Too many to credit have, over the years, noted the distinction between "data," "information," "knowledge," and "wisdom." (If it's new to you, and you're curious, here's a place to start: "DIKW," Wikipedia.org.)
We hope our students can make those leaps to knowledge. Many do. And rarely you even come to know one who makes it all the way to wisdom. One such was a former law student of mine, Van Everett, chosen by his classmates to speak for them at their commencement ceremony the afternoon of May 11 in the Iowa Memorial Union ballroom.
Van exchanged his usual Superman tee shirt for a suit and tie for the occasion, and chose to speak about "success." Given my father's, and my, writing about the problems words like "success" can create (Dad called some of them the "IFD disease"), a commencement address on the subject would normally not be something I'd choose to reproduce. See Wendell Johnson, People in Quandaries, ch. 1 ("Verbal Cocoons") (1946); Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking for Us (2009), and Nicholas Johnson, Test Pattern for Living (1972). This one is different.
Not all lawyers are paragons of virtue and compassion. Moreover, by the time trials come around most of the "win-win" solutions to human problems have been explored and rejected by the parties. Roughly half are going to come away at least disappointed, if not downright angry. Those who lose tend to be more prone to blame their "incompetent" lawyer than the lack of justice in their own position.
How many other businesses' public relations could withstand these odds -- if half of all restaurant patrons suffered food poisoning, or half of a motel's guests would suffer bedbug bites every night?
In fact, there's a lot more of going above and beyond, of compassionate energy, a lot more free (pro bono) legal service, than the profession is given credit for. It's true that the practice of law has become much more of a business, an industry, than it was 50, not to mention 200, years ago. But it's still there, and Van Everett has illustrated why.
The legendary trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), writes in his autobiography that "The most important case I had in Ohio was an action of replevin for a harness worth fifteen dollars." See Michael Hannon, "Clarence Darrow State & Federal Cases," University of Minnesota Law Library ("Darrow’s client, James Brockway, was a boy who received a harness worth $15 for attending a wealthy man who was a habitual drunkard and was ill. The man failed to pay for the harness and the creditor wanted it back. . . . Darrow received five dollars from his client for the first trial, but the litigation went through two trials and three appellate court decisions over seven years before it ended. Darrow’s client was unable to pay more than the initial five dollars so Darrow worked for free and paid the necessary expenses throughout the long legal process.").
The pro bono practice of my old firm, Covington & Burling, in Washington, D.C., is consistently ranked among the top three of all the law firms in the country by The American Lawyer magazine. It devotes hundreds of thousands of dollars (probably much more), and a Web page to what they do and how they do it and what they've accomplished for these clients. This is obviously a part of the firm's law practice that is valued by the partners and associates and something of which they are rightfully proud.
For an example of such altruistic compassion reaching even into the animal kingdom, I'm reminded of the comment of a law school faculty colleague the other day. Mind you this is a brilliant lawyer, an accomplished scholar, beloved by students and research assistants, respected by colleagues, an increasingly skilled administrator. I commented within his earshot to someone else about how he had crawled into a sewer to save a half-dozen young ducklings recently. He turned and said, "You know, I think that's the thing I'm proudest of that I've done around here." He can't have been totally serious, but I know him well enough to know that he was at least partially so. In short, in addition to his many other accomplishments he is able to compare and balance the worth of an additional duckling's life against the worth of an additional law review article on his resume.
All of which is a lead in to Van's commencement speech. Here's a quote, followed by the full text -- additional evidence that there are lawyers, even lawyers with over $100,000 in student loan debt, who value some things more than a $160,000 starting job on Wall Street, a courthouse win, or a year-end bonus. (Although I have Mr. Everett's permission to reproduce his text, I have not yet sought, and do not have, the permission of the fellow student about whom he speaks -- a former research assistant of mine -- and so her name has been deleted from the text.)
The pressure to strive in the workplace is tremendous, just as it was to get good grades here at law school, and under that pressure, sometimes all else is forgotten. . . . I just hope that somewhere down the road, if you’re struggling to achieve the more tangible form of success, if you’re having a hard time finding a job, or getting a raise, or making partner at a firm, I hope you’ll remember . . . the difference you’ve made in someone’s life, and the everlasting pride that comes with that kind of success.
-- Van Everett
University of Iowa College of Law Commencement
May 11, 2012
Iowa City, Iowa
When I woke up this morning, I felt different. I felt an emotion that I didn’t quite recognize. I knew I’d experienced it before, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was. I felt like I should be singing, or dancing, or some combination of the two. And then I suddenly realized what it was. It was joy - pure, unencumbered joy. Not the kind of qualified joy that we’ve all become used to settling for while in law school. Not the kind of joy where you have to check your watch and say, “Okay, I can afford to be happy for the next two hours, then it’ll be time to study for the next final.” No, this was pure, unlimited elation. It took me so long to recognize this emotion, because it had been at least three years since I last experienced it. For all the friends and family that are here today, your graduates can confirm with you later that that joke is funny because it’s mostly true.
Additionally, to all the friends and family that are here with us to celebrate this joyous occasion, I would just like to say that, if you don’t like my speech, feel free to direct any complaints or criticisms to the graduate you’re here to support. They’re the ones that voted me up here, so they’re the ones you should hold responsible for the grave mistake they’ve made.
I’ll be honest with all of you, I still don’t truly understand the purpose of this speech. I don’t really know what wisdom or sage advice I can offer to all of you, when I’m in the same position as all of you. It’s not as though I have any kind of real world experience that would qualify me to offer any of you any advice. So with that in mind, I have a very modest goal for this speech, one I’ll return to in a moment.
I want to talk about the idea of success, and what it means to be successful. It seems like a pretty relevant topic, since it’s something we’ll all be striving for in our upcoming careers. As I was preparing for this speech, and pondering what I was going to say about this concept of success, I started to think about what I consider to be my greatest success here at law school, or my proudest achievement. I thought immediately of my role on our intramural flag football team, the Hung Jurors. The team made it to the Championship game of the Law Bowl all three years we were here, bringing home a championship in our second year. To quote widely respected football mind and great Marshawn Lynch, our play on the field could only be described as “Beast Mode.” While I am very proud of the team’s achievements, I have to say that they aren’t my proudest moments in law school.
Next, I thought of my role on some slightly more academic teams that I had the great privilege of being a part during my time here. I was very blessed to be on three different advocacy teams that finished in the top eight in the nation in their respective competitions. Those three top eight finishes were the highest finishes our law school has ever had in each of the three individual tournaments. Of course, the most important word I’ve mentioned in discussing these accomplishments is “team.” All three national runs were the result of team efforts through and through, and I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t recognize my comrades at arms on each of these teams. In our second year, I was on a trial advocacy team that finished second in the nation at the AAJ competition. We were coached by two Cedar Rapids attorneys named Mark Zaiger and Megan Dimitt, and my teammates were John Lande and Meghan Corbin, both of whom graduated last year, and last but most certainly not least, Tyler Buller.
In our third year, Tyler and I teamed up again to finish in a four way tie for fifth in the nation at the National Moot Court Competition. Professor Gail Brashers-Krug and former Justice David Baker coached us, and we received invaluable moral and logistical support from another student Kevin O’Neill.
Finally, I was on trademark moot court team finished third in the nation at the Saul Lefkowitz Trademark Moot Court Competition. We were coached by Professor Christina Bohannan, my teammates were Alexandria Christian, Amy Hein, and Brian Kearns. We also received invaluable support from another student, Katherine Ross, who offered her advice, expertise, moral support, friendship, and the most inspiring rendition of the song The Final Countdown at a moment’s notice that I’ve ever heard. I feel very blessed to have been on each and every one of these teams, and to have worked with each and every one of my coaches and teammates, and I’m very proud of the success that each and every one of these teams experienced as a result of our hard work. But none of them is my proudest moment in law school.
My proudest moment happened in the second semester of our first year. Unfortunately, it resulted from a tragic event. A good friend lost her aunt, a relative that she was very close with. She was telling me about it, and told me that she would be going home to Chicago for the funeral for at least half of a week, if not an entire week. She was obviously very upset and stressed as she was telling me all this, and without really thinking about it, I offered to go back to Chicago with her for the funeral. I vividly remember that at the moment I said that, her eyes lit up and for the briefest of moments I could tell that the stress of the situation had left her. She told me that she would love for me to come, but continually told me that I shouldn’t feel obligated to. I knew she would never ask me to miss a week of class, and have to make up a week’s worth of reading and lectures, but I could also tell that she would really appreciate it if I came.
Through a series of uninteresting events over that weekend, she ended up leaving at the last minute without me. We were texting each other after she got home to Chicago that day, and I told her that if she still wanted me to come, I could catch a ride down to the train station in Mount Pleasant and ride over the next day. Again, she didn’t want to ask me to come, but told that if I wanted to she’d really appreciate it. Before texting her back, I remember briefly thinking to myself that maybe I shouldn’t go, that it would be much more convenient for me to not miss an entire week of class and not have to get a train ticket and a ride to the train station. I came very close to giving into that fleeting thought, and staying in Iowa City, but just as suddenly, I talked myself out of it. I told myself that some things are just more important than school or grades, and that this was one of those things. I had one of my roommates drive me to the train station the next day, and took the first train to Chicago.
While I was in Chicago, I honestly didn’t do all that much. In the days leading up to the wake and funeral, she and I just hung out, went to coffee shops and tried unsuccessfully to do all the reading we were missing. I met all her friends and family from back home. During the wake I was little more than a glorified thumb-twiddler, making polite conversation to the family and friends that were there, most of whom didn’t really understand why I was there. But at the end of the week, she looked me right in the eyes and told me that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her, and that she’d never forget it. I haven’t been prouder of myself since that moment. It was by far my proudest and most successful moment in my three years here at Iowa, and one the proudest and most successful moments of my entire life. For the first time in a great while I felt like I had really made a difference, like I had accomplished something real and lasting that grades or awards or jobs or promotions or money simply can’t measure up to.
Which is not to say that all those things I just mentioned aren’t worth aspiring to or achieving. They certainly are. But in my experience, pride over that type of tangible success fades as the years go by. The thrill of winning that big case or getting that great job will subside in time, just as my thrill of succeeding in those competitions has already begun to subside. But the pride you feel in yourself after you really make a difference in someone’s life lasts forever. And the thing is, I know that all of you sitting here in front of me know exactly what I’m talking about. If any of you had to trade places with me right now, each of you could tell a story similar to the one that I just told. We’ve been in school in rather close quarters for three years now, and I’ve seen, heard about, and been the recipient of countless acts of kindness just like the one I described. As far as I’m concerned, all of you sitting before me now are successful in the most important way you can be.
Unfortunately, in our society, this type of success is frequently overshadowed by the more tangible kind of success, such as making money or getting promotions. The pressure to strive in the workplace is tremendous, just as it was to get good grades here at law school, and under that pressure, sometimes all else is forgotten. Getting back to the modest goal for this speech that I mentioned earlier, I just hope that somewhere down the road, if you’re struggling to achieve the more tangible form of success, if you’re having a hard time finding a job, or getting a raise, or making partner at a firm, I hope you’ll remember these words, and remember all the lasting success you’ve already achieved. That you’ll remember the difference you’ve made in someone’s life, and the everlasting pride that comes with that kind of success. If just one of you remembers and finds comfort in these words somewhere down the road, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished my modest goal for this speech.
I want to thank you all so much for being such great friends to me during our time here at Iowa. While these last three years have certainly been stressful, I really truly enjoyed my time here, and it’s thanks to all of you. As we go our separate ways, I hope you’ll all keep in touch. I wish you nothing but the best in all your future endeavors, and may the odds be ever in your favor. Thank you.
That is, also, what it means to be a lawyer.