Twenty years ago this week, I graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School. As I spoke to the Class of 2012 at their Convocation last week, it was hard not to revisit that time in my own life. It is impossible, however, to recapture the mixture of hope, relief and self-doubt that swirl in the minds of a law school graduate. All things are suddenly possible. And suddenly, nothing is certain.
Law School in the early 1990s was a less enveloping experience than it is today. More people drifted into and out of law school than could be imagined today. We had no career office then to help us prepare resumes or provide advice on how to interview. There were no organized pro bono programs (though student legal aid clinics were already well established), or funded summer internships. Exchanges were rare and exotic. Today, of course, at Osgoode, devoting time and thought to a law-related public interest activity is a graduation requirement, and many travel abroad for study or placements as part of dozens of exchange agreements with foreign law schools or internship programs. During my last year of law school, we still wrote exams by hand, and used the pay-phones in the basement to call friends. Ours was the last pre-email generation (though essays were already appearing on dot-matrix printers attached to hulking desktop computers). Tuition hovered around $2,000.00. We had loans rather than lines of credit. We also graduated into a recession. While most of my classmates secured articling positions, few expected anything beyond that. The hire-back at McCarthys that year was 2 out of 20.
While it is not surprising that much has changed in 20 years, I am more struck by what has remained constant – a sense shared by most law graduates throughout the generations – which is that success will be something that happens to other people. In receiving his Honorary Doctorate at Convocation, Chief Justice Warren Winkler, who marking his 50th anniversary as an Osgoode graduate, recalled this sensation in vivid terms, standing outside the Osgoode Hall Courthouse, convinced he would never make it inside. It is a feeling unrelated to probability or merit. Yes, I may have gotten into law school, and yes, I recognize that only a lucky few have that opportunity. Yes, I worked hard at law school, gained new perspectives, etc. Yes, people who graduate law school often go on to successful careers. But I am different. I don’t belong and never will. Others will go on to do amazing things. As for me, …? At the same time, however, there is an undercurrent of empowerment to graduating law school, of doors opening, of a rite of passage, even if you have no clue where it all will lead.
In 2011, Emory Law School Professor Sara Stadler caused a stir when she told that law school’s graduating class that, “The only thing standing in the way of your happiness is a sense of entitlement.” What I observe is not a sense of student entitlement standing in the way of happiness, but a sense of high expectation. Students (and, often, their families) have invested a huge amount of time and resources into a legal education. From the day they arrive, our students are told that they have remarkable talent and that much will be expected of them. As scholars. As lawyers. As leaders. Those expectations can weigh a student down. As those students graduate, however, most tend to start thinking more about what they want to do and less about what they want to be. And more often than not, what they do will exceed those expectations.
Much happens in 20 years, but it is fair to say that the alchemy of that graduation day, that mix of anxiety and hope, stays with me. I look forward to dropping in on the Class of 2012’s 20th reunion (perhaps on the way to my 40th) to compare notes.