Go to the U of M home page.

2012 J.D. Class Commencement Address

Matt Pelikan

Matthew J.M. Pelikan delivers the J.D. Address

Matthew J.M. Pelikan of Northfield, Minn., was chosen to deliver the J.D. Graduation Address at the May 12, 2012, Commencement Ceremonies by his classmates. Following is the text of his address.

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak today. First, thank you to all of the parents, family, and friends here today. I know that my parents were vital in supporting me in ways big and small—unconditional love, care packages of food, understanding when I couldn't visit or even talk on the phone. And I know that everyone in the class feels the same, be it parents, family, significant others, friends: so on behalf of our entire class, thank you.

Hi Class of 2012—here's to no more Sullivan Café Food; no more Bluebooking, maybe, no more cold calls, no more Westlaw lectures, and, after this, no more listening to me. With our whole class gathered together here it really does seems like Room 25 would be more fitting. For those who aren't familiar, Room 25 is the largest lecture hall at the Law School, which is great for facilitating community-wide gatherings, as well as Gchat. And maybe some online shopping.

Of course Mondale Hall is home to many fond memories. Even Room 25, where our class was able to enjoy hearing from Justice Clarence Thomas our 1L year. And who can forget pet therapy day. As needed as the affection of those animals was, the stresses of finals of course helped many of us bond with each other. One reason I believe so strongly in the University of Minnesota Law School is the cooperation and support that we give each other; I know it often helped me. Whether it was a Valentine's Day cookie from the librarians, or getting to take our professors out to dinner when they auctioned themselves off for charity, the community offered by this school has been wonderful.

When I thought about what I might want to say to my fellow classmates today, I kept coming back to a slightly more heady, or ambitious, topic: what does it mean to be a lawyer?

Of course, the question arises right away, "what do I really know about what it means, not quite yet being one myself?" But we have had three years of instruction from some truly great faculty on the topic, and I feel equipped with some tools, and some examples.

Some of our statutory interpretation experts—I'm looking at you Professors Hickman, Morrison, Chomsky—would encourage me, maybe, to start with the plain meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word "lawyer" in the English language to 1377, and links it to the idea of "truth."

The OED goes on to define a lawyer as "One versed in the law; a member of the legal profession; one whose business it is to conduct suits...or to advise clients, in the widest sense embracing every branch of the profession. Though in colloquial use often limited to attorneys..." So in a broad sense, all that we have encountered; in a narrow sense, "just" an attorney.

But what is that broad sense "embracing every branch of the profession?"

Professor Carpenter might show us that a lawyer had best be good at the Socratic method, because life is full of cold calls. So a lawyer is someone who is ready to think on his feet.

On the other hand, Professor Erbsen, might show us that a lawyer is someone who meticulously plans. Make a game plan for whatever you are doing and Stick. To. It.

Erbsen and Professor Clary might also say a lawyer is someone who knows the difference between a crossclaim and a counterclaim and knows whether the Rule 16(f) conference comes before or after the Rule 26(f) conference.

Professor Clary might add that you had better be good at your IRAC-ing.

Our classmates Ben Tozer and Bobby Mir, national ABA Negotiation champions, might point out being a lawyer isn't all about zero sum litigation, but also, well, negotiating.

But members of our stellar moot court teams might say it can be about winning litigation strategy too.

And other members who have been on Law Review or any of our journals, a group near to my heart, would remind us about the importance of research and careful editing, whether it's litigation, transactional, or academic work. Of course Tennille McCray, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Law and Inequality, would say it has to be about having a good time too.

Tennille and all our other classmates in TORT might add that a lawyer is someone who can belt out Adele and Lady Gaga with the best of them, but still make it to (most) of their classes.

Dean Wippman has shown us a lawyer is someone capable of top notch scholarship. But also good at herding cats. And fundraising.

Some of our clinical professors of course have a somewhat different take. Professor Moriearty has shown us that a lawyer works to maintain equity within the criminal justice system; Professor Cox, that a lawyer protects consumers.

Vice President Mondale might chime in at this point with the perspective that a lawyer is someone who devotes her life to public service.

At this point, I don't think the exercise has provided much clarity, so let me regroup for a minute.

The Model Rules of Professional Responsibility—everyone has them with them, right?—have one of the most common descriptors of a good lawyer: the zealous advocate. And indeed, good lawyering no doubt often includes zealous advocacy. But they also remind us that lawyers are officers of the court, which can be in conflict with zealous advocacy. And some very fine lawyers never represent a client and never step foot in a courtroom.

So it might be a little bit of a muddle. I wouldn't blame you if you felt like you had just gotten through a particularly confusing part of the tax code. Before Professor Monahan made it all clear for you.

Let me try my hand at finding some clarity.

Professor Painter might counter some of the advice from our clinical professors and let us know that even Goldman Sachs deserves a good attorney. But more important for this project, Professor Painter (and our other PR instructors) can tell us lots of ways to not be a lawyer?

But it's much harder to pinpoint the positive, that is, how to be a lawyer. Whereas there are many ways to be a bad lawyer, defining a good lawyer, what it means to be a lawyer is a much more difficult, and sometimes conflicting, project.

The point, then, is what I have learned from all of our faculty and what I want to share today is not that there is no way, or one way, to be a lawyer, but that there are many. In the end instead of listening any more to me—or to anyone else—about what it means to be a lawyer, why don't we, the Class of 2012, show what it means to be a lawyer. After all, we're all about to be one.

Congratulations, Class of 2012.


Read the commencement remarks from:

· Senator Al Franken
· Amr Jaghoub (LL.M.)
· Matthew J.M. Pelikan (J.D.)

Return to the main article.