Dean Weiser's 2013 Commencement Address

May 15, 2013

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 2013.  Every single member of the class has worked very hard to get to this day.

When the class of 2013 joined us, almost three years ago, Dean David Getches welcomed you all to Colorado Law.  Many of you joined us in the summer of 2011 for a memorial service honoring David’s legacy of service.  I want to honor David today, following the tradition that he relished at both orientation and graduation of acknowledging a few special groups.  As I do so, I ask everyone in those groups to stand and continue standing, and I ask the audience to please hold your applause until I am done.

As you know, this coming Sunday is Mother’s Day.  I now ask all of the mothers of our graduating students to please stand.  And I’d like the dads in attendance to stand up as well.  You have provided continuous support for these amazing graduates, and I thank you for that.  In a related acknowledgment, I would like to ask those 2013 graduates that are also moms and dads to please rise.  You handled two tremendously challenging jobs—parenting and law school—at the same time.  I admire you all and sincerely congratulate you on what you have accomplished.

Another group I want to acknowledge specially is our graduating veterans.  Those who served on active duty, in the reserves, or are planning to join JAG, please stand.  Your leadership, exemplified by your class officer and Honor Council Chair Jack Eichorst as well as Military Law Students Association Leader Kevin Brown, made a real impact here and we thank you all for your service to us and to our country. 

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all of our alums with us today.  Many of you are parents of our graduating 3Ls, like Jim and Ann Scarboro, 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 the class of 2013 begins an exciting professional journey, let me highlight three values that I see as touchstones for a satisfying and successful journey:  humility; confidence; and service.

In the Jewish tradition, it is often said that everyone should carry around a note in each pocket—one that reads “I am nothing but dust”; another that reads “the whole world was created just for me.”  To hold onto both thoughts—to integrate humility and confidence—is a challenge that each of us must continue to pursue over our lifetimes.

On the importance of humility, and remembering that you are “nothing but dust,” each of you must remember that you have yet to establish yourselves, you are going to need to earn the respect and confidence of those you work with, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work.  To make that point, let me tell you about a friend of mine, John Schultz, who is here today and helped inspire the class of 2013’s generous gift to Loan Repayment Assistance.  He matched the gift dollar-for-dollar, raising $66,400 for loan repayment.

As many of you have heard, John, who graduated from Colorado Law in 1953, did not have a job at graduation.  After working as a caddy the summer after graduation, he heard about and got a job at Texaco in its title division.  Indeed, he got the job not because of his legal abilities, but because of his typing abilities, only later demonstrating his legal acumen.  He accepted the opportunity with humility—it was a start, after all—and with confidence that he could add value.  There, and in later positions, he made the best of the opportunities available to him, found mentors, and built up a very successful oil and gas law practice.

Another aspect of being nothing but dust is recognizing how little you know.  The reality is that all of you have years ahead of you to learn your craft, listen to others, and invest the time to become trusted experts.  For me, this lesson is captured by an experience I had during the summer after my first year in law school.  During that summer, I worked for a solo practitioner and drafted—or really should say attempted to draft—a brief.  It was due on a Monday and I gave Al the draft on the prior Thursday.  After he read it, he knew—and he let me know—that he would be spending the whole weekend trying to salvage the product.  Through that experience, I learned a lesson that I often repeat to students and recent grads—please err on the side of asking for guidance, as it will pay dividends down the road.

To understand the perspective of the “whole world was created just for me,” and the importance of self-confidence, you need to believe that there are numerous opportunities out there just waiting for you to take advantage of them.  A case in point is the way that Sarah Boulden found her job in California, asking a friend who was an entrepreneur for introductions to possible employers, getting a look as a summer intern at a law firm, and impressing them so much they are hiring her upon graduation.  To get such opportunities, we must overcome the fear of failure, of being rejected; we must have the confidence, in other words, to take risks. 

For a great case study for someone not afraid to take a risk, consider Crisanta Duran, from the class of 2005.  She wanted to serve in the State House of Representatives and was not afraid to take on a well-financed opponent, prevailing because of her hard work and belief that she could make a difference.  In her case, she won her first race, but Abe Lincoln famously lost a number of campaigns before finally becoming one of—if not the—greatest Presidents we have ever had.  For everyone, having the confidence to take risks that may or may not work out in the short term is critical to long-term success.

The challenge of having the confidence to create your own opportunities relates to what Thomas Friedman has referred to as a 401(k) world.  To that end, he notes that it is easier than ever to “engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online.  But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.”  It is up to you to build the skills, connections, and attitude you will need to be successful.  If you do, there are more opportunities than ever before that you can take advantage of. 

In terms of integrating the two concepts that I am nothing but dust and the whole world was created just for me, the story of Andre Dawson, a 1980s baseball player great, deserves attention.  Dawson, who desperately wanted to play for the Chicago Cubs, had the nerve to give them a blank contract, allowing the team to fill in the salary.  Dawson, you see, was playing for Montreal Expos during a time of collusion so no other team, including the Cubs, was going to offer him a contract for what he was worth.   So he gave the Cubs a blank contract, and they offered him a relatively low salary.  He took it and, after a great season (where he was the MVP), he received a multi-million contract and became a fan favorite.  One key lesson of the Andre Dawson strategy is that it sometimes requires taking a risk, and making a long-term investment, to realize your dream. 

While you are working your way up, in whatever environment you are working in, I encourage you to reflect on the value of service to others.  With our US Senator Mark Udall and US District Court Chief Judge Marcia Krieger here, both of whom care deeply about service, that spirit is well-represented at your graduation.  Given what you all have already achieved here at Colorado Law, with your generous support for loan repayment as your class gift and your successful public service pledge efforts, logging in over 16,000 hours, the equivalent of 8 years full time volunteer work, this concept is clearly one you already appreciate.

There are different ways to think about what our Colorado Bar Association President Mark Fogg, Colorado Law Class of 1979, talks of as a “bent toward community service” and “being a giver.”  Stated simply, I would encourage you all to adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back.  A significant result of serving others is that you will be a happier person.  Notably, by helping others, you develop meaningful relationships, spur greater levels of civic engagement, and create stronger community bonds, all of which improve your physical and emotional well-being.  As Robert Putnam, the noted author of Bowling Alone, found in a recent study, these factors will help you live longer and better.

There is another dimension to what my friend Brad Feld describes as “giving before you get.”  That is, you will ultimately get rewarded for your service, but not in ways you can readily predict. Notably, by offering ideas, introductions, free legal services to those who cannot pay, or serving on the boards of non-profit organizations, you put yourself in a position to be more successful down the road.

To integrate the concept of service with the notion that the “whole world was created just for me,” I would encourage you all never to be afraid to ask for help and to seek out mentors.  You are all fortunate that, in our community, you have many resources you can turn to—your professors, alums, your classmates, etc.—all of whom want to be of service to you.  Often, it’s only an individual’s lack of confidence that prevents him or her from asking a busy person for help.  So please give all of us in our community a chance to support and serve you by asking for our help.  And when you are in a position to do so, you can pay it forward by giving to others who are launching their legal careers.

As you move from being students to alums, you will have plenty of opportunities to reflect on and practice the three values I have touched on—humility; confidence; and service.  I recognize that there are tensions between them—how can I serve when I don’t really know that much?  How can I be both confident—believing I can take on any challenge—and humble at the same time?  Finding the right balance between these values is not easy, but it is important that you hold onto all three of them. 

In time, you will figure out how to integrate these values in a way that works for you.  During that process, I know that you will be supporting one another during the challenging and exciting journey ahead. So 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.  Please be in touch, ask us for help when you need it, and tell us about your successes. 

In closing, best of luck to each of you and please take this opportunity to congratulate one another on a terrific accomplishment!