Speeches

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger
University of Toledo College of Law Commencement Remarks
May 9, 2010

Members of the Board of Trustees, Dean Ray, honorees, faculty and staff, families and guests ... and most of all, graduates of the University of Toledo College of Law Class of 2010.

I am so pleased to be here with you this afternoon on this special day.  (All the mothers present, whether graduates themselves, or mothers or grandmothers of graduates, can take a double amount of pride since today is also Mothers’ Day. 

We’re here to celebrate!  As an alumna, along with every one of the faculty and administrators of the University of Toledo College of Law who assisted you to this point, I welcome you to the ranks of the alumni.

This commencement day begins an exciting time for you. We all congratulate you on your accomplishment. These days, no one takes earning a juris doctor degree for granted.  

All of us are aware that the bar exam looms as a final hurdle for those intending to actively practice law.  Everyone you have invited to be with you today, who will bear these future burdens with you, deserve to share this breathing space — so, please, do celebrate.

As you receive your law degree I’d like you to 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 for 2010 was “Law in the 21st Century: Enduring Traditions, Emerging Challenges," or in other words, what will remain and what must change?

I certainly couldn’t have predicted the changes in law school since 1977, when I graduated.  In those “olden days” not everyone had a quill pen mentality — meaning a hide-bound approach to  traditional law — but in our wildest dreams we didn’t see public figures on Facebook or YouTube, we didn’t expect to hear about tweeting jurors or ever imagine that inedible Blackberries would exist someday.

Then, (the last century back in ’77) we were actually writing our notes in longhand and were shepherding book by book.  We had courses in admiralty, not environmental protection; courses in commercial paper, not in Internet law.  Clinics were a new idea. We did our social networking at parties and other gatherings—but we always did it face to face.

Sitting here today, can you imagine what the law and the legal profession will be like in 2040, 30 years from now?  Can you imagine what it should be like? Unfortunately, although then does link to now and now links to what will come, clarity arrives only in hindsight. 

President Lincoln has said:

"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."

The problems of today will be solved by us together; but problems of the distant future—will be solved by you alone, as the new generation.  You will hear the questions, and you will be expected to answer.

What you must do is retain your imagination and enthusiasm to meet the unknown as it develops. We pray that you retain civility as you cope.  As our recently departed and dearly beloved Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer has explained his view of civility this way:

“We can choose sides; we can be disrespectful of another view; we can prevent one another from being heard when we exercise our right to speak freely; we can remove the excitement and promise of creating answers to important issues through thoughtful conversation if we wish.

“Or, we can breathe new life into a very old concept: civility.

“Civility requires respect—respect for ideas, respect for persons, and respect for the institutions that have held together our nation in times of revolution, civil war, and economic uncertainties.

“Civility requires no operator’s manual, no updates to download, no complicated set of rules. It is simple; it is easy; and it produces positive and constructive human interaction.”

As lawyers, civility ought to be our stock in trade. In difficult economic times it may be difficult to keep this virtue in mind.

Believe me, we know that these are difficult times, especially for you as new lawyers.

When business slows during a typical downturn, it's not unusual for factory workers, clerks and middle managers to get pink slips. But the current recession has struck lawyers too.  And as the new generation you may feel the effect disproportionately.

Some of you might have to delay the start of your dream careers. You may have to settle temporarily for an alternate form of practice. But this may not be so bad. Most seasoned attorneys  have taken  detours along the way.

I myself zigzagged before reaching the Supreme Court—from practice as an in-house corporation lawyer, next, to a large law firm and then onto the judiciary stepping from the  municipal, to the common pleas and then the appellate courts.  The Supreme Court is my perfect legal job.

But the perfect opportunity that satisfies your expectations might not present itself to you initially. Let me urge you to stay hopeful and seize your chances, and recognize them for what they are. They might not first appear 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 full time employment. Providing legal access to the poor will be an obligation that calls on you throughout your career because it comes with the profession, and we urge you to do your part.

In any event, in the hard times be comforted by the fact that no one can take your law degree from you.  It was hard won and it is worth treasuring. 

The degree may open doors for you, but make sure it doesn’t close doors against those you love — for they are the most important people in your lives.  The  J.D. should not make you less human or isolated from friends and family.  Strive for a psychological balance between your professional and personal selves. Try to remember that your work is not who you are.

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 unlikable or difficult, or whose positions are not publicly favored. It takes special courage to handle cases that others won’t touch.

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 benefit of their bargains; criminal defendants facing indictments.

Your clients, in seeking your 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. You are their voice.

In trying to understand your clients and what they need, remain loyal and respect their confidences.  Most important, always behave 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.  I could catalogue many attributes of a great lawyer: intelligence, persuasiveness, creativity in using precedent, among them. 

One of the truest measures of excellence doesn’t relate to objective mastery of facts or law, but how a lawyer treats his or her clients. Treating them with respect, compassion and humanity will ensure a long legal career.

We don’t have crystal balls among us today 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. The number of awards doesn’t 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, state and nation.

I’ll conclude by wishing you all great personal success. Congratulations to you,  class of 2010, and to your family and friends.  To the graduates, my very best wishes for long and happy professional lives.  Thank you.