Neal Manne ’80 Delivers Encouraging Commencement Address

The Texas Law Class of 2019, along with their families and friends and the law school leadership and faculty were treated to an inspiring address from Neal Manne ’80 at the annual commencement ceremony, held on May 25, 2019. Mr. Manne, who serves as a Trustee on the Law School Foundation, received his B.A. with Highest Honors from The University of Texas at Austin in 1976 and his J.D. with High Honors from this law school in 1980. He was a Friar, he was a Vice Chancellor, and he was an associate editor of the Texas Law Review. Mr. Manne is now the Managing Partner of Susman Godfrey, which is counted among the finest law firms in the country.

Below are Mr. Manne’s remarks.

University of Texas School of Law Commencement Address
May 25, 2019

It had been hot and muggy all week, even for Austin. And of all the weird places to hold a law school graduation, mine was going to be in the Texas Swimming Center. Now I don’t claim that my idea was very original. Rather than walk around the pool as instructed to receive my diploma and handshake when my name was called, I planned to dive into the pool and swim across. As I ended my 7 years at UT, I would literally make a splash.

But then my parents decided to show up for the Sunflower Ceremony after all. And I’ll admit it: I lost my nerve. There is a moral to the story and it’s this: family members play a valuable role at these ceremonies. If some of your family members are here today, thank them. Thank them for all their encouragement in helping you get to this important moment in your life. And thank them for all the times their mere presence has discouraged you from doing something really stupid.

Let me make another admission: I have no idea who my commencement speaker was on that hot day in 1980, and I do not remember a single thing they said. I have no illusions that your experience will be any different. This, of course, is quite liberating for me as a speaker.

So, thank you, Dean Farnsworth, for that very generous introduction of this speaker whom no one will remember.

A law degree is a very powerful tool. You’re being issued that tool today. How you use it is up to you. Like a hammer, which can be used to build a house but also to tear one down, a law degree can be used for the most noble of purposes or the most destructive.

Let me tell you about two of my clients, who were locked up on Texas’ Death Row for a very long time, waiting for the state to kill them. One of them, Anthony Graves, was on Death Row because a district attorney concealed evidence of his innocence, threatened one witness, and elicited testimony at trial from another witness that the witness already had told the DA was false. Mr. Graves had absolutely no involvement in the crime. He spent 18 years in prison before he was declared innocent and completely exonerated.

Think of all you hope to do in the next 18 years, professionally and personally, with your family and friends. All the fun you hope to have, the dreams you will pursue, the love you hope to share with someone, the rich and rewarding life you will build. Now imagine spending those next 18 years locked in solitary confinement instead, in a 6 by 10-foot cell, awaiting execution, because someone with the same tool you’re receiving today—a law degree– used it badly, dangerously, and corruptly.

The DA who prosecuted Anthony Graves was disbarred for life for his misconduct. I’m delighted to say that his law degree was not earned here on the 40 Acres. But here’s the thing: when that guy was sitting at his own law school commencement ceremony, he did not think to himself, “Someday I will misuse my legal skills so profoundly that I will be disbarred for life.” And when he was elected the DA many years later, his goal was not to perpetrate gross miscarriages of justice.

A law degree is a powerful tool and it is an easy tool to misuse. It is easy to tell one’s self that winning is more important than following the rules. It’s easy to cut corners. It’s easy to demonize the opposing lawyer or opposing party. It’s easy to be so certain that you are right, that the end seems to justify the means. The risk of doing something improper even a single time, because it seems so justified, is that it becomes easier to do it again. An exception turns into a habit, and then a pattern, and down the spiral you go.

Another client of mine, Dewayne Brown, spent more than 9 years on Texas’ Death Row awaiting execution. He, too, was completely innocent. When an alibi witness, in her testimony to the grand jury, placed Mr. Brown at a location far from the crime scene, the prosecutor charged her with perjury and had her jailed. Child Protective Services took away her three children, ages 11, 8 and 6. The prosecutor told her she could get out of jail, and get her children back, any time she wanted. All she had to do was “cooperate” with him by abandoning her alibi testimony and agreeing to testify against Mr. Brown. Finally, after languishing for 120 days in the Harris County Jail, she agreed to the prosecutor’s outrageous demand.

The prosecutor even had telephone records that confirmed her original alibi testimony to the grand jury and exculpated Mr. Brown by confirming that he was far from the crime scene. But the prosecutor never turned those phone records over to Mr. Brown’s lawyers, and they mysteriously disappeared from the files. It took 12 years for Mr. Brown to be released from prison. Just three weeks ago, a court finally declared him “actually innocent.” He’s now eligible for financial compensation from the State, but he can never get back those 12 years of his life.

Both Anthony Graves and Dewayne Brown were young, poor and African American. And though I’m confident that racism played a large role in both cases, their prosecutors seemed to genuinely believe that these men were guilty when the prosecutors corrupted the system and sent innocent men off to die by lethal injection. How does that happen, and is there a lesson there for us as lawyers?

“Confirmation bias” is the tendency of people to search for and interpret information in ways that confirm their own pre-existing beliefs or hypothesis. You can get an excellent illustration of confirmation bias any night of the week by switching back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC. Confirmation bias is an error of inductive reasoning, and you will encounter it often in the practice of law. Because of confirmation bias, people are especially likely to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their own existing position. And in the practice of law, almost everything is ambiguous.

How does one guard against the effects of confirmation bias when practicing law? I try several things. I avoid creating an echo chamber by making clear to everyone on my trial teams that I want them to think independently and critically about every assumption. I encourage people to play Devil’s Advocate.
Most big cases are mock tried before there is a real trial. When a case is mock tried, I always prefer to play the opposing side, not my own. To prepare to argue the other side’s case as persuasively as possible, I have to look for every flaw and weakness in my own client’s position.

Before any client or key witness is deposed or testifies at trial, my team and I prepare what we call the Ten Hardest Questions. It’s a list of the very strongest attacks against our own witness’s story. Each of these techniques is designed to challenge our own assumptions, and test whether the story we want to be true really is true.

So, when I listened to the two prosecutors insist that they had done nothing wrong, even after both Mr. Graves and Mr. Brown were proven to be innocent, I was struck by how sad it was even for the prosecutors. How sad that they had been so intellectually lazy; that they had cut so many Constitutional corners; that their misplaced confidence in their own ability to discern truth had led them to break ethical rules and ruin lives, including their own.

Your decisions as a lawyer can have dramatic impact. Not just on the lives of your clients and adversaries, but on your own life, too.

Now before you decide to forget this law stuff and go get an MBA, let me give you some great news: practicing law is a blast! You will have so many different opportunities to help people. Sometimes, you’ll get to profoundly change their lives. If law has become the secular religion of modern American society, then you’re now one of its priests. There is an enormous variety of types of law practice, but they all have one thing in common: helping people who need your help and want your help as they confront a problem they are not equipped to handle but you now are.

Yes, some lawyers badly failed Anthony Graves and Dewayne Brown. But both men are alive and free today because of the extraordinary good that other lawyers did. They were freed from Death Row through the combined efforts of lawyers working for non-profit legal services organizations, private practice criminal defense lawyers, civil litigators working pro bono, and new prosecutors committed to justice rather than winning at all costs.

One graduate of this law school who helped free Mr. Graves was not even practicing law any more. She was teaching investigative journalism to college students and became interested in his case. When Mr. Graves received compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment, he donated part of it to U.T. law school to establish an endowed scholarship in her honor.

It is enormously satisfying to help someone get justice, or simply a fair resolution of a legal problem. I happily admit it: whether it is for a paying client or a pro bono one, I have fun in my law practice every single day.

Now a short history lesson. When I described my graduation ceremony at the Texas Swimming Center, some of you probably thought to yourself, “Well, isn’t it just as weird that ours is being held in an old gymnasium?” The answer is no: Gregory Gym actually is a very fitting place for this Sunflower Ceremony. Thomas Watt Gregory, for whom it is named, was one of the original law graduates of UT, in 1885. He practiced law in Austin. He became the first UT graduate to serve on the Board of Regents. Gregory was a Progressive in some respects. He championed the early antitrust laws, condemning what he called “plutocratic power” and “predatory wealth.” That impressed President Woodrow Wilson, who appointed Gregory to be the Attorney General of the United States in 1914.

But then, as now, a law degree is a tool that can do as much damage as it does good. As Attorney General, Gregory crafted and lobbied for passage of the now infamous Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to use “disloyal” or “abusive” language when merely speaking about the U.S. Government, the American flag, or the military. Gregory used the Sedition Act to suppress dissent and stifle free speech through thousands of misguided criminal prosecutions.

After resigning under fire in 1919, Gregory’s next move seems obvious in retrospect. He returned to Austin, became the head of the U.T. Ex-Students Association, and raised the money for this gymnasium to be built. 100 years later, here we are.

So, 39 years after I didn’t jump into the pool, let me offer a few final thoughts about what lies ahead.

You probably don’t know right now how you’ll actually spend most of your legal career. I had 6 different jobs in the first 8 years after law school. Don’t worry about finding the perfect job right now, because it won’t be perfect. Learn as much as you can from your first job, then find another not-perfect job and learn some more.

And don’t be afraid to fail. Failing is valuable. I think that fear of failure is the principal reason why some lawyers do not achieve excellence and are dissatisfied with their jobs. If you are paralyzed by fear of failing at something, you will avoid even trying it, and that means you will avoid ever learning how to master it. I’m a trial lawyer. And the cliché is true: if a lawyer claims that she has never lost a trial, either she’s lying or she doesn’t really try cases. You bet I’ve lost trials. Spectacularly and publicly. And I never learn more than when I lose. Not just about how to improve as a trial lawyer, but about myself. How to be resilient and get up off the mat, how to laugh in the face of failure, and how to turn the page and move on. Don’t be afraid to do things you aren’t yet good at. It’s the only way to learn.

As a young lawyer, of course, I loved the thrill of victory and I was devastated by the agony of defeat. Over time, victory in the courtroom has come to feel merely satisfying rather than truly thrilling, and often it’s suffused with a keen empathy for the opposing lawyer and party who have just lost. Rather than agony, defeat has come to feel like an unwanted but natural part of the process of being a trial lawyer. And a natural part of life.

In the days leading to my law school graduation and departure from Austin, I was filled with a very different emotion: an almost overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia is powerful and bittersweet. Surely many of you have been experiencing intense nostalgia this week, as you contemplate the end of your time as a student, and your imminent separation from very dear friends and meaningful places. Nostalgia is about looking backward, poignantly.

But graduation is ultimately a time for looking forward. Though I do not remember who spoke at my Sunflower Ceremony or a single thing they said, I do remember the incredible excitement I felt as I closed a long chapter in my life and prepared to embark on the next one. As I drove out of Austin, headed to California with everything I owned crammed into my 1969 Buick LeSabre, windows rolled down and radio blaring, the Capitol dome and the U.T. tower receded in my rearview mirror, but life in all its mystery seemed to unfold on the road ahead.

I hope you feel that same sense of excitement today about your own limitless futures.

Dean Farnsworth, distinguished faculty and guests, and especially the class of 2019: sharing this occasion with you today is one of the thrills and honors of my lifetime. Thank you and congratulations!