Dean Weiser's 2014 Commencement Address

May 12, 2014

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 to the commencement ceremony honoring the class of 2014.  Every single member of the class has worked hard to get to this day and you have been there to support them.  To honor all of you who have supported the class of 2014, can I ask all friends and family members of the class of 2014 to please stand.  Let’s give them all a round of applause.

Three years ago, I was the new Dean at Colorado Law and I vividly remember your class’s orientation.  During your first days of law school, I was energized by how you were approaching the experience—with enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity.  Today, I welcome the opportunity to congratulate you on all you have accomplished over the last three years.

When I reflect on your class’s journey, I remain impressed by your initiative, your ability to learn from one another and work together, and your commitment to self-improvement.  During the floods this past fall, when so many people suffered such significant losses, we had an extraordinary opportunity to see the character of our community members.  That experience will forever remain a proud moment of the Colorado Law tradition of collaborating with and supporting one another.

I have learned so much over the last three years about what helps lawyers to succeed and, in many cases, I've learned from you.  First, I am a bigger believer than ever in the importance of initiative.   Second, I have a much greater appreciation for the virtue of humility.  And, finally, I see more clearly that the path that you are on—that all of us are on—is one of continuous professional and personal development, meaning that law school is just the beginning of a lifetime journey.

On initiative, I have had the opportunity to see many of you take risks by stepping out of your comfort zones and suggesting new and very ambitious, ideas.   I, too, have taken this path over the last three years—in many cases working with you.   For example, I cannot thank Matt Montazzoli enough for his tireless work to recruit military veterans to Colorado Law and his efforts to bring the Court of Military Appeals to sit here.   I remain impressed with the poised determination of those on the Barristers’ Council, which held its first-ever celebratory banquet this year, and of those on the Law Review, which held its first alumni reception.  And I admire how many of you reached for jobs that supposed to be long shots, only to set new precedents, like earning a position at a storied New York law firm that had never hired a Colorado Law grad and landing one of the first clerkship offers made by our newest Colorado Supreme Court Justice Will Hood, no doubt with some encouragement from our graduation speaker, Chief Justice Nancy Rice. 

Quite often, such long shots don’t work out, but few rewarding life experiences don’t involve the risk of falling short.  Indeed, simply taking a chance offers us the opportunity to cultivate a greater sense of resiliency.  Knowing that you can handle the challenges that come your way and remaining persistent in trying many different paths is the sure way to success.  Over the long run, we are much less likely to succeed if we remain complacent and are afraid to try new things.

Second, the virtue of humility is one captured by Judge David Ebel, who has often told me “I am not afraid of what I don’t know, I am afraid of what I think I know.”  You all have tremendous qualities and skills that will set you up for success.  I congratulate you on the hard work that has gone into developing them.  But because you–and I–still have much to learn, humility about what we don’t know will serve us well. 

I can attest to the value of humility.  Many things I thought I knew about being a law dean were wrong—and I couldn’t have had better teachers than you.  You have humbled me with your collective wisdom and good humor.

Taking the initiative while remaining humble is a tough balancing act for everyone.  Quite often, people fail to take the initiative because of self-doubt.   Self-doubt, however, is not the same as humility.   Humility involves embracing excellence and improvement every day of your life by welcoming feedback to help you achieve your goals and solve problems creatively. 

It is not easy to consistently take the initiative, casting obstacles to the side, while quietly nurturing a sense of humility.  We are fortunate to have so many examples of this among the leaders of our student groups, such as OUTLaw and APALSA.  You need, as Thomas Friedman put it, to have “a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”  In reaching that conclusion, Friedman related what Google looks for in its hires—an individual’s willingness to advocate for his or her position while, at the same time, both encouraging and embracing feedback.  As Google’s point person on hiring put it:

What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” 

In her book, Lawyers as Leaders, Deborah Rhode talks about some of the most off-putting qualities of too many lawyers, describing some of us as self-absorbed, argumentative, judgmental, insensitive, and lacking in resilience.  By practicing humility, we can listen, rather than just hear, and we can see, rather than just look.  We can better empathize with others, learning from their experiences and growing as a result.  Learning from others and their different perspectives will not only make you a better lawyer, it will make you a better person.

In practicing humility, it is important that we not be afraid to fail.  The important thing is to learn from the experience.  I can clearly recall my failure on an assignment during my first summer of law school, an assignment that I confidently thought I knew exactly how to manage.  I was wrong.  As a result, I forced my boss, Al, to work all weekend to complete my assignment.  I not only learned how to manage work assignments better, I also learned about being a graceful boss.  Al took my failure and turned it into a learning experience for me, taking time to give me patient and thoughtful feedback so that I could grow.

Finally, viewing professional opportunities—and life more generally—as a chance for growth requires a particular state of mind.  That mindset, grounded in a willingness to take the initiative and learn from experience, can be called a “growth mindset.”  During your first year of law school, following Professor Mimi Wesson’s advice, I wrote you a letter explaining that the first step in learning and growth is exposure, followed by practice, and, ultimately, mastery.  In this progression, there are no short cuts as it takes lots of practice to follow the road to mastery.  Even mastery can be elusive in a world where we must regularly re-invent ourselves and adapt to changing circumstances.

Your law school years are only the beginning of a lifelong journey.  In my role as Dean, I have had the privilege of getting to know many Colorado Law alums, at every stage of their journeys.  When I meet our alums, I am always interested to learn how they arrived at their current positions.  Almost never is that path a straight line. Paraphrasing the great entrepreneur Steve Jobs, he called this “looking back and connecting the dots.”  In other words, you make a plan, you develop a skill set, you adjust to circumstances, and then you look back with wonder at how the dots all connected so neatly.

Time after time, our alums have told me stories highlighting their ability to take advantage of unexpected opportunities or to adapt to changing situations that provided them with critical openings.  John Schultz, class of 1953 and here with us today, got his first job—after his time as a golf caddy post-graduation, that is—because he could type.  He then demonstrated that he could also add value as a lawyer, laying the groundwork for a career that has enabled him to pay it forward by matching the Class of 2014’s campaign to support the Loan Repayment Assistance Program.

For a powerful example of persistence and creating your own opportunities, consider the famous example of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  When she spoke here this past fall, she related to us the challenges she faced in finding a job after graduating Stanford Law School in the 1950—even after graduating at the top of her class. Notably, despite those credentials, 40 law firms passed on her.  She finally was hired in a county attorney’s office after she offered to work for no salary and without an office, sharing space with a secretary.

It is unlikely that you will immediately recognize when you face a potentially transformative experience.  But, by taking the initiative, remaining humble about what you don’t know, and viewing your career as a journey of constant growth, you will be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities you find.

Like we saw during the floods this fall, I know that you will be supporting one another during the challenging and exciting times 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 so we can learn from them and share them with others who are sure to follow in your stead. 

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

Podcast of Dean Weiser's 2014 Commencement speech.

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