William and Mary Law School

Robert M. Gates's 2013 Law School Diploma Ceremony Remarks

  • A Call to Serve
    A Call to Serve
    "Preparedness to serve, devotion to one's community and fellow citizens, caring beyond self - these are all fundamental to democracy," Gates told the Law School's 2013 graduates.
    Photo by Odd Moxie Photography and B. Blasack

The following are the prepared remarks of W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates at the Law School's May 12 diploma ceremony. Gates, a 1965 graduate of the College, served as U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011.

     Thank you, Dean Douglas, for that kind introduction, and for your exemplary leadership of the law school these past four years.
     I'm deeply honored to be invited to speak here today. I will return the favor by not going on for too long. Having presided over more than forty commencement ceremonies at Texas A&M University and more recently at William & Mary, I can attest to the value of brevity at times such as this.  
     I am reminded of the British nobleman, Lord Birkett, who was known for being particularly long-winded. He once said: "I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain that they are still going."  I promise your smartphones will still have a charge when I finish.
     To the Law School Class of 2013, congratulations on this achievement! You completed a grueling curriculum that included, among other things, a substantial research and writing requirement. I know from experience that this hurdle to graduation can be particularly onerous. About forty years ago I had just about finished my dissertation for a Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet studies - or so I thought. My advisor called me in and told me that the dissertation was just fine; there were no substantive problems. It just needed to be one hundred pages longer. So I had to go back and pump the draft with another 20,000 words of what I will politely call "filler." This was back in the days of typewriters, index cards, and carbon paper.  I hope the time and effort expended on your research paper or note was put to more productive use.
     I approach today's remarks with some trepidation, as I know it is somewhat unusual to have a non-attorney as graduation speaker at a law school. During my years in the Obama administration, I felt like I was the only non-lawyer in the government.
     As Secretary of Defense, between the Pentagon and the military services, I had something like 10,000 attorneys working for me. That's the equivalent of two Army combat brigades. The jury is still out, if you'll forgive the expression, over which group is more dangerous when provoked.
     Typically at this point in a commencement speech I thank the parents for their support, while also warning that the bank of mom and dad will probably stay open for a while - so best not to go out and buy the new speedboat just yet. Well, I don't see much need for such a warning with this group. You are William & Mary attorneys after all....
     You are graduates not only of one of this country's premier law schools, but an institution that has put special emphasis on generating practice-ready lawyers more able to hit the ground running in your first job. It is thus no surprise that applications to William & Mary are going up even while applications to American law schools in general have plunged sharply in recent years.
     We all know the legal education and professional training here are first rate. What makes attending William & Mary truly special, in my view, is the opportunity to be part of an institution rooted in the earliest history and fundamental governing principles of the United States of America.
     It is fitting that a college known as the "Alma Mater of a Nation" not only established America's first law school, but also produced our first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In recent history, my predecessors as chancellor have included not one but two Supreme Court justices. The intersection of law, liberty, and history defines the William & Mary experience.
     Indeed, so much of what defines America first took root here in this corner of Virginia. Here is where the new world's first representative assembly gathered - the institutional expression of the concept that people should have a say in how they were governed, and having that say brought with it certain obligations: a duty to participate, a duty to contribute, a duty to serve the greater good.
     It is impossible to be a student here and not feel the weight of that history - I certainly did as an undergraduate walking these grounds some fifty years ago. And I hope that you, as I did then, feel the weight of that responsibility as well.
     In your studies here, and in the political discourse more broadly, you have studied and heard a good deal about the rights - statutory, constitutional, and otherwise - that come with being an American citizen. We hear a good deal less about the duties and responsibilities that come with citizenship, which I'd like to spend a few minutes addressing today.
     To be sure, there is no shortage of public mindedness in this school.  William & Mary's nine law clinics provide more than 14,000 hours of volunteer legal work on behalf of underserved groups including the elderly, children with special needs, victims of domestic violence, and wrongly convicted prisoners. As a former Defense Secretary, I continue to be concerned about the well-being of the tens of thousands of military personnel injured or traumatized in Afghanistan and Iraq - many of them on deployment orders that I signed. So I am especially proud that William & Mary is the home of the Puller Law Clinic, which has become a nationally recognized model for how to reduce the massive backlog in disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
     No doubt, many of this class - whether your political persuasion leans towards the Federalist Society or the ACLU - will continue to devote unpaid time and effort to causes you believe in, whether through pro-bono or volunteer work. But I hope you will take things one step further, and consider devoting at least part of your professional life to full-time public service.  
     I entered government 47 years ago, and no one is more familiar with its hassles, frustrations, and sacrifices than I am. Being head of CIA means some interesting public commentary, such as the time that "wanted" posters with my face showed up on an East Coast campus.  I acquired one of those posters, and it is a treasured part of my collection. It's a reminder that a measure of skepticism and irreverence about government officials and organizations is always healthy - indeed, necessary. Along with constitutional checks and balances, a gimlet eye towards those in authority helps to curb overweening power and overweening egos - and in Washington, D.C., there is certainly no shortage of the latter.
     America's system of government - conceived in no small part by graduates of this institution - is, by design, slow and unwieldy. Our Constitution is framed to protect liberty, not promote efficiency. And, frankly, the legal profession has certainly done its part to introduce layers of process and regulation. These and other sources of delay can drive one to distraction when trying to get something done in the executive branch.
     While irreverence informed by healthy skepticism is essential to democracy, cynicism about the people and the institutions that govern and protect our country can be corrosive. Too often, those who choose to serve in government are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse. In many cases, politicians run for office demeaning the very government and the very people they hope to lead. Justice O'Connor has spoken eloquently on the political and personal attacks leveled increasingly at members of the judiciary, putting their independence (and in some cases their safety) at risk.
     In the eyes of many successful private citizens, the burdens of public service have grown too onerous. In the legal profession, that can include being attacked for the people they may have represented or defended.  Public life can seem too mean, too ugly, too risky, too dangerous, and too frustrating.  
     I have a different view - a view informed by my own experience working with eight presidents and leading countless dedicated professionals at CIA, the National Security Council, and the Defense Department. I believe public service remains a necessary and honorable calling, and, contrary to the perceptions of many, a fulfilling and satisfying opportunity.  
     I think of the thousands of U.S. military attorneys - with professional educations that could earn them far greater financial reward elsewhere - who have deployed to war zones and put themselves at risk. And it is noteworthy that the most dogged (and successful) legal advocates for detained terrorist suspects after 9/11 - on matters ranging from interrogation practices to due process - have come not from NGOs or "white shoe" law firms, but from the uniformed ranks of the Judge Advocate Generals Corps, often at risk to their own careers.
     I suspect that in an unguarded moment most public servants - no matter how outwardly tough or jaded - will acknowledge that they are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists.  We actually believe we can make a difference, that we can change the lives of others for the better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of our country - and the world.  
     I am reminded of a letter from Abigail Adams to her son John Quincy Adams. She wrote him: "These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed.... Great necessities call out great virtues."
     We live in a time of great necessities. As individuals, the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy are permanent. And as a nation, we cannot escape the long-term burdens, responsibilities, and costs of global citizenship and global leadership.
     The implications for your generation are best captured by the words of Abigail's husband.   In a letter to another son, John Adams wrote:  "Public business... Must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not."  
     Preparedness to serve, devotion to one's community and fellow citizens, caring beyond self - these are all fundamental to democracy. Our forebears who walked these grounds more than two centuries ago understood this when they risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. But it is a lesson that must be refreshed in every generation by the best and brightest young Americans. It is a lesson that must be refreshed by the wise and honest among you.
     Congratulations and Godspeed.