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Prof. BeVier and Kevin Ritz
Professor BeVier and Kevin Ritz ’04, chair of the Student Bar Association’s graduation committee.

Charge to the Class of 2004

Lillian BeVier

Editor’s Note—The Class of 2004 Graduation Committee asked Lillian R. BeVier, John S. Shannon Distinguished Professor and Class of 1963 Research Professor, to give the inaugural “Charge to the Class” at the Law School on April 20, 2004, setting the stage for what the Committee hopes will become an annual event for graduating students. We have reprinted her remarks below.

I am deeply honored to have been asked to participate in this wonderful “first annual” occasion. This is tradition in the making—what a great way to mark the beginning of the end of one phase of your lives—a time for you, in anticipation of your graduation, to gather with your friends and classmates and professors—to reminisce about the three years spent here together, to celebrate your success, to anticipate the exciting future which looms for all of you, and to begin the bittersweet process of saying farewell to this place and to the many people you’ve come to know and to care about here and to those who’ve come to know and to care about you in return. This is one of those moments in your lives when, because you’re poised between past and future, reflection about the meaning of that past mingles naturally with your eagerness to embrace the future and your curiosity about what’s in store for you.

YOU MUST IDENTIFY AND REMAIN TRUE to a set of moral values and ethical principles that are beyond yourself.

Thinking about what to say to you today has certainly induced me to reflect about you, and about the time you’ve spent here, and about what lies ahead for you—and about the world you are inheriting, and how you will go about finding your place in and making your mark on it. I don’t need to remind you that there’s an awful lot of misery and despair and danger in the world, and the challenges confronting your generation are as formidable as those that have ever faced any group of graduates. But, as full of sin and sorrow as the world is, it is important for you as you go out into it to understand and to appreciate—deeply, genuinely—how exceptionally fortunate you are. Your cup is not half empty, nor is it half full. Yours is the cup that runneth over. Think about it. You are exceptionally smart, you are young, you’re healthy, and you live in freedom and in relative security. You have forged warm and wonderful friendships here—I know, because I’ve had the pleasure of watching you everyday in the halls, and in the minutes right before and after class, and I’ve been touched by the great affection you have for one another, and how you seem to enjoy one another’s company so much, how much fun you have together. During your years here all of us on the faculty have tried to see to it that you are really well-prepared for the professional lives that lie ahead of you. And now you are about to graduate from what you know and I know—even if the U.S. News and World Report doesn’t know—is the best law school in the country. In becoming a UVA Law graduate you will become a member of the most loyal and generous group of alumni on the face of the planet. It is they who provided the resources to build this wonderful building, and they whose continuing generosity funds so many of the programs that sustain our margin of excellence. It is they, by the way, who sponsored this event, and they are eager in just a few weeks from now both to give you a grand graduation send-off and to welcome you warmly into the profession.

So, you are most fortunate.

Ah, but what have you done to earn your great good fortune? That’s of course an unfair question—you’ve hardly had a chance to earn it as yet. You’ve spent much of your lives so far just preparing to live them. You’ve made the most of the opportunities that present themselves to those—like you—who are lucky enough to possess abundant natural talents. You deserve credit for your hard work, and for not wasting your gifts. It’s completely right for your parents to take enormous pride in you and in what you have accomplished—and for you to give yourself and for us to give you a great big pat on the back.

ALL OF YOU HIGH ACHIEVERS probably have been blessed—or cursed—with well-developed competitive instincts and it would not serve you well were I to advise you to stifle them. I do urge you, though, to remember that your real competitor is your own best self.…

But I think it right, too, to remind you of your good fortune because it ought to have an important bearing on how you choose to live your life. Precisely because there is so much sin and sorrow in the world, your own good fortune imposes a profound moral obligation on you. It requires you to try to live your life so as to be worthy of the gifts you have been given and of the blessings that have been conferred upon you.

I can’t tell you exactly how to do that. No one can. There is no recipe—there is no formula—for how to go about making your life what you want it to be. There’s no blueprint to follow that will enable you both to make your own dreams come true and to fulfill the obligation that your good fortune imposes on you.

There is, though, one indispensable thing you must do. It is something you may find maddeningly difficult and your ability to accomplish it will depend on the skill and determination you bring to the task. For, if you are to live your life so as to be worthy of your good fortune, you must resolve a grand paradox. On the one hand you must find—and be true to—your own center; stay attuned to – listen—to your own voice; be who you are, make the most of your gifts. In other words, you must know yourself and make the best use of your own particular talents. On the other hand—and here’s the paradox—you must identify and remain true to a set of moral values and ethical principles that are beyond yourself. Being true to yourself is not about self-seeking. You cannot be true to yourself—you cannot build a life worthy of the good fortune you’ve been blessed with nor one that puts your particular talents to their best use—without being true to something that transcends yourself. You must pursue a greater goal and be guided by a powerful moral compass.

So this is the paradox you must try to resolve. You must be steadfastly true to yourself and attentive to your own inner voice. At the same time you must look beyond yourself so that you can apply your gifts in the service of a larger moral purpose. There are reasons why this won’t be easy.

One fact of life that will make it hard for you to hear your own voice and pursue your larger purpose is simply that the demands of your daily life—doing your job, spending time with and taking care of your family, staying in touch with your friends—will have the tendency to consume so much of your energy and attention that you will have little left for introspection or for checking with yourself to see whether you’re still on the course you set for yourself, even less will you have the energy or natural inclination to make sure the course you set is in fact the right one for you. There will be times when you’re running at 150% of your capacity and you fear that your career and your life are controlling you rather than you being in control of them. There will be times when either listening to your own voice or being attentive to values beyond yourself may seem to be luxuries you just don’t have time for. It’s all too easy to set sail on your life and then just to get carried away by its winds. But, having once set sail, you can correct your course. You can find a way of getting where you want to go even when it seems you’ve been caught in gusts that are carrying you away from where you want to be. Think of the way sailors use wind, even when it threatens to sweep them away or is blowing against them—back and forth they tack, coming about, trimming their sails, zigging and zagging, not against the wind, not carried away by it either, but using it to steer their own calculated course.

There are bound to be strong winds in your everyday life that will have a tendency to pull (or should I say puff?) you off your own course and make it hard for you to hear your own voice, and perhaps they’ll even tempt you to compromise your own large goals. But they needn’t blow you off your course, and they will do so only if you let them.

And there’s a particular aspect of the job of being a lawyer that may also have a tendency to divert you. I’m speaking of the legal obligation that the profession itself imposes, that is, the fiduciary obligation to represent others, to speak for—in the voice of—not yourself but of your clients, to advocate not your own causes but those of your clients, to act in behalf of and promote not your own interests but those of your clients. It is not a bad thing in principle of course to be a counselor whose job it is to help a client realize his or her objectives and not your own. And it is honorable to advocate the causes of others who have neither the skill nor the talent to advocate for themselves—indeed, that is what lawyers are for. And the fiduciary duty of zealous representation is of course essential to constrain lawyer self-dealing and conflicts of interest. Hopefully there won’t be a lot of disconnect between your own and your clients’ goals and values. When there is, of course, it’s time for you to take stock—to evaluate whether it’s right for you to use your talents in the service of clients whose values and goals you don’t share, to ask yourself whether what you’re doing can really, honestly, be said to be in the service of the larger moral purpose to which you thought yourself committed. But I caution you that even when you and your clients are in perfect harmony you may find it difficult to hear your own authentic voice and to act in the service of your own higher purpose when you are professionally compelled to speak in someone else’s voice and to act in someone else’s interest.

A final factor that will make it difficult to stay tuned in to your own voice and faithful to your own values is the tendency we all have to measure our own worth not in terms of our own talents and skills and values but in terms of how well we’re doing compared to the competition. This tendency is exacerbated, of course, by the adversary nature of our legal system—with its relentless requirement that, if your client is to prevail, you must outwit, outsmart, out-argue the other side. But the tendency to measure ourselves and our worth in terms of how we compare to others pervades every aspect of our lives, not just the professional side. We all want to be as smart as the smartest, as good as the best, as kind as the kindest, as witty as the wittiest, as good-looking as the handsomest or most beautiful. It’s natural and very human to make these comparisons of ourselves with others, and to prod ourselves to do better when we think we come up short in one way or another—or the flip side, worse by far, allow ourselves to let our own standards slip when we see others cutting corners and seeming to profit by doing so. All of you high achievers probably have been blessed—or cursed—with well-developed competitive instincts and it would not serve you well were I to advise you to stifle them. I do urge you, though, to remember that your real competitor is your own best self, not some smarter better kinder—or sleazier—other person. Your own best self is who you want to be as good as, that’s the person you want to measure up to, the one to whose values and sense of high purpose you must stay true.

I said I didn’t have a recipe or a formula to offer you, and I don’t. Implicit in what I’ve been saying is that you are in charge. You are the one who will make the choices that are either true to yourself—or not. You are the one who will choose to apply your gifts in service of a larger purpose—or not. Your choices will determine whether the life you build will turn out to be worthy of the good fortune that has been bestowed upon you—or not. I hope and trust that you will choose not only the path that’s right for you but also the path that’s right.

I was asked to charge you—and I’m ready to do that. So, Members of the University of Virginia Law School Class of 2004, I charge you to

Stay true to yourself.

Stay close to those who are dear to you.

Follow the course dictated by your own moral compass—which is another way of saying:

Do the right thing …

In the right way …

For the right reason.

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