Weinrib Delivers Midway Dinner Speech: 'Take Advantage of the Incredible Opportunities'

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be speaking this evening at one of the Law School’s cherished traditions, the Midway Dinner.

It’s my task as speaker today to explain to you why you’re here, across the Midway, celebrating the midpoint of your Law School education. There are two symbolic components to this event. The first is chronological, and the second is geographic. The chronological piece is straightforward. You’re midway through law school. For many of you, that means you’re halfway through the last formal degree you will pursue. Make the most of your last four quarters. As you’ve probably begun to realize, time is short. That first fall, as you studied for your first set of exams, your remaining time here undoubtedly stretched out into eternity. Now that you’ve mastered the Law School’s rhythms and routines, you may feel like you’re hurtling toward graduation at breakneck speed. The first message of the Midway Dinner is that you can accomplish quite a lot in a year and a half. That’s a lesson a former Law School faculty member and current United States president evidently internalized at a previous Midway Dinner, and we hope it sticks with you, too. We urge you to take advantage of the incredible opportunities our Law School has to offer.

Now we come to our second theme, namely, but not just our law school. It is my primary duty as your Midway Dinner speaker to advise you to branch out and try some courses in schools and departments outside the Law School—which, as it happens, are primarily located here on the north side of the Midway. This point is related to the previous one. For most of you, I hope, the scarcity of your remaining time here is a source of great sadness. A few of you may be eager to move on to what’s next. Whether you’d like to slow things down or speed things up, taking a course across the Midway can help. If you opt for a sufficiently unfamiliar course — perhaps “Evolution of the Hominoidea” in Anthropology or “Elementary Hittite” in the Department of Ancient Anatolian Languages — time might just creep along at the same snail’s pace as it did your first quarter. On the other hand, as Thomas Mann suggested in his great novel the Magic Mountain, time seems to pass more slowly when one doesn't move in space. So if your preference is to speed things along, it follows that you should venture out of the Law School. If you’re interested in exploring that idea further, I urge you to take a class in the Department of Comparative Literature, which, fortuitously, is located on this far side of the Midway.

You are likely thinking at this point that I’m delivering a rather strange message for a Law School function. You may be wondering why we have assembled all of you at a formal event to tell you to take courses with non-Law School faculty, outside the Law School. And no, it’s not because we’re hoping for a reduced teaching load. In short, it’s because we want the next generation of leaders, of all kinds, to come from this institution. To explain what I mean, I’ll begin with a quote:

“Excessive trends towards purely technical training have been continuously observed by experts in education. At certain times and places it was a close question as to whether or not the main efforts and resources of some institutions of learning would not be devoted to simple trade school curricula. This I know has been evident in legal education where purely professional training has been too often the dominant note. … There is demand [today] for a re-awakening of the ancient concept of the university as the custodian of the things of the mind and the values of the spirit. … Technical training will not alone suffice. We must reorient much of our materialistic philosophy in terms of humanitarian principles.”

In the context of recent calls to shorten students’ time at law school and to eliminate what some lawyers regard as extraneous padding, the passage I read to you may sound like it came from the last issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. But since I’m a historian, you’ve probably guessed that that’s not the case. Also, the prose is a little stilted. I edited out some of the passages that sound particularly antiquated, like the one suggesting that the “spiritual element” of education is “the preventive of planetary disintegration.” That one had me stumped, so I did a little digging. It turns out that it’s possible to quantitatively model the disintegration of the solar planetary system, and I’m pretty sure you can study this across the Midway. But it’s not clear to me how reintroducing a spiritual element into Civil Procedure is going to prevent Earth from separating from the solar system in approximately 53 billion years, so I suspect the speaker I quoted had something else in mind.

I should pause here to acknowledge that some of you may find the quotation’s critique of so-called “materialistic philosophy” to be misplaced and unfair. That’s fine too.  If you fall into that category, we urge you to pay special attention to Dean Schill’s remarks at part three of our formal dinner trilogy, at which time the Dean will infuse your “materialistic philosophy” with “humanitarian principles” by welcoming you to a lifetime of generous giving to the Law School.

Enough build up. What we’ve got here is a 1939 speech by William O. Douglas, then chairman of the new SEC, about a month before his nomination to the United States Supreme Court. According to Douglas, the excessive instrumentalism of legal education, its focus on skills and employment at the expense of intellectual enrichment, was a detriment to democracy as well as lawyering. Douglas believed that a robust approach to learning could bind people together “in a common cause” and ease “dissension and turmoil” — that is, the planetary disintegration I mentioned earlier. He went on to define the missing “spiritual element” as the domain of “human values,” an ethical “longing to be identified with some cause dedicated to the interests of humanity.” And he believed it was the role of the university to nourish and sustain that “democratic ideal.”

Douglas had spent his college summers picking cherries to fund his education. Many decades before Ferguson, he recalled that police had shot at the desperately poor migrant workers who labored alongside him. The result, much like today, was a general distrust in law enforcement and legal actors. Douglas thought that part of the problem was an unduly narrow understanding of law’s purpose and underlying values—a deficiency partly attributable to failures at the level of education. He wanted the law to be a source of social betterment instead of “cruelty and hardness.” And he hoped that interdisciplinary education could promote a more inclusive society and help to reduce social and economic injustice.

Now Justice Douglas was a graduate of Columbia Law School, taught at Yale, and as far as I can tell had no connection whatsoever to the University of Chicago. He does, however, hold several records for productivity and wrote thirty books while on the Supreme Court, so he would have fit in here very well.

I can get closer to home, though. As many of you know, this law school has a rich history of encouraging interdisciplinary learning. Almost forty years before soon-to-be Justice Douglas gave his speech, the esteemed lawyer and political scientist Ernst Freund was given the task of designing a curriculum for the University of Chicago’s new Law School. Freund envisioned a program that would emphasize political science, history, sociology, and economics in addition to what contemporaries referred to as “technical law subjects.” And while there were some obstacles early on, Freund’s plan largely prevailed, with the support of the university’s president, William Rainey Harper. Harper believed that law and legal methods could not be properly understood “without a clear comprehension of the historic forces of which they are the product, and of the social environment with which they are in living contact.” He continued: “A scientific study of law involves the related sciences of history, economics, philosophy - the whole field of man as social being.”

Happily, the faculty and students of this law school succeeded admirably in implementing Freund and Harper’s vision. When Justice Douglas gave his 1939 address, law schools throughout the country were facing pressure to jettison their interdisciplinary offerings in favor of technical instruction. The University of Chicago Law School, then as now, was resolute in its determination to resist that trend. Its stewards understood that breadth of knowledge, analytic sophistication, and rigorous exposure to diverse methodologies and ideas were all crucial to leadership in the legal profession and in the larger political and social world.

Now if this were a history class, I’d warn you off this kind of “the more things change the more they stay the same” narrative. But I’m going to bracket the nuance this evening, because it suits my normative, presentist objectives to do so. Since I teach at the law school rather than the history department, I’m allowed to do that kind of thing, which, incidentally, is another good reason you should take courses across the Midway.

I hope that I’ve convinced you that taking classes outside the Law School will make you think more critically and robustly about everything you do, including your legal practice. Perhaps it will even help you tackle the troubling social and economic problems, if not planetary disintegration, that plague us today. But for the skeptics and rational actors among you, there are some concrete advantages, as well. I’ll try to keep this brief since, like your experience at the law school, my remarks have no doubt felt quite protracted, and my remaining time is running short.

First, most of the university’s departments are closer than the Law School to Regents Park and the Metra station, and taking classes north of the Midway is a good way to cut down on your commute. That’s especially convenient when there are two feet of snow on the ground, or when it’s -30 outside.

Second, you get to talk to non-lawyers. Rather, you have to talk to non-lawyers. We sometimes slip into a peculiar language within the walls of the law school. You all know what I mean. If you have ever tried to explain the rule against perpetuities to a non-lawyer parent or partner, you have discovered that not everyone speaks “law school.” Whether you’re talking to clients or the public, you need to know how to simplify the many insights you’ve acquired here for broader consumption. I want to flag that this is one of the big factors that distinguishes interdisciplinary education across the Midway from the incredible interdisciplinary offerings in our own Laird Bell Quadrangle. Our Law School course catalog lists classes in subjects Ernst Freund could have only imagined. But since there is no Midway dinner for the Humanities Division or the Divisions of Physical or Social Sciences, only a handful of students in other departments make the southward journey. So if you want to take a class with a critical mass of non-law students, it falls on you to cross the Midway.

Third, you get to listen to non-lawyers. This one follows from the previous point, but for some law students, it’s a bit more difficult. It’s important, though, for a couple of reasons. In legal practice, you’ll have to understand what motivates your clients and what’s persuasive to a wide range of decision-makers, whether it’s efficiency or social justice. And you’ll also need some humility. Talking to environmental scientists about climate change or labor economists about unemployment is a good reminder that your Law School classes can’t cover everything, hard though we may try. Taking classes across the Midway can teach you pretty quickly when you need to stop talking and listen.

Whatever your future aspirations and ambitions, I hope that you bear these advantages in mind. At this midway point in your Law School education, pause to investigate the tremendous resources that are available to you at this university. And as you consider your course selections for your next four quarters, leave space for the Psychology of Negotiation or the Rhetoric of Expertise in Professional Life. Or venture even further from your legal studies: perhaps the History of Chinese Theater or Migration and Displacement in Modern Europe.  You may find that a broader outlook premised on broader interests will bring you closer to the kind of lawyering that to-be-Justice Douglas promoted. It may be that the “spiritual element” you’ve been seeking lies in the rich world of ideas across the Midway.

Thank you.