Of Life, Law School, and Hinges

This is the text of my valedictory speech, offered on May 31, 2008, for the San Joaquin College of Law graduation. For, you know, posterity. Or something.

I’ll try not to be too boring or take too long, even though I usually excel at both of those things when I talk.

I want to talk about hinges, like the ones on doors. I like hinges because they do two different and almost contradictory things at the same time: they hold a door to its frame and they allow the door to move.

I’ve been thinking about hinges because today we’re celebrating one of those important life events when people use metaphors to make sense of things. We say that graduation from law school is a “pivotal” moment, or that earning a law degree will “open doors.”

Those are both perfectly good metaphors. But today, on the occasion of our graduation from law school, there are a couple of reasons why I prefer hinges.

The first thing about hinges is that they hold things together. Whenever people go through these big life changes, like graduating from law school, passing the bar exam, and starting a new career, we usually play up the change. It’s dramatic! Stepping forward into a bold new stage of life!

But one of the more interesting things I’ve noticed in life is that even though we all go through these big, dramatic changes, we still have this inner continuity of character, a persistence in our sense of self.

Everybody in this room, no matter how old, can probably call up memories from childhood, things that happened on the playground in elementary school, twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. And even though we’re all grown up, with the scars of many changes, for the most part, inside, we all still feel like ourselves, the same people we were when we were kids—just bigger, with more things to worry about.

I think that’s an important thing to remember today. Law students sometimes ask each other, “Can you remember the way you thought before law school?” The answer is always, “No, we can’t.”

Our heads are filled with these shiny new analytical tools. But we haven’t really changed. We’re still the same people, even though most of us probably talk differently now. And maybe we’re more annoying than before.

The door is opened, but still attached to the frame. Like hinges, we are still there in the middle, connecting our lives before law school with our lives after law school. And now we will have to find a way to connect our lives as people who think like lawyers with every other part of our lives.

When you figure that one out, let me know.

The second thing about hinges is that they have this other quality of allowing things to move. Without hinges, you couldn’t really swing a door open or closed. But when a hinge does allow movement, it only allows movement within a range defined by the nature of the hinge. And when you swing a door, the movement is not only useful, it traces a perfect arc.

Most of us who graduate today are facing big changes with lots of decisions: building new careers, learning how to manage caseloads, balancing between work and everything else, navigating around the pitfalls of our ethical duties.

I don’t expect any of that to be easy. Law school was a challenge, but only the first of many. Some of those challenges will be what I think are the easy kind: the ones you just have to work hard to overcome. Anybody can work hard. But a lot of our challenges are the difficult, intractable kind: the ones where you have to make an important decision, but there’s no clear path to the other side. When you ask people for advice, nobody has any. To overcome those problems, we need to stay centered.

I’ve always found that, when I come to a tight spot, where it’s impossible to make a decision by trying to predict the consequences of each alternative, it helps to know myself. “Which of these alternatives is more consistent with who I am?” I’m not talking about easy questions, like “Should I tell the truth?” but hard ones, like “What kind of law should I practice?” Or the question we all had to answer, “Should I go to law school?” That was difficult for some of us.

Sometimes, you can’t make the best decision, but you can make an honest one.

And like a hinge, our character both allows us to make decisions and keeps us from choosing a path that is inconsistent with who we are. That’s usually nothing but trouble.

Like hinges, if we hold that center pivot where it belongs, the doors will open much more easily.

This is also important because honesty to ourselves is not just good for our mental health and personal success, it connects with our professional need for honesty, too. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

And the honesty isn’t just useful, like the ability to swing a door open or closed; it’s also pleasing to our sense of clarity, like the way a swinging door on a hinge will trace a perfect arc.

Abraham Lincoln once wrote that lawyers have a superior opportunity to be good people. I think we can all agree that lawyers also have a superior opportunity to be terrible people. 

Law school has taught us how to think like lawyers, so we have those unique opportunities, but we are still the same people we have always been. And I can say with all honesty that I have never known so many good people as I have met in law school. We have no reason to be terrible people and every reason to be good people, to hold things together, to open the doors that need to be opened.

Let’s not use the legal profession as an excuse to unhinge ourselves. May we all succeed.

Thank you.

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