Dean, University of Virginia School of Law
What a momentous time to welcome you to UVA Law School. Over the course of the next two years, we will observe both the bicentennial of our founding and the centennial of coeducation.
As we commemorate these important milestones, continuity and change are both much in evidence. From its charter in 1819 as an original “department” of the University of Virginia, this law school began educating students broadly, with courses in political theory and political economy as well as more strictly legal subjects. Its purpose was to train exceptional lawyers for both the practice of law as well as service to and leadership of the new democracy that was the United States.
That continues to be the mission of this Law School, and it is one that I hope shapes your time here. We will teach you the fundamentals of how to think (and write and speak) with the analytical reasoning and precision of a lawyer. We will offer you opportunities to work with real clients on real cases so that you can acquire the integrity, judgment, and perspective that you learn most effectively through experience. And we will expose you to the broad sweep of interdisciplinary perspectives—economics, jurisprudence, history, psychology, and more—that will enable you to see the big picture wherever your career takes you. You will leave here able not only to deploy the law as it is but also to envision what the law can and should be in the future. In other words, we will carry on our 200-year tradition of educating servants and leaders of the law.
At the same time, evidence of how much has changed at UVA Law School over the past two centuries is all around us. Most fundamentally, who we educate has broadened in every conceivable way from our founding. Almost 100 years ago, Rose May Davis ’22 and Elizabeth Tompkins ’23 became the first women to attend the Law School as regular students. Almost 70 years ago, Gregory Swanson ’51 became the first African American. Today, our community of students, faculty, and staff is as diverse in backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and passions as we are unified in our commitment to the importance of the law and the legal education that supports it.
Such diversity is a gift. Take advantage of what it offers. Meet people who are different from you, get to know them, learn from them. 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 in a diverse community like ours is essential to becoming the exceptional lawyers you are all here to become.
I know that many of you are asking exactly what kind of lawyer you will be and what kind of practice you will pursue. You are right to be asking those questions, but I urge you not to be in too much of a hurry to answer them. Some of you may have arrived here with set plans for how you will use your law degree, and perhaps you will end up just where you expect. For many of you, those plans will change. And for those of you who don’t yet have a plan, don’t worry. I am not worried about any of you, whatever your situation. There is so much you can’t possibly know yet.
These next three years will transform you as you gain a new vocabulary and a new way of thinking, as you learn the tools and substance of the law. Law school will change you by running you through the gauntlet of torts, contracts, legal research and writing, 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.
Inside and outside the classroom, we will offer you more opportunities than you will be able to take to become your new lawyer self. That is the beauty of a law school that boasts students who are the best and the brightest in the nation, world-class faculty engaged in groundbreaking research, and experiential learning that will let you put your classroom knowledge to work immediately. So join a journal, take a clinic, do moot court, take on leadership roles in student organizations.
Your experiences here will prompt you to imagine alternative futures for yourselves. Imagine yourself in the courtroom and the boardroom. Imagine what it would be like to argue before the Supreme Court and to help a family stay in its home. Try out transactional work and litigation, local government and international law.
Like all those who have gone before you, you will leave here transformed and you will leave here having transformed this place. You will carry on our historic traditions, and you will also make new ones. You make this Law School what it is. It is why we chose each of you to join us and to become us. I know I speak for all the faculty and staff when I say that we cannot wait to see what you will do with your time here, who you will become, and how you will change us as we all, together, embark on our third century.