May 17, 2009
"Gov. Jay Nixon's commencement address to the University of Missouri Law School"
Dean Dessem, honored guests, faculty, parents, family and friends. And the Law School graduating class of 2009, good afternoon.
Graduates, let me be the first to offer you congratulations on a job well done. Law school isn’t easy, as you know. But your hard work has paid off and now you stand at the threshold of a rewarding profession.
Let me also congratulate Dean Dessem and the faculty for the outstanding program they offer. Graduates from the Mizzou’s law school serve their clients and communities with the highest distinction in this state and around the country. I’m proud to be a graduate of this fine program, and I am proud to have had many of your graduates on my staff throughout my career.
Graduates, I also want to extend my congratulations to your parents, many of whom are here today. Your diplomas represent the fulfillment of their dreams and their effort, as well as your own. You cannot repay all that they have invested in you, but I urge you to try. Honor them by using your education to make a mighty contribution to your new profession and to your communities.
I appreciate the opportunity to be here on this very important day, and to offer a few thoughts about the profession you have chosen.
I am a lawyer. I take a great deal of pride in that statement, and I have great respect and admiration for the men and women with whom I share this profession. But these are difficult times for lawyers. You cannot turn on the television, or pick up a magazine, or browse the internet without being bombarded with lawyer jokes. You’ve all heard them:
What do you call 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
Answer: A good start.
Why does New York have so many lawyers and New Jersey have so many garbage dumps?
Answer: New Jersey got first choice.
What do you get if you send The Godfather to law school?
Answer: An offer you can’t understand.
Some of these jokes are funny, most are not. None of these jokes reflects well on the profession that I -- and now you -- have chosen.
It’s important to realize that the practice of law has not always been the whipping post that it is today. In fact, this is a fairly new phenomenon. If you have a parent who is a lawyer, as I do, ask them. They’ll tell you that when they graduated law school, they did not automatically become the butt of society’s jokes. The legal profession has taken a lot of damage in recent years -- much of it self-inflicted -- and it will be up to you and your generation to restore the public’s confidence in, and respect for, all of us.
Anytime someone is ranting about how terrible lawyers are, you can bet it won’t be long before they quote the famous line from Shakespeare: “Let’s kill all the lawyers.” This phrase, taken from Shakespeare’s Henry the VIth, Part 2, has become the battle cry for those who despise lawyers and what we do. But those who mindlessly repeat this mantra need to pay a little more attention to the Bard and what he was saying. Let me set the stage for you.
Henry the VIth takes place during the War of Roses, when the Duke of York sought to oust the weak and bookish King Henry. The Duke of York hired Jack Cade, a vicious low-life, to help overthrow the King. York’s plan was to have Cade go to London, make a bogus claim that he was the true heir to the throne, and incite the rabble of London to riot. Then, under cover of the riot, Cade was to set fire to London to distract and harass King Henry.
Jack Cade roused the London rabble with promises that sound reminiscent of every modern-day dictator from Hitler to Hussein. First, Cade promised that meat and cheese would be free, and 3-penny loaves would sell for a penny and half. Second, he promised that the wealthy would be stripped of their property. Finally, Cade promised that he would fill the City’s streams with free wine for all to drink. During Cade’s speech, he is interrupted with the famous catcall: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
So, there it is. Today’s rallying cry against the legal profession originally came from a street mob that had been whipped up by a con-man and ex-convict who was sent to overthrow the government. Immediately after this famous line, Jack Cade executed a man for knowing how to read and write. He did it because Jack Cade -- and Shakespeare -- knew well what many 20th century tyrants have proved: Education is the mother of liberty, and lawyers are its midwives.
Now, I’m not suggesting that, as graduates of this fine law school, you can stem the tide of public ridicule of lawyers by lecturing people about Shakespeare. You can try, but I doubt you will have any luck. No, if you are to change the way that lawyers are perceived in this country, you must do it by changing the way that lawyers act.
The Preamble to the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct highlights the three critical roles that lawyers play in our society. The Preamble states that:
“A lawyer is a representative of clients . . .
an officer of the legal system . . .
and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”
No one of these roles is more important that the others and, over the past decades, our profession has fallen in short in each. I am here today to ask each of you to dedicate yourselves and your careers to reversing this trend. You must rise to the challenge and find a way to better serve these very different roles, and change the way society perceives our profession.
First, you have to find ways to better serve your clients. You must represent your clients in ways that preserve not only their rights, but their dignity as well. If you do this, you will also preserve your own dignity, and that of your profession.
Understand that the law is not a “zero-sum” game. Protecting the rights of your client does not have to mean infringing the rights of someone else. Our system can defend the rights of those accused of crimes, while also preserving the rights of crime victims guaranteed under the Missouri Constitution.
You will learn that too often clients come to lawyers as a last resort. They’ve tried everything else they can think of. Because you are often their last chance, your obligation to that client is to make the best of a bad situation, and you’ve got to get it right the first time.
Good lawyers fight their clients’ battles with tireless energy -- but great lawyers find creative solutions to those problems that avoid the need for a fight whenever possible.
Second, you have to find ways to better serve the legal system as a whole. As an officer of the legal system, you have an ethical obligation to treat every member of that system with respect. That obligation extends beyond just lawyers and judges. It extends to every witness . . . every juror . . . every secretary and clerk . . . every police office, bailiff and correctional officer . . . every victim.
Your obligation extends to every person who comes in contact with the legal system in our society. You must treat each of them with genuine respect that comes from the belief that, together, we all serve the common goals of justice, fairness, and equality.
More than any other single factor, the almost total breakdown in civility -- and even basic honesty -- by lawyers has contributed to the public’s loss of confidence in, and regard for, our profession. Is it any wonder that the public derides lawyers when we so often deride each other and those with whom we work? On this point, we should follow Shakespeare’s advice in The Taming of the Shrew: “Do as adversaries do at law -- strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”
And you must find ways to better serve the third role that lawyers play as citizens in our society. As lawyers, you have a special responsibility to serve -- and lead -- the communities around you. Your training has prepared you to appreciate the complexity of the issues and challenges that face our society.
Your experience will teach you that . . . on all of the truly difficult questions in our world . . . there are always at least two sides. Each side has merit, and each side is supported by good men and women who are genuinely convinced that they are right. That is why lawyers know that justice is best symbolized by a pair of scales -- not a light switch -- and that the subtle shade of truth almost always lies somewhere between the bright light of noon and the pitch black of midnight.
Because of your training, your talents, and your experience, you will find that you will be asked to provide leadership, whether it be for your social organization, your church, your community, or your state.
It has been said that lawyers are uniquely suited to the delicate three-cornered dance of policy, politics and principle. I believe that is true. After my election as Governor last fall, I began working closely with legislators to advance a set of policy priorities to move our state forward. As we began these negotiations with legislators, the first question I asked was not who the Democrats or Republicans were, but instead who the lawyers were.
I knew I could expect these men and women, from both sides of the aisle, to understand the power of language. Lawyers understand that extraordinary care must be used to ensure that language meant to solve one problem won’t create even worse problems in the endless hypothetical applications the future may hold.
When you are called to lead, at whatever level and in whatever capacity, you must meet this challenge, and never break faith with the honor and principles that are at the heart of being a lawyer.
Let me close with a story that I hope is familiar to most of you. It was a sweltering summer day in 1935 in Alabama. A lawyer was finishing a hard day’s work. At great risk to his family, his reputation, and his future livelihood, this lawyer had taken on a very unpopular client. He did it for the only reason that any of you should every take on a client. He did it because his client needed a lawyer . . . his client needed someone to stand up for him and for his rights under the law.
The lawyer had done his best, under terrible conditions. His client was an African American man who stood accused of raping a White woman. The prosecution’s witnesses were not credible, and the physical evidence clearly refuted the charge. The lawyer patiently and carefully explained this to the jury. The lawyer begged the jury to set aside their prejudice and fear, and to serve the law. In some of the most stirring words ever written about our profession, this is what the lawyer said:
“Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal. There’s a tendency for certain people to use this phrase out of context to satisfy all conditions. We know that all men are not created equal in all things. Some people are smarter than others. Some people have more opportunity . . . because they are born with it. Some make more money than others and some make better cakes than others. Some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
“But there is one place in this country, one institution, in which all people are created equal. There is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of the Rockefeller . . . the stupid man the equal of the Einstein . . . the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentleman of the jury, is a court.
“It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest JP court in the land . . . or in this honorable court in which you serve.
“Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our country, all men are created equal in the courts.”
It didn’t work. Prejudice won out over justice that day . . . and it was neither the first nor the last time. The lawyer failed, just as all of you will fail from time to time when you choose to fight the fights that need fighting. But he knew that, as a lawyer, he had no choice. He was bound to serve the interests of justice and his client as well as he could.
He listened to the jury’s guilty verdict in sorrow, and silently packed up his books and papers. He comforted his client, and talked to the court reporter about the transcript he would need for the appeal. Then he started to walk out of the crowded, but silent, courtroom.
Surely you know by now that the lawyer was Atticus Finch . . . and his story is told in To Kill A Mockingbird. I urge you read this story again as you enter the profession that Atticus so nobly served.
As he walked out of the courtroom, this is how it looked to his daughter, Scout, who was sitting in the segregated section in the balcony:
“Someone was punching me but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us and from the image of my father’s lonely walk down the aisle. ‘Miss Jean Louise?’ I looked around. They were standing all around the balcony on the opposite wall. Blacks were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’ voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s. ‘Miss Jean Louise,’ he said, ‘stand up. Your father’s passin.’
God bless each of you, and the work that you will do. Work hard to serve your clients well. Work hard to serve your profession well. And work hard to serve your communities well. If you do, if you work hard enough, someday . . . when you are through . . . they won’t be telling jokes. Instead, people will say, “Stand up. A lawyer’s passin.” Thank you.