Below is the text of the welcome speech offered by Lior Strahilevitz, the Sidley Austin Professor of Law.
The University of Chicago Law School Entering Students Dinner is always one of my favorite events at the Law School—there’s so much energy, nervous excitement, and joy when the class gathers for these festivities. Tonight we’ve learned that not even distance can change that. I have been on the faculty for 19 years, and I think this is my 18th Entering Students Dinner. Behind me is what this evening looked like a few years ago. But I’ve got an admission to make—though I remember the tradition fondly, when you’ve been to nearly 20 of these, the dinners start to blend together. Honestly, there are just two entering students dinners I’ll never forget—my first one and this one.
I know a lot of you are wondering whether you belong here, whether you’re talented enough to excel here. The answers are straightforward—yes you do, and yes you are. But I understand where self-doubt comes from, and I can relate. Imagine the imposter syndrome that sets in for a brand-new professor, three years out of law school, who is going to be teaching a fall quarter Property class here with 95 1Ls. That was me, walking into my first Entering Students Dinner in 2002.
I figured I may as well have mischievous fun along the way. While I was waiting in line for a drink at my first Entering Students Dinner, I was chatting with one of the 1Ls and I asked her who she had for her classes. She said she had a few famous professors like Strauss and Levmore but she also had this Property professor whose name was unpronounceable and who none of the 2Ls knew anything about. I said, “Oh, I think you have Strahilevitz. I’m in that class too. I’ve heard he is this kid in his 20s who has no idea what he’s doing.” I think my comments were so harsh that she quickly cut the conversation short before she was able to see my nametag.
I saw her again a few days later when I walked in to class to start teaching Property. She gave me a look that practically screamed, “Where is our Property professor and why is that annoying 1L from the Entering Students Dinner still wearing a suit and tie?” Alas, that trick is one I can no longer pull off in my mid-40s. But just in case they were tempted to duplicate my prank tonight, I’d like to blow the covers of Bridget Fahey, Hajin Kim, and Josh Macey, our tremendously accomplished rookie professors—none of whom are your classmates. They’re part of a phenomenal cohort of new faculty whose hiring Dean Miles spearheaded in 2020, probably the strongest cohort of scholars ever hired by the Law School in a single year, and we’re delighted to welcome new colleagues as well as new students this evening.
So what’s going to make this year’s entering students dinner unforgettable for me? That’s easy—it’s our first time doing this via Zoom, it’s my first time giving the big speech, and I’ll always remember our chutzpah in inviting you to a dinner with no food.
My theme for tonight’s speech hit me as I was driving down 58th Street last week. A parked car had a big bumper sticker on the back that read, “Please Be Patient Student Driver.”
We could probably discuss this bumper sticker for hours, but I’m going to limit myself to 11 more minutes. Let’s start with the meaning of the ambiguous message, and I want to launch a Zoom poll to get your help in figuring out what this bumper sticker means. If we focus just on the text of the sticker it might convey two plausible but very different meanings. One is a warning to other motorists—the driver is still learning how to drive and may make mistakes. A second plausible meaning is guidance to the student driver—for brand new drivers being patient and driving slowly is a good strategy for reducing both the likelihood and the severity of collisions.
So which one is the better interpretation of “Please be patient student driver”?
The poll results reveal that 92 percent of you concluded that this statement is a warning to other drivers. How did you get there? Probably your answers have little to do with text and much to do with context. The key context here is that the words appear on a car’s bumper, rendering them invisible to the car’s occupants and highly visible to motorists behind the car. The fact that the text appears on a bumper sticker affects how you understand the words’ meaning. You just did the kind of interpretive exercise lawyers have been paid to do for centuries.
So the answer to the question in the poll seems simple, right?
Well, not so fast. Or rather, “Please be patient, student driver.” Not every bumper sticker is aimed at the people behind the car. I know this because I’ve written a couple of papers about “How’s My Driving?” programs. In a paper with an empirical economist, we found that How’s My Driving stickers appear to reduce motor vehicle collisions significantly. But the best evidence we’ve got suggests that the primary reason these stickers reduce accidents isn’t that concerned motorists call trucking companies when they see bad driving, then those companies retrain or discipline the drivers who sparked complaints. Rather, the primary causal mechanism appears to be that drivers understand that if a company is paying for a driver monitoring program then the company must be prioritizing crash reduction, and the drivers figure that if they get involved in a fender bender they’ll likely lose their jobs. So they drive more cautiously and get into fewer accidents. The primary intended audience for How’s My Driving bumper stickers is the drivers of the stickered vehicles.
Upon reflection, you might conclude that the “please be patient” bumper sticker influences the behavior of both the student driver and other motorists, with each dynamic potentially reducing the risk of a collision.
So while I think this crowd is wise about the best meaning of my “please be patient student driver” bumper sticker, as a law school we want to push you to develop a rigorous method for interpreting words and phrases more generally, one that helps you make sense of constitutions, wills, statutes, regulations, and contracts. Now you see how empirical economics can shed some light on that question. But to develop a rigorous theory of meaning you will need to know some linguistics, some psychology, some history, some anthropology, and perhaps even some engineering. This is one reason why interdisciplinarity is so central to legal education and the work of lawyers.
Now there are three further ways in which “Please be patient student driver” is an apt mantra for this evening. First, it teaches a vital lesson about professional happiness. My former students insist that the difference between a happy lawyer and a sad one is often that the happy lawyer has been proactive about developing their niche in an area of law they find fascinating, whereas the sad lawyer is one who got pulled into a huge case one day as a junior attorney, and they spent several years working on that case. By the time the huge case settled, the lawyer had developed valuable expertise in an area they honestly found kind of boring. But clients only wanted to keep hiring them to do precisely the work for which they were now exquisitely trained.
So how does one avoid the fate of the sad lawyer? The critical first step as a law student is to figure out what body of law you love. If you love a subject in law school you’ll probably find it tremendously satisfying to specialize in it as a lawyer. If a subject bores you in law school, don’t expect it to get more interesting in practice.
“Please be patient, student driver” reminds you that you might not encounter the legal subject matter that speaks to you until the last quarter before graduation, in a course or clinic. And that’s ok—Chicago’s quarter system is basically legal speed dating. It’s going to let you taste more subjects than you could encounter anywhere else, and you’re going to find great teachers who will make subjects you didn’t think you were interested in come alive. They’re going to take you onto the highway and tell you to step on the gas before you feel ready. But you’ll be more ready than you think. And in just a few months’ time you’re going to be a competent driver. But that is just the beginning.
There are a number of professors here – and they’re among the best professors we’ve got – whose pedagogical approach is basically this: You know how to drive…. On the right side of the road anyway. Now let’s spend a quarter together learning how to drive on the left. It’s going to be harrowing the first time you turn left into the left lane instead of the right. And you’re constantly going to be activating your windshield wipers when you mean to be hitting the turn signal. When all is said and done, spending a quarter driving on the other side of the road is going to re-wire your brain in ways that are really exhilarating and helpful to your growth as a person and professional.
And that brings me to the second lesson. “Please be patient, student driver” is a vital message to each of you about how you ought to treat each other. You’re a student driver surrounded by student drivers. Good grief, that sounds dangerous! Each of us brings a lot of knowledge to 1111 East 60th Street, and happily that knowledge is not overlapping. It means there is so much we can learn from each other. But each of us carries some ignorance to the Law School too, thanks to holes in our educations, gaps in our life experiences, and failures of imagination. I’m ignorant about all kinds of things, and I’ve been in law school for 22 years!
There will be times when you get impatient with your classmates about an idea you grasped quickly. You may be tempted to raise your hand to intervene if a classmate is taking his time. Alas, most professors won’t call on you in that circumstance. The point of a Socratic conversation isn’t to arrive at the best answer in the quickest way possible. You don’t learn how to drive a car by flying in a 767 from Chicago to Denver. Socratic dialogue teaches students which of their instincts are more and less reliable paths to a good answer. So if you find you or your classmates struggling with something, please be patient. Things will click soon.
Please also be patient with your classmates if you hear them saying something you think is misguided. Remember that when a student is called upon to speak in front of a large group of classmates it can be stressful. And sometimes words come out the wrong way, or ambiguity ensues. Misconstruing a classmate’s words is frankly a particular hazard this quarter, when forming friendships might take a little longer than usual. It’s easier to misinterpret a stranger than a friend. So please give each other the benefit of the doubt and search for the most charitable interpretation of something a classmate has said or written.
And finally, there’s a third and equally important application of "Please be patient, student driver." Please be patient with us. There is no law faculty on the planet that is more committed to student learning than this one. We’ve spent all summer preparing to help you learn as much as possible and have fun along the way. The staff has been working just as hard, and with tremendous creativity and care. This is a small school that is filled with dedicated professionals.
Yet there are many parents of school-aged kids on the faculty and staff, and most of us with kids are having to help them navigate an online-only learning environment. Others are caring for elderly parents. I’m married to a dedicated palliative care doctor. She’s been treating veterans with COVID-19 since March, and April and May were by far the most difficult months she’s had in her 20-year career as a physician. We’re so fortunate in that neither one of us has lost our jobs nor gotten sick, and our kids are healthy too, thank God. Yet I’m one of the many people who work here who feel pulled in multiple directions at once, trying to do right by our spouses, kids, students, colleagues, and community. It’s been hard on me. It’s been hard for us. And we know how hard it’s been on you, too.
"Please be patient student driver" reminds us that before you get annoyed about a delayed response or a postponed meeting, you should ask yourself whether circumstances you’re not privy to might help explain why a dedicated professional had to ask you to be flexible. You should understand that any imposition on a student comes as a last resort. And because ours is an unequal society you will notice unfair gendered differences in what faculty and staff have on their plates. Please be patient, and please be kind. Trust that we are giving you and your classmates absolutely everything we’ve got.
The heartbreaking nature of 2020 has underscored how important it is to seize opportunities for celebration. We are thrilled that you have chosen to enroll at this distinctive driving school, at this profoundly important moment in our history. I should give fair warning. When you show up in our classes we’re going to accelerate quickly. We’re going to take the turns hard. There’s a reason we are doing this—each of you has the capacity to accomplish extraordinary things in our profession. We’re not merely teaching you how to drive. We are training you to be the best drivers in the world. And I have to admit that we’re impatient to see what you can do when you start your engines next week!