Thanks, Robert, for that introduction; and thank you enormously to the Yale Law School class of 2015 for inviting me to speak here. It’s been a pleasure to teach you; and it’s a privilege to address you now.
Countless conversations with you have made vivid that although this is a marvelous occasion, your mood is not triumphalist. You’ve seemed to me not simply celebratory, but also contemplative. I’ll therefore take this opportunity—this point of inflection in your lives— to offer a diagnosis of your (and our collective) condition, not to propose a cure but, more modestly, in the hope that it shines a new light on your own introspection.
Now, the Dean has just observed, that you are “by acclimation the finest new law graduates in the world.” I don’t rehearse this praise just as a bromide, to set a mood and swell a speech’s emotional progress. Rather, I’ll take the fact of your excellence as my starting point today and then recover its causes and pursue its consequences. Some of these are bright and happy; others lower more darkly, both over the broader world and over your distinctive futures. It will be the task of your generation to disperse these clouds and to reclaim the sunshine, including for yourselves.
When I say that you are the country’s best new lawyers, I assert a concrete, determinate, and determinable fact; and a fact whose demonstration has dominated a large portion of your lives for a very long time.
Consider how you got to Yale. In the Autumn of 2011 perhaps 75,000 candidates applied to American law schools. Perhaps 3000 of these applied to Yale Law School. The law school takes admissions very seriously—three faculty members independently evaluate each file— and following this process, Yale admitted about 8 percent of JD applicants. Our LLM program similarly admits only about 9 percent of those who apply. Finally, almost 9 out of every 10 people whom we admit eventually enroll. In other words, you are sitting here today because you ranked among the top 3/10ths of one percent of a massive, meritocratic competition; and one in which all the competitors conspicuously agree about which is the biggest prize.