Colorado Law Welcomes the Class of 2017

August 20, 2014

Dean Phil Weiser's orientation remarks to the class of 2017. 

Welcome, Class of 2017.  My name is Phil Weiser and I have the honor and privilege of being your Dean here at Colorado Law.  You are 168 strong and a great group of individuals, coming from a set of diverse backgrounds and life experiences.  Collectively, as you will discover (or perhaps already have), Colorado Law is a collaborative, diverse, and inclusive community of outstanding students, faculty, staff, and alums who help one another.  You are now part of this great tradition.

I am not going to spend much time talking about your background and how hard you have worked to achieve all you have already.  That said, please don’t ever forget that what got you here is going to be a big part of who you are and what will enable you to succeed in the future.  To that extent, one of the great benefits of being a part of such a diverse and collaborative community is that you all will have the chance to share the lessons of your past experiences and learn from one another.  Indeed, this opportunity at Colorado Law is one that our students relish.

As Dean, there’s nothing better than getting to know you, and to support your professional development.  While we are together during Orientation, and through a weekly Career Perspective series (which occurs every Friday at lunch starting Friday, September 5), we are going to start that development process, a journey that will last your lifetime, as it has mine.

In my remarks, I will highlight three themes we emphasize at Colorado Law—first, be a giver; second, have a growth mindset; and, last, appreciate the power of the law and lawyers.

Be a Giver

When students think about law school, they often focus on what skills they will develop.  I want to focus instead on what attitudes can be developed and why they matter.

The importance of being a giver may be self-evident, but it does not happen without effort.  For many, the question of “what’s in it for me” is one we are encouraged to ask and are rewarded for asking.  My advice to you is that, as is the norm here at Colorado Law, “how can I help you” is the more important question to ask.

First, we do not live in a “zero-sum” world.  It is not the case, for example, that your classmate’s job opportunity is at your expense.  Rather, efforts by our students to help one another find satisfying employment often comes back to help the “giver.”  We at Colorado Law, and in Colorado more generally, often approach life with a “give before you get” mindset.

Second, the world we inhabit depends greatly on and rewards effective collaborators.  As Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant put it, “if you’re the kind of person who enjoys helping others, when you’re working in a team, you have the ability to make the team better and really multiply the team’s success in a way that, ideally, reverberates to benefit everyone in the team.”  Almost all lawyers, and almost all of you, will work in teams; it’s important to start practicing teamwork now.

Finally, as many of you appreciate, a commitment to serving others has its own rewards.  Many of you are here because you want to help others.  That attitude—and a focus on solving problems with creativity—will make your life and work more satisfying.  Even good lawyers, in the context of litigation—which is the quintessential “win-lose” scenario, don’t lose sight of whether the process and potential result will serve their clients.  Focusing on service, in whatever context you are working, will pay enormous dividends for your job satisfaction, relations with clients and colleagues, and your reputation.

The Value of a Growth Mindset

I know that many of you read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset that we asked you to read.  Rather than repeat any of her explanations of and reflections on the value of a growth mindset, I want to talk about Tony Gwynn, who epitomizes the concept.

For those who don’t know about Tony Gwynn, I guess you are not baseball fans.  Stated simply, he’s probably the best hitter to play the game this side of Ted Williams. (Okay, I guess if you don’t know Tony Gwynn, you wouldn’t know Ted Williams either. But, I’m stuck with this baseball analogy.)   Like Ted Williams, Gwynn appreciated that there is no substitute for hard work.  Unlike Ted Williams, Gwynn was an incredibly nice and kind person.

As Gwynn himself appreciated and related, his success was not assured.  Rather, he reported his first minor league practice swing (and miss) and saying “‘Man, I am in trouble.’”  Over twenty years in professional baseball, as beautifully captured in a New York Times article written by a reporter who knew him well, Gwynn studied his craft, and “said proudly that he learned something new at the ballpark every day.”  I can assure you that you all will have that same learning opportunity in law school and throughout your career.  I can assure you that being intellectual curious, and enthusiastic about your craft, pays lifelong dividends. 

Adopting the growth mindset typified by Tony Gwynn is a choice.  An alternative, which Gwynn rejected, is a fixed, entitlement mindset—I am good or talented (whereas others might be bad or untalented) and I am entitled to be treated well.  For Gwynn, who rejected that approach, he was disturbed by players who saw success as an entitlement.  “They just feel like stuff is supposed to happen to them,” he said.  “They’re not going to have to work for it.  And that bugs me because I know how hard I had to work to get where I got.  Sometimes they sit there in amazement at why I come out here every day batting practice.  But I cannot let their way of thinking get into my head.” 

I encourage you all to follow Gwynn’s example and don’t let the suggestion that there are any short cuts get into your head.  The best results will come from hard work, perseverance, and resilience as you confront setbacks, which you should view simply as opportunities to grow.  To put a finer point on it, if you don’t confront setbacks, as Dweck explains, you are not pushing yourself hard enough and thereby giving yourself a chance to grow in the process.

In terms of your growth while in law school, and beyond, I would like to introduce the concept of what we call the “quad framework.”  This framework captures the four sets of competencies that you will develop—and continue to nurture—throughout your career.  Let me offer you the top line points and we will continue to talk about all four sets of competencies during your time here.

First, you will learn to “think like a lawyer,” which means honing the analytical skills that come from studying legal theory, doctrine, and the relevant societal context.  Second, you will hone practical legal skills, which can include drafting a contract or taking a deposition.  Third, you will develop relevant domain knowledge and expertise, for example accounting and finance or an understanding of how the oil and gas business operates.  Finally, you will nurture the professional skills crucial to success (including communication, project management, creative problem solving, and interpersonal skills).

The Power of Lawyers (and the Law)

Finally, I want to spend a minute on what makes lawyers, and the law, so powerful.  In an era where it is sometimes fashionable to bash lawyers and law school—we must not forget that the rule of law is a critical foundation for our country’s vibrant democracy and economic successes.  Our legal system is essential to and greatly explains these achievements.  None of you should take that for granted—just look at any number of countries around the world that lack a commitment to a stable legal system.  You each will be a steward of that system.

But lawyers are not simply stewards of the law, we are also some of the most effective communicators, problem solvers, and leaders you will find anywhere—in government, business, academia, non-profit organizations, you name it.  The accomplishments of lawyers, and the regard in which legal colleagues hold one another, reflects the lived experience that law school develops careful, hard-working, and thoughtful professionals.  While in law school, you will notice how you develop greater analytical rigor, more confident communication skills, and a variety of important professional abilities.  As a result, you will have a range of options down the road and the ability to make a real impact wherever you work or play or donate your time or otherwise relate to those around you.

In terms of how you can make an impact down the road, I would encourage you to take this time to write a note to yourself that highlights your ambitions and aspirations for what you can accomplish as a lawyer.  For many of us, it is a challenge to dream big and remember those dreams, such as a desire to found a non-profit organization, serve in government, lead an in-house law department, or develop an innovative practice at a law firm.  For others, the challenge is to make time for personal fulfillment, such as coaching a baseball team, climbing all of the fourteeners in Colorado, and/or volunteering regularly.  For all of us, it is important to take time out to think about how we can make an impact and be purposeful—in ways both large and small—about making sure we live a well-balanced and meaningful life.  Capturing these ideas and goals on paper now can serve to remind you of your values and aspirations at a time when you might be consumed by more day-to-day pressures. 

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It is my great honor to welcome you here at Colorado Law.   For all of you, the next three years will be an exciting, expanding, and fun experience.  There will be challenges, to be sure, and the most important lesson I have learned as Dean is that those students willing to ask for help are much better for the experience.  So please, whether it is to me, Dean Leary, Dean Rogers, your advisor, your legal writing professor, any other of the faculty or staff member at Colorado Law, or an alumni with whom you may cross paths, I encourage you, when you are unsure or struggling on any front, to ask for help.  We are all in this together and the faculty and staff—many of whom you will meet tomorrow—are here for you.