Speeches

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger
University of Toledo College of Law Commencement Remarks
May 7, 2006

Dean Eisler, Trustee Judge McQuade, Faculty, Graduates and Friends:

I am very honored to be here to celebrate the graduation of over 100 students from the University of Toledo College of Law, a law school that was founded 100 years ago as one of the national YMCA law schools.

Athough not a century-- over 25 years ago, I too, was a proud graduate of this fine law school—being the first in my family to graduate from college, and then earn a law degree. Little did I imagine the path my legal career would take: work in a corporate law department, private law firm, then at every level of the state judiciary—municipal, common pleas, court of appeals and finally the Supreme Court of Ohio. I'll tell you a secret: even now there are mornings that I pinch myself while driving into work to make sure that I'm not dreaming.

Today marks an exciting moment for you, and we all congratulate you on your accomplishment. These days, no one takes completing a legal program at an ABA law school or a juris doctor degree for granted. That degree alone may open doors, but for those intending to practice law, the dreaded bar exam looms as the final hurdle. Your families and friends with you this afternoon expect to survive this last ordeal with you, the excruciating wait, and then we all hope, the positive results. So, because they intend to bear these future burdens with you, they now deserve to share this breathing space of celebration.

As you study for the bar exam, it may be tempting once again to put family in second place. Try not to do that. If you've been fortunate, your family members have been patient -- but patience only stretches so far. Of course becoming an attorney is important, but no matter how well-respected and admired you become, I am here to say that the world won't revolve around you. As the mother of two, I'm still “Ma” first and I'm sure that my non-lawyer husband will never refer to me as “your honor” or --my favorite title once given to me by a juror—“your majesty.” After all it is a family's job to keep us humble.

You, in turn must be aware of the needs of others, including your families. Work hard and do the best you can, but strive to find a psychological balance between your professional and personal selves for remember, your work is not who you are. Don't bypass those people who are closest to you. They will be there if clients are not knocking down the door, or if you lose your jury trial, or if you have had a knock-down, drag-out adversarial day with another attorney. Do not shut your dear ones out of your lives—for they are the most important people in it. At the end of the day and in the final evening, we all know this.

I can assure you that the Supreme Court of Ohio takes seriously its responsibility to monitor lawyers. Article IV Sect. 2.02(B)(1)(g) of the Ohio Constitution gives us original jurisdiction over “Admission to the practice of law, the discipline of persons so admitted, and all other matters relating to the practice of law.” In the last year alone we have concluded over 230 disciplinary cases involving Ohio lawyers. In most of those cases, the lawyer has been called before us because he or she has failed clients or has somehow gotten out of balance: overcome by some type of excess, whether greed, or addiction to alcohol or other drugs. These signs of excess are primarily responsible for violation of the disciplinary rules. Lawyers who are centered human beings and who honor their profession, rarely see a disciplinary case against them progress to us.

Our Court, in its new mentoring program, has called on senior lawyers to make themselves available for counseling and for supporting new attorneys. In every one of the counties in Ohio, there will be seasoned lawyers with whom you may align yourself. The bar exam will tell us if you have the academic ability, but it is just as important to be seen to have the practical ability. Find a mentor and be willing to learn about the common-sense side of law practice in your jurisdiction.

As you receive these diplomas very shortly, please think how important the rule of law is to our great country. As OSBA President Jane Taylor said in her law day speech this year: “We must not forget that the American justice system resolves 100 million cases each year—simple, complex, routine, extraordinary. Most of these cases are resolved successfully, fairly and impartially, under the rule of law. A few are not, but our system provides a Constitutional process so that wrongs may be righted insofar as is possible under the law.” In other words, our system may not be perfect, but it is the best so far humanly devised. You will eventually become “officers of the court--” working members of our judicial system. As such you take on certain responsibilities.

One of these responsibilities will be to speak up when the judicial system has been unfairly criticized because the idea of judicial independence is not understood. Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer has called upon practicing attorneys at the Ohio State Bar convention in Akron just this last week to participate in the ABA's project called “The Least Understood Branch.” That project is intended to help the public understand what judicial impartiality and judicial independence mean. As new attorneys you will have opportunities to speak on these topics.

Another responsibility is to stand up for the legal needs of the poor. You are expected to be motivated by more than power, money or personal gain. By virtue of your new status, like it or not, you will be considered a leader in your community and as such will be expected to contribute to it with your time and talent. The pro bono needs of this state are great, and we all must remember those who will have no access to justice without your willingness to help. I sincerely hope that you will do your part.

I could catalogue many attributes of a great lawyer: Among them are intelligence, persuasiveness, and the creativity to use precedent wisely to advance the client's interests. One of the truest measures of excellence though, relates not to the objective mastery of facts or law, but how a lawyer treats his or her clients. Treating your clients with respect, compassion and humanity will ensure a long legal career.

Once you've passed the bar, your first paying client will walk through the door, or your first real case will be dropped onto your laptop. These cases will often reveal those suffering difficult times: injured people seeking redress; distraught parents trying to keep custody of their children; business owners and consumers seeking the benefit of their bargains; criminal defendants facing felony accusations. Your clients, in seeking your legal help, will actually be entrusting you with their lives. So listen carefully to their stories and respond to their needs. Represent them zealously and champion their causes.

Have the courage to take complex and demanding cases, whose outcomes are unknowable. Be willing to take the cases of those clients who are unlikeable or difficult, or whose positions are not publicly favored. It will take a special courage to handle cases that others won't touch. Try to understand your clients, remain loyal and respect their confidences as you advance their causes, while always behaving ethically. This is what an American attorney is expected to do. This is what our profession demands of you.

For make no mistake, the law is a noble, honorable, and learned profession. Good lawyers believe that human beings are capable of using their reason and intelligence to govern themselves. We believe that society's accumulated wisdom and experience can show us how to live in peace and harmony with each other. We also believe that the court system can function to resolve disputes without violence, without anarchy.

You have chosen the practice of law as your career, vocation, and occupation. The profession will allow you to support yourself and your family and I hope that the financial rewards are more than merely adequate. But I sincerely hope that money alone will not be your primary focus.

There are no crystal balls among us here to predict your successes. You may never recover a million dollar verdict or be elected to public office. You may never win a murder trial or become president of the Bar Association. On the other hand, you just may. No matter-- you will be a success if you contribute to the welfare of your clients, to the peace and prosperity of your community, to the common good of your city, or your state, and that of the nation.

Finally, I wish you all great personal success. Let me congratulate all of you in the class of 2006 along with your families and every one of the faculty and administrators of the University of Toledo College of Law who assisted you to this point. My very best wishes for a long and happy professional life.

Thank you very much for this invitation to participate in your day.