College of Law

Dean Wilson: “Welcome, Class of 2019”

Posted August 17, 2016

The following is an excerpt from a speech that Dean Melanie D. Wilson gave to the Class of 2019 at the annual 1L dinner the night before the first day of class.


“For me, law school was a shaping experience. It developed me as a person, as a thinker, and as a professional.”
I’m honored to welcome the Class of 2019 to UT Law as you all begin your journey from brand new law student to professional and ethical lawyer. While the journey to lawyer may seem like a long one from your perspective, I can assure you that the next three years will pass quickly.

I don’t remember all that happened or everything that was said during my law school orientation, which as you’ve probably guessed from my gray hair, was a long time ago. But I do remember vividly the feeling of excitement and a bit of nervousness for the experience and for the positive impact that completing law school would have on my future. Looking back, the excitement was warranted. For me, law school was a shaping experience. It developed me as a person, as a thinker, and as a professional.

In fact, law school was the foundation for subsequent professional opportunities that I would never have otherwise enjoyed. After graduation, I clerked for a federal district court judge, and was exposed to how influential the rules of evidence can be to the outcome of a trial and as part of the clerkship, I was exposed to great – and not so great — lawyering. I served as an assistant attorney general for the State of Georgia before becoming an assistant United States attorney in Atlanta, prosecuting felony crimes, including public corruption, bank robberies, and conspiracies. After 15 years of practicing law in various capacities, I entered academia and gained the privilege of teaching law. And then, last year, I became dean of this outstanding institution. While I tell you a snippet of my back story, my remarks are not designed to be about me. I tell you this history so that you’ll know that I understand what it means to be a brand new law student and that I understand what law school signifies for your future.

“There is no reason that you cannot make your own mark on your community, on your home state, and on the nation and beyond. You are an impressive group with unlimited potential.”
I am incredibly excited for each of you because today you took your first step toward earning a law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law, and that step puts you on a path to a very promising professional career. That step opens so many doors for each of you. No doubt, your journey and your path will be different from mine.

You may become a high-powered entertainment lawyer and deal maker – like our alumnus Joel Katz, a generous and incredibly successful lawyer who represents Alan Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and the estate of Michael Jackson, among others. You may become a well-known trial lawyer, like UT Law alumni Jerry Summers, Sid Gilreath, and Donna Davis, after whom the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution is named. Or you may decide to lead your community in another way — as a judge, like Pam Reeves, whom you met yesterday, like the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Sharon G. Lee, like our own Professor Penny White, who formerly served at the trial, appellate, and Supreme Court level in Tennessee. All of these impressive women are UT Law alumnae. You may become a politician, a business owner, or an inventor. We have successful alumni in all of these fields. The founder of Ole Smoky Moonshine is a UT Law grad. So is Mason Jones, who started Volunteer Traditions.

As I told you yesterday — lawyers change the world. And you can too. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall, Loretta Lynch – all lawyers.

There is no reason that you cannot make your own mark on your community, on your home state, and on the nation and beyond. You are an impressive group with unlimited potential.

An Accomplished Class

There are 114 of you in the Class of 2019. You are academic achievers, no surprise – with a median undergraduate GPA of 3.6 and a median LSAT of 158. And you come from all sorts of backgrounds and arrive with many different interests.

“While you were in college, you were named top campus leaders, outstanding Greek men and women, top graduates in several majors and colleges, and you were leaders in multicultural organizations.”
Although the majority of you just finished your undergraduate degrees, many of you are leaving careers to begin law school. In the Class of 2019, we have former teachers and instructors, higher education workers, scientists, farmers, businesspeople, entertainers, technicians, small business owners, non-profit workers, and even a professional racer with the National Hot Rod Association. As a group, you have interned or worked with public servants at the local, state, and national level, legal professionals, churches, non-profits, private businesses, and institutions of higher education like this one.

As undergraduates, you did everything from waiting tables and designing websites to repairing and detailing automobiles and framing houses. You sold food, jewelry, electronics, building supplies, and every type of apparel imaginable.

You are more than computer literate. As a group, you are proficient in more computer programs than I knew existed. With varying levels of proficiency, you play piano, violin, drums, trumpet, fiddle, bass and guitar. Several of you act, paint, sing, dance and draw. You are poets, writers, photographers, composers, editors and bloggers, artists, producers and songwriters.

You can speak, write or read French, German, Russian, Arabic, Korean, Bulgarian, Bengali, Akposso, Akan, Japanese, Spanish, Igbo, and Latin. You have traveled, studied or worked on every continent – except Antarctica.

Members of your class have participated on the collegiate or intramural level in baseball, basketball, football, cross-country, swimming, softball, soccer, wrestling, gymnastics, rowing, track and field, tennis and equestrian events. And apparently there are enough skilled golfers that we could hold a tournament. You run marathons, you bike, you climb, you hunt, you fish, you hike, you snow ski, snowboard, and you water ski. Several of you hold advanced martial arts degrees.

While you were in college, you were named top campus leaders, outstanding Greek men and women, top graduates in several majors and colleges, and you were leaders in multicultural organizations. The majority of you were focused in three undergraduate fields of study: political science, history, and English. But you also majored in everything from business and biology to social work and Spanish.  The JD degree will not be the first advanced degree for many of you. You have earned the MA, the MBA, and the MSW.

And you have already exemplified the Volunteer spirit in your spare time. You have given your time and talents to organizations such as AmeriCorps, the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, the Make a Wish Foundation, the Humane Society, Meals on Wheels. Among other things, you have taught underprivileged children how to read, helped battered women stand tall again, made sure members of your community had enough to eat, built numerous habitat homes, established charities, and raised countless dollars for medical research.

“We believe strongly in the notion of opposing ideas here. You will grapple every day with questions that, more often than not, have no single right answer. We’ll test your ability to think, to question, and to criticize.”
You are a diverse, talented and motivated group of individuals with many accomplishments to your credit. Each of you should be very proud of these accomplishments. Having said that, each of you begins with a clean slate here at the College of Law. That’s both good and bad. Starting anew means building from the ground up. Your past successes show great potential, but they do not guarantee your future accomplishments as a law student or as a lawyer.

Now, my intent is not to scare you, but to prepare you for great success. Law school is different than undergraduate studies and even different from other graduate schools. As you’ll come to appreciate and have already heard this week, the work of a lawyer requires the ability to read critically, write concisely, to analyze and evaluate problems carefully and to produce the best solution from multiple, competing answers. You will not be asked to memorize facts or to regurgitate another’s thoughts.

Scott Fitzgerald said, “the test of a first rate intellect is the power to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” We believe strongly in the notion of opposing ideas here. You will grapple every day with questions that, more often than not, have no single right answer. We’ll test your ability to think, to question, and to criticize.

You may have heard lawyers, judges or law professors describe law school as a place that teaches you to “think like a lawyer.” This process takes time and effort. It is this process that requires analytical thinking and the application of learned legal principles to new fact patterns. This process is not something that happens in a day or a week or a month. That’s why law school is three years. That’s why law school is different from other schools, even graduate schools you have previously attended.

You will be asked to read significant amounts of material. You will be asked to distinguish the important from less important, to learn the rule of law and to apply the rule to novel situations and predict results. You will be asked to write out your thoughts in a clear and easily-readable form and to justify your conclusions.

So what should you do to prepare for this exciting but rigorous experience that you’ve just undertaken? I’ll share 3 pieces of advice. First, clear the decks. Second, explore your professional options. And third, work hard—which means exhibiting grit—during law school and after.

Clear the Decks

“To find a balance in your life, you are going to need to be organized.”
To my first piece of advice, clear the decks, I mean, get your life in order for the first semester. Give yourself some room to study and get accustomed to the new expectations of the first year.

If you need a haircut, get a haircut. If you need to go to the doctor or dentist, get that out of the way sooner rather than later. Unpack your boxes. Run your errands. Buy groceries (especially snacks) – sorry I digress, but I really do like snacks. If you relax by working out at the gym or playing tennis, get your gym membership this week and get your tennis partners and schedule mapped out.

If you are studying the amount you should in the first semester, you are going to prepare about three hours out of class for every one hour you spend in class. As a result, to find a balance in your life, you are going to need to be organized. You are going to need time to relax and to wind down, but you should probably structure that time. It won’t be easy to make that time like it was when you were an undergraduate. So that’s my first piece of advice – clear the decks.

Explore Your Professional Options

“What do you want to do after law school? Do you see yourself as a judge? An entrepreneur? A lawyer in charge of your own practice? A public defender?”
My second piece of advice: While you’re here – explore your professional options and find your professional passion. What do you want to do after law school? Do you see yourself as a judge? An entrepreneur? A lawyer in charge of your own practice? A public defender?

Law school is a great place to experiment – to find out if you enjoy negotiation; solving knotty tax problems; drafting wills or arguing cases in court and counseling clients.

Some of you have no idea what you want to do at the end of three years with a law degree. In many ways, I’m especially talking to you. UT Law is a great place to find yourself, explore your professional options and to find your passion.

The opportunities available to you over the next three years with the guidance of the professors and our Career Center are too many to name. And at this early point in your career, I cannot imagine that you can fully appreciate all of them.

My advice to you is – try – explore the programs, courses and resources we have at UT Law. And do so in order to find what makes you happy, what you want to do when you graduate in three years – in other words, explore your professional options and find your professional passion, whether it is to become a public defender, a bankruptcy judge, a healthcare lawyer, a software mogul, a CEO, or a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Work Hard

“I bet the most accomplished people you know are not necessarily the smartest or the best credentialed. They are the ones who have some talent and who remain the most determined and focused. They do not quit.”
Third and finally—work hard—understand that grit will take you farther than talent. In other words, stay motivated and inspired while in law school and after. These qualities are what will ensure your success.

Thomas Edison is famous for saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I agree with that and would add to it — not only do you need to work hard (and smart) but you need to stay inspired and focused on your goals. It has certainly been true in my own case. I entered law school with 213 other 1Ls and am confident that at least 150 of them were twice as smart as I. Many had attended very fancy private schools as undergraduates. Some came from families with long lines of lawyers and judges, while I was the first in my family to go to college. But what I lacked in intellect and aptitude, I made up for in effort and determination.

Think about it. I bet the most accomplished people you know are not necessarily the smartest or the best credentialed. They are the ones who have some talent and who remain the most determined and focused. They do not quit.

Because you were admitted into the Class of 2019, I have no doubt about your potential to succeed as lawyers and leaders if you stay motivated and determined. The only question is will you stay motivated.

Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth has labeled this motivation and determination — “grit.” Dr. Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies “competencies, other than general intelligence, that predict professional achievement.” She defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long term goals.” In other words, grit is passion to stick with your goals for the future.

We now know – based on both common sense and empirical evidence that resilience (or grit) is a great predictor of future success. Dr. Duckworth’s studies show that while grit is a great predictor of success, talent and IQ are not. In fact, success can be inversely related to talent. Most of us learned this in kindergarten, when we first read the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. For it’s not always the fastest person who wins the race, but the one who thinks she can and the one that keeps racing even when she does not, at first, win.

“On days you can’t run, keep moving. It’s not your talent that will see you through. It’s your grit and the unwavering support you’ll feel from the faculty and staff at this college.”
Because we are here in Knoxville at UT, any remarks meant to be inspirational, and certainly any discussion of grit, would be lacking without a quote from the late Pat Head Summitt.

You all know Pat’s story. She passed away at age 64 in June of this year. She had coached 38 years at UT as head women’s basketball coach. Her record was an astounding 1,098 wins to 208 losses. She won 8 NCAA championships. She made it to the Final Four 18 times. What would Pat tell you on this day? Here are a couple of my favorite Pat quotes that seem to apply.

“There is always someone better than you. Whatever it is that you do for a living, chances are, you will run into a situation in which you are not as talented as the person next to you. That’s when being a competitor can make a difference in your fortunes.” What was Pat really talking about? She was talking about grit. She was talking about out-working people who may have more talent than you. Pat also said: “Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”

Now – in law school it’s not really about beating out your classmates, but Pat’s point about hard work compensating for weakness is an important one. In order to grasp the challenging legal concepts and to catch on quickly to legal analysis, you are going to need to work very hard – not for a week or a month or a semester – but for three years and then again between graduation and the bar exam. And then again when you begin your practice or other career path.

What does all this mean in the context of the College of Law and your first week of law school? It means that each of you undoubtedly has the talent and ability to succeed in law school and to become great lawyers. You would have never been admitted to UT Law without that ability and potential. But to complete your journey – you need to work hard – every day. When you feel energetic – run. On days you can’t run, keep moving. It’s not your talent that will see you through. It’s your grit and the unwavering support you’ll feel from the faculty and staff at this college.

Welcome to the UT Law Family. We are glad you are here!