Speaking to UM law students, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy challenged them to become “trustees” of the legal profession.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 25, 2014) —
He had expected answers such as The Verdict, To Kill a Mockingbird, or A Few Good Men—Hollywood films related to the legal profession that had strong messages and profound meaning.
But when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy saw the movie that many of the students applying to China’s first school of law based on the American law school model had cited as the Hollywood picture that most inspired them to want to become an attorney, he was shocked: Legally Blonde, a 2001 comedy that stars Reese Witherspoon as a sorority girl who struggles to win back her ex-boyfriend by earning a law degree.
Kennedy would later learn more about the film and understood why the students related to it. “For them it [law school] was a new and daring adventure,” he said Monday to about 250 first-year University of Miami School of Law students. “This was a risk, a different world…and I want you to feel that way about law school.”
Kennedy’s advice, which he delivered in the third-floor ballroom of UM’s Student Activities Center, replaced the traditional “Dean’s Chat” typically given to the students. About 100 second- and third-year law students also attended.
Noting they are now part of a profession that is “the envy of the rest of the world,” Kennedy challenged the students to be “trustees” of a system that often examines problems of the utmost intractability and comes to conclusions.
Kennedy, who was appointed by President Reagan in 1988 and is often the swing vote on many of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decisions, spoke to the students about professional ethics, telling them they should not engage in conduct unbecoming not only to lawyers but also themselves. “You advance the law, not retard it,” he said.
Law students, he said, are taught a distinct language—one that is spoken the same whether it be in a course on contract law taught at Stanford or Cal-Berkeley on the West Coast or at Columbia or Miami on the East Coast. “And the language of the law has a grammar, tradition, a constraint, an elegance, an ethical component, a history,” Kennedy said.
He urged them not to be intimidated and pushed around by judges. “Constitutional law doesn’t belong to judges,” he said. “It belongs to you.”
The Harvard Law graduate, who earlier in the day taught UM law professor Caroline Corbin’s Constitutional Law Class, also told students there is “nothing wrong with having an instinct about something. But you must then test your theory by putting it into words,” he said. “And when you change your mind, that‘s a victory for the process.”
First-year law student Anta Plowden took Kennedy’s words to heart. “There will come a point in every law school student’s career when they will feel overwhelmed,” Plowden said after Kennedy’s remarks. “Maybe the reading is too much or the subject just doesn't make sense, and you will ask yourself, ‘Is it really worth it?’ Justice Kennedy reminded me that behind those pages and pages of case readings is somebody's story. Stories of people who turned to us in the legal profession as a last resort.”
Robert Jones can be reached at 305-284-1615.
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