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TCL > April 2001 Issue > Commencement Address

April 2001       Vol. 30, No. 4       Page  21
CBA President's Message to Members

Commencement Address
by Dale R. Harris

In December 2000, I had the privilege of giving the following commencement address to the mid-winter graduating class at the University of Denver College of Law.1

I am deeply honored to have been asked to speak to this class of candidates for degrees in law. I extend my heartfelt congratulations to each of you upon reaching this milestone in your life. You deserve to feel very proud of your achievement.

When I was asked to speak to you today, I went online and found out a few things about commencement speeches. Apparently the longest commencement address was delivered at Harvard in the nineteenth century. It lasted six hours—three hours in Latin and three hours in Greek—and, at the end, the students were given a test. I promise you, there will be no tests today.

Perhaps the shortest speech was given by Woody Allen, whose entire message was this: "We have given you a perfect world. Please do not screw it up." As you begin your journey into full-time participation in the legal profession, I wish I could say to you that we are giving you a perfect profession. But I can’t say that—and you would not believe me if I did.

It is no secret that this profession faces many challenges as we go forward into the twenty-first century. It is no secret that we are struggling with the question whether this is still a profession or just another business—or something in between. It is no secret that far too many people hold very negative views about us—indeed, to many, we are no longer relevant because we are too expensive, too slow, too confrontational, too self-centered. You have heard all the jokes. You know what they say about lawyer jokes: "Lawyers don’t think they’re funny; and nobody else thinks they’re jokes."

No, this profession is not perfect. But, despite its shortcomings, I believe it is a noble profession. And perhaps more than any other, this profession constantly strives to do better, to correct its faults, to find better ways to serve the public.

As I look back over almost forty years in this profession, I am glad I became a lawyer. I am proud to be a lawyer. I would do it again. There have been ups and downs, high points and low points, but it has been a wonderful experience. It has been exciting, and challenging, and, very often, downright fun. I have met interesting people and visited fascinating places. But most of all, I have felt that I was doing something worthwhile, something important.

  • Whether you practice law, or become a judge or a teacher, you will be doing important work.
  • Whether you represent the rich or the poor, you will be doing important work.
  • Whether you go to court or do deals in the office, you will be doing important work.
  • Whether you work in the private sector or in public service, you will be doing important work.

What you will be doing is this: You will be making our system work. You will be helping to ensure that we remain a nation governed by the rule of law, not merely by men and women.

Do you remember when the presidential election was thrown into chaos? The media reported that an "army of lawyers" was descending on Florida. Many people said: "Oh, no, not the lawyers!" But thoughtful people said: "How much better that it is an army of lawyers, not an army of soldiers!" After that contest was over, we could say the system worked again. Whether you agree or disagree with the result, or with the court decisions, the system worked. And lawyers and judges made it work. So, I hope you will be proud to be a lawyer. I hope you will stand up for what you do and for this profession. Lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of our society.

But being a member of this profession carries with it special responsibilities and an obligation to maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct. These obligations are spelled out in our Rules of Professional Conduct—and I urge you to read them again—especially the preamble that eloquently describes the lawyer’s role in the broad context of our free and democratic society. But, I hope you won’t believe that it is enough merely to live by the literal words of these Rules. There is much more to a full and meaningful life in the law. Let me explain by sharing a story with you.2

One of Denver’s law firms gives out an annual award to one of its lawyers or staff for making exceptional contributions to our community. Last summer, at the award presentation, they began by listing the winner’s many contributions—but they did not say who it was. The list of activities was long: volunteering and financial support to a large number of favorite charities; donating blood; adopting stray cats in the neighborhood; work in the church; using personal savings to provide housing to the elderly; and much more. Almost no one had a clue about who this was.

When they finally gave her name—it was a legal secretary—it was a huge surprise. She was so modest, so private. She had been doing these things, but never bragged or boasted about it. A few months later, she died of cancer. She was only 55. I think her life has some important lessons for all of us—for you and for me.

One lesson is that service to others gives our lives meaning, and is its own reward. We won’t be remembered for how much money we made, or how many billable hours we generated, or even how many trials we won. But people like this special woman will be remembered because of what they gave to others. Hers is a legacy that will last. So please—as you go forward, make time in your life to give something back to your profession and your community. Take a pro bono case. Join a bar association committee. Volunteer at the homeless shelter. Make a donation to the United Way.

  • Great lawyers leave their profession better than they found it.
  • Great lawyers leave their communities better than they found them.

A second lesson is that we need to keep our lives in perspective. Life is fragile and sometimes fleeting. Too often it is cut short before its time. So don’t waste it. Fill it with things that count. Don’t compromise your principles, thinking you will make up for it later. Remember that your reputation is your most important asset. And you have to earn it every day. Don’t risk it with unprofessional behavior. Don’t demean it with rudeness and uncivil behavior. You don’t need to cut corners and behave badly to be a successful lawyer.

Finally, this story reminds us to say "thank you" to the unsung heroes who do good things for us and for others. How often do we ignore or take for granted the things others do to help us along the way? How often do we put off until tomorrow what we should say today? A simple "thank you," a simple pat on the back, may make a big difference in someone’s life. Treat other people the way you would like to be treated. Applaud their accomplishments. Understand their limitations. These are lessons we all learned years ago. They are just as relevant to us today. Having a degree in law does not exempt us from the wisdom of these basic rules.

In closing, I again congratulate you and wish you well as you embark on your careers, wherever they may take you. My wish for you is that you follow Oliver Wendell Holmes’ admonition to live greatly in the law; my hope for you is that you will leave the profession better than you found it, that you will leave your community better than you found it.

Thank you!


1. I have made a few minor revisions to these remarks.

2. This story about Helen Jane Warren Fair was the subject of this column in December 2000. See Harris, "A Gift of Life," 29 The Colorado Lawyer 13 (Dec. 2000).

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