'You'll face choices that test your nerve,' professor tells Law School graduates

Misha Bruk Professor George Fishe

Professor George Fisher gave the keynote address at the Law School commencement exercises Sunday.

"We've been a damned good class," Bret Logue declared at Stanford Law School's commencement exercises Sunday.

Logue, co-president of the graduating class who was chosen to speak by vote of his peers, ticked off the evidence: 97.5 percent of the Class of 2007 raised $77,000 for the class gift, and the class enjoyed record turnouts at the Board of Visitors meeting, law prom and class musical.

The ceremony kicked off at 10 a.m. in Memorial Auditorium with about 1,500 family and friends in attendance. Among those participating in the event were 174 candidates for the degree of doctor of jurisprudence; 24 for the degree of master of laws, with 14 focusing in the area of corporate governance and 10 in law, science and technology; 13 for the degree of master of the science of law; and 8 for the degree of doctor of the science of law.

Logue went on to highlight several accomplishments of his classmates, including Hilary Ley, who through her work at the Immigrants' Rights Clinic prevented the deportation of a Filipino client; and John Polito, whose contributions helped the Cyberlaw Clinic settle a client's copyright case against the Estate of James Joyce. He also paid tribute to Professor Thomas Grey, who is retiring after 36 years of service.

Logue's co-president, Sarah Gilbert, presented Associate Dean for Student Affairs Catherine Glaze with the 2007 Staff Appreciation Award and Professor George Fisher with the 2007 John Bingham Hurlbut Award for Excellence in Teaching. This is the third time that Fisher, who delivered the keynote, has received this honor.

Fisher began his talk by echoing Logue's homage to Grey. "He rejects, in his own words, 'the riveting bang-bang of intellectual entertainment.' Instead he guides students toward intellectual clarity, teaching them to challenge supposed truths, to reject cant, to expose sophistry," he said.

Fisher, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general, also spoke about the U.S. attorney firings, and lessons learned from recently disclosed e-mails detailing the circumstances of the dismissals.

"The most obvious lesson concerns e-mail," he said: "Don't write that stuff down!"

But the e-mails teach us broader lessons, Fisher said. "Amid this chaos of affiliation and subordination, it sometimes seems no one was in charge—and no one was making the fateful decision to fire the eight U.S. attorneys. … This is the problem when no one takes responsibility, when no one claims a decision. There's a failure of decency and a failure of guts."

Fisher related an instance earlier in his career when he dropped a case he felt he could win. "But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I had lost my nerve," he said. "Not long from now, you'll face choices that test your nerve. And you will learn as I did that one option you never will have is not to decide.

"You will be rookies. You may have cheap desks in bad offices; you may spend your days doing document review. You may have six levels of hierarchy over your heads. But still it will be true, beginning with the first decision you make, that every decision you make will be your own."

Law School Dean Larry Kramer closed the ceremony by telling graduates: "The problems your generation faces are bigger, more complicated and even scarier [than mine]," citing terrorism, new diseases and global warming as examples. "By shrinking the globe … we magnified the costs of any mistakes.

"We messed things up and now it falls to you, our children, to fix it. So that your children will be able to hear a speech like this, but won't have to," he said.

Amy Poftak is assistant director of communications at Stanford Law School.