17 May 2016
Garre, a Class of 1991 alumnus of the George Washington University Law School, delivered the below address to the Class of 2016 on Sunday, May 15, 2016.
As prepared for delivery:
Thank you Dean Morant for that kind introduction.
And good afternoon and congratulations to the graduating class of 2016. Whatever else you do make sure that you stop and enjoy this moment. Your making it to this day is truly a great accomplishment.
Let me also extend my congratulations to the family and friends who are here with you today and who helped you along the way. I know from my own experience how critical their support is to reaching this day.
Having lost my father in the past year, I have even an greater appreciation for how special these moments are. I can remember my own graduation day vividly, in this very hall, 25 years ago—an amount of time that seems almost impossibly long to me standing here today.
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When the Dean asked me to deliver the commencement address at this year’s graduation, he said that “all I had to do was be inspirational and brief.” Well the good news is that I can be brief.
As it turned out, shortly after the Dean contacted me, the legal world was turned upside down by the passing of one of the Nation’s most consequential jurists. And not long after Justice Scalia’s death, I came across an anecdote that I knew I wanted to share with you today.
Joan Biskupic, one of the country’s top Supreme Court reporters, wrote in her obituary for Justice Scalia about how animated the Justice became in talking about hunting.
Although he reportedly had a mounted elk’s head with a full rack of antlers hanging in his Chambers and no doubt had many stories about big game, she wrote that he became most excited talking about hunting turkey.
She recounted Justice Scalia asking her, “Have you ever heard a turkey gobble?” “It’s a very strange sound,” he said, “like a wooden rattle. You hear that far away and then you make sounds like a hen to induce him to come closer and closer.”
Now let me pause for a moment and just say that, having appeared before Justice Scalia, and having faced his wrath, on many occasions at oral argument, I would have liked a lot to have seen him making those “hen sounds.”
But I digress. Justice Scalia continued to say that, the turkey finally “sticks his head up over a log, and you have to take your shot, or else you’ve lost him. You get one shot. If you miss, the whole day’s ruined.”
Now I am not a hunter, and I will confess to feeling a bit sorry for the hapless turkeys who were lured to their demise by Justice Scalia’s hen calls, but it seems to me that this story is a good lesson for this day too.
Looking back with the benefit of 25 years’ experience, I can appreciate today more than I ever could have when I was sitting in your position, that you only get “one shot” at your legal career.
For all of you, this is it—it’s now your time, and your shot. And I don’t want anyone to miss.
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So how do you make the most of it? That’s a lot harder to say.
When I was sitting in your position, I had no clear idea of what path I would pursue. I had a clerkship lined up, and I assumed that I would eventually go to a law firm to work, but that was about it.
The idea of making a career of arguing cases before the Supreme Court would have seemed as far-fetched to me as I’m sure it would have to others at the time.
There is a tradition that, when a new Solicitor General is confirmed, he—or she—meets with the Chief Justice. I was very privileged to have spent about seven years working for John Roberts in private practice before he took the Bench. And after I was confirmed as Solicitor General, I said to him during our first talk, “You know Chief, I have to say I am really surprised this has happened.” He paused. And then he said, “You’re surprised?”
And that pretty much sums up my legal career.
The truth is, I have been both really lucky and truly blessed to have the opportunities I have had, and I have enjoyed almost every step of the way.
It would be impossible to say exactly what worked, and what didn’t, but in an effort to impart some wisdom today, I thought I would share a few thoughts that I hope will help each of you to make the most of your shot.
So here are five suggestions, as you start your legal careers. Really, they are all quite obvious. But I think they’re good reminders for everyone.
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The first is to find something you enjoy doing and have fun.
I’m going to get to “work hard” part, but there’s no rule that the practice of law can’t be fun and if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, it’s really hard to put in the time that’s going to translate into success.
I get asked a lot about how nervous I get before arguing a case before the Supreme Court. Believe me, I’ve seen what can go wrong up there, and there’s a lot to get nervous about.
Chief Justice John Roberts once said that arguing a case before the Supreme Court is a lot like the old carnival game “whack a mole.” Every time you give one Justice an answer, another one pops up. That’s true today more than ever at the Court. And let’s just say that not all the moles are nice.
But every time I argue a case before the Supreme Court, I write the word “Enjoy” right at the top of the folder that I bring with me up to the podium, and it’s one of the last things I look at before standing up. Because, for me, it doesn’t get any better than arguing a case before the Supreme Court. And I want to be reminded of that when the dread factor starts to peak.
And let me confess more generally that, with all the knocks sometimes made against the legal profession, I love what I do. OK, maybe not every single minute of it. Doing bills is never fun. But almost all of it.
The practice of law, for me, is immensely fulfilling. I enjoy the daily challenges of trying to figure out answers to complex problems. The satisfaction of filing a brief well done, and the excitement of unearthing a case that transforms a legal argument. The camaraderie of working with your colleagues and, as you get older, mentoring younger lawyers. And the thrills—and ups and downs—of oral argument itself.
Having clients put their trust in you to solve their legal problems is also tremendously rewarding, even if at times daunting.
I’ve had the privilege of representing individuals, companies, and state, federal, and even foreign governments before the Supreme Court. I’ve had the immense honor of standing up on behalf of the United States itself. And I once was able to call a client sitting on death-row to tell him that the Supreme Court had just given him another chance.
More fundamentally, I love being a part, even if a small part, of a process that results in judicial decisions that help to clarify the law, often with immense practical consequences even beyond the particular case at hand.
My interest in American government and the rule of law led me to DC, and to GW Law School, in the first place. And the training that I received at this special school has given me the opportunity to participate in the legal system in ways that, honestly, I never dreamt was possible.
So here’s the good news I want to leave with you today: the practice of law is fun and fulfilling—when you find what interests you.
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My second point is the “hard work” part. Some people are luckier than others. But what I have seen is that luck has a way of finding those people who work hard and, as a result, happen to be standing in the right place when it strikes.
Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studied why out of the 1000 or so men and women who enroll at West Point each year—individuals who are by definition among the most successful and motivated youths in the country—about 20% of those Cadets never make it to graduation. What explains who makes it, and who doesn’t?
And how could it be that someone like John Irving—a C-minus English student in high school who got a 475 out of 800 on the verbal section of the SAT—could go on to become one of the Nation’s most acclaimed novelists?
And why aren’t SAT or IQ scores a better predictor for success?
The answer, she found, is grit. As Professor Duckworth explains in her new book on the subject, whether one studies success in business, athletics, or spelling bees, grit is a better indicator of success than innate ability.
So what is it? Professor Duckworth defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance. That’s different than intensity. Grit is marked by endurance and consistency over time—along with a real sense of purpose.
In my experience, Supreme Court advocacy is almost all about grit. Behind the 30 minutes of standing up in Court are countless hours of preparation and practice. Going over possible questions, and practicing answers to them—over, and over, and over, again. Truthfully, it can get painful. But the best advocates I have seen all have grit.
And maybe more important, I see examples everyday of young lawyers who are succeeding—not because of where they went to law school, or what they got on the LSAT, or because they were blessed with some innate ability to practice law at birth, but instead because of their grit.
And here’s the best news: Grit is not something you are either born with or not. Professor Duckworth found that with practice, commitment, and daily challenges, we can all learn to be gritty—and even grittier.
Having survived law school, you have all shown your grit already. But you’ll need to use it as you go forward too.
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The third point I’d like to stress today is the importance of the capacity to adapt and being willing to seize opportunity when it does strike.
The path to success, and to achieving one’s dreams, is almost never linear.
I mentioned earlier that I did not know what I wanted to do when I was sitting in your position. But I did have the good fortune of taking advantage of opportunities that happened to come my way.
As I began private practice I learned over time that I really enjoyed appellate practice, and I soon set a goal of one day working in the Solicitor General’s office—a small office in the Department of Justice that represents the United States before the Supreme Court.
As it turned out, there were no openings in the office until after I had made partner at my law firm, and it was unusual for someone to go into the SG’s office as a line attorney after becoming a partner.
But when an opening finally did come up, I applied.
I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my Dad about that decision. “OK, let me get this straight,” he said. “You just made partner at your law firm, and now you want to go to the Department of Justice and make a fraction of what you are making? Are you sure you want to do that…?”
“Yes,” I said. And bless his heart, he went with it.
As it turned out, I worked in the Solicitor General’s office for about four years and then returned to my old law firm. Then, after only a year, I was unexpectedly asked to return to the Solicitor General’s office again, this time as Principal Deputy Solicitor General.
The timing of this was not exactly ideal. Not only had I just returned to my law firm, but our first child was scheduled to arrive in a matter of weeks.
But after another interesting conversation with my Dad, I took the job. And that decision not only eventually led to my becoming Solicitor General, but led to an immensely rewarding experience in public service.
The problem with opportunities is that they don’t always come along at the best time. But my advice to you is to seize them when they do, and that’s not always as easy as it sounds.
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My fourth recommendation, and I promise I am getting close to the end here, is to keep, or find, a balance in your life.
Hard work is important—even necessary—but finding an outlet, and separate set of interests outside of work, is also critical to maintaining not just your endurance, but your sanity.
Believe me, looking back, you will not remember the weekends that you spent in the office; you will remember the ones you got away.
Let me paraphrase Chief Justice Rehnquist, who I had the great privilege to clerk for. He once told a group of graduating law students like you that aspiring for greatness is fine, but you really should “get a life” too.
The Chief Justice referred to a line in the old Jimmy Stewart movie, “You Can’t Take It With You.” One of the characters, an eccentric grandfather who had retired from business to experience life, has this line: “How many of us would have settled thirty-five years ago for what we are today? It is only a lucky few who can say they even came close.”
One way, perhaps too common in this town, to answer that question is to look back at professional achievements. But as Chief Justice Rehnquist observed, another way is to measure your enjoyment of what he called the “fruits of life”—whether that’s spending time with family, spending weekends riding your bike, or pursuing some other interest.
And I can tell you that this only becomes more important with time. These days the best of my day has changed from going into court to coming home and having my daughter or son ask me, “Daddy, how was court?”
Let me give you two secrets I have learned to help with a balanced life.
First, get a dog. It will force you to get out of the office, and dogs are always happy to see you when you come home.
And second, if you want to find a work-life balance, then find someone to work for who is balanced. If you work for someone who spends his or her weekends in the office, you can guess where you’ll be too.
There are going to be busy times ahead. But whatever it is that you enjoy doing outside of the law, keep doing it, and don’t let your legal career crowd it out.
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My last piece of advice is to remember that, no matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you practice to get ready, you can’t control everything, and sometimes things just don’t work out.
Honestly, this was one of the hardest lessons for me. You work so hard, and you want everything to go just right, but life doesn’t always happen that way, and neither does the practice of law.
I argued a case called Massachusetts v. EPA on behalf of the government. The case, which involved a challenge to the EPA’s decision not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, is colloquially known as the “global warming” case.
The argument was held on November 29, 2007. And I’ll never forget driving up to the Supreme Court that morning and looking out and seeing people walking around the mall in shorts and t-shirts. Let’s just say it was an unseasonably warm day in Washington, D.C.
As it turned out, we lost the “global warming” case 5-to-4. But I am still convinced to this day that we would have won if it had just been snowing that morning.
Believe me, I’ve had lots of other examples of cases and arguments that didn’t go as planned. And it can be tough to pick yourself up.
But what I have seen in those who succeed is the ability to learn from setbacks, but not dwell on them, and then move on. That’s harder than it sounds. But it’s really important to success, and happiness, in the long run.
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Cognizant of my first objective for today, I am going to stop there.
Let me close by saying how truly excited I am for each of you, and how grateful I am that you allowed me to share this special day with you.
You all have so much to look forward to in the law—and life. I have the utmost confidence that you will make GW proud. And I wish you all great success and happiness as you go forward.
I know I speak for everyone when I say, “Watch out turkeys.”
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