Speech* of Deputy Attorney General
Larry D. Thompson
University of Georgia Law School
May 18, 2002
It is a pleasure to be back home in Georgia, and a distinct honor to be back at the University of Georgia where I truly enjoyed my time as an adjunct professor.
Greetings to the faculty and staff of this great law school who have worked so hard to make this day possible.
Greetings and congratulations to the Class of 2002. You have accomplished a great deal and have reason to be proud today. But I do ask you to take a moment to recall all of the people who helped you get to this day - probably most importantly, the people sitting behind you right now. Don't forget that their efforts are bound up in your own. you are always going to need people, and if you don't need people, you are going to need your God to help you. You just can't do everything on your own. You do not have to be super men or super women.
That reminds of the story about Muhammed Ali when he was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. After one of his victorious title fights, the Champ was on a airplane waiting to take off. Ali was annoyed when a flight attendant pestered him to put on his seat belt. "Do you know who I am?" He challenged her. "I am the Champion of the World! I am Mohammed Ali! I am Superman! Superman don't need no seatbelt!" The flight attendant looked at him sternly and then quickly shot back, "Superman don't need no airplane either." I always enjoy commencements. I look at commencements as a beginning. Twenty-eight years ago i sat where you sit. I cannot remember for the life of me who the commencement speaker was. So, I have no illusions. I have no illusions that what I say will achieve the permanence of the Gettysburg address. I will only attempt to emulate its brevity.
But, using my prerogative as your speaker this morning, I also know that this is an opportunity for me to share with you a few observations-based on my life experiences-that may prove useful to you as you move on beyond the University of Georgia law school. These observations are not profound --they are simple. And perhaps you will remember them.
There may be a few of you who have things all mapped out, who plan to rush out of here with your law degree to fulfill your dream of becoming a criminal defense lawyer or a corporate litigator or a mergers specialist. I admire you, but I think I speak for most of us when I ask myself the question - as I did 28 years ago and as I often do to this very day - "What do I want to do when I grow up?"
You know, I'm still not sure I can answer that question. Life, as it turns out, is an adventure and is certainly not as simple as I once thought.
You are going to receive a piece of paper today that says that you have a law degree from the University of Georgia. It is wonderful to have such things, and indeed it is necessary if you want to practice law, but I have found that life is not about the getting and holding of material objects. It is about learning and striving and becoming - all of the efforts that brought you to this day.
It may help you to know that I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up, and I'm glad about that. What I do know - and this is admittedly a deceptively simple observation-is that you should never take a job just for the money.
That sounds like an easy thing to say for someone who has (finally) retired his student loans, but if the clarity of hind-sight means anything, the times I have been the most satisfied professionally have been when I have been doing something I wanted to do solely because I felt it was the right thing for me to do at the time and not because the job or position paid the most money.
I have been a prosecutor three different times in my legal career and have also been a criminal defense lawyer. None of the public service jobs have been particularly well-paying as legal positions go, and the criminal defense work is generally less lucrative than corporate litigation.
And I did not enter this world as a rich man. My mother was a cook and my father, a laborer.
But I realized early on that life is, in fact, a one-time deal. You do not get to go around twice - and the times that you will remember are those (1) when you did something that made a difference, (2) when you risked much for an even greater reward, and (3) when you reached beyond the everyday to engage yourself in the broader world.
As attorneys, the temptation to put money first will be - at times - overwhelming. But if you take care of your clients and value your reputation in the community, the money will come.
I want to warn you: at some point in your career, and earlier than you think, you will be invited to abandon your principles to satisfy a client. Don't. It's not worth it. Don't be afraid to lose a client - or even fire a client - if it means compromising what you believe to be right and appropriate. Judge Griffin Bell, who has served as a federal Circuit Judge, as United States Attorney General, and was my partner at King & Spalding, has said on many occasions: "Our integrity is the only thing that we really own in this profession, and it is so important for us to keep it."
Neither should you let money seduce you into abandoning your friends and family. Many lawyers do, and are much poorer for it. It is our friends and families that give life meaning and, in the long run, sustain us in this profession and enhance our stature in the community.
None of this is easy. It is never easy to succeed at something that truly counts. It requires doggedness, even stubbornness. As the inventor Thomas Edison, whose perseverence was legendary, put it: "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."
When I graduated from law school 28 years ago, this was a different world. We had just finished fighting a war in Vietnam that we did not want to win, and we were finally winning the war against widespread racial discrimination in our own country. Times have changed. Communism is dead and race is no longer a significant barrier to someone ascending to the highest levels of our government or to the executive suites of business corporations.
But new problems, in some ways even greater than the menaces we faced before, have emerged to cloud the future. You are living in historic times. You are among the first generation of Americans who face the prospect of mass murder of civilians by a foreign enemy on American soil.
I urge you to cherish the freedoms and values that we as a nation enjoy and now must fight for. You will be a better person and lawyer with this understanding of the true nature of our great country.
Indeed, it is our very open, democratic and just society that has made us the terrorists' target. Our nation's freedom is grounded in the rule of law.
Our freedoms, our laws are the envy of the world and the perennial winner in the global marketplace of values and ideas.
It is precisely because the terrorists' ideas cannot compete in the open marketplace that they have turned to violence and horror. They attempt to achieve through mass murder what they will never be able to accomplish in a free exchange of ideas: to subvert our freedoms, freedoms for which millions of Americans - from our Founding Fathers, to our immigrants from every quarter, to our civil rights marchers - have strained and sacrificed for.
They target us simply because we are American. They make no distinction between rich and poor, black and white, Jew and Christian. Because they fear our freedom, they must resort to terror.
This is an exciting time to be beginning the practice of law and I must confess a weakness for the great state of Georgia as a place to do it. I marvel at the range of opportunities that now lie before you and wish you luck and godspeed in confronting the challenges ahead both in your own professional lives and to us as a nation. And, especially after serving this great Law School as an adjunct Professor, I am confident that you will meet them.
Good luck. And God bless you.
*NOTE: Mr. Thompson frequently speaks from notes and may depart from the speech as prepared. However, he stands behind the speech as presented in written format.