Law Students Encouraged To Focus on Who They Want To Be

“Stanford is not about where you are from, but where you want to be,” said Nikolas Maria Guggenberger as he addressed the crowd of more than 1,500 people gathered in Canfield Courtyard for Stanford Law School’s graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 14, 2014.

Photo by GradImages

Over the course of the morning ceremony, the Class of 2014 was encouraged not just to focus on where they wanted to be, but who they wanted to be. They were urged to care, to look beyond achievements and most importantly to bring their best game to life.

 M. Elizabeth Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean, kicked off the festivities by welcoming family and friends of the JD and Advanced Degree students and introducing the first of two student speakers, Guggenberger, who was selected by the international students to deliver remarks.

Nikolas Maria Guggenberger taking a “selfie”

Assuring the crowd that, as a foreigner, the NSA was listening to his speech, Guggenberger started things off on a light note by joking about what he’d learned about American culture and demonstrating by stopping the speech to take a “spelfie” (described, and possibly invented, by Guggenberger as a selfie taken during a speech).

All kidding aside, Guggenberger also noted the challenges he and his peers have faced in adopting to a new culture. “It is hard to transfer from a system in which legal doctrine is everything and reality nothing, to one in which an empirical study may be the Holy Grail and doctrine seems to be the 17-ounce soda to Michael Bloomberg,” he said.

Guggenberger noted that those challenges were lessened by the experiences offered at SLS, such as the time he was invited to a surprise Q&A session with former President George W. Bush accompanied by Professor Condoleezza Rice, to the road trips taken with his classmates. Even the late-night library study sessions would be something Guggenberger would cherish about his time at SLS. In the end, Guggenberger said he learned that “Stanford is a mindset.”

Mark Feldman, selected on behalf of the JD students, took the podium next.

Mark Feldman
Photo by GradImages

Feldman had come to SLS from rural Morocco, where he had witnessed first-hand people’s need for an effective advocate. Upon arriving at SLS, however, he wasn’t sure how “vigorous debate about joinder rules and the rule against perpetuities” factored into that goal.

“I couldn’t see the connection between Rule 20, Pennoyer and the people I wanted to help. I couldn’t bring myself to give a damn,” Feldman said.

It was during his 1L summer when that began to change.

That summer, he visited three men on death row. Each had suffered from mental illness and had been severely abused as children, and they had all received terrible legal representation. Feldman asked one of the men what made a good attorney. The man responded, “A good attorney is someone who cares.”

This answer caused Feldman to reflect on the state of the legal profession and his legal education. “Time and again, I found myself meeting people in desperate, vulnerable places. And time and again, I saw the great, unmet need for legal services,” he said. “I learned that there are some terrible lawyers out there, and there are some terrible judges out there, and too many people are in prison—not because of the heinous nature of their crime, but because some lawyer or some judge or some agency official gave up on them, didn’t care enough, and more often than not they were too poor to hire someone to put up a fight. Suddenly I found myself caring—deeply—about every seemingly insignificant rule, down to the italicized periods—anything that contributed to this. And I remember thinking, this was exactly what I came to law school to learn.”

Associate Dean for Public Service and Public Interest Law Diane Chin
Photo by GradImages

Following Feldman’s speech, class co-president’s Faris Ali Mohiuddin and Rachel Alicia McDaniel presented the awards for 2014. McDaniel received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Service to Stanford Law School and Diane Chin, associate dean for public service and public interest law, received the Staff Appreciation Award.

Norman Spaulding, the Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law, was then presented with the John Bingham Hurlbut Award for Excellence in Teaching.

In his speech, Spaulding stressed the need for students to see beyond the quid pro quo of achievement. “It is easy for a day like this to slip away, to pass too quickly, to live on more in the pictures that will be taken than in your active memory,” he said. “One reason for the fragility of this moment is that, like so many lawyers before you, you are by habit of mind and years of repetition all too well accustomed to burying one achievement in the construction debris of the next to come.”

Photo by GradImages

Spaulding urged students to take the time to slow down and celebrate their achievements. “I do admire how connected you are to each other, but your generation is especially prone not to pause, not to stop to allow nothing to happen.”Citing the famous Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George come to the realization that a show “about nothing” might actually be something, “there is insight to be found in the emptiness of open observation and reflection,” Spaulding said. “Freed from machines and direct labor the deeper faculties of the mind – the original and still most powerful electronic device you own – light up.”

Spaulding clarified that it is not that he thinks students should seek to do nothing, “rather that today is a very good day to pause and think seriously about your disposition toward doing, particularly your disposition toward achievement,” he said. “You are to be lawyers – much of what you will do, much of what you accomplish, certainly the most important things you accomplishas lawyers, will not be for yourselves in the first instance, but rather for the clients you serve. We represent the interest of others. So we need to be particularly conscious of our disposition toward achievement.”

In closing, Spaulding told students to recognize the moment they were in.

“Wherever you think you are going, wherever you want to be, right now you are nowhere but here, surrounded by people who love you and have nurtured you – people who, like me, are more proud of you than words can explain.”

Dean Magill closed the ceremony with the charge to the class.

Photo by GradImages

“Given your talent, your spirit, your grit, your creativity, you should, youmust, and you are obligatedto pursue big dreams,” she said.

Magill challenged the class to bring their best game. Citing athlete Michael Phelps’ intense training regimen, she explained that the graduates had to likewise ‘train’ to live the lives they wanted, and that meant they had to take care of themselves.

“If it is obvious that high-stakes performances require intense training to assure that the performer is at her best, it should be just as obvious that the goal of living a meaningful life requires that too,” she said. “If you want to do work that matters, and build a satisfying life, you have to bring your best game.   And the simple truth is that you cannot do that unless you take care of yourself. That requires you to both understand and nurture yourself.”

Magill continued that that included understanding one’s limits, specifically the superhero myth. “This is the view that you can (and should) do everything. That doing more is always better, that there are no limits to your capacity. This is not a good training technique.”

Magill then asked the class to think about their own role models. “Do you think that any of them could have made the difference they have made without tending to themselves, without doing the equivalent of training?” she asked. “I don’t think so. They brought their best game to life and that allowed them to do what they did. So please, when you are not tending to yourself, remember that.”

See highlights on the Class of 2015’s Graduation ceremony here. You can view the entire album of SLS Graduation photos at To view videos from the ceremony go to: