Fred A. Bernstein

NYU Law School Commencement Speech

Published in Speeches / talks, May 9, 1994

The last time I was this nervous was about five years ago, when I was a contestant on Jeopardy. I was so scared that I couldn't remember how to work the buzzer. By the first commercial, I was at minus $3,500, which is pretty much where I ended up. Trust me: It was humiliating.

Later, my friends who were in the audience tried to console me. They kept saying, "Don't worry, nobody'll see it."

Well, about six months later, I applied to law school, and the dean of admissions at Columbia called me in for an interview. As I walked into his office, he took one look at me and said, "Weren't you that guy on Jeopardy?"

At that moment, two things happened. First, I decided to grow a beard. And, second, I decided to apply to NYU.

But that's just the beginning of my story.

Robert Frost said, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." If so, then NYU is certainly my home.
After a wonderful first year here, I went to California for the summer, enjoyed seeing my friends and relatives on the west coast, and decided I should stay there. So, at the end of the summer, I arranged to transfer to UCLA.

At UCLA, I had some excellent professors, I think. I'm not sure, because I spent most of the semester looking for a place to park. And I kept flying back to New York on weekends. I missed too many things about this school. So after one semester, I asked if I could return to NYU. And like a true home, NYU took me in.

I came back because I realized there are special things about this school that I couldn't find anywhere else. Institutions, I have learned, have values, and this institution has the kind of values that I cherish.

This school is a community; that's something I felt from my very first day here, when I found myself among friends: friends who helped each other through the scary parts of first year, and the doldrums of second; who mooted each other's arguments and proofread each other's papers; who shared outlines and interview suits. I loved a lot of my professors--really loved them. But one of the most valuable experiences I had at NYU was a moot court competition, which was run entirely by students. Along with Dean Sexton, and the other administrators, and the faculty, it is the students who make this school the special place it is.

The reason all this talk of community is important is that we will be leaving here today and moving on to other institutions. And, after today, if we miss NYU, we won't be able to transfer back, as I did. But if we remember what makes NYU special, then we can bring its values with us, to those other institutions. We can take what we have learned at NYU, about creating communities, and use that knowledge wherever we end up.

But to create communities, we will also have to remember, as we become lawyers, that we are not just lawyers. We will have to remember back to the time, three years ago, when we still thought a tort was a cake, a canon was a gun, and Arthur Miller was a playwright. Remember that Arthur Miller? The one who taught us, in The Crucible, that it's easy to accuse but difficult to prove, and who taught us, in Death of a Salesman, not to overvalue the pursuit of material success. Those are both good lessons for lawyers. Very good lessons.

Now, when we hear the name Arthur Miller, we think of 12(b) (6) motions, of Pennoyer v. Neff, of ripeness and mootness and standing. Sometimes, I'm scared that, after three years of law school, we are too focused on details to remember universal truths.

It's not surprising that we would choose to focus on, and revel in, our newfound knowledge of the law. Law school was a lot of work. And I mean a lot. For three years, every time my father called, I'd say, "I can't talk, Dad. I've got another 300 pages to read, and two papers to write, and 26 cases to brief, all by 9:00 tomorrow morning. Got to go."

Today is the day we can all get reacquainted with our families.
But it's also the day we should begin to get reacquainted with ourselves.

This last semester, I took a course in professional responsibility. Often, I discovered, when the question involves legal ethics, the right answer is contrived and formalistic--common-sense and everyday morality fall by the wayside. When I face those kinds of questions, I try to remember my grandmother, Anna Bernstein, an immigrant who never even had a chance to go to high school, much less law school, but who somehow always knew right from wrong. And my rule of thumb is, if Anna Bernstein wouldn't understand what I'm doing, then maybe I shouldn't be doing it.

For me, this is a day of mixed emotions. Mostly, I'm happy. but, as I said at the beginning of this speech, I'm also nervous. And it's not just stagefright. I'm nervous about the bar exam, about my clerkship, and, most of all, about whether I'll find a job as a lawyer that will allow me to feel good about myself and pay my bills.

I don't know the answers, but I do that know it's good to talk about the questions. Lawyers have to be stoic, right? Never let 'em see you sweat. Well, that may work in the courtroom, but it doesn't work very well in real life. In real life, people can only support you if you let them. I know that as you spend time with your families today, most of the conversation will be about your accomplishments, and that's as it should be. The pride we feel today is well deserved. But don't be afraid to talk about whatever else you're feeling. Lawyers don't have to be automatons. If you let your guard down, if you let 'em see you sweat, people will come through for you.

So my hope, as we depart, is this: that we remember to think about Arthur Miller and Arthur Miller, about procedure and about larger moral questions. Let's remember what we learned at NYU -- it was a great three years. But at the same time, let's not forget all the important things we knew before we got here.