Four decades after he first set foot onto the Harvard Law School campus as a law student, Dean John F. Manning ’85 on Tuesday welcomed to HLS more than 700 candidates for the degrees of Juris Doctor, Master of Laws, and Doctor of Juridical Science.
“You’re all Harvard Law students now,” said Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law, in his annual welcome address to new students. “Today is the culmination of many years of hard work and determination. And it marks your entry into a truly great profession.”
“The law,” he told the audience, which filled Harvard’s celebrated Sanders Theatre, “is fundamentally about how we govern ourselves, about the institutions and processes by which we set and apply the rules, norms, and structures that shape our lives. As lawyers, we are keepers of the rule of law, equal justice, fair process, checks against the abuse of power, the ideal of constitutional democracy.”
In an address in which Manning shared personal anecdotes about his time as a Harvard Law student and expressed gratitude about the opportunities he’s had in the legal profession, Manning explained the important role lawyers play and offered advice to the new students on how to succeed both in law school and throughout their careers.
The dean said that there is a reason that lawyers are leaders in nearly every walk of life. “Because lawyers,” he said, “at our best, bring skills that the world badly needs.”
Harvard lawyers are, Manning said, at the forefront of nearly every field, from law, government, and public service to business and finance to education and the arts. “And all of them at one point sat where you’re sitting, many feeling what you’re feeling,” he told his audience.
The first in his family to graduate from college and to attend law school, Manning assured the new students that any trepidation they were feeling as they embarked on a life in the law was likely shared by their classmates, however confident they might appear.
“Everyone is a little bit baffled and a little bit scared when they start any new school,” he said, adding that those feelings may be “an occupational hazard whenever highly motivated people have some big life transition.”
The dean also urged students to listen carefully to others, especially to those with whom they disagree. “A great lawyer has to be a person of great empathy and great humility — someone who is able to hear and understand the other side’s argument, even or perhaps especially when they find it challenging to do so.”
Finally, Manning counseled students to try to live in the moment, explaining that he’d spent too much time in law school worrying about the future rather than living in the moment and fully appreciating the present. He urged them to realize that “they would figure it all out,” that they would learn and grow a lot in the months ahead, that they would make mistakes but that’s how they would learn, and that the adventure they are about to begin is more fun and more inspiring if they can be in it fully.