Thank You, Professors!

I’d like to thank the academy.  The legal academy, that is.

Yesterday, I completed the last final exam required by my LL.M. (Master of Laws) program, which may very well be the last final exam that I will ever take — or so I keep telling myself every few years.

The LL.M. program has been a great experience and all that remains is to put the finishing touches on my thesis, which I hope to iron out in the approaching months.  Arriving at the end of another phase of my academic career has left me feeling a little introspective and a bit nostalgic, hence the compulsion to dedicate some lines to writing about what a long, fun, challenging ride it has been and where I hope that it will take me.

As a preliminary matter, I should probably offer a little perspective about my journey by providing a brief recap of my academic history.  I almost hesitate to include this for fear that it will be read as a self-gratifying compendium of my academic achievements, which is not my intent — that’s what curricula vitæ are for, and I don’t even have one of those posted on this site.  I think that it is fair to say that my years in academia have been as much the product of vocational wandering as the result of intellectual curiosity, so please hold onto your chapeau for the time being.  Here’s the tally:

  • 4 years – undergraduate
  • 4 years – dental school
  • 3 years – dental/surgical hospital residencies
  • 4 years – law school1
  • 2 years – LL.M. program

All told, that adds up to 17 years of higher education and a long string of confusing letters after my name.  I don’t pride myself on my math skills, but when I tally the academic semesters contained within those years (including the mandatory summer sessions required by some of the programs) I arrive at a total of around forty semesters, plus three very intensive years of residency training.  I wish I could tell you how many times during those years I sat down to “you will have three hours to complete this exam,” but — actually, no; I don’t think I really want to figure that out.  Mentally consolidating all of those hours of nail-biting, scribbling, and furtive clock-watching into one patch of neurons would probably require therapy.

But I digress.

My love affair with academia began soon after I finished dental school, when I felt a profound sense of trepidation at the prospect that my full-time pursuit of learning was at its end and life held only the promise of applying what I had managed to absorb by the age of twenty-eight.  I suspect that for many people, eight years of post-high school education could be filed under “more than enough,” but I didn’t view it that way.  As students, we invest an incredible amount of energy into acquiring knowledge and to expanding the breadth of that knowledge into new realms, but then most of us move on to applying only a little slice of that knowledge to the very narrow framework of our chosen careers. And it is hard to find fault with that approach: to master something and successfully make a career of it is unquestionably admirable.

But I felt a little cheated when I finished dental school, recognizing that much of what I had learned over the years would be slowly relegated to forgotten corners of my brain before being erased forever.  Part of my regret also stemmed from the fact that I pursued dual majors in biology and English as an undergraduate.  I loved science, but I also loved to write, and dentistry provided little outlet for the latter.

I confess that following a linear path from school to work to retirement never made much sense to me either.  Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with first writing that “life is a journey, not a destination,” and perhaps in the same frame of mind, Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I have just found one thousand ways that won’t work.”  Edison seems to have believed that success is built as much on failure as on the ultimate realization of a goal, while Emerson suggested that success is less important than the pursuit of one’s ambitions.  Both Emerson and Edison seem to have shared the belief that the path to enlightenment is at best a winding one, while success is the reward of those who persist in navigating that path.

Along my own winding path, I enjoyed several unexpected opportunities to serve as a teacher, first to dental students and later to law students.  Those experiences opened my eyes to the possibility of a career direction that I hadn’t considered.  Teaching gave me the chance to interact with people who made a career of gathering knowledge and it allowed me to continue to learn in an environment that transcended my role as a student.  It also permitted me to guide others down paths that had once challenged me, and the reward that I felt from making those paths less arduous to others was substantial.

I have practiced law with some of the largest, most prestigious firms in the world and I have practiced dentistry in some of the humblest dental practices imaginable. Those experiences have shaped my views of the world, offered me perspective, and helped me to grow as a person. Along the way, I have learned to view life as an experiment and I have repeatedly felt the call to return to learning.  Academia has provided a doorway for me to heed that call and my professors have been the key to that doorway.  I genuinely respect the guidance that my law professors have offered and I understand why they have chosen to pursue careers in legal education.

The law presents a dynamic subject that is constantly evolving in response to changes in technology, societal norms, and nature itself.  There are an infinite number of topics to write about and no shortage of students willing to learn. The law provides the opportunity to  pursue new ideas and to share them with colleagues, while offering students the opportunity to discover the law in the same way that I did: through curiosity nurtured by educators who genuinely love to teach.

To all of my professors: thank you.

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1. I practiced dentistry full-time while attending law school.