David Weisbach (Chicago), Graduation Remarks to the Class of 2019: Democracy Needs to be Defended, and Lawyers Are Key to Defending It:
Graduation speeches are supposed to be nonpolitical yet inspirational, summarizing a life lesson in seven minutes. I wrote one, focusing on the career choices you will face over the next 30 to 40 years. It was nonpolitical and attempted to be inspirational. But I woke up this morning and I couldn’t do it. As important as career choices are, it isn’t what I want to talk about.
Instead, this morning I scribbled some notes about what I really want to say. And it is not nonpolitical, or inoffensive to all, so I apologize in advance. I can see Dean Miles shifting nervously in his seat.
This is what I want to say: the world needs you. It needs great lawyers like never before. I’m 55 years old. I’ve lived through the Cold War, the civil rights movement, Watergate, the Bork and Thomas confirmation hearings, Bush versus Gore, 9/11, the Great Recession. I’ve never felt as scared as I do now. Maybe it’s an illusion, that the current moment always seems worse than the past because we know we made it through the past but we don’t know about the future. But I don’t think that’s it. Today feels different. I wake up every day a little bit terrified.
Like no time in my life, the world needs people like you. I’ve never been more proud to be a law professor than today, because my job is to help create the young lawyers, you, that our country and the world need.
Why does the world need you? You’ll have your own list and mine is surely incomplete. And you’ll likely disagree with some of this.
My biggest concern is democracy itself. I’ve never before thought that the basic structure of our democracy is under threat, but I do now. ... Democracy is not a given. It won’t last unless it is defended, and lawyers are key to defending it. Class of 2019: Democracy needs you.
The second item that I wake up worrying about is climate change. I work on climate change in my scholarship, so I think about it all the time. It is hard to think about climate change all the time without becoming kind of crazy, focusing day in and day out on looming doom. It might not turn out so bad, but at its worst, it is an existential threat. Climate change is less lawyer-focused than democracy is. To stop climate change, we need new technologies and a better scientific understanding. Solving climate change involves stuff: pipes and wires and batteries and structures. But solving climate change will also require lawyers: we need laws, treaties, and international cooperation; IP protection for new technologies; taxes, regulations, incentives, and so forth, all the domain of lawyers. Class of 2019: The earth needs you.
The final thing that keeps me up is how we treat one another, which is partly the domain of discrimination law, but it also includes policing, education, migration, and overall civility towards one another and to groups.
I have a transgender and gay son. I’ve learned a huge amount from him since he came out some years ago. I wake up happy every day that he lives in today’s world. He is happily married and lives in a loving and supportive community, something that he could not have done just a decade age. But now, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat worried about him. What if he travels to the wrong place or meets someone who hates who he is? What if our laws change? Progress that I thought we had made no longer seems permanent. ...
Lawyers are central to these issues. Class of 2019: People need you.
My list is incomplete. And my list reflects my perspective on events. You may have a different top three or disagree with my views. But regardless of the details, my message stands. The world needs you, it needs great lawyers, like never before.
Brian Leiter (Chicago), A Memorable Commencement Address:
[Weisbach's commencement address] produced a spontaneous standing ovation, a first in the history of commencement addresses at Chicago as far as anyone can recall.