Thank you so much, Dean Miles, for that generous introduction.
I want to recognize my current and soon-to-be fellow alumni, members of this esteemed faculty, and distinguished guests. Good morning all, it is a great honor and privilege to be with you today.
Let’s start with a HUGE congratulations to the Class of 2018!
I also want to recognize the family and friends in the audience today. Their lifetime of support has surely been as important to our graduates’ success as their intellect and hard work. You should all be proud of yourselves today. What a huge accomplishment!
Now, one receives much advice when preparing for a speech like this. And when you work at Nike, a lot of it is about what shoes to wear . . . so I hope you all appreciate my kicks.
But putting aside wardrobe-related matters, I’ll be honest: most of the advice I got was more panic-inducing than helpful. Be serious. Be funny. Be both—but not too much of either.
Be substantive—but don’t lecture. And the best: when you’re writing, keep in mind that this generation of lawyers will have to save the republic, so make sure it’s a call to action. Oh great, no pressure with that one. My favorite advice comes from my own father, who is here today. He said, “Hilary, just stick to the 3 Bs: be prepared, be brief, and be seated.” So now you all know that there is at least one member of the audience who is disappointed I’m not already wrapping this up.
But, alas, before I take my seat, there are a few things I want to share from my experience that I hope may be of help to you along the way.
Top of the list: value the people you are sitting with today. You and they are the leaders of tomorrow and the array of contributions you all will make is too vast to imagine today. When I sat in your seat, not only did I not expect to be where I am today, but I assure you I did not anticipate everything my classmates would accomplish either. My colleagues are partners at law firms and investment banks, law school professors and public-school teachers, prosecutors, public defenders, and pro bono leaders. They are general counsel to large public companies, cutting-edge start-ups, and leading universities. We have federal and state court judges, including a state Supreme Court justice, and senior government advisors from Chief of Policy for the City of Chicago to the chief of staff for a former vice president. From my world of sports, we have the CEO of the Women’s World Cup and the vice president of LA’s 2028 Olympic Games . . . The list goes on and on. And that’s just some of the women.
So, while the first-rate education and professional training you’ve received here will serve you well, your classmates are an unparalleled asset that will continue to give you pride, support, and inspiration throughout your careers. So, continue to invest in each other. You will find there is no greater return on investment out there—other, of course, than the ones made with family.
Speaking of which, this University is special to me not just because I once sat where you sit, as did my father before that and as my nephew does today, but also because my husband and two of my children were or are currently being educated here. One difference, however: all three chose instead to study philosophy. So, to avoid embarrassing them by my lack of erudition and, worse, being scorned for being too practical, which I assure you is a near-daily experience, I’m just going to go ahead and quote Aristotle to get it out of the way. He wrote in Nicomachean Ethics, “Excellence is an art won by habituation and training. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence but rather we have these because we have acted rightly.” This thought has since been simplified as follows: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Each of you have been given an education that, along with your natural ability, gives you the potential for greatness whatever path you choose to follow. Whether or not you achieve that greatness will be decided by what you do tomorrow and each day thereafter.
This phenomenon is perhaps most easily demonstrated in the world of sport. One thing all of the world’s great athletes have in common is work ethic and the knowledge that consistent, everyday attention to the work has as much to do with greatness as innate gifts. Now I’m not going to argue that natural gift is not important; surely it is. But while helpful, it alone is insufficient.
When Michael Jordan first went out for his high school basketball team, he got cut. Instead, imagine this, MJ was relegated to junior varsity. When I was lucky enough to ask him how he went from the JV squad to six NBA titles, he said without hesitation, “I made it my business to be great every single day.” And when I followed up with, “So that’s how you brought it when it mattered?” He scolded me, “You missed my point, Hilary, it was every day that mattered.” (See what I did there, casually mentioning that I’m on a first-name basis with MJ. Shameful, I know, but impossible to resist.) In the same vein, Serena Williams has said failure to treat every trip onto the court as totally vital is to sacrifice the ability to summon that power when you most need it.
As it turns out, like in sport, muscle memory really matters in professional life.
So keep that in mind when you are called on to do some of the difficult and less-than-thrilling work that defines the earliest stages of lawyering (and just about anything else). Failing to read that last case or chase that last minor fact or tolerating a typo or misquote in the course of a mind-numbing assignment may seem small . . . but it isn’t. Bringing your best to small things will make you better at the big things.
What’s more, sometimes you do not even know when a big thing is upon you. It’s only when you look in the rearview mirror that you recognize a moment as being totally defining. Sometimes it is super easy to tell when something is important—the neon lights are flashing, endorphins are firing, and you bring all your focus. It’s a Supreme Court argument, a huge presentation, the closing of a massive deal. But more often, in the course of the everyday hurly-burly, you are asked to make a judgment or answer a question that may seem mundane . . . only to learn later that that moment, unaccompanied by any fanfare, was the decisive moment. When you look back on it, you will be either grateful for your habit of excellence, or despairing of your failure to develop it. I strongly recommend the former.
Now, for those of you sitting out there thinking “No problem, I have this excellence thing nailed—I got a perfect score on the LSAT, I can cite every case we ever studied, I can do multivariable calculus in my head”—and I know you’re out there—I have some challenging news. The kind of excellence I am talking about requires more than the ability to get precise things right.
It requires judgment, courage, and even humility. And, it should go without saying, the highest standard of ethics.
It turns out that most things in life defy “right” answers. The challenges of today’s world are exquisitely complex and, more often than not, the solutions must be judged as better or worse, not right or wrong. The accelerating pace of change in society, technology, and global affairs only adds difficulty in solving the problems that you will likely confront. To address these challenges requires asking uncomfortable questions and delivering unwelcome messages. It requires nuanced thinking and the ability to see things not as they are now but as they will be in the future.
In this challenging environment, there is nothing more dispiriting, and in the end less effective, than people who see where the collective thought is moving and hasten to agree. There may be short-term gratification in agreeing with groupthink, but I warn against it. Ask the question no one else will ask! Speak truth to authority even when it’s scary! Having the courage to bring your unique perspective—especially when it challenges static assumptions about the future—will serve you, your clients, and society well.
Equally as challenging as the people lacking personal conviction are those too intellectually stubborn to even acknowledge a possible chink in their own intellectual armor.
So, in addition to excellence and courage, I encourage you to practice diplomacy as you practice the law. Cultivate your own style of disagreeing without being disagreeable. And, what’s perhaps hardest of all, at least for me, is learn to lose gracefully. (Well, everywhere but in court. There, zealous advocacy will require you to leave it all on the field.) No matter how sure you are, how much you’ve studied the issue, there are times when you will not win the day, no matter the depth of your conviction. In fact, there are times you might not even be right!
I had the pleasure to clerk for an esteemed alum of this school, the Honorable Milton I. Shadur, class of 1949. I learned an impossible number of important things from him. But my
favorite was when he told me this: If I was at a party and one person told me I was drunk, I could stay. But if I was ever at a party and three people told me I was drunk, I should go home and lie down. Now given the time of my life when he knew me, it might be fair to assume he was actually talking about my social life, but he wasn’t. He was talking about my own intellectual stubbornness, my inability to step out of myself and look at an issue in a way other than how I first perceived it. He was rightly pointing out that I was more interested in winning the argument than in making sure I had thought through all the angles. He was encouraging me to see people disagreeing with me as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a challenge to my rectitude. It may well be the most valuable advice I ever received.
And so, it may not surprise you that one of my favorite books is one called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz, which is all about the human capacity to be wrong about things large and small and be totally un-self-aware about it. I enjoy giving the book to lawyers who work for me. And as you might imagine, when I give them a book called Being Wrong, they often respond in an understandably discomforted way. My favorite was a woman who thanked me by saying, with tongue-in-cheek indignation: “Subtle, Hilary.” These reactions only remind me of our collective need to open our minds to our limitations as a way of unleashing our potential to be our best selves.
The bottom line? None of us have all the answers. We must cultivate the necessary skills to benefit from diversity of thought and experience . . . from deeply considering perspectives other than our own. We must not only challenge others, but surround ourselves with people who will challenge us, even when it’s unwelcome. In our increasingly fractured society, recognizing that the same question looks different to people with different life experiences is probably the most profound challenge and opportunity we have. In the end, graduates, my advice to you is this: Run straight at that challenge. Seek out those who think differently from you and learn from them. You’ve done this here, both in class and I suspect at Jimmy’s. Keep it up! Doing so will give you huge opportunities for personal and professional growth.
It was Woodrow Wilson who once said, “I like to use all the brains I have and all that I can borrow.” In order to make that come alive, other people need to be willing to share their brains with you. Do what you can to make that easy and desirable for them. You and whatever mission you are working on will be better for it.
So unlike what you may have heard at other graduations, I believe that life is not as much about finding yourself as it is about creating yourself. That is especially true in professional life.
I encourage you all to go out and create your greatness—valuing each other, with a habit of excellence, a courageous spirit, and an air of humility.
I know you will do amazing things.
Congratulations and Godspeed.