Thursday, January 15, 2009
Who is the Ideal Law School Graduation Speaker?
Forgive me if this is a topic that has already been discussed at length in the blawgosphere, but I'm interested in what people out there think about your typical law school graduation speaker. It seems, from my experience, that the typical speaker is a lawyer who has "made it to a prominent position in public life" (though perhaps you cannot tell, I am saying this in a sort of mockingly overly serious and grumpy manner). Usually these speakers are dull and uninspiring and sometimes have some agenda of their own that they are interested in putting forth instead of really thinking about what the graduating law students would really like to hear or benefit from (I'm thinking here of a prominent judge who a bunch of years ago gave a graduation speech that basically consisted of a somewhat sophisticated lecture about administrative law, followed by a plea for increased judicial salaries). There are exceptions, of course. We had David Gergen speak at BU a few years ago, and I thought he was terrific. He actually seemed to be speaking extemporaneously at some points, and these were the highlights.
A few years ago I had the occasion to come up with a list of possible alternatives to the dominant model of graduation speakers. I was looking for people who were lawyers, or at least who had studied law, but who had taken alternative career paths that might have made them interesting speakers. I didn't find all that many. Paul Simon, the singer, I believe, studied a little law. (Art Garfunkel didn't, so far as I know, but I would support him for speaker--or Poet Laureate--any day). Steve Young the football player went to law school. There are others. My choice for ideal law school graduation speaker is Peter Garrett, the ex-lead singer of Midnight Oil who is a lawyer (he has an LLB from University of New South Wales), a social and environmental activist, and a government official. I don't know if any U.S. law school has ever invited him to speak and if one did, whether he would come, but I bet he would be terrific (though perhaps you cannot tell, I am dancing somewhat stiffly and strangely and singing "Beds are Burning" as I say all this).
Anyone out there want to share either horror stories of past graduation speakers or ideas for future ones? I think it would be particularly interesting to hear from students on this question--who would you like to hear at your graduation?
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Well, despite the outcry from the student body, last year's graduation speaker for Northwestern--Jerry Springer--was fantastic. He was humorous, humble, and relevant. And he's definitely a "lawyer, or at least . . . studied law, but . . . [took an] alternative career path . . . ."
However, I think someone like Mike Leach, head football coach at Texas Tech, who graduated from Pepperdine Law, would be a horrible speaker. I say that only from watching him speak on the sports shows; just because one studied law and then went on to an interesting alternative career does not necessarily make one a good commencement speaker.
Posted by: k | Jan 15, 2009 9:50:51 AM
Lawyer, alternate career path, successful, with a knack for brevity without sacrificing content. But then, that's not gonna happen...
The speaker at my school's graduation was our state's AG, and it was utterly and completely forgettable.
Posted by: Dave! | Jan 15, 2009 10:48:01 AM
Garfunkel may not have studied law, but he did study architecture, so maybe he would be a good speaker at a school of architecture or art (no pun intended).
I think you could find a fair number of people in sports and the media who studied law: Off the top of my head: Tony LaRussa, Jay Bilas (ESPN basketball analyst), Howard Cosell (although he is unavailable for many of the same reasons that Lincoln is unavailable).
k: As a fellow Northwestern grad, I am pleased to hear that Springer was a good speaker; when you invite controversy, it is good to get some other benefit (a good speech) in the end.
Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 15, 2009 11:09:27 AM
I'd like to suggest a couple of categories of potential speakers who should never be invited to speak at law school graduations:
Sitting elected officeholders, including elected judges. Given the tension between "electability" and "rule of law," there is just too much that can be (mis)read into any such selection, and partisan implications just make things worse. Yes, state schools, this includes your sitting governor when you're trying to get a major grant.
Journalists. Even those with some legal background are, with the singular exception of Anthony Lewis among the many I've seen, both poor public speakers and ignorant of too many of the procedural nuances in law to be appropriate graduation speakers.
Former students at that school from whom the school is seeking a donation. There are plenty of other times these individuals can be invited to speak; don't ruin graduation for the current and graduating students!
Posted by: C.E. Petit | Jan 15, 2009 11:21:42 AM
The perfect gradution speaker is noone. In fact, if schools were serious about saving money they would no longer any commencement/graduation ceremonies.
Posted by: Alex | Jan 15, 2009 11:39:29 AM
Howard is right about Tony LaRussa. He did study law, at FSU no less. But his gifts as a graduation speaker are as limited as recollections of Canseco and McGuire's steriod use. He delivered the "keynote" address at Saint Louis Law's graduation a few years back. Reports are that he was a disaster -- unprepared, uninterested, uninteresting, digressive. Maybe a bit tipsy, too . . . .
Posted by: anon in la | Jan 15, 2009 11:51:25 AM
At my graduation, the State's Chief Justice spoke, yawn.
I'd like to hear from a private lawyer (ideally an alum) who won a big case, and tie that together with the education that they received at my alma mater.
Posted by: Anonymous Frustrated Lawyer | Jan 15, 2009 1:54:21 PM
As someone old enough to have rooted for the gridiron "Purple People Eaters," I'd love to hear Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page give a commencement address. Now if I could only find that shoebox of football cards from my childhood ....
Posted by: Tim Zinnecker | Jan 15, 2009 3:32:09 PM
Posted by: Anon | Jan 15, 2009 7:17:55 PM
This guy gave a pretty good one, albeit as an opening speaker rather than a keynote speaker.
Posted by: Paul Washington | Jan 16, 2009 3:50:59 PM
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