By Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Acceptance speech for receiving Honorary Doctor of Laws from The George Washington University

May 25, 2003

Type: Speech
Location: Washington, DC


JUSTICE O'CONNOR:  Thank you, thank you. President Trachtenberg, Dean Young, faculty, graduates, and friends of George Washington University School of Law:

It's a great pleasure to be with you today at this ceremony.  After all, it's a day of joy for everyone.  You graduates have no more law school exams or classes to endure -- (Applause.) -- and I might say the faculty no longer has you to endure.  You have fame and fortune ahead of you.  Your  families and spouses and friends can look forward to seeing more of you, and your speaker is greatly honored by the honorary degree bestowed on her today, a degree which allows me, like you graduates, to always have a link with this great Law School.

I realize we've gathered here today to applaud those of you who will be receiving law degrees.  There are, however, several heroes and heroines here who should be recognized and with whom you graduates undoubtedly would like to share your glory.  I refer, of course, to the parents and perhaps spouses who've made two significant contributions to your presence today, your parents have anyway.  First, they had the brains which you   were lucky enough to inherit; and secondly, they probably provided at least some of the money you needed to sustain yourselves while you were here.

I congratulate your parents and I commend you graduates for your good judgment in selecting them. (applause.)

A commencement speech is a particularly difficult assignment.  The speaker is given no topic and is expected to be able to inspire all the graduates with a stirring speech about nothing at all.  I suppose that's why so many lawyers are asked to be commencement speakers.  They're in the habit of talking extensively even when they have nothing to say.

In this case, the University asked not only a lawyer, but an elderly judge, to be the commencement speaker.  I was born in Texas.  In Texas they say an old judge is like an old shoe:  Everything is all worn out except the tongue.

The chief function of a commencement speaker, of course, is to be brief.  Lord Canning was once asked by a preacher how he enjoyed his sermon.  Canning replied: "You were brief."  "Ah," said the preacher, "I always like to avoid being tedious."  Lord Canning thought for a moment and then said:  "You were also tedious."  So there's no absolute guarantee of success, but I'll do my best.

Today we note and celebrate the Class of '03's liberation from the rigors of academic life.  Tomorrow the public will experience the impact of your presence as a member of the legal profession.  During the course of your legal careers, you will serve clients and in doing so profoundly affect their lives and fortunes.  Surely the people you will serve have a right to expect that you enter the profession not only well trained in both substantive and procedural skills, but also possessed of an awareness of the social and moral responsibilities of the profession.

Certainly the first obligation of a lawyer is to know the substantive law and to analyze and resolve legal problems.  That presumably is what you were here the last three years to learn.  And since by your caps and gowns you all appear to have passed, I assume you've learned the law well.

The law student should also have acquired some practical training, to be equipped on graduation with the essential skills required for the practice of law.  At least some of you have had some clinical and practical experience during your time here.  But lawyers must do more than know the law and the art of practicing it.  They need as well to develop a consciousness of their moral and social responsibilities to their clients, to the courts in which they appear, even to the attorneys and clients on the other side of an issue, and to all others who are affected by the lawyer's conduct.  A great lawyer is always mindful of the moral and social aspects of the lawyer's power and position as an officer of the court.

Commencement speakers are always full of advice. True to form, I want to mention two things I think are important for a lawyer to keep in mind.  One relates to how you should go about performing the tasks you will soon undertake.  The other deals with the quality of your relationship with your community.

The first suggestion I have is to aim high, but to be aware that, even before you have reached your ultimate professional destination, if you strive for excellence you can and should have a substantial impact on the world in which you live.  Presumably, most of you plan and hope to reach the point where you have interesting and important legal work to do and when you are paid as much or, better yet, more than you're worth for doing it.  But if your career path is at all like mine -- and who knows, for one or more of you it may well be -- you won't be starting at the top of the ladder. 

As you've heard, the only job offer I received in the private sector on my graduation from law school many years ago was a job as a legal secretary.  So I started my own private practice, sharing a small office with another lawyer in a shopping center in a suburb of  Phoenix, Arizona.  Other people who had offices in the same shopping mall repaired televisions, cleaned clothes, or loaned money.  It was not a high rent district.

I got walk-in business.  People came in to see me about grocery bills they couldn't collect, landlord-tenant problems, and other everyday matters not usually considered by the United States Supreme Court.  But I always did the best I could with what I had.

When I applied to the Arizona Attorney General's Office for work, they didn't have a place for me.  I persisted, however, got a temporary job, and quickly rose all the way to the bottom of the totem pole.  As was normal for a beginner, I got the least desirable  assignments.

But that was all right because I managed to take away from these rather humble professional beginnings some valuable lessons.  I learned, for example, the habit of   always doing the best I could with every task, no matter how unimportant it might seem at the time.  Such habits can breed future success.  As Abraham Lincoln once said: "I always prepared myself for the opportunity I knew would come my way."  As his career attests, devotion to excellence in all things, even when it seems that the world will little note nor long remember the small tasks in which you find yourself engaged, can have its rewards.

Starting at the bottom and working hard while you're there can have its present consolations and benefits as well.  The pay is lower, the perquisites are nonexistent, and usually the title isn't impressive.  But you can learn, as I did, that the person at the bottom can have great power.  This is true because that person develops the factual predicate upon which everyone else acts.  No one learns more about a problem than the person at the bottom whose job it is to develop the facts and make the first analysis.

There is a saying among lawyers:  Most cases are won or lost on the facts.  Remember, though you may begin as a lowly foot soldier, your power rests in your ability  to see, to interpret, and to communicate the facts.

The person at the bottom also gets the first opportunity to propose a solution to whatever the problem is.  That first proposed solution, if supported by the facts and logic, will often be the one that is finally adopted.  Though it may be years before you have the authority to decide which solution will be adopted, you can begin right away to generate the ideas that make those solutions feasible.

So for those of you who are disappointed not to be moving from your graduation today directly into a partnership in a 200-person law firm or a Cabinet-level position in government, this ought to give you some solace.

Now, the second suggestion I have to help make your life in the legal professional meaningful and fulfilling is to become involved in the community in which you find yourself.  Become a part of it by participating in it directly and fully, whether as a volunteer worker, an elected or appointed representative in some community agency or institution, or simply as an intelligent citizen who persuades others to take needed action.

You're going to find that the individual can and does make a difference, even in this populous, complex world of ours.  The individual can make things happen.  It's the individual who can bring a tear to my eye and cause me to take pen in hand.  It is the individual who has acted or tried to act who will not only force a decision, but have a hand in shaping it.  Whether the individual acts in the legal, governmental, or private realm, one concerned and dedicated person can meaningfully affect what some say is an uncaring world.

You've invested three or more years to acquire the skills to become a more effective person and the experiences and insights to become a more caring person.  Your efforts will pay enormous dividends in the future, not only for you but for countless others who may benefit from your actions.

Let me make one concrete suggestion about how you participate.  For most of this country's history, it's been accepted that lawyers will devote a portion of their time to representing people who need legal assistance even though they can't afford to pay for it.  The gap between the need for legal assistance and the ability to pay for it seems to be widening.  Now, the gap has to be narrowed by lawyers volunteering to help where help is needed, without regard to the possibility of compensation.

When I was in private practice I gave time for some pro bono service and I remember well the excitement of handling some of those matters and the feeling of service to one's fellows that it gave me to render the needed legal assistance.  No legal service for which I was paid gave me greater satisfaction than simply helping someone who needed it without expectation of financial compensation.

After all, we as lawyers and judges hold in our profession the keys to justice under a rule of law.  We hold those keys in trust for those seeking to obtain justice within our legal system.  There is sad evidence all across the nation that a substantial number of our  citizens believe our legal and judicial system is unresponsive to them because of racial bias, that too often equal justice is but an unrealized slogan.  Lawyers particularly must be sensitive to the role of law in our society and to view your responsibility to the public as transcending the purely technical skills of the profession.

I hope every single graduate of this law school today will take some of the opportunities that certainly will come your way to perform some pro bono legal services  for others in need.  Use your skills acquired here to help provide both the perception and the reality of equal justice under law.

 Finally, before all of you hear the music of the Recessional today, my hope for all of you is that you will not be tone deaf to the music of the law.  There are lawyers who never hear the law's music, indeed those who think there is none, those who think the law is just a   business, one for which high fees can be charged and collected for the necessary services only a lawyer can provide.  But if you understand and if you hear the law's music, it is a music filled with the logic and the clarity f Bach, the thunder, sometimes overblown and pompous, of Wagner, the lyric passion of Verdi and Puccini, Mozart's easy genius, Gershwin's invention, Brahm's calm, Handel's good manners, Rossini and Vivaldi's energy, Offenbach's boisterous panache, Copeland's folksy common sense,  Beethoven's majesty, and, unfortunately, not a little of the ponderous tedium of Mahler and the sterile  intellectualism of Schoenberg. 

The words that go to the music you can hear are words of equality, justice, fairness, consistency, predictability, balance, equity, of wrongs righted, and the repose of disputes settled without violence, without undue advantage, and without leaving either side with   bitter feelings of having been cheated.  It is the music sung in the world of child-like innocence in which the lion lies down with the lamb.  Perhaps it's a world that never was nor ever will be, but it is a world worth living toward. 

So be full participants in life's opportunities.  Join in trying to leave the world a little better than you found it on your arrival.  Use your talent and your legal education to help those who need it and in ways that will make all of us in the legal profession proud of your  efforts.  May you always be, as I have been, enraptured by the music of the law.

Thank you.