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Commencement 2009

Evan Thomas '77 Urges Graduates to Embrace Humility

by Rob Seal

Graduation Awards


Evan Thomas ’77

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During commencement in May, Newsweek editor-at-large Evan Thomas ’77 encouraged the Class of 2009 to balance confidence and pride, traits he said could be virtues or vices for new attorneys. 

“I want to talk to you today about humility, because I think it has become an underrated virtue, and because I think it is sometimes misunderstood. Humility is too often associated with meekness and self-doubt. I see it in a different way. I see humility as a true measure of confidence,” Thomas told the graduates.

Thomas said he was full of pride as he ended his third year of law school. He aspired to write for the Wall Street Journal, and sent a letter to the editor requesting a meeting. Afterward, he realized he’d called the editor by the wrong name. He wrote a second letter to apologize and explain his embarrassment, but repeated his request for a meeting. The editor replied, “Dear Mr. Thomas, you also misspelled the word ‘embarrassed.’”

Though Thomas never did work for the Wall Street Journal, he has been a staff member at Newsweek since 1986, where he has served as Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor. From 1977 to 1986, he was a writer and editor at Time magazine. He has won numerous journalism awards, including a National Magazine Award in 1998 for Newsweek’s coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He is also the author of six books.

Pride, Thomas told the graduates, is a virtue when it leads people to “work harder, stand up straighter and be the best that you can be.” However, he said, pride also leads to wars and broken families. It’s easy to become a slave to pride.

“I think lawyers too often have become the servants of pride, their own pride and the pride of their clients. Back in the day, there was an expression, ‘A good lawyer is a lawyer who keeps his client out of court.’ I don’t hear that so much anymore,” Thomas said. “It seems to me there’s more emphasis now on combat, on battling the other side, words of fighters, warriors. The idea is to overwhelm, to grind down the opposing party.”

Thomas also told the rising attorneys to see beyond their roles as advocates and embrace the role of wise counselor.

Class of 2009 Commencement“There’s a tendency for lawyers to become ‘yes-men’ and ‘yes-women,’ to tell their often high-paying clients what they want to hear — that they can do whatever it is they want to do,” Thomas said. “Where, you might ask, were the lawyers in the Enron scandal or the endless debacles that have engulfed Wall Street? Where were the lawyers who said ‘no’ to their clients, who worked with clients to help them see the weakness of their case?”

It takes a truly confident attorney to stand up to clients and offer advice concerning not only what is legal, but what is right. A good attorney, he said, tells a client what he needs to hear, not just what he wants to hear.  A good attorney is a peacemaker, not a gladiator.

“The truly confident people I know are self-knowing enough to be humble,” Thomas said. “They are not just smart, but wise. They have a true appreciation of the pitfalls and limits of human nature.”

After Thomas spoke, 404 J.D. graduates, 30 LL.M. graduates and one S.J.D. graduate received their diplomas.

Law School Dean Paul Mahoney reminded class members to remember the many skills they learned in law school, including the importance of leadership.

Class of 2009 Commencement“You have been trained to be leaders, and you will be in your careers, in your communities and, in some cases, in appointed or elected government service,” Mahoney said. “I do not doubt that at some future reunion of the Class of 2009, we all will marvel in the variety of ways in which you have succeeded in the intervening years.”

Outgoing Student Bar Association President Ryan Quillian commented on his peers’ overwhelming support for the class gift, to which 93 percent of the students contributed. Quillian reminded his classmates that even in a time of uncertainty caused by the economic downturn, the Class of 2009 is dedicated to becoming not just lawyers, but citizen lawyers.

“Instead of facing the impending uncertainty with fear, let’s view it as an opportunity. Times like these are when citizen lawyers are needed most, not just in the legal profession, but in every profession,” Quillian said. “Now is when the cooperation, integrity and community involvement we learned here is of the utmost importance. Using the skills that UVA taught us, we have the opportunity over the course of our careers to remake the practices and institutions of this country for the better.”