School of Law News

2014 Law Commencement - Eric Gouvin's Remarks

Posted Saturday, May 10, 2014


Law Commencement
Saturday, May 17, 2014
9:30 a.m.
Symphony Hall – Springfield MA

Dean’s Remarks
Eric Gouvin

      It is my honor to address the class of 2014.

      First, let me say congratulations. This is a major milestone in your life and you deserve to celebrate it.

      Second, let me say “Thank You.” Thank you for becoming part of Western New England University School of Law. When you decided to attend our school you started investing in this enterprise.  You’ve contributed three or four years of hard work, time and money. You may have thought you were investing those resources in yourself – and you were – but you were also investing in the institution.

      It has been my great privilege to teach here for the past 23 years and an even greater honor to serve as your dean for the past year. I’m invested in the place, too. So, thanks. From here on out, we’ll always be linked to each other and to this institution. As co-investors, we’ll need to work to make our school more and more valuable.

      Western New England University is not the bricks and mortar out on Wilbraham Road – it is a group of people: staff, faculty, administrators, of course, but the proof of the pudding is the student body and, ultimately the alumni ranks. I know you’ve been a great group of students. I have every expectation that you’ll become great alums and great lawyers, too.

      Our alumni ranks are impressive. Someone recently made a sarcastic comment to me about the job market and working at Taco Bell and I said, yes we do have an alum working at Taco Bell – he’s the senior vice president for public affairs at Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

      We’ve got alums doing all sorts of work. Some quick examples: Dru Lavasseur is national director of Lambda Legal’s transgender project. Jodie Roure is a professor at John Jay College. Mike Tucker is the president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank. Gale Candaras is a key member in the Massachusetts State Senate.  Msgr. John Bonzagni runs the Tribunal for the Diocese of Springfield. Literally thousands of others play important roles in communities across the country as lawyers, involved citizens, and civic leaders.

      So how can you become one of those high-achieving alumni? This is the point in the talk where the Dean gives you life-changing advice. 
      What I really want to say is “Follow your passion, and do what you love and you’ll change the world!”

      That's advice everyone loves to hear, because it gives us permission to proceed on the understanding that our own subjective preferences are what really matter most. But you know what? I can’t in good conscience offer that as my parting wisdom. I don’t think following your passion is necessarily such good advice.

      Although today is all about you -- and rightfully so -- the rest of your professional life is not about you and your passions. It’s about other people and what you can do for them. Don’t believe me? Think about something you're passionate about. The more noble of you are thinking about social justice and human rights, but most of you are thinking about a loved one, a sports team, travel, French cooking. Now ask yourself: Will people pay me for being passionate about this thing? The answer for most of us is “probably not.”

      If the follow your passion thing made sense we’d have a lot more astronauts and pirates, a lot more dinosaur scientists and fashion designers. No, instead, most people you know are working on Plan B.  After flirting with the dream of following our passions, we’ve activated the back-up plan.

      Having started with a childhood dream of being an architect, I somehow ended up graduating from law school and getting a job at a firm where I was going to be a…business lawyer of some kind. My direction at the firm was determined not by passion, but by opportunity.

      The firm was just starting the process of establishing a brand-new bank from scratch. I saw an opportunity to become the go-to banking guy and I took it. Was I passionate about banking law? No. Banking law was hard, and often tedious. But the intellectual part of the work was actually pretty interesting. 

      And it was useful. The bank client had lots of legal issues and I was Johnny on the spot. The more I learned, the more valuable I became. The longer I practiced, the more skillful I became. The more valuable and skillful I became, the more I felt respected and needed, and the more I could see I was making a difference for the firm and the client. The more I threw myself into it, the more I got out of it. These positive signals helped fuel something like a passion for banking law. I didn’t start with passion, I grew into it.

      And I made a good living, too. I’m not saying it’s all about the money. As far as happiness goes, money makes a difference, but only until you get out of poverty. After that, there is no strong correlation between money and happiness. Things like family, control over your life, and a sense of purpose are much more important than money when it comes to happiness. In fact, if you are doing something just for the money you almost certainly will not be happy doing it.

      But money does matter. The willingness of people to give you money for some useful thing you can do for them is an indicator of value. 

      If you want to succeed as a lawyer you should figure out what you bring to the table that is valuable. What is it that you can do that other people cannot do? Believe it or not, there are lots of things that are now second nature to you that other people find extremely difficult. Appreciate that and be proud of it! Your skill in legal problem solving is your competitive advantage – do something with it.

      Why am I telling you this? Because I know you are anxious. School is over and you have to get a job. Getting a job is very stressful.  It always has been.  The hype about how bad the economy is I’m sure weighs heavily on you. You will get a job.  It may not be your dream job but by giving you this talk I’m trying to let you know that it’s perfectly OK to have a job that is not filled with passion. Work is work, that’s why they call it work.

      If you find yourself in a job for which you lack passion, hang in there. Do that job until you gain a true appreciation for what you’re doing and why you are doing it and why it matters (or doesn't). Experience often is the best teacher. The more experience you have, the better your skills and the greater your appreciation of those skills. The more experience you have, the more you can see how your work has helped others. The more experience you have, the more time you’ve had to develop strong professional, and even personal, relationships with some of your co-workers, clients, and other members of the bar.

      In the practice of law, passion is almost always the result of time and effort.  It's not usually a prerequisite.

      That’s not to say it doesn’t help. 
      Today, May 17, marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall led the team that won the Brown case.  He was a brilliant lawyer.  I’ve got to believe his personal passion for justice was an important part of what made him great.

      Today, May 17, also marks the 10th anniversary of same-sex couples being allowed to marry in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The lawyers who brought that about were also brilliant.  They, too, had a passion for justice. So, if you’ve got passion, by all means use it.

      One of the toughest days for me this year was January 10 when I attended two memorial services in one day – one for Jay Lamanna and the other for Judge Sid Cooley. Jay was one of those folks who was fueled by passion.  It’s clear that Jay’s passion had an impact on many people and it might have sustained him as he found his way in the world after law school. Sadly, we’ll never know, struck down too early, his memorial was heart-warming, but profoundly sad.

      Judge Cooley, on the other hand, lived to be 100. His funeral was a fitting tribute to a life well lived. He had contributed to society in so many ways and had helped so many, he had earned the respect and admiration of everyone. Did he have passion? Well, people always commented on how much he loved his wife and how much he loved music. But in his professional life I suspect he was animated much more by a sense of duty than by some internal passion. His life-long effort to leave things better than he found them may have evolved into passion, but may have started as something else, the humble act of being of service.

      There is always important work to do.  Lawyers have always been crucial in pushing society along, kicking and screaming, into a better, fairer, freer future. It takes people like Jay and Judge Cooley, whether fueled by passion or by duty, but the work must be done. That’s your job now, too. 

      We may take it for granted today, where over half of this graduating class is women, but 140 years ago it was not only illegal for a woman in Illinois to be a lawyer, the Supreme Court of the United States said such a prohibition was constitutional, too. A famous quote from Justice Bradley in the case of Bradwell v. Illinois captures the gist:

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.

      That was a Supreme Court opinion. In 2014 that reads like a crazy anachronism, but it was a way of thinking that took decades, and lots of passionate lawyers, to change. But sadly, today in Nigeria a couple of hundred young women await their fate, having been abducted by someone who is also sure God is on his side and wants those girls sold into slavery because they had the audacity to try to get an education.

      When we look around the world and – even within our own borders – who else is having their rights denied because of societal norms that are outdated and oppressive? Clearly, there is more work to be done.  Whether you are motivated by passion or a sense of duty, get to it.

      But most of you probably won’t be path-breaking civil rights activists.  Most of you will be good, solid, reliable legal problem solvers. Helping regular people with regular problems. That’s great and honorable, too.  Embrace that role and be proud of it.

      One of the most touching moments this year for me came at Thanksgiving.  A gentleman named Jeff Knight came into the law school to talk to me. His family owns a successful real estate company. He told me his lawyer, Jerry Katz, was very ill and would probably die by the end of the year and, unfortunately, that proved true. Jerry Katz was an alumnus of Western New England and the kind of lawyer’s lawyer who everyone respected.

      Mr. Knight told me of how much Attorney Katz had meant to the Knight family.  How they trusted his judgment, how he helped them avoid problems, how he protected them when they found themselves at risk. Attorney Katz was paid for his services, but the value of what he gave to the Knight family far exceeded the cost of his invoices.

      Now, faced with Jerry’s inevitable demise, the Knight family wanted to honor their lawyer. To pay tribute to this trusted advisor and family friend, the Knight family set up an endowed scholarship in Jerry’s name. Jerry was a business lawyer, not a human rights activist.

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reminded myself of that story this year. You know people hate lawyers, right?  You’ve heard the hurtful lawyer jokes, right? Yet here was an example of what we should all aspire to: the true craftsman who gave his clients so much of value, they felt like they still owed him something even after all the legal bills were paid.

      You don’t have to go out and change the world to make a difference. This master lawyer affected the lives of his clients in profound ways. You can too. Be good at your craft.  Be a legal problem solver. Grow into the unique professional person that is you.  Stay true to your values.  Appreciate yourself and the profession we represent.  And follow your passions if they help you help others.

      But here’s the take-away: don't focus on the value your work offers you. Instead, focus on the value you create through your work, how your contributions are valuable to other people, and how you're connected to those people.

      When you do, the passion will follow. And one day you’ll wake up feeling fulfilled and understanding that you are doing something worthwhile. 


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