The Texas Law Class of 2020, along with their families and friends and the law school leadership and faculty were treated to an encouraging address from The Honorable Robert Pitman ’88 at the virtual commencement ceremony on May 23, 2020. Judge Pitman received his masters degree from the University of Oxford and received a J.D. from Texas Law in 1988. He practiced as an associate at Fulbright & Jaworski before joining the United States Attorney’s office and serving as a federal magistrate. He is now the United States District Judge for the Western District of Texas.
Below are Judge Pitman’s remarks.
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS SCHOOL OF LAW COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
MAY 23, 2020
Thank you, Dean Farnsworth, for the kind introduction. And to the law school Class of 2020, let me say that I am proud and honored to have been asked to say a few words today.
It goes without saying that this is a less-than-ideal way of honoring you. I’d love more than anything to be doing this in person with you among family and friends. I was drawn to our profession because of its focus on people, and it pains me that we are, for a time, being kept from the personal interactions that make our work so rewarding.
Not only is this manner of addressing you unusual, but so are the times themselves. I have no unique insight into the future or wisdom about how we should prepare for it. But as a graduate of this law school and someone who has had the great good fortune of teaching many of you who graduate today, I can find ample reason to be optimistic. I’m optimistic because I’ve had the chance to get to know your character and capability. And I’m optimistic because I know that the profession that many of you are about to enter will provide you the opportunity to take a front-line role in shaping the kind of future that we all want.
The inscription above the entrance to the Main Building on campus is, as you probably know: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”. What you may not know is that it was originally meant to be “The records of the past shall give light and courage to them that come after”. Apparently, there were too many letters in that phrase to make it into the space above the door. But whatever the reason, and no disrespect to the worthy winning motto, I love the sentiment of the original candidate.
I’m neither a historian, nor for that matter, a scientist, so my insights into our current circumstances are limited. But I do know that few, if any, generations of human society have been spared significant, if not devastating, challenges and crises. The history of our own country reveals lesson after lesson of how painful, traumatic, seemingly devastating moments are inevitably transforming, and often lead us, ultimately, to a better place. And I hope that, as the would-be motto advises, you can take courage from those who have gone through such times before.
Like those before us, while living through such times we don’t yet know the true nature and extent of the challenges ahead. But it’s apparent from the fact that we are memorializing this event the way we are, that there are significant changes in store. And some may be permanent. Let me, if I can, suggest that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In 2014, London experienced the most recent in its history of transit strikes, and the London Tube, which carries as many as 5 million riders a day, was largely shut down. This wasn’t the first time that millions of commuters had to find another way to get to their destinations, but it was the first time that economists from Oxford and Cambridge took the chance to look at the data, comparing the behavior of the riders before the strike to what they did when the strike as over. The strike forced commuters to seek another way to get where they were going—to do things a different way. And the researchers discovered something surprising: that, once the strike was over, a significant number of riders never went back to their old patterns of travel. The inference was, of course, that the strike had caused them to find other, better ways of getting to their destinations; that an unplanned, unwelcome interruption in their daily routine revealed that there was a better, more efficient way.
I’m not saying for a moment that what we face now is a mere inconvenience. There are countless tragic human casualties of this pandemic, and economic consequences yet to be known. But all we can do in this moment, rather than despair, is to call on the past for lessons of how a crisis, notwithstanding all its attendant hardship and loss, can also teach us better ways to work and live.
I’m a true believer in the importance of opportunities to re-set priorities, re-examine perspectives and re-assess old ways of doing things. In my own life, some of the most important moments of personal and professional growth have been prompted by unexpected, uncomfortable, and unwanted interruptions. Let me suggest the possibility that this moment in time will be just that. While there will no doubt be discomforting aspects to this journey, be open to the possibility that whatever the new normal is may be in some respects preferable to the old.
As we enter this future—in reality no more unknown than at any other time—I know that you, as many of you are entering the practice of law, will have a significant opportunity to be agents of change in whatever the new reality will be. I believe that the legal profession, no less than medicine, counseling, social work and others, should be regarded as a helping profession. What we do, we do for the people who are affected by our work. By virtue of your training and credentials, you are uniquely positioned, especially In times of crisis, to have a positive impact. You will have access to the institutions that safeguard civil liberties, public safety, and confidence in public and private transactions. And I can guarantee you, that when the dust settles, the legal profession will offer just as much satisfaction and, if I can say it, joy, as ever. Because the things that make what we do rewarding and fun will remain: the daily opportunity to work with words and concepts and logic and conflict and rules to solve real problems in the lives of real people.
I have gotten to know many of you as my students, so I can speak with confidence about certain things. I know that the same qualities that brought you to this moment in your life and career will continue to serve you well as you navigate the future. You have shown yourselves to be focused, determined, and capable. You have character and depth and a spirit of goodwill that, I believe, will only serve to raise the reputation of our profession in the generation to come.
It’s true—you might have to hone a few additional skills as you embark on the next stage of your journey, including, among others: flexibility, resilience, patience and good humor. And you might just have to spend a little more time reflecting on what’s really important in life. But don’t be too put off by the complexities of our current circumstances. I’d encourage you to heed the words of one of my heroes, Winston Churchill, who knew a thing about complex, uncertain times. Churchill observed, profoundly, I think, that “[O]ut of intense complexity intense simplicities emerge.”
Out of the complexities of these times, my wish for you is that you return to the intense simplicities of life, which I believe will be the very things that will sustain you whatever comes.
Thank you for letting me be a part of your big day, and I wish you all the best in what I know will be an exciting and fulfilling adventure ahead.