Commencement 2023: Speech by Distinguished Professor of the Year Bruce Huber

Author: Notre Dame Law School

Professor of Law Bruce Huber, selected by Notre Dame Law School’s Class of 2023 as Distinguished Professor of the Year, delivered the following speech to the class during the Law School’s Hooding Ceremony on May 20, 2023, in Purcell Pavilion.

Let me begin by adding my wholehearted congratulations to the Notre Dame Law School Class of 2023, and to the parents and friends and significant others who have supported you. You have been an exemplary class. You have enriched my life immeasurably. You’re an amazing group, and we are proud to call you Notre Dame lawyers.

Class of 2023, the world is now before you like an open road. Your final law school tests are behind you. Ahead of you are tests of a different sort. And no, I don’t mean that shakedown called the bar exam. I mean the many other, more important, and more difficult tests you’ll experience for the rest of your life. In the coming years, your commitments will be tested. Your perseverance and stamina will be tested. Your honesty and integrity, your faith and friendships will be tested. There will be professional tests, personal tests; emotional, physical, spiritual tests. These tests will be closed-book, and the grading system will be so arbitrary it’ll make the Law School curve look like a Swiss watch.

How will you pass those tests? How will you study for those tests? Don’t get me wrong; some of you have shown a remarkable ability to pass tests with no study at all.

Fortunately for you, excellence in the tests of life depends largely on the content of your character—and from what I’ve seen of you, in that dimension you are becoming well-prepared indeed. One of my joys as a professor is watching your formation as professionals and as human beings—as people of outstanding character, depth, and fortitude. But your time of formation is not over. In the coming years, as you confront crises and conflicts, you will continue to be formed. Later this year you will enter new jobs, new contexts, new teams. Patterns of thought and behavior that start out as provisional and tentative will become more natural, more ingrained. Those patterns will become habits and habits become your character. So my first charge to you is to be cautious and observant about those initial patterns of thought and behavior. It takes very little to go from saying something unkind to becoming the sort of person who says unkind things easily and thoughtlessly. But the same holds for your efforts to dispense grace and forgiveness and empathy. Just as athletes depend on reflex and muscle memory, or so I’m told, the goal for you is to hone your character through intentionality and practice so that you hold in your body, in your reflexes, your deepest commitments—so that honesty, and loyalty, and fairness, and thoroughness, so that these things become ingrained and automatic, even as life’s tests offer you the option of compromise.

Another invaluable asset to you in times of testing is your community. Look around you. You are quite literally surrounded right now by amazing people—people of talent and good will, people with whom you’ve bonded through countless hours of legal minutiae. One of the hallmarks of our Law School is the rich community we enjoy here. Do not take this for granted! For me and many others, law school was a commuter experience. I made no enduring friends in those three years. Not so for you—I know that many of you have experienced truly transformative, enriching relationships here, and I urge you in the strongest of terms: do not neglect these relationships. Lean into them. Carve out time for them. Find a spouse here if you need to. Make sacrifices on your calendar to keep these relationships alive. Tell Jones Day: nope, on that Thursday lunch, I’m booked.

One of the sad realities of life is that as you age, it becomes more difficult to form deep relationships. So hold on to the ones you already have like your life depends on it—because, in fact, your life does depend on it. Just as you’ve helped each other get through law school, you will, I hope and trust, help each other endure and even thrive through the tests that lie ahead. In fact, if you act on just one thing I say today, make it be this: before you leave, make a pact with a group of friends to see each other annually. At a football game, or a National Park, or … a National Park.

So: your character and your community are of the utmost importance. Character and community will soften many of life’s blows. But they will not, they cannot spare you altogether. Even on this celebratory day, we must acknowledge that some of the coming tests will be deeply painful—not as painful as if you’d gone to USC, but still—there will be hard, painful times ahead. And so one crucial challenge for you is to practice joy in the midst of pain.

Mostly we think of joy not as something that can be practiced, but as something that arises spontaneously when circumstances are good. Like today. No one needs to prod you to be joyful about graduating and bidding farewell to the Rule Against Perpetuities. But if you let joy be dependent on your circumstances, what will happen when you face the agonizing tests of life? The tendency will be to despair; the risk is that you become despairing and embittered and, indeed, diminished.

But you do have some control over whether you receive those tests with despair and bitterness, or with something more like patience and, yes, even joy. Joy need not be entirely dependent on circumstances. Joy can be chosen, cultivated, and practiced.

What does that look like? I’m not suggesting some glib, “hey, just look on the bright side!” No, what I mean is that adversity and affliction, they make us who we are! They form our character. They expand our capacity for empathy, they cause us to yearn for justice and healing. You know this. You know that you would not be where you are today without being tested, without being spurred by wrongs, without being pushed, sometimes harder than you thought you could endure. You’ve demonstrated in these last three years that you understand the benefits of discipline, of willingly subjecting yourself to strain and discomfort in order to grow, to go farther, to become competent and capable.

Deep joy means living out your calling, and living out your calling requires bringing your skill to bear on society’s gaping wounds. And how do you acquire that skill? How do you develop mastery of the sort that can be a balm for the wounds of the world? I know of only one way—through hard work, through discipline, seasoned with experience and, yes, adversity and pain and testing. To cultivate and practice joy in the midst of pain is to see the goal ahead of you, hazy though it be, and receive adversity with joy because it brings you closer to your calling.

Our example in these things, in the way of Notre Dame, is none other than Jesus Christ himself, who, for the joy set before him, obeyed his calling to endure extraordinary adversity, and to sacrifice himself for the very salvation of humanity. Each of us in turn is called to take up our own cross, and in some small and mysterious way, to play our part in God’s great plan of redemption. I believe with every fiber of my being not only that the great project of law is an aspect of that plan, but that each of you in particular is deeply beloved by God and created for a sacred purpose, a calling that you now have the joy to discover as you go forth from this place.

So, class of 2023, may you find great joy on the open road ahead, whatever it may bring, and may God bestow upon you an honorable character and a rich community as you serve a world deeply in need of His grace, administered by and through you. Congratulations again.

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