Dean, University of Virginia School of Law
At the Picnic in the Park last Sunday, I was talking with some of you about your new lockers and laden backpacks. We jokingly noted the similarities between Law School and middle school. Though the comparison has seemed apt since my own law school days, it is perhaps more on my mind right now because I have a seventh-grade son in the midst of those years and a ninth grader just coming out the other side. So I hope you will indulge me as I spin out the comparison.
Beyond the lockers, backpacks, full schedule of required courses, and packed hallways between classes, a far more fundamental similarity comes to mind: transformation. Middle school is a time of massive change, as children become young adults by running the gauntlet of adolescence. When they emerge, they have greater independence, knowledge, resources, and perhaps even a bit of wisdom, as well as new responsibilities to match.
Law school will similarly transform you—from the “regular people” I described at orientation to members of the learned profession of the law. It will do so by running you through the gauntlet of torts, contracts, LRW, and more. You will come out the other side of this year the same person that brought you to law school but also a different person. You will have new skills, new ways of thinking, and new intellectual resources at your disposal.
Of course, in many and profound ways, middle school and law school are so very different. You are adults now. Most of you have work experience of one kind or another. You have persevered through real hardship, traveled the world, succeeded wildly in college. You come to law school with maturity (we hope), perspective, ambition, and focus.
Not only are you different now from who you were ten years ago or more, but what you will encounter here is very different as well. I can’t speak for you, but my middle school certainly did not boast world-class faculty engaged in ground-breaking research; experiential learning that let me put my classroom knowledge to work immediately; or the kind of personal and professional support that the Law School provides.
More fundamentally, this adventure is different because you have chosen it. (Who chooses middle school?) You have chosen to challenge, transform, and empower yourselves. It might not always be easy, as I am sure you have heard. That is especially true this first year, this first semester. That is not because anyone has set out to make 1L challenging. Rather, it is because you are learning new approaches to information and to life that are just that: new. They take rigor and application to comprehend, and you will want to apply yourself with zeal as you learn them.
I recall my own realization of the engagement and endurance it would take to master this new vocabulary and set of skills. I learned that “thinking like a lawyer”—the analytical reasoning, the precision with words and concepts—was not something that was just going to happen to me. I had to make myself a real partner in the endeavor. I encourage you to take ownership of the education that lies before you, and collaborate with the professors and peers that surround you.
Let me emphasize the last part of that sentence: how much you will learn from your peers. What a gift to us all that our Law School is so diverse. We come from different backgrounds. We have had different experiences. We hold different beliefs, attitudes, and interests, and subscribe to a wide range of political views. We each have our own unique identities, hopes, and dreams. This semester you have been thrown together across these differences immediately and intensely. Spending hours each week in sections of thirty people who vary in all of these ways (and more) can be a novel experience and sometimes a challenging one.
Take advantage of what that offers. The honest and respectful exchange of ideas is invaluable—not only in the classroom, but also in Scott Commons, in the sections you have been assigned and the organizations you choose to join. It is not always easy to speak so that others can listen or listen even when the message is hard to hear, but our community of trust and belonging makes that possible. Moreover, those skills are essential to analyzing and solving problems, considering every argument, exploring every idea, arguing for your side and collaborating with the other. In other words, learning how to talk and listen with professionalism, respect, and empathy is essential to becoming the exceptional lawyers you are all here to become. If you were very precocious, you might have tried all this in middle school. But I’m guessing it might not have gone as well then.
As I mentioned at orientation, this combination of pluralism and community is fundamental to who we are as a law school. I still remember my interview with UVa when I was applying to teach here almost twenty years ago. Of the many schools I spoke with, I saw immediately how this one was unique. The faculty here did not always agree. They did not take the views of others for granted. They were open to those views and to the possibility that their own might be wrong, or incomplete, or improved upon. That was why I came here, and it is what has enriched my scholarship, my teaching, my professional development, and my personal life ever since. It is at the heart of this law school and a huge part of why I feel privileged to lead it.
At the end of this year, I have no doubt that you will have transformed yourselves and one another. Each year, I find it thrilling that so many 1Ls come up to me after their last exams to say, with appropriate pride, that they now see how far they had traveled, that they feel like different people from when they had arrived. I knew that would be the case, as that is what law school does. It transforms how we think and what we can do in the world.
I know I have overworked this comparison by now, but I want to close on one last and very stark difference between your gawky early teen years and this most recent phase of your lives. It is rare to find a middle schooler who is happy, and most adults would be quick to note that they would never want to repeat middle school again. I can’t speak to all law schools, but that is certainly not the case at this one. I cannot count how many alumni report that their time at UVa Law was the happiest of their lives, and that they would relive it in a heartbeat. I hope and trust you will feel the same in three years. My wish for you is that these years are happy ones, that you thrive as well as succeed, savor as well as learn.
Welcome, let’s get to work, and enjoy.