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August 25, 2014

Welcome to the Northwestern Law entering class of 2014!

by Dan Rodriguez

From my remarks at the Orientation ceremony this morning:

On behalf of the faculty and staff, I am pleased to welcome you to the Northwestern Law School entering class of 2014. We have here students in our several degree programs, including entering JD students from our regular and accelerated JD programs, and of our JD/MBA program. We also welcome the students who have transferred to Northwestern after spending their first year elsewhere. Last, but not least, we welcome the students to our two LLM programs, the program in Tax and the LLM program for foreign lawyers. All of you share in common that you are valued new members of our Northwestern Law School community and we are looking forward to working with you during your time here and, when your studies are completed, welcoming you into the Northwestern family as treasured alumni.

While we look forward to our accomplishments at Northwestern Law, you are already a very accomplished group. You come here with outstanding academic credentials of course, but also equally outstanding backgrounds and experience. Ours is a multidimensional, multilayered admissions process, one that looks holistically at all the criteria that goes into a great law student. And while we are of course interested in your record of accomplishment, we are also very interested in fit, that is, in students who we believe will thrive in the unique environment of Northwestern Law School. Yes, indeed, you are all here because our confidence in you as a Northwestern law student and of your confidence in us as a law school.

It is customary at this point in an Orientation ceremony to describe some of the exceptional new students — to talk about the student who hiked Mount Everest clad only with a Chicago Bears jersey and nourished by a bottle of water and a fistful of Ritz crackers or the student who came here after a career as a two-term senator from the northeast, elected at age sixteen naturally or the Olympic decathlon who arrived after a Rhodes scholarship and a tour of military duty, doing counter-espionage work. Yes, you are an amazing group and among you are men and women who have had truly remarkable experiences and travels and have accomplished great things. But rather than offer tantalizing anecdotes, I thought I would take the more unconventional path of leaving to you the valuable task of learning about one another on your own. You are all incredible entering law students and I urge you to get to know another over the next few days of Orientation.

To those of you – and this figure is approximately three quarters of the class – who have come from outside the Midwest, welcome to the City of Big Shoulders; welcome to Chicago. This is a great city, filled with world-class culture and amenities of all sorts and a city with Midwestern charm. This is the city of the Bears and Bulls, the Blackhawks and White Sox, and the national champion Little League Team! I should mention the subject that shall not be spoken of in the student recruitment process, and that is the weather. As you look outside on this beautiful late summer day, please note that it won’t look like this beginning in December or in January or February, for that matter. Yes, we are at Northwestern, but when the new year rolls around, it would seem a bit more “North” than “West.” But you will get used to this; and you will see our four seasons – well, maybe three seasons – as part of the cadence of ordinary life in this great city and in this grand part of the country.

With this Orientation ceremony, we bring more or less officially to close the summer season. If you are at all like me you are not altogether thrilled by this fact. It is tempting to think back to all the goals you had at the beginning of the summer and all you look forward to accomplishing. I know the feeling well. I had set out this summer to accomplish all sorts of great things, to complete grand projects and continue to lead change through speeches, articles, and books. But as late August rolls around, my goals have become more modest. I congratulated myself on completing the second season of the House of Cards and I might just manage to get organized for my fantasy football draft later this week. But that’s OK. A new school term brings new goals and new energy. At the very least, let me give you this unsolicited advice: You should think of this Orientation period as a transition, a reentry of sorts. Do keep your focus, but do enjoy this time – watch some baseball, catch up on some TV, enjoy a hot dog . . . some of you will be with us this coming Saturday in Evanston as the Northwestern Wildcats take on the California Golden Bears. Go Cats.

I want to speak briefly about the institution you will join. First, as to our history, you should know that Northwestern Law School has a grand tradition of excellence. Through our halls have come governors, judges, including both state and United States Supreme Court Justices, captains of industry, able public servants, and incredibly accomplished lawyers who practice throughout the nation and across the world. Yes, ours is a glorious history and all of you are a part of this extraordinary legacy. Yet, ours is a living history. And we are constantly building and shaping that history through our work and efforts in the here and now. You have heard and will hear much about the Northwestern Law difference. Yes, much of this is intangible, but I believe I can summarize it like this: This is a student-centered community, one that treats law students like the adults you are and with significant ownership over your academic pursuits and your careers. The legal profession is an intense, demanding, and occasionally competitive profession and there is every reason to believe that it will become more, rather than less, so in the coming years. Northwestern Law School is fundamentally a collaborative place, a place where much of the real work takes place outside the classroom, in your interactions with your classmates, with the teams you build and nurture in coursework and in the cooperative endeavors among students, faculty, and alumni. Our physical space is an admixture of the old and the new. And the environment of the Law School, here in the beating heart of Chicago, is a hothouse of energy and enthusiasm. With myriad student organizations, opportunities for social gatherings, often spontaneous interactions with not only law students, but with other graduate students who come down here from Evanston to take advantage of our cross-campus programs, Northwestern is a place in which great things happen and in which real learning takes place.

It is also an institution with relentless forward momentum. In an era in which the legal profession is changing in key ways and in which there is legitimate uncertainty about precisely what lawyers’ careers will look like five, ten, twenty years from now, it is fundamentally important to make sure that law students are equipped with the right mix of skills and the best foundational education and practical training to flourish, to adapt, and to lead in this brave new world. Northwestern Law is responding to this dynamic landscape intentionally and strategically. We have a faculty of top lawyer-educators, many with substantial interdisciplinary training and all with a passion for educating modern lawyers with modern skills. We have a curriculum that is rigorous and comprehensive, yes, but also imaginative and future-focused. At Northwestern, we understand that the lawyer of 2020 (which is not that far past your graduation date) will encounter a profession in which the practice of law will not be preoccupied with a separate language – legalese – cordoned off from the rest of the world. Rather, lawyers will be social engineers, managers of information, and developers of novel techniques to help facilitate the objectives of government and of the economy – and alongside all of this, they will – you will – continue to be the front line protectors of the rule of law and of civil rights and liberties in a world that demands just this sort of protection. You will be lawyers working at the intersection of law, business, and technology and I promise you that the intensive, multidisciplinary education you will receive at Northwestern Law will equip you well to be this new kind of lawyer, this professional leader for the modern age.

I envy each and every one of you in the journey you are about to begin as a law student – whether as part of our JD or LLM programs This is a wonderfully interesting, intellectually rich and rewarding experience. You will engage with complex issues in your readings and your class discussion. And these are issues that matter. The study of law is the study of the structure and contents of rules and institutions which foster a civilized society. It is the study of “wise restraints” that keep us free. You will spend most of your time focused on the trees, but don’t forget about the forest. It is not only big data that matters in our increasingly complex world; it is the big picture – how we ought best to think about our legal system, our rule of law, our structure of justice, and how what we study as law students and lawyers contributes to the well-being of our civil society, both in the United States and throughout the world.

I envy you in another respect as well. This is an extraordinarily exciting and important time to be in law school. This may be an incongruous and perhaps even odd observation given the broadsides one hears about law school and legal education in the media. What do these challenges mean for our law schools? Or, to cut to the point deeper, “is now a good time to go to law school?” When the question is framed around the educational programs at Northwestern Law, my answer is an unequivocal yes.

So, in conclusion, let me again welcome you to law school, welcome you to Northwestern Law School, and wish you the very best in the coming weeks and months. I look forward to getting to know all of you. I hope you will check out my blog (it is listed on the front of the Law School web page) and my twitter feed. And, likewise, I hope you will share with me and my colleagues your thoughts and advice about we can make your law school and your law school experience as great as possible. We care what you think; we value your advice. For now, just a proud purple welcome to the entering class of 2014.

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