Prepared remarks: Attorney General Phil Weiser Graduation Speech to Colorado Law Class of 2023
It’s truly an honor to be with you today.
To the Class of 2023, I am honored to welcome you in joining the ranks of the great community of Colorado Law alums. Serving as a lawyer is a noble profession, and you all have the opportunity—and the obligation—to make a positive impact with your law degrees. And for all of those here supporting graduating students, today is a day to honor your critical support, too. Thanks, Dean Innis, for inviting me to join you and the Class of 2023 here today.
In my remarks today, I want to share with you three key lessons I have learned over my career—(1) giving yourself permission to try and fail; (2) viewing your life as a series of experiments; and (3) embracing the power of mentors.
Permission to Fail
Several years ago, when I was Dean at Colorado Law, I had the pleasure of awarding my friend Ron Sandgrund the honorary Order of the Coif award. When I introduced him, I stated that Ron had the experience of having his law firm’s business fail and having to pivot and rebuild it. In Ron’s case, his firm lost around 90% of its established business and he and his partners were forced to adjust, changing from representing insurance companies in construction defect cases to representing plaintiffs. I meant that introduction as a compliment, but Ron heard the word “fail” and took it as a slight. In his mind, his firm never failed, as they never skipped a payroll for the employees. In my mind, his business model failed and he was forced to learn and adapt. Indeed, that pivot led to great success and enabled Ron to retire at a relatively young age.
The experience with Ron was my most notable graduation memory. And Ron tells me that people have come up to him and recalled that when he took the stage, he started by disagreeing with my characterization of what happened. For me, this highlights how the word fail—or its more harsh relative, failure—is one that our society frowns upon.
In my experience, failing provides an opportunity to learn and adjust. In developing that attitude, I had the benefit, if you can call it that, of failing calculus my first semester in college. And I lost my race for student council that semester, too, coming in ninth out of nine candidates running for seven spots. In both cases, I came back the next semester, ran again for student council and took calculus again. As a lawyer early in my career, I had the experience working for a lawyer on a brief and working as a law clerk of producing a draft opinion and being told, in both cases, that my work product was plainly unacceptable. It was hard to hear. And, yet, in my experience, there really is not a more powerful lesson than being told your work does not meet expectations and getting feedback on what it takes to do better.
A few weeks ago, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo rejected the premise of a question as to whether the Bucks season—after which his #1 seated team lost in the first round of the playoffs—was a failure. He asked rhetorically was every season that Michael Jordan did not win it all a failure? In what was a tremendous conversation, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson reflected on this question—what does it mean to fail? Shaq took the line that failing means you don’t reach your goal and, thus, not winning a championship as a one seed means you failed. By contrast, Charles and Kenny used a different frame—Gianni’s season was not a failure—and he was not a failure—just because the outcome was not a championship; after all, many people fall short in different contexts and that does not make you a failure.
This conversation reminded me of the different reaction that Ron and I had to the F word. Upon further reflection, both points of view are correct—Ron and Giannis were not failures; and, yes, both Ron and Gianni failed in what they initially set out to do and can learn from that opportunity. In my case, failing calculus—like failing to win my student council election my first semester at college—helped take the sting out of the F word. And, for me, there is no shame in failing at something. The shame, as I see it, is in not trying or not learning from why things did not work out.
My second suggestion, and this actually came up in the Inside the NBA conversation, is not to put all of one’s eggs in one basket. If we don’t set ourselves up to think that we have to succeed in one particular dimension, but instead think of our life choices as different investments in a diversified life portfolio, we can lower the stakes. A related concept here is to view our lives as an experiment. By that, I mean that we can give ourselves permission to try different options, knowing that some will not work out. But if we have enough alternative experiments, some will work out and we can take solace and joy from those that are successful—and learn from those that don’t work out.
To bring this back to my journey, I can tell you that I would not have joined the Colorado Law faculty unless I viewed it as an experiment. When I agreed to join the faculty, I was uncertain as to whether my work as a professor would be fulfilling and feed my desire to be engaged in the world and devote myself to public service. Rather than have to make a singular long term bet on this proposition, I viewed my first 2 ½ years on the faculty as an experiment. Those 2 ½ years suggested that my desire to serve, to engage in work that made an impact, and to be intellectually engaged were all nourished by serving on this faculty. And, more recently, I viewed running for office and even serving as Attorney General as an experiment—or even as a series of experiments.
My final suggestion for you all is to embrace the power of mentoring. For me, this lesson came to me in college when I had my first mentor, Professor Richard Rubin. My initial path was to become a doctor, like my dad, and then I faced the reality of failing calculus and struggling in the sciences. Richard, a Political Science professor, nurtured my passion for public policy. And he is the person who encouraged me to pursue law school—and the person who I turned to when I made every important life decision, including taking the teaching job at Colorado Law. He was confident that the experiment would work out. And he was right.
As someone who now serves as a mentor, I can vouch for a familiar saying—I have learned from my teachers, I have learned from my peers, but most of all, I have learned from my students. Over the years at Colorado Law and as Attorney General, I have learned from and gotten great joy from my mentees. The spirit here is one I continue to hold onto—give before you get. For me, embracing the power of both having mentors and having mentees was transformative.
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I am excited for the path ahead for each of you. As you go forward, you might consider a powerful concept that I think about when faced with challenging times—“you don’t have the obligation to repair the world by yourself; but you are not free to desist from doing your part.” As lawyers, you all have a part to play in defending our institutions and the rule of law, in promoting justice and protecting our democracy, and in building relationships based on respectful and professional engagement. Our profession is one that is dedicated to service, to collaborative problem solving, and repairing our world. We need your engagement now more than ever.
Congratulations to the class of 2023. I wish you the best of luck in embracing this next chapter of lifelong learning, helping to build a better future, and undertaking the important work ahead.