Commencement 2012: How to Be a Happy Lawyer
Release Date: May 16, 2012
2012 Commencement Speech by Professor Terry Maroney
Thank you, Dean Guthrie, and thank you, class of 2012. It is such an honor to have the opportunity to address you all one last time, in the company of your loved ones. After this ceremony, my colleagues and I will release you to those loved ones. So to them I say: watch out! They all used to be so nice. And now they’re going to make you sign releases every time you get into their cars.
This is such a happy day. So I want to talk about that, our happiness. Class of 2012, my colleagues and I have to date focused our efforts on your minds. We have sought to sharpen and shape your habits of thinking, to help you think like lawyers. That you are here shows that you have succeeded in that intellectual pursuit. But today is different. What makes this beautiful morning special is not how we are thinking, but how we are feeling. The pride in your families’ hearts. Your gratitude for their love and support. You may be sad to be leaving dear friends. Perhaps you are afraid and apprehensive, as you face a rapidly changing profession. Or, maybe, you are frankly surprised, because you never thought this day would come.
Your emotions, whatever they may be, are what mark this day as meaningful. So let’s take a moment to consider them. My highest aspiration for each of you is that your life as a lawyer be a source of deep happiness. So in the brief time we have left together, I want to share with you a few thoughts about what makes a happy lawyer.
As lawyers, of course, we always start with defining our terms. So let’s start here: what is happiness? Now you may all be getting very unhappy, asking yourselves why in the world you trusted Maroney with a microphone, wondering if perhaps lunch will be brought in. Don’t despair: you will get your diplomas shortly! In fact, this could be a very short speech. As I was preparing it, I recalled a book I had as a child, starring Snoopy and Charlie Brown, called “Happiness is a Warm Puppy.” "That’s it!" I thought. But then I recalled that some of the other advice in that book was that “happiness is a thumb and a blanket,” and “happiness is a new raincoat.” So alas, happiness does seem to be a bit more complicated.
Now, whatever happiness is, we know it is important. The founders put it right in the Declaration of Independence, declaring the “pursuit of happiness” to be at the core of our governmental structure. And happiness is experiencing a resurgence of interest. At Harvard, you can take a class on happiness. The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is heading a new commission designed to measure America’s happiness quotient. We are following the example of Bhutan, which alongside its Gross Domestic Product also calculates its Gross National Happiness. Happiness is a growth industry: but how do we know it when we see it?
Kahneman suggests that there are two essential ways to measure happiness. One looks to the “experiencing self.” This entails measuring “the flow of emotional experience during daily activities.” Indeed, a group of law professors from Chicago has proposed that we shape our regulatory state around subjective well-being, as measured by hand-held devices called “hedonimeters.” On your hedonimeter, you would, when prompted at random intervals, rate your feeling of pleasure or displeasure at that moment. Then we would pick a time period, tally up your ratings, and if pleasant beats out unpleasant, we deem you “happy.”
The other approach Kahneman posits is to look at “the remembering self who maintains the story of our lives.” The remembering self is represented by measuring overall life satisfaction, in which we are asked for a holistic sense of our happiness, whether over the course of a week or a lifetime.
I suggest to you that, as you seek to build your life as a happy lawyer, you privilege the perspective of the remembering self. This is because the happy lawyer’s life is one of meaning, not pleasure. Pursuing a life of meaning will often generate pleasure, but it will do the opposite, too. And this depth of experience, I propose, is what will make you happy. It will provide your remembering self with a satisfying, rich, and deep story of your lawyer’s life.
There are, I think, three crucial aspects to that story.
The first is to provide the basics of sustenance, growth, and fulfillment to yourself and your family. While money can’t buy you love, lack of money can make you pretty miserable. So you do need to put your law degree to work. I imagine this is not news. But what might be news is that you don’t actually need as much money as you might think. A recent Gallup poll rated the happiest countries, based on citizens’ holistic self-reports. Wealth played a role, but not a determinative one: the United States, for example, got smoked by Panama, whose per capita GDP is one-sixth of ours. Similarly, a recent study of individual happiness showed that once people reach a certain income level, any happiness differential disappears. The point is that to be happy, we need just enough money. Just enough to provide for adequate shelter, food, medical care, education—and, in your case, a minimum loan payment—plus just enough extra to allow us to play, experiment, and dream. Beyond that, it is all diminishing returns. Despite the tumultuous market, I have utmost confidence that all of you will find your niche and hit that mark. So check in with yourselves over the course of your careers. If you reach a moment at which making more money is no longer necessary to secure the fundamentals of a happy life, and if that quest is taking you away from the relationships that will be your more enduring source of happiness, stop. Be willing to find a way to have the just-enough life.
The second aspect of building a happy lawyer’s life is to seek to be very, very good at what you do. This is where the clash between the experiencing self and the remembering self becomes obvious, because this is often not fun. We all are familiar with the saying, “don’t worry, be happy.” I am here to tell you the opposite. Worry! Excellent lawyers worry. You worry about deadlines, changes in the law, whether you’ve understood your client’s goals, whether people are lying to you, and so on. A great lawyer spends much of her time in a mild state of terror. If you start humming Bobby McFerrin, you’ve lost touch with the enormity of the lawyer’s responsibility. You’ve also lost touch with what will prove to be an enormous source of your happiness: the pride you take in the quality of your work.
This is a good juncture at which to talk about some of the lumps that your pride is likely to take as a young lawyer. There will be times when you don’t live up to your own standards. One example from my own life comes to mind. Right after law school, I was clerking for a stunningly smart judge. I thought I was pretty smart too, and after all, she hired me. I wrote her a bench memo, in which I was primarily focused on what in my view was the big, important issue—and, over where I wasn’t looking, I made a mistake. Specifically, I relied on the opinion of someone in the clerk’s office as to how days were calculated in meeting a filing deadline, rather than looking the rule up myself. Without telling the whole story, suffice it to say that it ended with my judge calling me into her chambers, throwing the federal rules of civil procedure down on her desk, and yelling, “consider my mind BOGGLED!” I was deeply ashamed. And that was exactly how I should have felt. That shame jolted me into being a better lawyer, one who treats no issue as a small issue, and who takes no short cuts.
Your pride will also take some lumps when you lose your first cases. When I was a law student, I won every single one of my clinic cases. This was great, of course, but unfortunately it encouraged me to internalize the notion that because winning is good, and losing is bad, if I won I was good and if I lost I was bad. And then a funny thing started happening in my first year of practice. I started losing. Two examples. The very first case I brought all by myself sought an order of protection in Family Court. You know those towns where if you blink, you’ve missed it? If you had blinked, you would have missed me losing. The judge had been sitting for about 10 seconds, heard the other lawyer, ruled, and I was done. That lawyer even waved and said “bye-bye!” on her way out. I was stunned. I had to sit in a park by myself for an hour, mourning. And at the end of that hour, I realized that I deserved to lose that case. My client’s claim really did not satisfy the relevant statute. I realized that I was not some magic person, who could transform a crummy claim into a great one just by the sheer fact of my awesomeness. It was a humbling experience.
Cultivating that humility made me a better lawyer. It made me more careful and realistic. It helped me focus more on the client, the facts, and the law, and less on myself.
The second loss was very different. I was in Housing Court, representing an HIV-positive young man trying to avoid being evicted from his apartment, where he had been taking care of his disabled mother who had just died. (No pressure!) We went to trial—and I lost, meaning he was sick, and orphaned, and homeless. As I reflected on that loss, in addition to being sad, I got angry. Because that was a case I deserved to win, not because I was magic or awesome, but because I was right, on the facts and on the law. We lost because of a jaded judge who made it obvious that he found my client distasteful and resented him, and me, for refusing to go away. My anger at that injustice made me a better lawyer. It made me empathize with my client, to feel what it felt like to be the object of such disregard. Expressing that anger to my client made him feel accompanied in his struggle, and comforted that someone would be angry on his behalf. It was not all I set out to do for him, but it was something, and it was important. I learned to welcome that righteous, not petty, sort of anger, because it made me more determined to fight the next battle.
So in your careers you are going to encounter shame, and sadness, and loss, and frustration, and anger. But here’s the trick: You will be a happy lawyer not despite those feelings, but rather because of them. Every time a difficult emotion made me a better lawyer, it made me a happier lawyer. Those feelings will help you see things you need to see, make changes you need to make, and remind you of what matters. They will help you base your self-worth on something other than winning and losing. You will base it, in part, on the intrinsic value of doing your work and doing it well.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying that “your worst days are ahead of you”! You will also have days of utter triumph and elation. Accepting the bad days will make those good ones so much more meaningful. And it’s not because, as they say, the great thing about being hit in the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when it stops. Your triumphs really are sweeter when they are earned with pain—just like this commencement is particularly joyous because of the years of hard work and sacrifice that preceded it. When we feel what something costs, we know what it is worth.
Which brings me to my last point. The third and final aspect of being a happy lawyer is to help others build lives as happy as your own. It is our most solemn obligation: not to pull the ladder up behind ourselves, but to take the privileges of this wonderful profession—the knowledge, the access, the resources—and lend them to those in need. I’d like to share with you the words of a friend and mentor, Peter Cicchino. Peter was a Jesuit, civil rights lawyer, and law professor, who left us far too early. I think of him today because he was both a good and a happy man. You may also think he was a crazy man, because he once wrote an article called “Love and the Socratic Method.” But bear with me. When Peter knew he was dying, he had time to reflect on his career with the perspective of the remembered self.
And he wrote the following:
“Our lives are the only things that are completely ours. The kind of life we make is the most important work, the single most significant project we will ever undertake. … In my own life, as I have struggled with the question of what makes a good and happy human life, I have become ever more convinced that struggling to secure the conditions for a decent human life for others is a large part of the answer. … [To do this,] you must be brave. Immersing yourself in the suffering of others can be heart-breaking. But just the endeavor to relieve human suffering will bring you great, great joy.”
So, class of 2012, as you face your new lives, be brave. Don’t be afraid to face suffering. Don’t be afraid to lose. Accept momentary unhappiness as a necessary part of building lasting happiness. Cultivate the powers not just of your minds, but also your hearts.
May your lives as lawyers be a mirror to the happiness you feel, and we all feel, in this place today. And for good measure, you may also want to get a warm puppy.