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U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Speech by SEC Chairman:
Commencement Address,
St. John's University School of Law


Chairman Harvey L. Pitt

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Queens, N.Y.
June 2, 2002

These remarks reflect solely the personal views of Mr. Pitt, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Commission, the individual members of the Commission, or its Staff.

Reverend President Harrington, Dean Bellacosa, Chief Judge Carman, Members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished Faculty, graduates and, above all, those who truly make this day special and possible – the parents, spouses, family members and cherished friends of today's graduates:

Good afternoon, and heartfelt congratulations! If those of you about to graduate are lucky, these friends and relatives will continue to lend support and encouragement throughout your legal careers. To be sure of that today, and every subsequent day, try to thank them and to show your genuine appreciation for what they have given you.

Thirty-four years ago, I sat in full cap and gown regalia in the audience of an identical St. John's Law commencement, impatient to celebrate, nervous about the bar exam, and eager to begin life as a lawyer. Like you, I am fortunate to have a St. John's legal education; my career is built upon what I first learned here. I am, therefore, most grateful for the dual honors bestowed on me today - the honor of speaking at my alma mater's Commencement, and the conferral of an honorary St. John's law degree. Both have very special meaning for me.

As you sit, I know you must feel as I did then – unenthusiastic about spending much time listening to some old fogy pontificate. When I awoke this morning, I realized that I am now my own worst nightmare – today I am that old fogy! I'll try to indulge our collective desire for brevity, if you'll indulge this old fogy and let me offer a few observations on this watershed occasion.

Cherish your law school years. I still do. I met people who became lifelong friends; I learned from professors who truly cared about the law, about their students and who inspired me. Of course, I also learned the importance of precedent, how to reason like a lawyer, and even the art of using legalese.

What I didn't fully appreciate in law school, and what you and all 2002 graduating law students may not fully appreciate, is this axiomatic truth: law school teaches us to find the "right" answers; but in life, because there are no "right" answers, we must learn to ask the "right" questions.

In a recent book, entitled The Soul of the Law1, by Benjamin Sells, the author explored why many lawyers become unhappy with their career choice over time.2 Candor compels us also to acknowledge that lawyers aren't the only ones who have doubts about the legal profession – many in the rest of the population do, too. It is sad, but true, that the same attributes thought by some to produce successful lawyers, also give rise to many insufferable lawyer jokes. Some in the lay population think we are contentious, exalt form over substance, look for loopholes, are overly result oriented, and indulge in gamesmanship by looking for any edge, whether fair or not.

This phenomenon, it has been suggested, arises because many lawyers are taught, or come to believe, that law is an abstraction.3

For example, litigators too often seem to follow Vince Lombardi's maxim, that "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."4 But, litigation isn't a game, and it isn't comparable to football to which Coach Lombardi was referring. Similarly, corporate lawyers too frequently seem willing to subordinate the objectives of their true clients – the company and its shareholders – as they zealously pursue goals of the managers who wield the power to hire and fire them. Even if management's goals arguably can be supported by a literal reading of the law, and are not inconsistent with legitimate corporate objectives, corporate lawyers must use their legal acumen to pursue only those goals whose purpose is to further legitimate corporate interests.

And so, we can put to rest the notion that law is an abstraction; law isn't and can't be treated as an abstraction. But, if law isn't an abstraction, what is it? Law is, and should be, about responding on a societal, principled, human and ethical level to real people, with real problems, who seek real solutions.

In 1968, when I graduated, St. John's was unusual – it mandated formal ethical instruction. After Watergate, other schools did, too. But the differences between ethics learned in law school, and truths we learn in the throes of real life, are virtually infinite. In some things, and especially ethics and professionalism, experience is the best, and often the only, teacher.

Finishing law school is doubtlessly a milestone. Up next, most of you will sit for the bar this summer – a task many people think is the last step in becoming a lawyer. But as Sells has observed, "[t]he process of becoming a lawyer' includes more than learning [a] strange language and learning a set of basic legal principles."5 "Becoming" a lawyer, he says, requires a "melding of identities between the practitioner and the profession."6

I fearlessly predict that becoming a lawyer will affect all aspects of your life. Your style of speaking will change – if it hasn't already – and your choice of words, even your physical posture and body gestures, will change.7 Your families and friends will all notice it. The only person who may be oblivious to this transformation is you.

I was, for a time, oblivious to the fact that being a lawyer had become an integral part of my persona. My wife and children, however, were happy to point that out to me! If you find yourself cross-examining your spouse or children, you know you've inculcated the form as well as the substance of lawyering. If your pre-teenager won't watch you being interviewed on TV because "you only talk about boring things," you know you're a lawyer. As a young SEC lawyer, I learned it is better to write "for people, not for other lawyers." In private practice, a former client put a finer point on it - she exclaimed that "people are not lawyers and lawyers are not people."

Yet, in my experience, this is not true. The best lawyers are those connected with their families and friends, who continue to pursue interests outside the law, who get involved in their communities, who tackle pro bono projects to offer those, unable to pay for it, the very best legal representation. They are also happy lawyers. They apply perspective and insight in rendering legal counsel. They do not counsel their clients solely on the letter of the law; they serve the law's "soul" as well. This ethos is embodied in St. John's mission statement, which embraces "the Judeo-Christian ideals of respect for the rights and dignity of every person and each individual's responsibility for the world in which we live."

This is another way of saying: "do the right thing." If you do, you qualify as one of the "Generally Decent" people who inhabit Jan Morris's recent book, Manhattan '45.8 She cites a memorable example of a "Generally Decent" person, a fellow named Buck McNeill, who was a boatman in Battery Park for over 30 years. She writes:

He was the most famous of American life-savers, having rescued [at least a hundred people] from the harbour . . . . [O]ften . . . decorated, and frequently written up in . . . city newspapers, [he was] . . . unaffected by his celebrity. If interviewers asked . . . what his feelings were, when he plunged yet again into the murky water to save another life, he always answered[:] . . . "It's . . . just my nature, that's all. When I sees 'em tumble in, I goes after 'em."9

Buck McNeill was a true public servant. He regularly put his life on the line to save fellow citizens. The rescue workers who selflessly perished on and after September 11th to save others make it clear we are abundantly blessed with scores of "Generally Decent" people, like Buck McNeill, in these difficult times.

Contrary to the views of those who hold our profession in disdain, to be a truly good lawyer one must first be a "Generally Decent" person. You have been remarkably well prepared to be "Generally Decent" people, because our Law School aptly adopts as its aim "not only . . . [producing] excellent professionals with an ability to analyze and articulate clearly what is, but also . . . develop[ing] the ethical and aesthetic values to imagine and help realize what might be."

St. John's goal, of imbuing its law graduates with the principal value of serving society as a whole, is manifested by the long tradition of St. John's lawyers embracing public service. When I graduated, I went directly into public service, as an SEC staff attorney, an experience that taught me what being a lawyer means, and a choice I've never regretted. I learned how important it is to counsel clients and others to achieve societally desirable goals by appropriate means, a lesson I relearn every day, after all these years, even though I no longer practice law.

Now, I am honored to chair the agency where my legal career began. That says a lot about this Law School and the education I received. My story is not unique; St. John's Law graduates enjoy distinguished and rewarding careers. My message to you is simple: there are no limits; give back at least in equal measure what you were fortunate to receive, and you'll be surprised how high you can reach, how far you can go.

We live in difficult times. We are confronted with difficult issues. And yet, in difficult times, facing difficult issues, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to be part of the solution. The chance to make a difference, to serve the public interest, makes public service incredibly rewarding and invaluable.

As you enter the "real world," I offer three wishes:

  • A fulfilling and rewarding career;
  • Entering public service at some point or points in that career;
  • Rising every morning, looking forward to the day ahead, practicing a truly great profession, and serving your fellow man and woman, as well as your Country.

In sum, I wish for you what I have been blessed with since I left these hallowed halls – the very best the law has to offer, without a tinge of regret, unhappiness or dissatisfaction. May God grant you this professional experience, along with the ability to recognize that you have been so blessed. And, may God keep you focused on doing what is right and helping those you serve avoid what is wrong. These are not abstractions; they are the paths we must take to nourish the "soul" of the law.

This is a remarkable day. Thank you one and all for letting me share it with you.


1 Benjamin Sells, The Soul of the Law (1994).
2 Sells at 17-18.
3 Sells at 41.
4 David Maraniss, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi 365 (1999).
5 Sells at 35.
6 Sells at 15.
7 Sells at 14.
8 Jan Morris, Manhattan '45 (1998).
9 Morris at 39-40.




Modified: 06/03/2002