Dean Weiser's 2012 Commencement Address

May 12, 2012

Welcome. My name is Phil Weiser and I am the Dean of the University of Colorado Law School. It is my great honor to welcome you all to the commencement ceremony honoring the class of 2012, all of whom have worked very hard to get to this day. As you may know, this is my first commencement as Dean so it is an exceptionally special moment for me and I will always have a special bond with the class of 2012.

When I started as Dean last July 1st, I was focused on the opportunities and challenges of leading Colorado Law.  But days later, after David Getches passed away following a short battle with pancreatic cancer, my most significant responsibility became leading our community in mourning David’s passing and honoring his memory.  At the memorial service last summer, Anne Mariah Tapp, of the class of 2012, spoke so beautifully about David as a teacher, mentor, and person.  And the whole class came together to make a class gift of a gorgeous set of photographs taken by John Fielder in honor of David’s life work in protecting our environment and natural resources; those photographs are now hanging in the law school outside the courtroom.  We will continue to miss David and honor his memory, with the aid and wonderful reminder provided by your gift to the law school.  Thank you for your hard work and generosity in making this possible.

I will now, in what was a tradition that David Getches relished at both orientation and graduation, begin with a few shout outs, acknowledging a few special groups here today.  I will ask everyone in these groups to stand and continue standing, and I ask the audience to please hold your applause until I am done.

This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day.  I now ask all of the mothers of our graduating students to please stand.  You have provided continuous support for these amazing graduates, and I thank you for that. I know that a few of you have special connections to Colorado Law, including Beth Crane, who is Class President Beale Tejada’s mom, and Judge Christy Arguello, who is our Honorary Order of the Coif recipient, an adopted alum, and Ron Arguello’s mom.  These moms, and all of the moms in the audience, have helped our graduates get where they are today and we thank you for that.

Next, I ask the moms and dads in the class of 2012 to please rise.  You handled two tremendously challenging jobs—parenting and law school—at the same time.  I admire you all and sincerely congratulate your efforts.  I also want to give a special thanks to Jess Lowrey, who organized the group of student parents to support one another during your time at Colorado Law. 

Another group I want to specially acknowledge is our student veterans.  Those who served on active duty, in the reserves, or are planning to join JAG, please stand.  We thank you all for your service.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all of our alums who are with us today.  Many of you are parents of our graduating 3Ls and others are here to support our new alums!  Thank you all for being a part of this engaged, diverse, and inclusive community.

Let’s give everyone standing a round of applause!  

As you think back on your journey here at Colorado Law, you might reflect on what Albert Einstein once said:  “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learned in school.”  During your time here, you learned and honed how to research, write, think critically, and persuade expertly. 

Most notably, you learned how “to think like a lawyer.”  For those who have yet to hear this phrase, it implies a commitment to careful analysis, attention to detail, and the parsing of fine distinctions.  Yet this definition undersells what it means to be a lawyer because thinking like a lawyer also means embracing lifelong learning.

The best lawyers—the most happy and successful ones, that is—are those who are lifelong learners not just of law, but of how organizations operate, how most effectively to solve problems, and how to be a good person.  To make that point, let me begin by telling you about two friends of mine.

John Schultz, who is here with us today to support the class of 2012, graduated from Colorado Law in 1953 and did not have a job at graduation.  After working as a caddy, he heard about and got a non-legal job at Texaco in its title division.  He made the most of that opportunity, demonstrating his intelligence, legal skills, and drive and earning respect and additional responsibilities in the process.  John then transitioned to a second job that taught him more about the oil and gas industry, before taking a risk by opening up his own law practice.  In practice, John won over clients with his practical orientation and his understanding of the problems they were trying to solve.  John was able to do that because he was interested in the real world problems his clients faced and how he could help them solve them. 

After his very successful career, John, with his late wife Cynthia, paid it forward by establishing the Schultz Scholarship, the Schultz Lectureship, and the Wildcatter’s Lecture Room at Wolf Law.  Moreover, John’s generosity is inspiring generosity among our recent graduates.  John agreed to match the class of 2012’s contributions toward our Loan Repayment Assistance Program.  This effort, all told, will raise $40,000 for Loan Repayment.  Let’s give John and the class of 2012 a round of applause for their generosity.

Stanton Dodge offers a more recent example.  Stanton graduated from Suffolk Law School and moved to Colorado after graduation for a judicial clerkship in the mid-1990s.  After deciding he wanted to work in a corporate legal department, he rejected the conventional wisdom that one must have five years of law firm experience in order to work in-house, researched companies that he saw as doing interesting work, and reached out to a company now known as DISH Network.  Through his persistence and offer to work for free, he convinced the company’s General Counsel to hire him.  Today, over 15 years later, he is the General Counsel of the company.

John and Stanton took the legal foundation they built in school and kept learning about the things they loved.  Whether you are passionate about business, technology, environmental law, public service, family law, or any other area, I would like to send you into the world with three pieces of advice.

First off, be curious, seek out opportunities to learn, and define success on your own terms.  Some people may tell you that success means getting the most prestigious job.  But this is a narrow conception of success and, indeed, often turns out to be a misguided route to unhappiness—unless that job and the work that you do there really interests you.  If there is work that inspires you—like opening up your own law practice or working in-house—go for it, like John and Stanton did.

Second, use your imagination to be a creative problem solver and add value.  For starters, you can look at issues and ask what is the objective, or goal, at the root of the problem you are addressing.  Lawyers too often will assume that the goal is “winning the case” or “getting the best deal in the negotiation” when, in fact, the client has personal, business, or other objectives that elude such ready classifications.  Creative problem-solvers can conceptualize and understand the less obvious personal or business objectives underlying the problem and develop win-win solutions.  In short, imaginative thinking about your client’s problems will add value, earn your client’s trust, and serve you well.  

Finally, and most importantly, be a good person.  When John Schultz spoke to a group of students this year, his principal advice was to “be nice and respectful.”  Treating people well is not only the right thing to do, but it will help you succeed in ways you may not readily imagine.  This is particularly true of how you treat those in supporting roles, who are all too often taken for granted or not treated well. Moreover, being a mentor—paying it forward, in other words—will not only be satisfying, but will enable you to forge valuable relationships.  The same is true of doing pro bono work and giving back to your community.  And making time for your friends and family will always be time well spent.

Here’s the bottom line:  when you all leave us today, you will face a series of challenges and uncertainty. No matter what your situation is, finding your way to success is not going to be obvious or easy.  But you have the fundamental building blocks and training you need to excel. 

You all earned your education inside and outside the classroom by spending countless hours studying, working on law journals, and preparing for mock trials, moot courts, and other competitions.  You worked hard in clinics and externships on behalf of the indigent, to address important policy issues and protect our environment, and to help entrepreneurs start new businesses.  You also devoted more than 11,500 hours to public service work during your time here at Colorado Law.  Finally, you had fun, exhibiting creativity and imagination, on stage at the law school musical, in the stairwell and today at the reception during the flash mob performances, and in keeping each other laughing with a good sense of humor.

As we welcome you into the world of Colorado Law alums, I have a final message for you:  we’ll be with you all the way.  We are here as a bridge as you develop your career, with our Career Development team committed to helping you all find your way, our alumni engagement efforts starting right after the bar with a recent alumni happy hour in early August, free CLE opportunities during your first year out of law school, and a great community of alums willing and eager to pay it forward by serving as mentors to you all.  Please be in touch, ask us for help when you need it, and tell us about your successes. 

Best of luck to you all and please take this opportunity to congratulate one another on a terrific accomplishment!