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 Mueller and graduate

Robert Mueller '73 with a Class of 2003 graduate.

Opinion: Fear Not Turmoil, Failure; Make Your Career Your Own

Robert S. Mueller III '73

Editor’s Note: Mr. Mueller, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gave the commencement address at the Law School’s graduation ceremony on May 18, 2003. The text of the address appears below.

Thank you, Rees, for that warm introduction. Dean Jeffries, parents, faculty, and new graduates of the University of Virginia Law School: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be with you on this occasion. It is an honor.

To Dean Jeffries and the members of the faculty: Thank you for your dedication and service to this school and to these new lawyers. The prestige of this school is due, in large part, to your scholarship and accomplishments.

To the parents, spouses, friends and family: Congratulations on your new lawyers. It is indeed important that you participate in this ceremony today. Because in no small part, it is the sharing of your values, and your support and encouragement, that has made this day possible. I applaud you for the many sacrifices you have made these last three years—and in many cases, much longer than that.

And now, to those graduating today: Congratulations to each of you.

Let me start by pointing out that you graduate at a unique time in our history. You come out of UVA Law School to a changed world; a world transformed by new digital technologies, cell phones, and the internet; a world transformed by the events of September 11. As lawyers, no matter what sector of the profession you enter, you will confront these realities.

From the perspective of law enforcement, I will tell you that we in the FBI face a world where terrorists, narcotics traffickers, and other international criminals traverse borders with impunity relying on the inability of nation states to bridge their conflicting legal systems. This global reach of crime—particularly terrorism—is transforming the law enforcement environment in which we operate, and will change the legal environment in which you will operate.

We in the FBI understand that our first priority is to protect the country from another terrorist attack. We understand that in the future we must expand to address cyber and other transnational criminal threats, while we must also continue to investigate white collar and violent crimes here at home. Most importantly for us, we must continue our evolution from being a paper driven organization to being a modern institution operating effectively in the digital world. The FBI of today bears little resemblance to the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover.

Responding to the threats of the modern world is a complicated undertaking requiring not only the efforts of the FBI, but also the coordinated efforts of our state, local and foreign counterparts. In today’s world, the FBI and its sister law enforcement agencies must work together to be successful, and we must do so using all of the modern technologies available.

As law enforcement and the FBI are changing to meet the new threats of terrorism, transnational crime and cyber attacks, so too will our legal system evolve to meet these threats, and each of you will be called upon to play a role in that transformation. So then, we face a changed world. How have we been prepared, and what thoughts should we keep in mind as we embark on a career in this transformed world?

Let me begin by pointing out that today you graduate from one of the best law schools—and I would argue the best law school—in the country. I say that remembering what I found unique about this school 30 years ago. Then, as now, UVA was different than other law schools. It sought to provide the foundation for future leadership. As Rees has pointed out, I came to the Law School from the Marine Corps, with a tour in Vietnam. As you all know, the Vietnam War was deeply divisive for our country, and there were a number of law schools that were not receptive to veterans of Vietnam. Not so UVA.

The University was looking for a range of experiences, understanding that a true legal education is an amalgam of the law, and of values, with the goal of preparing its students for service—service to the country, service to Virginia, service to the poor, service to others. Then, as now, a variety of views were represented. Many of my fellow students, good friends, opposed the war in Vietnam. Some had been conscientious objectors. But then, and as I presume now, our debates fostered mutual respect and a sharing of vision.

That is not to say that such debates do not occasionally suffer from misunderstandings. I have it on good authority that while John Jeffries was teaching a civil rights class, John went to the blackboard and drew what he thought was a peace sign. Only to be informed by one of his students that what he had drawn was not a peace symbol, but the Mercedes- Benz logo.

With your legal education, what might you keep in mind as you embark on your new careers?

Thirty years ago I was sitting where you are, a little nervous as many of you may be, wondering whether I could, or would, be successful once I left law school. Since then, my legal career has traveled, some—including my wife—might say “meandered,” through private law firms, prosecutor’s offices, and courtrooms in a number of cities, finally landing where I am today. So I have asked myself: What in my journey may be relevant to your future careers as you graduate? What has served me well over the years? What have I learned that may be worth passing on to you?

First, we should not fear taking on new challenges or exploring new opportunities. I remember a piece of advice I was given during my last year at UVA. The Speakers’ Forum had invited one of the nation’s premier trial lawyers to address us. If my memory serves me, it was Percy Foreman from Houston. I remember to this day the core of his presentation, as does my wife who was also there. He told us to select a community and to stay in that community for the duration of our careers. For only by doing so would we be able to develop the reputation to enable us to be successful as attorneys.

This was sound advice, and when my wife and I were thinking of moving from San Francisco to Boston six years out of law school, we recalled this advice. But because I loved investigating and prosecuting criminal cases above all else, we chose another path. At last count, my wife tells me we have moved 17 times. What I have learned in those moves is that no two prosecutor’s offices, no two law firms, no two courthouses do things the same way. Moving expands your horizons, teaches you new ways of doing things, and presents new challenges. Do not fear change.

Thomas Jefferson said, “There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him.”

Second, integrity is the bedrock of one’s reputation, and thus one’s career. Whether it be in conversations with your client, negotiations with opposing counsel, or in argument in a courtroom, you are only as good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, persuasive. But if you are not scrupulously honest with fellow counsel, the court, the jury, and yourself, your reputation and your career will be worth naught. At the heart of being a good lawyer—and I would argue a good spouse, parent, or citizen—is integrity. At no point in either the largest or the very smallest decisions should you sacrifice your integrity.

Third, fulfillment comes from service to others. And what do we mean by service to others? It is putting others before yourself. It can be done in ways both large and small. Most importantly, it should mean devotion to your family. But it should also mean service to your clients, individual or corporate. It can mean service to the accused, or to those who can least afford it. Or it can mean other public service.

The rewards of public service are often difficult to measure, to quantify, to adequately describe. But for the FBI agent, or for the prosecutor, fulfillment comes from bringing justice to the families of victims of terrorists, other killers, or other criminals.

I will never forget a visit I made to Lockerbie, Scotland, during the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. As you may remember, shortly before Christmas in 1988, Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, killing the passengers and the crew. The constables in charge of the Scottish end of the investigation had constructed a small wooden warehouse in which were stored the various effects of those who were on the plane when it broke apart in the skies: a white sneaker never again to be worn by the teenager; a Syracuse sweatshirt never again to be worn by the Syracuse student, and other such everyday pieces of clothing and personal belongings. These ordinary items brought home to me, and came to symbolize for me, the pain and the loss felt by those whose family, friends, or colleagues died that evening.

Bringing to justice those responsible for Pan Am 103, or those responsible for the events measure. The fulfillment comes from bringing closure to the victims of these terrorist incidents and transcends the monetary rewards often available in our profession.

We also must not forget that we all have a national responsibility. Democracy is a form of government that thrives only by the interest and the actions of its citizens. Thomas Jefferson said, “There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him.”

Each of you is unique and has his or her own contribution to make. Do not be afraid of turmoil. Or of failing. Make your career your own. To get through law school you had to meet the expectations of your professors. Now, you will create your own expectations for yourself. Let them be guided by your values and your character. Put your fears aside, take your unique abilities and do something special.

What do I mean by “special?” As you may know, all FBI agents are called “Special Agents.” With that in mind, let me tell you a story that was told to me at my confirmation hearing by Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. He said that when he was a United States Attorney, he was trying a high-profile corruption case in federal court. One of our FBI Special Agents, who had “worked her heart out” on the investigation, was on the witness stand being grilled by the defense attorney. The attorney said to her, “You call yourself a Special Agent. Who are these agents? Are they all special?” She replied, “Yes, they are.” The lawyer said, “Well, then being an agent is not really so special, is it?” She did not hesitate for a second, but looked the lawyer in the eye and said, “Sir, it’s special to me.”

I hope that each of you will find a career, an avocation that is special, special to you, special to your family, special to the country.

Good luck and God bless!

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