Joy Fossel: In Law and in Life; Be Proud, Be Open, Be Engaged, and Be Honorable

WMU-Cooley graduate Elizabeth Joy Fossel, of counsel, Varnum Attorneys at Law, imparts words of wisdom and sage advice to new WMU-Cooley graduates during their commencement ceremony on May 20, 2018. Read excerpts from her keynote address and #FromWhereIStand story below.

My journey is really quite simple: Thirty years ago I sat where our graduates are sitting, on the cusp of the rest of their lives. Today, I’m somewhere that I never expected to be, doing something I never expected to do – I’m on this stage, addressing you, right here, right now.

In between, I’ve learned a few things. Things that have helped me, and some that have hurt me; things that I wouldn’t change for anything, and things that I wish I could do over. You know the old Sinatra song “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention?” Well, like Frank, I’m probably not going to mention my regrets either. But I am going to tell you a few things that have helped me, and I hope will help you too. Pride, Openness, Engagement, and Honor.

Be proud of yourselves – this is a day to celebrate your accomplishments. Today is the culmination of years of hard work, perseverance, and often just plain grit and determination. Many of you started with a dream of becoming a lawyer, all of you started with that as your goal. Many of you came to the law as a second, or even third career; all of you will leave here today with the right to use J.D. behind your name. You’ve earned that title, take pride in it, and take pride in yourselves.

joy fosselTake pride in your law school too. We know that WMU-Cooley has been the target of some criticism in the press recently. Don’t flinch from criticism. Rise to meet it. Our mission and relaxed schedules gave many of you a chance to pursue a law degree, particularly non-traditional students – those who are parents, those who work full-time, those who have engaged in other careers before law school, those who might even have a little gray hair. It is exactly those students who also bring a wealth of experience and diversity of thought, not just here to the law school, but to the overall practice of law.

In fact, I understand many of you come from all walks of life and had many professions before you came here. I’m going to ask you to stand and remain standing when I name your previous professions.

We have former paralegals, school principals, teachers, members of the military, baristas, librarians, realtors, grant writers, state employees, bankers, court assistants, police officers, game developers, college graduates, and even a professional hockey player. You all deserve a hand for having the courage to undertake this journey.

You also range in age from 24-58 and represent 22 states and three countries. Why does this matter? What is it that our critics fail to recognize when they question a democratic and open admissions policy?

I think they are missing a couple of important things.

First, admission to law school is not, and should never be, a guarantee that you’ll get a degree.

You know that. Look around you. Not everyone who started law school with you made it through. WMU-Cooley may open the door to a law degree more broadly than other institutions, but getting into law school and successfully getting through it are two different propositions. Whether any student gets a degree depends almost entirely on that student him or herself. You have to put in the work. You have to master legal analysis, which, at its core, is a new way of thinking. Certainly Cooley provides excellent professors and instruction. That is agreed upon. And certainly its curriculum is on a par with any other law school. In fact, I’d argue (with respect) that Cooley’s practical clinic-based classes surpass the offerings of any other law school.

Some folks will decide law school isn’t for them – it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart – and some won’t pass the bar the first go round. But that’s true of every law school in the country.

Instead of focusing on the negatives, I say we look to our successes. We proudly count among our graduates thousands of lawyers across the country, and indeed across the globe. We have graduates who are federal and state court judges, state legislators, state bar leaders, corporate executives, members of congress and even a governor. Today you are about to join WMU-Cooley’s success story and I hope you will stand up for your school as you take your place in its history.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I think our critics do not appreciate the value of, and indeed the necessity for, diversity of thought and experience.

The practice of law in the 21st century is very different than it was in the last century. We don’t live in a cookie-cutter world. Not anymore.
I admit, when I graduated there was a mold into which you were expected to fit if you were going to succeed as a lawyer. Back before the light bulb, when I began practicing, all lawyers wore suits and ties, they joined the party and the clubs that they were told to join, they played golf – and if you didn’t do all of that – you were probably a woman. All kidding aside, if you did not fit the mold, your path to success was a much tougher road.

Don't find yourself trapped in the 20th century. Don't buy into the idea that all lawyers are and should be fungible, that we should represent one type of individual, with one way of thinking. There are legions of studies to show that bringing different perspectives, different experiences, different backgrounds to a problem, you will have far better solutions in the long run.

Let me put it another way: if you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces have to fit together, right? You have to connect pieces of different shapes and sizes and colors and designs to make the picture. And you’re able to interlock the pieces because they aren’t all the same shape and size. Just think what would happen if the pieces were all square. The puzzle would never stay together, at least not for long. To be durable, the pieces have to be diverse.

Diversity of thought is what you represent; diversity of experience is what you will bring to the practice of law. The jigsaw puzzle of that system we call justice will be all the stronger for it. And WMU-Cooley’s approach has made that possible. You can take great pride in your school for its unfailing commitment to diversity.

It’s really easy to get set in our ways. To hang with the people we know, stay in our comfort zone. Stay safe. Did you know that we’re evolutionarily programmed to stay with people like ourselves? It’s true. Two hundred thousand years ago when we first emerged, back in the hunter-gatherer times, we formed tribes for safety. And when someone not of the tribe approached, it was frowned upon to greet them. That could get you killed. And if you were killed, you certainly weren’t going to contribute to the further population of the earth. That task was left to people who had been cautious enough to stay away from strangers and stayed back with “their own kind.” So some traits were weeded out; some were preferred. You see where I’m going with this?

I would like to think we’ve progressed from our hunter-gatherer roots, even when it feels easier. I encourage you to stay open to new and different people. Embrace those who differ in age, in gender, gender identity, race, religion, or nationality. Pick a difference; there are so many.

If you stay open to new and different people, I think you’ll find some remarkable things. Among others, you may very well find common ground, a common cause, or even a common reason for celebration.

Many of you may have watched the wedding between Prince Harry and Megan Markle yesterday. I did – along with the estimated 2 billion other viewers across the globe. I also watched the weddings for Diana and Charles, and William and Kate. I have watched all the royal extravaganzas over the last 30 years. But yesterday’s ceremony struck me as very different.

Yes, there was the traditional big church, magnificent choir, and big hats. But there was also a very intentional blending of the traditions of British royalty with American culture to cross racial and national divides. That told the increasingly global audience who tuned in that the UK, and specifically, the royal family, were open to people who are new and different from themselves. Embracing diversity only strengthened them. New and different people may strengthen you as well. Stay open to them.

And, stay open to the unexpected. You never know what’s in store. Over 30 years ago, before I even went to law school, I thought I was going to be a prosecutor. That’s what I wanted. That's what I thought I was best suited for. That's why I took the trial skills class and worked so hard to get on the trial skills team. I wanted to serve justice, and to me that meant putting the bad guys behind bars. Now I confess my view was shaped to some degree by what I saw in the movies and on TV, where there are good guys and bad guys. The bad guys were always criminals and the good guys were the cops and DAs who got them off the streets. I wanted to be one of the good guys. I never saw myself working for a silk-stocking law firm. I was going to walk a straight line right into the Kent County prosecutor’s office and start doing what I thought I was meant to do.

But fate intervened – again, thanks to WMU-Cooley. Two friends I knew from WMU-Cooley went to Varnum as litigators, and in my last year of law school they recruited me to work there as a clerk. When they suggested this, I thought they were crazy. They knew I wanted to be a prosecutor. I would never fit in with those corporate types, much less enjoy the work. But clerking was lucrative and it helped me pay for my last year of law school, so why not?

To my utter shock and amazement, I discovered that civil litigation was as interesting and rewarding as I always thought criminal law would be. I never anticipated what it would feel like to help a 3-year-old girl who’d been maimed by a lawn-mower because it lacked a readily-available safety device or to change the industry so that that device became the standard for riding lawn mowers. I never imagined that I would be on the forefront of the legal issues presented by the advent of HIV and AIDS or that I would get to spearhead the campaign for diversity and inclusion in both my firm and my community. I never expected to lead an organization of the caliber of the Grand Rapids Bar Association. Or that one day I'd be speaking to you on this stage today. But I got those opportunities because my classmates, my friends, opened one specific, and very unexpected, door for me – and I chose to walk through it.

My point is you never know what tomorrow is going to bring. You may think you know where you’re going. You may even be right. But be open to the possibilities – and the people – that life presents to you. Then, when you look back – 30 years from now – you may find that your path was not a straight line either. You may find that it was an intricate voyage that you led you to lands you never thought you would ever see but that you are so glad you found.

It's your destiny. It’s your life. It’s your command. Whatever you do with your future, be prepared to own it. Nobody owes you anything – not a job, not an income, not an opportunity. Nada. You have to earn those things and you have to do it on a daily basis. You’ve earned your degree and you know what it is to engage in hard work. Now, it’s time to engage on an entirely new level – in the practice of law – and the practice of life.

What do I mean? I mean engage with your community. Join a non-profit board, volunteer with the Red Cross or Cancer Society or United Way. Make time to do a little good. "Doing good" and "doing well" are not mutually exclusive. But even if they were, we, as lawyers, have a duty to give back to our communities through pro bono service. Did you know that? I know that is true in Michigan. Once you pass the bar and are admitted to practice you will take an oath of office administered by state and federal judges and that oath contains a promise that you will never reject the cause of the defenseless or the oppressed based on any consideration personal to yourself. In other words, you can’t reject them based on their inability to pay.

Why is this in the oath? Why is this so important? Because pro bono service is fundamental to keeping the doors to the courthouse open for everybody, and not just for those who can afford to be there. Keeping those doors open is our responsibility. That comes with the right to practice.

In my view, pro bono service is the very thing that lifts the practice of law from the level of a mere business to the level of a profession. It keeps our system of justice alive for those who need it most. And I can tell you from my own experience, the cases that have meant the most to me, the cases that gave me the most satisfaction, the cases that remind me why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place – to be one of the good guys – those were all ones that I took on a pro bono basis.

I left this one for last because I feel it is so very important. And I’m going to come at this from what may seem like a fairly domestic viewpoint, so bear with me.

I was brought up in the Episcopal Church and Episcopalians like to send their kids off to Sunday school at a very young age to learn about Jesus and the church and, not surprisingly, the Ten Commandments. And when you’re young, the Sunday school teachers like to focus on one commandment in particular: “Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.”

Now, I was a pretty serious kid and I took what I was taught in Sunday school with all the gravity that a 7-year-old could muster. And I remember having dinner with my parents and telling them about what we’d learned in church that day. And I asked them what that commandment meant to them. What did I need to do to honor them. I can tell you I didn’t want to get in trouble with God, but I didn’t really know what honoring my parents entailed. I knew about father’s day and mother’s day, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t all the commandment was getting at. So I asked them, what do I have to do to honor you?

My father, who was generally religious only on Christmas and Easter, looked up from his dinner and said, “It means don’t talk back.”

My mother, who was the real churchgoer in our house, said, “It means you never lie to us. You make it so we can trust you. When you say you’re going to do something, you do it. When you give me your word, I want to know that you mean it and that I can rely on it. You don’t weasel.”

That was a pretty good building block for me. I admit there were times when I was sorely tempted to weasel on the truth, at least just a little, particularly when I was a teenager, but as a tenet for a kid to live by, it worked pretty well.

As lawyers, honor is not just a building block, it is the bedrock of our profession. We are the keepers of the law, the guardians of the rules that allow society to function, and even to exist. And that not only means that we must play by the rules ourselves, we must conduct ourselves in a way that generates trust. Why? So that when we give our word, our opinion, our advice, it can be relied upon. From a purely commercial standpoint, that’s what we get paid for – advice.

From a more practical standpoint, your reputation is your single greatest asset. That includes the reputation you have with your clients, your colleagues, with judges, with opposing counsel. When you earn their respect, they will trust you, they will listen to you, and they will act accordingly. To earn their respect, you have to do more than show how skillful you are, you have to demonstrate honor. Or as my mother said: “You have make it so I can trust you; when you give your word, I want to know that you mean it.”

Your reputation, your honor, is something you will spend every day of your professional life building. It is the work of a lifetime. It can be destroyed in an instant. So guard it carefully.

And there is another piece to this honor equation. It’s the golden rule. We all know that one, right? Treat others as you want to be treated yourself. That’s pretty standard stuff, so why bring it up now? Because I’m going to suggest that you treat your opponent as you would want them to treat you. Certainly you are going to be zealous in representing your own client. And I’m not suggesting that you treat the other side with kid gloves. I’m talking about respect.

Opposing counsel may be your adversary, but adversary does not necessarily mean enemy. Why is this important? Look around. What do we see on the news every night? Or hear on the radio every morning when we drive into work? Stories about polarization, about the extreme views of our politicians, about the divisions in our country and even in our neighborhoods - divides that seem more and more impossible to bridge with every day that passes.

As attorneys we have the skills, the knowledge, and, I would say, the responsibility to defuse the runaway polarization that seems to be taking over so many aspects of our lives. We are trained as problem solvers, we are trained to look at both sides of a dispute, and we are trained as peacemakers (that’s what settlements are all about). To do our job effectively, we cannot look at those on the other side of the aisle, the courtroom, the table and dismiss them simply as the enemy. The practice of law is not, and should not always be a zero sum game. I win, you lose. It’s about finding solutions to problems, and that takes time, and discussion, and patience and respect. Yes, sometimes you do have to go to war. But war is expensive – for everyone – emotionally and monetarily. If you treat your opposing counsel as an adversary, rather than as your enemy, you may be able to avoid the scorched earth of a trial, and in so doing save all involved a great deal.

And this is where honor and reputation come in. If the lawyer across the table knows you are a person of your word, knows that you will do what you say you will do, and respects you for both your skills and your reliability, that lawyer is far more likely to deal, and deal fairly, with you and your client. And if you treat that lawyer, and his client, as you would want to be treated yourself, you will not only drive the boat towards the heavenly shores of dispute resolution, you may make a future ally in the process.

FDR said, “Confidence thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protections, and on unselfish performance. Without these, it cannot live.” He was talking about confidence, but he might well have applied these words to the practice of law. In my humble opinion, it is not an overstatement to say that without honor, we as lawyers cannot live.

As a final piece of advice, I would like to share the words of Branch Rickey, who was an American baseball player and sports executive. He was probably best known for breaking major league baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson and drafting the first Hispanic superstar, Roberto Clemente. Mr. Rickey made the point that, at the end of the day, it isn’t about the accolades you take with you, it’s about the heritage you leave behind.

Thirty years from now, when you have collected your accolades – and you WILL collect some – what will you leave behind? Life may be finite, but I have great hope that the mark you leave will be infinite. Congratulations graduates!

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