the “bottom 99%” and, well, I hope there’s not a bumper sticker for the remaining 1%, but the cars help tell the story.  We have amongst us those who served in the military and those who visibly support those who served.  There are those who love their adopted pets, and those who counsel you to spay your own.  And, of course, you will see life long allegiances to colleges and sports teams from coast to coast.

Your second assignment is to cross the midway and walk east to Promontory Point and look north to the Chicago skyline.  Whereas the parking lot tour will give you insight into the richness of your community here, your walk to the lake will help you look out: at the extraordinary city of Chicago, the bigger world, and, maybe along the walk, the non-law school parts of you.

Your third assignment is to go to the Ratner gymnasium, this is the university gym on Ellis, and find the enormous picture of a women’s touch football team.  I can’t exactly say why this one is on the list, but I know it should be.   Every time I walk by that picture and see my former students I have to smile.  I wish I were on that team.  It was their law school, and now it’s yours.

So, my message that “this is your law school,” turns out to be full of warnings, exhortations and a bit of finger-waving advice.  But I also say it with delight.  In starting your law school careers, you renew us.  With your arrival we feel the power surge.  This is your law school and we are delighted you are here.