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Remarks by Professor Donald Marshall at His Last Class, April 27, 2005

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Donald G. Marshall with students


Most of you undoubtedly know that I am retiring from the faculty of the Law School, effective May 15th. I have discovered there is nothing like the prospect of retirement to make a man think and think serious thoughts. In the time remaining, I want to share some of those thoughts with you.

In so doing, I will be presuming on the prerogative of the podium by talking to you briefly about things which have nothing to do with Evidence, little to do with law, but everything to do with life. I do this with some trepidation because by talking to you about things personally significant to me, I risk self-exposure. But I think I am comfortable enough with this group to chance that.

I want to talk to you about the crucial importance of having a deliberately considered, clearly-thought-through set of personal values and principles that guide your life-affecting decisions and maximize the chance that your life will turn out to be a meaningful one because it is a fact that if your life is to have meaning, you will have to infuse it with values. Winston Churchill said that you can divide people into two groups: Those who work and then play, and those for whom work is play. The latter, he said, are among fortune's favored. To an extent, Churchill was correct. To an extent, those for whom work is play are among fortune's favored, but only to an extent. Why do I say that? Because those for whom work is play, live in constant danger, in danger of developing a life without balance - a life without proportionality, and ultimately a life that lacks maximum meaning. They are in danger of awakening one day at age 45, or 50 or 55, sitting bolt upright in bed and saying, "This isn't what I meant. That isn't what I meant at all." And there are few things more depressing than that realization.

To minimize the chance of that happening to you, it is not too early to start asking yourself now what a meaningful life is. That's not an easy question. Philosophers have been asking it for at least two thousand years. It is obviously not a question to which there is one clear answer. Each of you will undoubtedly arrive at an answer that differs in some respects from the answers of your fellow students, and from mine. And whatever answer you now give will undoubtedly change over time as you experience more of life.

For what it's worth, I give you my present answer to the question: what is a meaningful life? For me it is a life that rests on six basic values or principles:

First, a belief that invidious discrimination is profoundly wrong. A belief so strong that when you observe a person inflicting a deprivation on someone because of that someone's race, gender, ethnic background, or affectional preference, you experience that deprivation not only as an assault on the victim's dignity, but also on your own. A belief involving a recognition that every act of invidious discrimination against another you witness and don't feel diminishes you as a person. A belief that motivates you not only to avoid invidious discrimination, but also causes you to encourage others to avoid it.

Second, a belief that it is important to be of service. Do not regard providing for your own comfort as the end and aim of your life. A life in which comfort is the primary goal is a stunted life. Our economic system and social structure being what it is, you as lawyers will be far more comfortable than the vast majority of Americans can ever hope to be. There is security in that; and I do not denigrate the importance of having security but there is no - or at least should be no - pride in it, and ultimately not much satisfaction. The real satisfaction comes from being able to say you have been of service - that you have contributed in positive ways to the lives of others - that their lives are a little better because of you.

A third principle is related to my second, but distinct. Regard it as your obligation to teach. I don't mean in the sense that I attempt to teach in the law school setting. You will find that there are many forms of teaching more meaningful than this. It is through teaching all sorts of people in all sorts of settings that you help others grow. Their growth gives quality to their lives and, derivatively to yours. So teach: your children, partners, friends, colleagues, clients, adversaries, and others. Teach them, among other things, about the promise of being human.

Fourth, believe that it is profoundly wrong to manipulate or exploit another human being for your own benefit. This life-guiding principle is absolutely essential for the lawyer, because when working as a lawyer you will manipulate others (indeed you will be required to manipulate others) in order to achieve benefits for your clients. That will be a regular feature of your professional life. And, if you are not very careful, it will become a regular feature of your personal life. In your professional life manipulation of others is, within limits, acceptable. But to use others for your own personal advantage deprives you of integrity and ultimately, self-respect.

My fifth life guiding principle: live a healthy life. Pay attention to creating, preserving and if possible improving your physical and mental health. You owe that not only to yourself, but also to others. And because you owe it to others - particularly those who care about you - the effort to achieve and keep your health has an important, moral aspect to it.

Sixth, finally, and for me most important: devote yourself to creating a few genuine love relationships. I say only a few because by "love" I mean an attachment to, and respect for another person, so powerful that you can honestly say her or his happiness is at least as important - maybe more important - than your own. When you can honestly say that her or his joy is your joy. When you can honestly say that you experience her or his pain as your own - not that you can imagine it, but that you feel it. Those kinds of love relationships require a willing investment of enormous emotional resources, and for that reason most of us are capable of only a limited number of such relationships - with our children, or parents, or partners or a couple of friends.

Not only do these relationships require investment of emotional resources, they require time, attention and energy, and for that reason they are easy for the busy lawyer, or law student, to neglect. They can be readily deferred - more readily deferred than preparation for trial of that products liability case, or the closing of that merger, or the drafting and implementation of that estate plan, or the handling of that bankruptcy, or the myriad of other professional tasks you will be asked to perform. And when you have completed all those tasks, and you turn to the one you love, she or he may not be there - not there literally - or not there metaphorically - in either case she or he is not there. And you have lost a chance to show your love.

So there it is. Those are the principles that I think should guide a life in order for it to be truly meaningful. Notice I don't include acquiring wealth or power, or professional prestige or preference or recognition. Those are all nice things to have, and its foolish to reject them if you can have them without being untrue to your principles. But it is fidelity to the basic principles that ultimately makes life meaningful.

So, ask the question: what is a meaningful life for me? Arrive at an answer. Then live by it. If you do, you may turn out to be one of fortune's truly favored. You may turn out to be one of those who awakens at age 45, 50 or 55, sits bolt upright in bed and says: "This is what I meant. And it's good."

My wish for all of you is that you turn out to be one of fortune's truly favored.


Messages to Professor Marshall’s family can be made at http://www.startribune.com/local/95378839.html

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