Welcome remarks by Dean Sudha Setty, August 20, 2018
Welcome to the class of 2021 and 2022 at Western New England University School of Law! Doesn’t that sound wonderful? And welcome to the non-JD students at the School of Law.
Welcome to all of you, as you start on this incredibly rewarding, incredibly demanding path at the School of Law.
You and I all share something—we are starting at the very same time on our new endeavors here. I get to start as your dean, the 11th dean in the history of the school of law. And you get to start as students, marking the 100th year of the law school. We are all lucky to be a part of this great school at this very special time.
When you start a new journey, it’s a time for reflection and for focus. When you start that new journey in the centennial year of an institution, it’s a good reminder to look backward and forward all at once—to cherish and preserve what’s essential and fundamental in what’s already come, and to set goals and to aspire to a future that’s not yet charted.
The start of your time here at the School of Law is a time to seize the day, embrace the new, and find new possibilities in what lies ahead.
But I also want to talk to you about important and fundamental values that underpin who we are and what we do as lawyers. Why? Because law school is a time of growth and change and possibilities, but all of that must be governed by the norms of this profession and the values that undergird a democratic society, and the reasons why being a lawyer is one of the greatest callings in our society.
- Broaden your mind, and your horizons
When you decided to come to law school, you made the decision to open yourself to the acquisition of new knowledge. Your core mission here is to learn, to prepare yourself for a career in the law, and to develop yourself as a better thinker, writer, counselor, and advocate.
This process demands an open mind and a hungry intellect. I hope you bring both with you. Your teachers, as well as your peers—the people sitting in this room, and the hundreds more that will be joining us next week—will give you a more textured and nuanced view of the world. Use your time here as an opportunity to learn from, and alongside, others with different experiences.
None of us can walk in another’s shoes, and we should not assume that we can. But we can learn from each other with curiosity and humility, and we can learn to disagree with each other in ways that are characterized by analytical rigor, fact-based argument, ethical thinking, compassion, and integrity.
This is one of the great things that lawyers do. Many of us may like to argue, and believe me, you can use law school as a time to get better at arguing. But as you learn and think and listen and grow, maybe you’ll be arguing a different side of an issue than you ever thought possible. Maybe you’ll find that you love to think about and argue about tax law, or immigration law, or criminal law, or business law. Or maybe something that you’ve never even heard of before. Broaden your mind, and your horizons. Approach this endeavor with an open mind, and with the civility that characterizes the best in our profession.
- Understand the complexity of situations around you, but remember what brought you to law school
Most of you have come to law school in pursuit of some goal or ideal. You believe that legal training would help you do or fix something, or help someone.
Maybe you want to bring justice to an oppressed or underrepresented community, or become a great trial lawyer, or work internationally, or make big deals for companies, or make the government work better, or help a company navigate regulations, or combat human rights abuses occurring overseas—or right here in the United States.
We can help you achieve those goals.
But as you go through law school, one of things you’ll realize is how complicated the world of the law is. It’s not just that laws and regulations are written in a dense fashion, or that you have to read cases two (or three, or four) times to figure out what a judge is talking about in her opinion. Those things are true, but they are actually just the starting point.
What I mean is this: the law is not just what’s written on paper, it’s also how it applies to the world around us, and how it is a reflection of the values of a society. Here’s an example: let’s say that the law in your city or town says that if you litter on public property, you may be fined up to $100. Why? Because the anti-littering law is reflection of the values of your city. It probably wasn’t always against the law to litter, but it is now because enough people in government (and maybe enough voters) think it’s important, and society as a whole looks down on littering a lot more than it did decades ago. So we see how a law is a reflection of values.
But then what about how that law is applied? What if the law is enforced such that if you litter in a wealthy part of the city, you get fined $100, but if you litter in the poorer part of a city, you get fined $10, or not at all, because the police in that area don’t think it’s a priority to enforce the littering ban? What does that say about our values? What does it say about the law in action? Probably there are some people here who say that this differential treatment makes sense, whereas others say it sounds suspicious.
Or what if the law is applied that only young people are given tickets for littering, but middle aged people aren’t? Or if it’s only that African Americans are given tickets, and white people aren’t? Or men are ticketed, where women are not? Then we have to ask whether there’s something fundamentally flawed with the law, or the way the law is enforced, or how the law is interpreted differently by different officers. There aren’t easy answers, even in this pretty basic hypothetical, but you can see that the law is complex, with competing values and forces, and that making the law work well for your client, or for society as a whole, is not the easiest of tasks. You need to learn to live in the vague middle ground of the law—it’s not cut and dried.
Seeing the complexity of the law may make you jaded, or tired, or feeling like the goals you set for yourself when you decided to come here should be thrown out because this stuff is really tough.
But hold on. Complexity and depth and nuance may come with the territory, but that doesn’t mean that you should abandon the idealism or inspiration that drove you to study the law. It just means that your path in the law, like the law itself, and like life itself, is complicated.
Staying true to your ideals is important to make you a happy lawyer. So as we ask you to think and adapt and learn, to embrace the vagueness and complexity and gray areas of the law, remember what brought you to law school, and remember to be true to who you are.
- Take care of yourself
Law school is hard work. It requires many hours of preparation, the ability to focus and concentrate without distraction for long periods of time, the skill of reading closely and thinking deeply, and the willpower to pull you through the difficult times that will come.
Sometimes when we are confronted with a new endeavor that’s really demanding, our instinct is to pour ourselves into it without thinking of anything else. Don’t do that. Take care of yourself. Sleep, eat well, exercise, and remember to laugh and to enjoy yourself. Spend time with people and doing things that sustain your physical and emotional health.
And make the time to get to know the wonderful people around you. Yes, I mean the other people in this room, and the other people who are part of this community. There are fantastic people that you will count among your closest friends and your lifelong professional network that you meet in your first year of law school. That, too, is very special, and something you should cherish and nurture.
- Use the power of the law wisely and well
Lawyers have real power and privilege in this society. Lawyers are the people who helped write the Constitution and who helped amend it over time to make it more just and equitable. Lawyers are the people who argue cases before the Supreme Court, who help write federal, state, and local laws, and who help the executive branch determine its policies and the international community determine what global law and norms are going to be.
We are also the people who help families deal with custody issues, who help business get off the ground, who help tenants facing eviction, who help immigrants in detention, who help the elderly plan for their futures, who both prosecute and defend people in the criminal justice system.
We lawyers are incredibly powerful. And not to borrow too heavily from post-French Revolution political theorists (or from the Spider-Man comics—if you prefer), but with that power comes responsibility. We lawyers are the stewards of the most fundamental institutions in our society. You have a responsibility to protect the rule of law and the values underpinning our constitutional order—rights and freedoms that protect equality and expression, due process of law, and the accountability that preserves trust and stability in a democratic society.
This is not easy. The world is an unpredictable and sometimes shocking place, and the foundations of our democracy are painfully fragile. That is precisely why society turns to its lawyers.
We have the power to change things and, when necessary, to preserve key things, like the integrity and legitimacy of our government and of the law. Use your power wisely, and well.
Let me close by saying again how happy I am to welcome you to this new chapter of your life—it’s a great honor to be your dean, and we are so glad that you’re part of the Western New England University School of Law community.
Dean Sudha Setty