Welcome to the George Washington University Law School. Congratulations.
I remember when I first started law school, I never understood why people congratulated us for starting law school. It’s like someone congratulating me beforeI gave this speech.
But I’ve come to realize that congratulations are appropriate for many reasons. For some of you: you are the first in your family to attend law school; for others, you are achieving a life-long dream; for you all, you are embarking on a journey many aspire to, but few actually realize.
People have always possessed preconceived notions about our world. Centuries ago, because we seemed to experiencethe world as flat, we assumed the world was indeed flat. But others—they believedit was round. It took those brave enough to challenge those preconceived notions and embark on a journey to the end of the world—pursuing truth wherever it may lead. And eventually, they discovered that the preconceived notions about our world were mistaken: in fact, our world is round.
You are embarking on a journey. You are embarking on a journey into understanding the entirety of the laws and rules we place on our world as a society—the terms of the social contract. You undoubtedly will possess your own preconceived notions about how our laws do and should govern our world. And while on this journey, you may very well find that our laws and our world are as you assumed. But most likely, you will learn that our world and its laws are not as flat or as you once thought.
This is a journey filled with circumstances out of your control. But fear not, before you go, I’d like to leave you with these three important points: Let humility be your anchor. Let your passions be your North Star. And let the pursuit of knowledge be the wind behind your sails.
Humble yourself before the journey humbles you
Let me explain further.
This journey will humble you, so you must humble yourself first. This is one of the most important lessons I have gleaned from my law school journey.
I arrived at law school very motivated. I just graduated from college on a high note: I was finally performing well academically and enjoying a successful conclusion to my undergraduate career. This fueled me to ensure I started law school on the right foot academically. I did not want to play catch up, like I did in college.
My civil procedure midterm was my first opportunity to see just what I could do. I studied my butt off for it. And after that midterm, I met up with my BLSA mentor and he asked me how I did. Confidently, I replied “Oh I set the curve.” Weeks later: I saw my score. And (pause) let’s not talk about it.
The point is: self-imposed humility is much kinder to the frail ego. But most importantly, it does not matter how smart you are, because all your classmates are just as smart and if not, smarter than you. And the curve sometimes is unpredictable.
Humility is precious. Do not make my mistakes. Anchor yourself in it. You can maintain humility if you operate through empathy. Empathy affords you the best opportunity to understand someone else’s journey by forcing you to include yourself in it—allowing you to see where they have traversed and understand how they feel in this current stage. Empathy allows you to understand that life is not black and white—it is grey. Life is complicated. Thus, preventing you from casting quick unqualified judgments about yourself and those around you.
Most importantly, empathy engenders within you the ability to appreciate the inherent fallibility of the human experience. And the ability to take law school serious but not yourself too serious—allowing you to become kind to yourself. Be serious in your studies, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Be kind to yourself.
You may fail. But you are not a failure. Those around you may disappoint you. But they are not disappointments. You may encounter many defeats. But you will not be defeated. This journey will humble you, so you must humble yourself first by operating through empathy.
Don’t seek prestige, seek your passions
Second, put prestige aside, let your passions serve as your guide. Life is short, so pursue what makes you happy. You can discover those passions by looking inward and paying attention: Did a particular topic upset you? Did a particular ruling seem off to you? Did a particular reading keep you up at night? Pay attention to what moves you emotionally.
And then work to bring about change. Because you will soon have the power to create it. “If we want a better world, we must design it.”
For me, it is inequality. I first discovered this passion in college. I switched my major to Social Policy and I became increasingly aware of the rampant inequality that primarily subjugates poor people and people of color in America: Inequality in education, income, justice, and the list goes on.
One of my favorite quotes is from Ghandi: “Be the change you seek in the world.” This is why I embarked on the same journey as you. I seek to one day dismantle gross systematic inequality. And throughout law school, plenty of classes and discussions have reminded me and reinvigorated this passion; classes and topics that upset me, that motivated me, that made me more focused. Look out for them throughout your journey.
For me it was my criminal law class. There were many rulings that seemed off to me; that kept me up at night wondering why at times our criminal justice system punishes the sick, instead of healing them; pondering why the system is no longer built to rehabilitate but only incarcerate; questioning how, as a society, can we support stand your ground laws disproportionately lead to the death of black victims and the acquittal of their shooters.
These issues upset me, bringing me to the verge of tears. But they motivated, because even though I was studying law as it was written, it did not mean that those same laws could not be changed in the future; it made me more focused because I realized that my understanding of these issues and the law provide me an opportunity to finds ways to effectuate change and become the change I seek in this world.
Like mine, your conscious will send you subtle signals about what you truly find important. Listen. Pay attention. And have the courage to let it drive you, even if it drives you away from “prestigious” opportunities. Unfortunately, our profession is extremely prestige driven. It is a tragic flaw. The sole pursuit of prestige is not a path to happiness. It is a path that leads to comparison. And comparison either leads to bitterness or vanity. There is much more to life than that. So, put prestige aside, let your passions be your guide
Constantly pursue knowledge and the truth
Lastly, make the most of this journey. Do not wade aimlessly. Constantly pursue knowledge—letting this twin aims drive you along this journey.
One of the first things law school helps you realize is there is a lot you do not know. A lot. If you come across something you do not know (especially in conversation), ask for clarity. Or at least look it up. Pursuing knowledge means distancing yourself from ignorance. And running towards the truth.
Do not be naïve and assume your learning will come only by capturing your all your professor’s words during lectures. Or by faithfully highlighting every word in your tort’s book. The best learning—real learning—will also come from interactions with your classmates. Do not forget, you are not only learning fromthe brightest minds in the world, you are also learning with the brightest minds in the world. So lean into one another. This also means sharing your views in class, while also being aware of the space you take up. Diversity of thought is crucial too attaining true knowledge.
Most importantly, the knowledge you attain will also come from reflecting on your journey: reflecting on your successes and your failures. Throughout this journey you will learn and grow tremendously. Constant reflection is the only way to internalize and appreciate the knowledge you acquire from yourself.
Something I came to terms with is that I am a full-fledged nerd. And since you are studying law at a top law school as well—sorry, but you are guilty of being nerds too. Appreciate this. Find comfort in it. And embark on this journey with a true nerd’s sense of constant and open intellectual curiosity.
Never stop asking why, because this journey requires constant critical thinking. Remember, you are traversing into the grey; into murky waters engulfed in fog. Your intellectual curiosity and pursuit of knowledge will lead you to the most complex issues facing our world. Empathy will help you understand these issues are not one-sided. And critical thinking will help you navigate through the fog—affording you the ability to understand these issues not from a surface-level but to their depths.
We know the world is not flat—it continues on and on. Similarly, this journey you have embarked on does not end. You must continuously anchor yourself in humility. Let your passions, not prestige, serve as your guide. And let the constant pursuit of knowledge propel you across the world and back.
The George Washington University Law School’s Class of 2022: You got this. It is okay to feel overwhelmed or confused. Everyone who has traversed this path has felt the same. You have the capacity to succeed. You would not be here, if people did not believe in your ability to achieve greatness. Rest assure you are not embarking on this journey alone. The GW Law community, is here for you; the SBA, is here for you; I, am here for you.
Class of 2022, Godspeed.