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Law Commencement 2012
The University of North Dakota School of Law held its commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 5, 2012, in the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the University of North Dakota main campus. Seventy-eight students received the Juris Doctor degree at the ceremony. The ceremony was officiated by UND School of Law Dean Kathryn R.L. Rand and UND President Robert Kelley. North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald W. VandeWalle presented this year's commencement address.
Conferring of Degrees
Gerald W. VandeWalle
Chief Justice, North Dakota Supreme Court
Justice VandeWalle was born on August 15, 1933, and raised in Noonan, North Dakota. He attended the University of North Dakota and in 1955 received a bachelor of science degree in Commerce from the School of Business. In 1958 he received a juris doctor degree magna cum laude from the University of North Dakota School of Law.
He was admitted to the State Bar of North Dakota in July 1958 and accepted an appointment as Special Assistant Attorney General. In January 1975 he was appointed First Assistant Attorney General. During his twenty years in the Attorney General's office, Justice VandeWalle held several portfolios, including the education portfolio for elementary, secondary, and higher education, for most of that time; the North Dakota Industrial Commission oil and gas portfolio; and the State Retirement System portfolio.
On August 15, 1978, he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In November 1978 he was elected to serve an unexpired term, and was reelected to ten-year terms in 1984, 1994 and 2004. From July 1985 to July 1987, he served as the first chair of the North Dakota Judicial Conference.
He is a past co-chair of the ABA Bar Admissions Committee and past chair of the Federal-State Tribal Relations Committee of the Conference of Chief Justices. Justice VandeWalle is past chair of the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association, past President of the Conference of Chief Justices, past chair of the National Center for State Courts, and past chair of the National Center for State Court's Research Advisory Council.
Justice VandeWalle was elected Chief Justice effective January l, 1993; reelected Chief Justice effective January 1, 1995; reelected Chief Justice effective January 1, 2000; reelected Chief Justice effective January 1, 2005; and reelected Chief Justice effective January 1, 2010. He remains on the Court as Chief Justice, having served 33 years, 5 months, and 23 days as of February 6, 2012.
Chester Fritz Auditorium, 10:00 a.m.
Prelude Music: Michael Wittgraf
"Pomp and Circumstance," by Edward Elgar
Kathryn R.L. Rand, Dean, School of Law
Grant Shaft, President, State Board of Higher Education
Gerald W. VandeWalle, Chief Justice, North Dakota Supreme Court
Conferring of Academic Degrees:
Robert O. Kelley, President, University of North Dakota
Proctor: Laureen Johnson
Hooders: Professor William Johnson & Professor Michael McGinniss
Robert O. Kelley
Kathryn R.L. Rand
Voluntary on "Alma Mater"
Chief Justice VandeWalle's Address to the UND School of Law's 2012 Graduating Class
Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle addressed the UND School of Law Graduating Class of 2012 on May 5, 2012. Here are his remarks.
Thank you, Dean Rand. President Kelly, Mr. Shaft, Family and Friends, and the 2012 Graduating Class of UND School of Law.
Good morning. On August 3, 1984, I stood on this stage to deliver the UND Summer Commencement address. I started it by saying "I am in awe as I stand before you this evening. It is a beautiful and impressive building given to the University by one of its faithful and successful alumni, Chester Fritz. I am in awe for another reason. As a small-town North Dakota boy who received his education in what at that time was a much smaller institution than it is today, but nevertheless to me a huge and wonderful University, which had the promise of all sorts of adventures in learning, culture and, yes, fun, it is a gratifying and pleasant shock to discover that my alma mater which most probably viewed me as a brash, unschooled, and somewhat impertinent young man perhaps now views me somewhat differently—most probably because of the thinning hair, the expanding waistline, and the increased wrinkles, but at least different enough to be invited to speak at one of its commencements."
Well, some 28 years later, more years than many of you have lived, I am still in awe and still feel the same way. There are, of course, some inevitable differences, the hair is not thinning, it has thinned; and both the waistline and the wrinkles have noticeably increased. I am grateful to the 2012 graduating class of the UND School of Law for the opportunity and the privilege to again be on this stage to speak with you at your commencement exercise.
I will try to keep away from war stories as much as possible, but I do want to share one story from my law school graduation exercise in 1958. The School of Law did not have a separate graduation. We graduated with the rest of the University. The event was held in what we then called the Fieldhouse and which I believe is now referred to as the Hyslop Sports Center. It was then the basketball venue and held about 8,000 people. The law school gave two degrees, an LLB, and a JD. The requirement for graduation was six, not seven years, although like most of my classmates, I did receive my undergraduate degree before entering law school. The JD degree was based on your grade-point average and participation in law school. Unknown to those of us who received the JD degree was the fact that the gowns were different than those we wore when receiving our undergraduate degree. Those zipped up the front. The JD gowns had some velvet trimming up and down the front and did not close in front. It was June, the Fieldhouse was hot and, so, some of my classmates had worn shorts believing they would now show. I wore long pants but I can still see some of my classmates walking on stage to receive their diploma clutching the front of their gown in order to avoid showing their bare legs. It was a comic relief from what had been a pretty boring afternoon.
I may also bore you but I want to assure you this should not be too long. My father was a farmer and one of his favorite stories was about the county judge who had been born in a farming community and had occasion to talk to the area's school boards most of whose members were farmers. The judge had memorized the speech and delivered it in his best public speaking class style. After it was over in talking with one of the farmers the judge asked the farmer what he thought about the speech. "Well," the farmer said, "it wasn't too bad but a half-hour rain would have done a sight more good."
So, what can I say to you as graduates of a law school, on the verge of becoming lawyers? I believe you, the graduates, should be speaking about what you will do since the future is yours, not mine. But I am invited to speak and so I will. If there is any wisdom that comes with advancing age it is the realization of not how much you know but rather how much you do not know. So, older people usually draw contrasts between what the world was like when they were young and what it is like now. I will draw some further contrasts only to put the matter into perspective. There was one woman in law school when I graduated. There were no law trained women judges on the bench in North Dakota. Nearly half, or more, of law school graduates today are women and there are several women judges in our small judiciary. When I graduated from law school, Brown v. Board of Education had only recently been decided, Miranda v. Arizona was yet to come. The United States Supreme Court had been occupied with the New Deal Legislation and World War II. Many of the United States Supreme Court cases in the area of civil rights and criminal law were some years ahead. So, in comparing the years before I graduated from law school with those years following, it is apparent to me that the law began to move at a faster pace. I point this out because the legal world into which you will step is a much faster-paced world than the one I was exposed to when I sat where you now sit.
One obvious change is the increase in the number of lawyers and the proliferation of law schools. For a number of years the public, including college students, have been impressed with the idea that "law is where it is at," that is the public perceives lawyers as having power, power means the ability to control and change what happens around us. Whether or not it was true, it was the perception. Too many people go to law school with the idea that the law profession automatically brings prestige and the power to control others and the world around them. That false assumption leaves some law graduates unhappy and dissatisfied when they discover it doesn't quite work that way. And add to that the fact lawyers in many jurisdictions are having trouble finding employment in their chosen field and the result is that applications for admission to law school are dropping. Perhaps it is the law of supply and demand coming into play or perhaps it is the realization that a law degree does not automatically equate with instant success.
The world around us is, of course, changing too. Technology has brought dramatic changes in our lives, particularly with regard to communication. As a recognition of what is happening, the American Bar Association established the 20/20 Commission to study the regulation of the practice of law in light of advances in technology and the globalization of the practice of law. I serve on that Commission and, in addition to being a whole lot of work, it has been an eyeopener. I will not bore you with the details but give you one example followed by a question. A lawyer licensed in New York, living in California provides legal advice to a client in North Dakota via the internet without ever having been in North Dakota. In what state is the lawyer practicing law? This is not a theoretical law exam question. This is taking place on a regular basis throughout our country and the world. These and other issues are fascinating issues and ones which you will face as you enter the practice of law.
In many ways I envy you the challenges and the excitement which you are sure to encounter as you begin your life as a lawyer. About a month ago I was part of the site inspection team that visited a west coast law school for its accreditation review. Part of those visits include a meeting between the members of the team and the law students. During lunch with a group of law students, one of them told me that his great desire was to be a leading expert in a cutting edge area of the law and asked me what I thought might be the next great adventure. I paused for a moment, realizing no one had ever asked me that question before, at least not as directly as he did. After a moment's thought I told him he should look outside of the law to the rest of society and see what is about to take place there—he should talk to other professions, scientists, engineers, medical people, technology gurus to find his answer. He looked at me with a rather quizzical look and I followed up with the observation I have made many times and that is the law is always playing "catch up." Despite the increased pace of change in the nature and practice of law, we are usually reacting to what is taking place around us rather than being the catalysts for change.
For the most part lawyers are not studying what advancements may be made in technology that will affect intellectual property or what advances the medical field may be making with regard to fertility issues and who will be the legal parent of the child born to the surrogate mother using another woman's egg and perhaps the sperm of an unknown male. These and other issues are, for the most part, still being decided after, not before, those developments. Nevertheless, his question took me by surprise—perhaps this generation of lawyers is indeed different than my generation and ensuing generations. But our reputation as lawyers is well established. At a National Conference of Bar Examiners meeting a couple of weeks ago, Becky Thiem, former member of the North Dakota Board of Law Examiners and now president of the National Conference, quoted John Reed, a consultant, as saying: "Lawyers consistently defend the status quo, many times after the quo has lost its status." As one who relies a great deal on past precedent that made me pause.
There are many ongoing changes in our profession due to technology and the globalization of the practice. For the most part we go with the flow but there is one change that I view with some regret even though the change may be inevitable. When I graduated from law school, lawyers were generalists, at least in North Dakota, and, although they may not all have been litigators, they had some connection to the courts even if it was only filing an uncontested probate or something similar. Today that has changed dramatically. I have slowly realized that for many lawyers, for example transactional lawyers, courts are irrelevant, even in North Dakota with its relatively small bar. For some of you graduating today and who take the bar examination and are admitted to practice, the admission ceremony may be the one and only time you will appear in court as a lawyer. That development is probably inevitable but it does come with some sadness for those of us who are products of a different era.
Besides the fact the law profession is rapidly changing what else can I tell you? Well, significantly, despite the complaints we hear about legal education, you are the most well educated law graduates legal education has produced. Your knowledge of the law and skills set is far superior to mine when I graduated from law school. In many respects the complaints are founded not on the quality of the education as much as they are on the cost of legal education. The salary expectation of the graduates as a result of that cost are understandable. So, on one hand there is the belief among graduates that they will have immediate financial success and job satisfaction and, on the other hand, there is the employer expectation that the new graduates are practice ready and need no mentoring if they are to receive those salaries. Reality lies somewhere in the middle of those beliefs and expectations and it will be up to you to sort through them with a sense of realism and be neither pollyannaish nor unduly pessimistic about your future as a lawyer or your future in a related legal field.
And speaking of this law school, after I spoke to the National Conference of Bar Examiners a couple of weeks ago one of the persons in attendance approached me, introduced himself as a bar examiner from a southern state and asked if he could pose a question. I nodded and he said, "I have been examining bar passage rates from the States and North Dakota offers the Uniform Bar and gives no local examination but it has a consistently high bar passage rate. What is the reason for that consistent showing? I did not hesitate to tell him what I have told legal educators and bar admissions authorities from around the country. North Dakota has one law school, it is not large but most of the applicants that sit for examination come from our law school. Our law school really does care about its students and it simply does not allow students to fall between the cracks. I have no doubt that the North Dakota bar passage rate is a direct reflection of the personal attention each student receives from caring and competent professors at the University of North Dakota School of Law.
And perhaps this is a good time for me and for the graduates in particular to recognize that what you achieve today you did not achieve alone. The School of Law, your family and friends, and yes, those student loans, all helped. I know you are grateful to them for their help, support and guidance. I acknowledge them for all the love and encouragement that brought you here today, poised to enter the profession of law.
You will have many opportunities before you, particularly those of you who stay in North Dakota. I hope you recognize and embrace those opportunities when they come along. I hesitate to inject religion into my remarks but a story I heard in church a few months ago is worth repeating. It seems there was a flood and this man's house was in danger. Some National Guard members came by in a truck and offered to take him out of the danger zone but he declined saying, "The Lord will save me." The water grew higher and by this time the man had to retreat to the second floor of his home when another National Guard crew came by in a boat and offered to take him to safety. Again he declined saying, "The Lord will save me." The water rose higher and the man had to retreat to the roof of his home. A National Guard Helicopter crew came by to take him to safety and he again refused to go saying, "The Lord will save me." Well the water rose higher and the man drowned. When he got to heaven he said to the Lord, "Why didn't you save me?" At which time the Lord replied, "I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter, what more did you want me to do?"
That story is akin to one of the appellate tips on the Court's website concerning oral argument: "If a Justice throws you a life preserver, don't bat it away." You might be surprised how often that happens with attorneys who are so tied up in the adversarial process that they do not see a helping hand when one is extended. Do not be too proud to ask for and to accept the helping hand that is sincerely extended. And please, when the occasion arises in your professional and personal life, extend that helping hand to someone who needs it. Pass it on. In order that we might arrive at the truth of a matter, the practice of law is often an adversarial process but that does not mean that we should be without compassion.
There are a great number of opportunities awaiting you in a rapidly changing profession. The future could well hold something different for you than what you plan at this moment. On occasion I am asked if I always wanted to be a judge. The answer is an emphatic "No" and I am disturbed when the asker follows up with the statement that I want to be a judge when often the asker of the question has not graduated from law school or in some instances even entered law school. For my part I had no serious thought of being a judge until a very few days before I submitted my application to the Governor for appointment to a vacancy and I submitted it only after some intense urging by some friends. There is something to be said about being in the right place at the right time. Although there is some luck in finding what you want, the real question is, as the story I just related teaches, will you be prepared and ready to seize the moment when it does come? Ready, not only in the sense of recognizing the opportunity, but ready in the sense of having done your homework, of being prepared mentally and intellectually to do the job. In great part that readiness comes from good hard work in law school and, as you move through the profession, ready and willing to do the good hard work in the position you currently hold.
And finally, as I expect many speakers tell graduates, try to find balance in your life. What is balance? Well, as law school graduates, you should understand balance better than most. It seems to me that balancing tests have become very popular in our jurisprudence, whether it is balancing individual constitutional rights of the individual against those of society generally, or determining whether the probative value of evidence of conviction of a crime for impeachment purposes outweighs its prejudicial effect to the defendant under Rule 609 of the Rules of Evidence. We have balancing tests scattered throughout judicial opinions. It should be clear to us as lawyers, there are few absolutes and that life, like law, requires us to balance our priorities. I urge you to seek that balance in your professional and personal life. Having said that I hasten to say that balance does not mean you should never work evenings or weekends. On occasion you will need to do so and may need to do so for a prolonged period, but overwork should not be the normal way of life nor, on the other hand, should you shortchange your task. To illustrate, if an appeal is worth taking then follow it with a well done brief.
But there are some aspects of our life and our profession I believe are absolutes. Your core values, honesty, integrity, trustworthiness should never be balanced or compromised. I tell people who ask me about state employment that when all is said and done, when you leave you take with you for posterity your reputation and—somewhat tongue in cheek—little else. But I am deadly serious about maintaining your core values and your self respect. Justice Benjamin Cardozo writing in Welch v. Helvering in 1933, 290 U.S. 111. 115-116 used more elegant and pragmatic prose when he wrote: "Reputation and learning are akin to capital assets, like the good will of an old partnership. For many, they are the only tools with which to hew a pathway to success."
So, Congratulations on your achievements. I hope to see many of you at the admission ceremony in Bismarck next fall. Hold your head high, but not so high as to miss seeing what lies in your path, good or bad. And if you remember only one thing I have said, let it be that through your career, through life, maintain your integrity and your self respect.
Thank you, and to the UND School of Law Class of 2012, Congratulations and Good Fortune.