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2014 J.D. Class Commencement Address

John Sullivan

John Sullivan delivers the J.D. Address

John Sullivan of St. Cloud, Minn., was chosen to deliver the J.D. Graduation Address at the May 17, 2014, Commencement Ceremonies by his classmates. Following is the text of his address.

Thank you. I am so honored to be here. I called my mom when I found out I was given the opportunity to give the student speech, and my mom—who is positively negative—said, "You are giving the speech at graduation? Why don't you use your time to find a job?" But if there is one thing I learned in law school, it is to always re-frame the issue and that every word matters. So I said, "I am not looking for a job, I went to law school to find a career."...Whatever you say, unemployed lawyer.

Aren't you glad we are done with law school!?! I know I won't miss law school itself, but I will miss the law school community—the staff, the faculty, and you, my classmates. Over the last three years, we have all had great opportunities to grow as individuals. We have met incredible people and formed lifetime friendships with our classmates. We not only learned the law, but started to practice it through MJF placements, externships, and law clinics. We have been challenged and nurtured by amazing faculty...and you can't put a price tag on that. Well, maybe we can. I guess it's around forty-four thousand dollars a year… but who's counting.

Last winter I participated in the Law School's Leadership program. There were about 100 law students and one of the presenters asked, "who came to law school to be a leader?" No hands went up. I definitely didn't raise my hand. I went to law school to save the world, and that did not involve any leading…or so I thought.

Since then I came to realize it doesn't matter why you came to law school, you are a leader now. Yes, that's right, "You are a leader." I know we typically reserve the title "leader" for people with power, like presidents, big firm partners, CEOs, and people we see on the news. What I call out-loud or visible leadership. But, we need to change the way we think of leadership, so I want to talk to you about quiet leadership. Quiet leadership is not about having a pack of followers, but inspiring people to maximize their own potential. A lot of great attorneys are quiet leaders. To be a quiet leader you don't have to graduate with Latin honors, save the world, go viral on YouTube, or win high-profile courtroom dramas. A quiet leader says "thank you," welcomes an outsider, or opens the door for someone.

I wouldn't have time to highlight all of the examples of quiet leadership in the Class of 2014, but there are as many examples as there are graduates. Here are a few:

  • The TORT performances that rivaled the Lion King;
  • The thousands of volunteer hours to legal aid through the Minnesota Justice Foundation;
  • Implementing Diversity Week programs, book drives and blood drives;
  • All the orientation leaders, student ambassadors or Legal Writing Group Instructors.

As a University of Minnesota lawyer, you are now a quiet leader as a counselor, as a friend and as an advocate. You get to decide how and who you lead each day. I have three tips to assist in your journey.

Fail once a day, live Naked, and think like a child.

First: fail once a day.

As lawyers, we fear failure but we need to be more like the Wright Brothers. Every time they walked up the sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, they brought spare parts and tools because they knew they would tumble and crash. But falling is a necessary condition to flying and with each tumble and crash, they learned how to fall, and by learning how to fall they discovered how to fly. It is through failure that you have success. So take chances and don't be scared to spread your wings and fly. And when you tumble—and you will—know you have the strength to stand back up and the tools to repair yourself.

Second: live naked.

I know what you are thinking. You are having flashbacks to your statutory interpretation class and wondering what I mean by the word naked. Be human. Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech shortly after he was declared cancer free in 2005. But when he was originally diagnosed he was told he had 3-6 months to live. He told the students: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." I challenge you in everything you do to always ask yourself "What is my heart telling me?" If your compass is oriented towards your heart, instead of what you will receive…you will be living naked.

Third: think like a child.

When I was growing up, my dad used to call me JK. It stood for Johnny Kid. One day my dad asked me, "Do you know why I call you JK?" I looked at him with my puppy eyes and said, "Because I am special." My dad often reminds me of that moment because I tend to forget to remind myself that I am, that you are, that we all are special. When you are a kid, you are your best friend, and the world is full of endless opportunities. Then as you get older, the world tells you to doubt your own capabilities and you become your worst enemy. Be your best friend and your dreams will become a reality.

Everyone in this audience has someone who made them feel like Johnny Kid in their life. Some person—maybe your parents, siblings or your friends—who made you feel special and inspired you to live naked. We are here today because of the quiet leaders in our life. I know my law school journey would not have been possible without my family or friends. Be sure to say thank you.

You are now about to be a lawyer, but more importantly, you are a leader, a quiet leader. So find freedom in failure, to take off your clothes and, like all great children artists, don't be scared to color outside the lines. To be a great leader, you don't have to be a President, a CEO, or a big-firm partner; you just have to be…you.

Read the commencement remarks from:

· Thomas E. Perez
· Minne Bosma (LL.M.)

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