Speeches

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger
Ohio Northern University Claude W. Pettit College of Law Commencement
May 17, 2009

President Baker, Dean Crago, Honorees, Faculty, Graduates and Friends:

I’m delighted to be with you all to celebrate the graduation of students obtaining a Juris Doctor degree today. The Claude W. Pettit College of Law is a remarkable law school,  a founding  member of the Ohio League of Law Schools and the second oldest of the nine law schools in Ohio. Next year this institution will celebrate 125 years –a remarkable  accomplishment.  It’s an honor and privilege to be here.

Each time I’m asked to speak at a commencement, I think back to mine, over 30 years ago. Being the very first in my family to attend college and then become a teacher, it was amazing to all of us that I would also earn a law degree.  Little did I imagine the path my legal career would take: first, work as an in-house lawyer at a corporation, next, association with a private law firm, then election to 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.

So, believe me, I understand how today marks an exciting moment for you. We all congratulate you on your accomplishment. These days, no one takes completing a legal program at an ABA law school for granted.  The Juris Doctor degree may open doors, but we know that the bar exam looms as the final hurdle for those of you intending to practice law. Everyone who is here with you this afternoon also hopes to survive your last ordeal, the excruciating wait, and then we all hope, the positive results.  Because they intend to bear these future burdens with you, they now deserve to share with you this breathing space of celebration.  Do celebrate.

Later, studying for that dreaded bar exam, you may be tempted to relegate family to second place.  Resist. If you’ve been fortunate, your family members have been patient -- but patience only stretches so far.  Of course becoming an attorney is important.  Still, 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 promise you that my non-lawyer husband  never refers 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.

And you, in turn, must be aware of your loved ones’ needs.  Work and do your best, but strive for a psychological balance between your professional and personal selves.  Try to remember that your work is not who you are.  The people closest to you 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.  Don’t 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.

As you receive your law degree, please think how important the rule of law is to our great country.  On the first day of this month of May, we celebrated Law Day.  Each year, the American Bar Association announces a new theme and the theme chosen this year was "A Legacy of Liberty: Celebrating Lincoln's Bicentennial."

After reflecting on this topic, I wondered, and maybe you do too, what would Lincoln make of our times, and specifically the cataclysms shaking the legal community today? I’d like you to picture in your imagination that sober and nearly morose face – Can you in your wildest imagination see  President Lincoln on Facebook or You Tube or twittering or using his Blackberry Obama-style? (The media consultants would probably insist he be on an edition of Extreme Makeover.)     But as we can hear from his own words written and spoken during a different crisis almost 150 years ago, Lincoln’s realistic, but  almost fatalistic, outlook seem to fit us well in the present economy.  He boldly acknowledged that actions have consequences: 

"There are no accidents in my philosophy. Every effect must have its cause. The past is the cause of the present, and the present will be the cause of the future. All these are links in the endless chain stretching from the finite to the infinite."

 In today’s popular jargon, we might say  “You play, you pay.”  And we find ourselves  paying these days, don’t we?

 When business slows during a typical downturn, it's not unusual for factory workers, clerks and middle managers to get pink slips. But this current recession is hitting lawyers too. Law.com just reported that the Best Lawyers in America believe that law schools need retooling to meet future challenges.  The Columbus Dispatch recently editorialized  that “It's the worst downturn for the legal profession in central Ohio anyone can remember.” Of course, you as the new generation unfortunately may feel the effect disproportionately. Some of you, as talented young lawyers, might have to delay the start of your dream careers, settling for a different type of practice.  Please understand that this may not be so bad. As I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, I went through quite a few job changes before reaching the Supreme Court.  Most  of us practicing lawyers take some detours along the way.

The perfect opportunity might not present itself to you. But stay hopeful and seize your opportunities recognizing them for what they are, although they may not appear to be exactly as you expect them to.  For example, you may initially have more time to devote to pro bono cases or to community service and  then find that these challenges  lead to you full time employment.  The important obligation of providing legal access to the poor will call on you throughout your career because it is a requirement that comes with the profession.  We urge you to do your part.

What are lawyers expected to do?  As Lincoln  said in Cincinnati just before the Civil War, talking about expectations for the American government:

“...I do not mean to say that this government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world; but I do think that it is charged with the duty of preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself.”

I’m struck by that phrase--redressing the wrongs to ourselves… in a way, that statement encapsulates what lawyers do. They make right the wrongs. Lawyers are so important because, by the act of representation, they act for others, not just for themselves.  In  standing up for others they uphold the rule of law in this country. They give advice to clients to prevent wrongs to others, and make sure that their clients receive redress for wrongs done to them. Even in the modern world, when law is considered by some to be just another business—the business of law is more than business—it is protecting the rights of others and  seeking justice case by case and client by client.

As an attorney-at-law, your clients will rely on you to protect their interests; judges will  rely on you as an officer of the court to protect the survival of the third branch of government. The practice of law is more than a way to make a living; it is a profession that enables the American way of life to grow and prosper. 

You have chosen the practice of law as your career, vocation, and occupation. We hope that the legal profession will allow you to more than adequately support yourself and your family. But I also hope that money alone won’t be your primary focus. Have the courage to take on more than the easy cases. Be willing to take the cases of those clients who are unlikeable or difficult, or whose positions are not publicly favored. It takes 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. 

Let me assure you that The Supreme Court of Ohio takes seriously our responsibility to monitor and discipline lawyers. The Ohio Constitution gives us this power. In most disciplinary cases, the lawyer has been called before us because he or she has failed clients or has somehow gotten off balance. Some type of excess, whether greed, or addiction to alcohol or other drugs is usually at the heart of these cases. Lawyers who are centered human beings and who honor their profession, rarely face a disciplinary case.

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: homeowners fignting foreclosure; injured people seeking financial compensation; distraught parents trying to keep custody of their children; business owners and consumers seeking the benefit of their bargains; defendants facing criminal 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.

We don’t have crystal balls to peer into. We can’t predict your successes. Maybe you’ll never recover a million dollar verdict or be elected to public office. Maybe you’ll never win a murder trial or become president of the Bar Association.  On the other hand, you just may. No matter—you’ll be a success if you contribute to your client’s welfare, your community’s peace and prosperity and to the common good of your city, state, and nation.

Finally, I wish you all great personal success. Congratulations to all of you in the class of 2009 and to your families. And congratulations to every one of the faculty and administrators of the Claude W. Pettit College of Law who assisted you to this point. My very best wishes to the graduates for a long and happy professional life. Thank you very much for this invitation to participate in your day.