On Compassion, Spring Commencement, May 3, 2003

Senior Day Remarks of Jeffrey S. Lehman
The Law Quadrangle

May 3, 2003

On behalf of my colleagues on the faculty, it is my privilege to welcome you to the Law Quadrangle for Senior Day, at which we recognize those students who are completing their degree requirements here at the University of Michigan Law School.  And it is a special privilege to be able to share a few parting shots, er, thoughts with the graduating class.

Today is, of course, a sad occasion.  For us on the faculty, the departure of the 2003 graduates of the University of Michigan Law School is absolutely devastating.  For out there among you – you know who you are – are the very best students ever to attend this Law School.  The finest people we have ever known.  Quite simply the finest human beings who have ever lived.

And after today, you’re gone.  All gone.  Every last one of you.

It is enough to make a professor ask, “Why bother?  Why continue?”  For me, the pain ultimately became so intense that I decided to leave with you.

But our own sadness is truly nothing when compared with your grief.  Your sorrow.  Your despair at the prospect of graduating from law school.

I must say that I have been impressed by how well you have concealed your emotional turmoil over the past few weeks.  An untrained eye might have been deceived by the spring in your steps and might not have discerned just how distraught you really are.

But you don’t fool me. 

We on the faculty are trained to see beneath the surface, to recognize the subtle clues that suggest you really do not want to graduate.  The clearest sign is that set of exams you just handed in these past couple of days.  

But, devoutly though we all may wish it, you may not stay.  It is time for you to move on to new challenges.  And to help you make the transition, and to mark it, we celebrate today with pomp and with circumstance.  We assemble in this gorgeous Quadrangle, under absolutely perfect skies, to present you with a certificate of lifetime membership in the Lawyers Club.

 No, you do not receive your diploma today. We are required to withhold that piece of paper until we have graded the aforementioned examinations, according to rules promulgated by our accrediting authority, the American Bar Association, under the supervision of U.S. News and World Report Magazine.

Your certificate of membership in the Lawyers Club carries many valuable economic benefits, such as the right to stay in a dorm room when you come back to visit Ann Arbor.  But, in truth, it is a symbol.  It symbolizes the fact that you are about to join a vibrant and supportive worldwide community of more than 18,000 women and men, each of whom shares with you the experience of an education at the University of Michigan Law School.

I find it interesting to reflect on the ways in which that shared experience is identical for everyone, and the ways in which the experience of Michigan law students can vary.  

Obviously, since 1933, everyone who came to Michigan had the experience of studying in one of the architectural masterpieces of North America.  

You, the Class of 2003, studied in the same astonishing reading room as the Class of 1943.

You, the Class of 2003, marveled at the same stained glass windows as 1943 graduates.

You, the Class of 2003, used computers in Room 200 that were originally purchased for the Class of 1943.  

You, the Class of 2003, are now hearing the same jokes I first used at Senior Day in 1943.

More seriously, each of you has undergone a fundamental intellectual transformation here.  Whether this was your first exposure to the study of law, or you were pursuing an advanced degree after years of practice overseas, your experience at Michigan nurtured within you to an unprecedented degree an essential intellectual reflex:  the reflex of sympathetic engagement with counterargument.

During your time at this Law School, you have all become ever more deeply reflective people.  You have learned to cherish complexity, subtlety, and difficulty.  You have become comfortable with uncertainty.  

Like generations of Michigan graduates before you, you have come to know that wisdom lies in the ability to simultaneously hold two inconsistent perspectives on an issue in your mind.  To understand how each of those inconsistent perspectives might be held by good and decent people.

No doubt your friends have noticed this habit, and some of them have found it a bit tiresome.  You say, “I like pancakes.”  And immediately you think, “Well, do I really mean that?  Do I really like all pancakes?  Can I give at least one example of a pancake I do not like?  What do I really mean by a pancake, anyway?”

How does the Law School work to nurture this reflex?  We do so in part by offering you the examples of your teachers.  And we do so even more by creating an environment where you will interact with one another.  J.D. students from all across the country, and graduate students from all around the world.  Students of all races and religions, who have studied every subject imaginable.  Each bursting with intellectual ability.  But collectively bringing to your educational experience here an astonishing variety of backgrounds, values, and perspectives.

Your talents enabled you to earn one another’s respect and affection, and that of your teachers as well.  Your diversity facilitated your appreciation of the way backgrounds can influence perspectives.  It helped us to nurture within you the lawyer’s essential ability to see two positions on any issue – that of the client and that of the client’s adversary – and to understand them each sympathetically.

To be sure, your exquisitely refined capacity for sympathetic engagement with counterargument is not the only quality that will serve you well in your professional lives.  I would like to take this opportunity to comment on one other of those qualities.

I am speaking now about compassion.

The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has recently written about how during the British Enlightenment, a vigorous debate raged over whether people are innately compassionate.  Earlier writers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes believed that sentiments such as compassion had to be inculcated through rigorous education.  But later writers such as David Hume and Adam Smith insisted that such feelings were essential aspect of what it means to be human.

Of course, in modern times Adam Smith’s name has become popularly associated with a callous and unfeeling vision of the free market economy.  It is therefore interesting to see how much his economic program was grounded in a vision of moral philosophy which assumed that people identify with and care about one another.  

I would like to read you a passage from the first chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.  Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.

“[T]o feel much for others and little for ourselves,… to retrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.”

As you graduate, you are entering a market economy and a legal profession that have been tarnished by a series of disturbing incidents that might well lead us to wonder wonder whether Smith was too much the optimist.  The marketplace frauds perpetrated in our boardrooms, and the daily incivilities practiced in our courtrooms, could all be seen to suggest that many of today’s leaders lack even a minimum reserve of fellow-feeling.

And yet I want to suggest to you that these cases are the exception.  I have been privileged to know many truly remarkable attorneys.  And if there is a single quality that unites them all, it is a sophisticated capacity to emphathize.

Indeed, the two qualities I have been discussing this afternoon are but two sides of the same coin.  Sympathetic engagement with counterargument is an intellectual reflex.  Compassion and empathy are emotional.  Together, they constitute the multidimensional capacity for identification with others – a capacity that will say a great deal about how much you will be able to contribute to the world.

So now, as you embark on lives of service to a society that desperately needs you, let me conclude by sharing a few hopes that we, your teachers, hold for you:

May you enjoy the special pleasures of craft — the private satisfaction of doing a task as well as it can be done.

May you enjoy the special pleasures of profession — the added satisfaction of knowing that your efforts promote a larger public good.

May you be blessed with good luck, and also with the wisdom to appreciate when you have been lucky rather than skillful.  Today’s weather is a good example.

May you find ways to help others under circumstances where they cannot possibly know that you have done so.

May you be patient, and gentle, and tolerant, without becoming smug, self-satisfied, and arrogant.

May you see enough torrential downpours that you never take weather like what we have today for granted, and enough good weather that your faith in the coming of spring is never shaken. 

May you always be able to confess ignorance, doubt, vulnerability, and uncertainty.

May you frequently travel beyond the places that are comfortable and familiar, the better to appreciate the miraculous diversity of life.

And may your steps lead you often back to Ann Arbor.  Back to the University of Michigan Law School.  For now you are members of the Lawyers Club.  And this Quadrangle will always be happy to welcome you home.