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Georgetown University Law Center
First-Year Orientation

Keynote Address
The Honorable Michael K. Powell
Federal Communications Commission

August 30, 2000


Good evening. I want to welcome all of you to Washington, D.C., to the Georgetown University Law Center, and to my beloved vocation, the legal profession. Law school is a wonderful thing because you might now actually understand your lease or your contract to buy a car. Probably not your phone bill, however. I guess that remains my problem.

At this point, you have bitten the bullet. The huge check has been cut. You have probably bought your books, learned of your professors, gotten your initial assignments, and maybe begun to read a case or two.

Having done these things, I know the powerful emotions that you must feel, for 10 years ago, I sat where you sit now. That feeling is like no other. . . It is special, something hard to describe. I would venture to describe it as something akin to. . . well, nausea!

Though most of you will not admit it to your new classmates, you feel sick. Many of you are probably thinking, “My God, what have I done!”

Seriously, let me flatly put your mind at rest. You can do this. You will have your doubts, however, when you wade into the dense texts of Pierson v. Post, or Marbury v. Madison, but trust me, thousands of law school graduates enter the Bar each year and so will you.


So, what have you done? You may not realize it, but you have heard something and are following the sound. As you get closer and closer and struggle through, I hope you realize what that sound is. Since you are new to this, and not yet steeped in the Socratic method, I will tell you what it is. It is a calling. To some of you, it is loud and strong and to others, very faint.

I recognize that this may sound corny. Perhaps the mandatory ravings of a Jesuit institution trying to analogize law to the priesthood. Some may cynically say so.

It is easy to chalk up such notions to nostalgia, right? We are all just hired guns, win-at-all cost gunslingers, and cogs in the corporate greed machine employed to skirt the law. Or, worse, to break the law and then “beat the rap.” Ambulance chasers, grabbing a buck at the scene of an accident, or profiting from a spilt cup of hot coffee.

This grimy view of our profession is the source from which springs the tiresome and unending line of lawyer jokes, the derision of our profession by some, and even the unhappiness of many lawyers in the Bar. Perhaps William Shakespeare was dead right when he wrote in Henry VI “let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Despite all the mockery, the true essence of a quality lawyer is something very different than this sordid popular image. It is our responsibility as members of the Bar to live up to the true ideal, and to demonstrate and assure our fellow citizens of it.

I say our profession is a calling. It is not just a job. How so?

First of all, because we are fiduciaries. We do what we do on behalf of others and their best interests. Thus, a quality lawyer should have a sense of public duty and selflessness.

The lawyer’s creed, however, requires more than the aggressive advancement of our client’s interest. We are more than advocates, we are also officers of the court. We have a sacred obligation to the legal system and justice generally. It is not our task to help our clients find ways to break the law, but to find ways for our clients to follow the law.

Our commitment is to fairness and community. To serve as stewards that advance and protect the rule of law that undergirds our democracy and our economy.

And the thing that makes this model of genuine nobility and honor admirable—rather than corny, hypocritical window dressing—is a lawyer’s unwavering commitment to ethics, personal and professional integrity, our community and our clients. This is the soul of this law school and what it teaches to its students. You are privileged to be here, as we are to have you.

Many say we do not need more lawyers and will lament your decision as another bright mind hijacked by the legal profession. It is true, we do not need more lawyers, but we do desperately need more quality lawyers—well-trained, ethical individuals committed to first hearing and then answering the call.

Please, I urge you, answer that call. We are a nation committed to the rule of law. It is the foundation of our democratic form of government. It is the tool for protecting individual and human rights. It is the hedge against tyranny by government or by the majority. It is the cornerstone for ordering economic activity in a capitalist society. The rule of law is what keeps the free market free. And you will be one of its stewards.

This is what I hope you signed up for. Rather than feeling sick, you should be excited, honored and humbled to be joining this ancient fraternity.


You are entering the profession in remarkable times. We are in the midst of one of history’s great revolutions. You are going to ply your trade in the Information Age, a period as important and as profound as the agricultural and industrial revolutions that preceded it.

There is more microprocessing power in the average home today than all of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had more than 20 years ago. Following Moore's Law, the speed of the microchip doubles every 18 months. On the Internet, 3 million web pages were added just last year. In 1993, 99,000 people had access to the Internet. That number had grown to about 81 million by 1999. In the U.S. alone nearly 55,000 new users jump on the Internet each day. The breathtaking statistics go on and on. These rapid changes have profound significance for our society.

This flurry of techno-ecstasy and babble, often leads us liberal arts types wondering if we have been demoted in importance to the engineer, the software designer, or the young entrepreneur. I do not think so.

The Internet and the communications revolution have brought astonishing new ways of accessing content, but the content remains what people and organizations decide to make available. Its value to us will still depend on what we as people develop, and how we employ it with these tools. Data is not information, and information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge lost in information.”

As Charles Jonscher, in his book The Evolution of Wired Life, remarked, “The insights needed today are not technical, but humanistic, a sense of how people interact in society. Here members of the computer community have no monopoly of understanding.”

I believe this is the call to the historian, the philosopher, the economist, the sociologist and, yes, the lawyer. Law is nothing more than the governing of human interaction and it is our profound task to adapt the law to the changing nature of human interaction brought about by these remarkable times. This responsibility will fall to you, the rising vanguard.


As you start this journey, I would be remiss if I did not offer you some brief words of advice on how to navigate successfully.

First, a challenge to you. First year matters. In my opinion it matters too much. Nonetheless, your performance this year will affect which legal employers will consider you, in the public sector as well as the private. This year will determine if you make law review, or moot court. And, this year will be the most important considered, and perhaps the only one considered, when you interview for judicial clerkships.

I readily admit that this is unfair. I wish it was otherwise, but I would misguide you if I lulled you into believing its just one year out of three. You and your family have spent a lot of money and made a serious commitment. Do your very best and leave nothing on the table. That is all you can ask of yourself. By doing well, you will also keep as many professional options open to you as possible.

Second, I think a key to legal understanding is the hunt for first principles. My mentor and a great lawyer, William T. Coleman, Jr., once taught me that a good lawyer memorizes sentences, but a great lawyer learns the alphabet. I believe there are core legal principles that often masquerade in complexity. You will do better if you try to strip away the complexity and find the gold hiding underneath. If you do, you will be rewarded with better grades, and a better command of the law. The “how” and the “what” matter much less than the “why.”

Third, keep an open mind and preserve your options. Do not be intimidated by subjects, or assume you will not like something before trying it. I know more people who came to law school avid environmentalists who have found happiness in the bankruptcy code. You might be surprised. All realms of the legal profession are deserving of your best energies.

Finally, remember that the best measure of success in school, and in life, is simply the pursuit of happiness. Aristotle taught us this over 2,000 years ago, but it is a lesson so few actually have learned. In fact, Thoreau once remarked that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Rage against this dark night and spend your life searching for the light of happiness.

The true means of judging success is being involved with an accomplishment that results in the feelings that you want to experience most of the time. I will caution that happiness will not be found in money. It may take you a wasted lifetime to figure that out if you are not careful.


So what would the world be like if society in fact did as Shakespeare said and killed all the lawyers. I will give you a glimpse from an address by Joseph Califano:

“Without lawyers, equal protection is a phrase carved on a federal building. Without lawyers, legal segregation would still be a way of life in the nation’s capital. Without lawyers, corrupt government [would] become the customary way of doing the public’s business. Without lawyers, tenants rights would be subject to the whimsy of landlords, the First Amendment would be more rhetoric than reality, battered spouses and abused children would have little recourse. It is lawyers who must devise processes to assure that our scientific genius supports individual freedom and does not suppress it; and lawyers who must shape ways to cushion the harsh blows of free market forces on the individual. Lawyers should be the most reliable life preservers for a people tossed in a sea of powerful government and private institutions, slammed by tidal waves of scientific discovery and technological revolution.”

I, for one, do not like that image of the world. So, bear the brunt of the constant barrage of lawyer jokes, as you must, but stay true to your course, for killing all the lawyers is not an option in a land that cherishes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I welcome you to my profession and wish you the very best as you begin your journey toward the sound of that distant call.