2013 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching
Professor Conrad Johnson, a leading expert on innovative legal education, technology in law practice, and law school diversity, has been awarded the 2013 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching by this year’s graduating class. Introductory remarks by Shanita Nicholas ’13 and Johnson’s acceptance remarks follow.
Introduction by Shanita Nicholas ’13
Good afternoon. My name is Shanita Nicholas, and I am honored to present the 2013 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching to the much-respected Professor Conrad Johnson.
Now, Professor Johnson is self-admittedly not a man of few words, so I’ve attempted to make this introduction brief.
I spent the last couple of weeks scouring for data in an attempt to dig up dirt on Professor Johnson to share with all of you today. And like any good law student, I used my legal resources and the vastness of the Internet to facilitate my research. This was a valuable lesson I learned from Professor Johnson in the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic this past semester.
I uncovered an old New York Times article ‘entitled, “Rescuing the Truth,” which featured Professor Johnson. Upon reading the title, I thought to myself, “This must be good,” and it was!
The article described a scene in which Professor Johnson was a passerby caught in the middle of a pedestrian fight as he was walking to the dentist’s office. The article goes on to explain that Professor Johnson stuck around to ensure that the correct story was told and, thereafter, went out of his way to contact the district attorney’s office in order to “rescue the truth.”
As I read through the article, I was reminded of the many reasons Professor Johnson has earned the respect and admiration of myself and of this amazing class of graduating law students. He is committed to creating access to justice, as seen through his time as attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society in Harlem, and enhancing the public interest legal practice, particularly through his work with students in the fair housing and lawyering in the digital age clinics—both of which he co-founded. He works tirelessly to provide the best legal resources to students in these clinics. Just this month, he spent a grueling few days at a conference on clinical legal education in San Juan, Puerto Rico. With great lawyering, apparently, come perks.
Through his practical clinics and experiences, Professor Johnson has provided more than statutory knowledge to students. He has shown us that the real practice of law, and the only place where justice can truly be “rescued,” is in the real world amongst real people. I remember in one class, Professor Johnson came rushing in holding up two leather-bound books in triumph after convincing the librarians to let him borrow them in the name of tangible pedagogy. This was not an easy task. For us, it was another example of the lengths he will go to for students.
During that class, he also mentioned Littleton’s Tenure, one of the earliest books on property law. Quoting from its epilogue, the author writes to his son, “Notwithstanding albeit that certain things which are moved and specified in the said books are not altogether law, yet such things shall make thee more apt and able to understand and apprehend the arguments and the reasons of the law. For by the arguments and reasons in the law, a man more sooner shall come to the certainty and knowledge of the law.” Professor Johnson has taught us not only how to be great lawyers but also great advocates of justice and reason.
On behalf of the class of 2013, it is with great privilege that I present this award to an amazing legal advocate and educator. Once again, please join me in congratulating the recipient of the 2013 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Professor Conrad Johnson.
Remarks by Professor Conrad Johnson
Thank you, Shanita, for your kind introduction.
Honored guests, Dean Schizer, colleagues, family, friends, and the Class of 2013:
If you had told me when I was graduating from law school that I would return to law school as a professor, I would have told you to “just say no to drugs” because, in the words of Richard Pryor, “they have made you null and void!” I have now quoted Nancy Reagan and Richard Pryor for the same proposition in the same sentence. I trust you are impressed.
Somewhere between cases about “who owns the fox,” poor Mrs. Palsgraf, and something about an “international shoe,” law school seemed like a “mutual mistake.” I likened it to three years of playing the outfield in baseball—long stretches of boredom interrupted by occasional moments of panic. There seemed to be a near total disconnect between what I was learning in law school and what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I had come to law school wanting to right wrongs, level the playing field, protect the vulnerable, speak truth to power.
But law school appeared utterly unrelated to those goals. An Olympic athlete may not enjoy endless hours of cross-training or eating vegetables, but she can appreciate the connection between exercise, good eating habits, and athletic success. In contrast, I could see no causal connection between law school and becoming an effective lawyer. Law school was merely to be endured.
Indeed, of all the first-year courses that typified the irrelevance of law school, civil procedure topped of the list. For the uninitiated, civil procedure involves the study of rules and concepts related to the litigation of non-criminal cases. That may not sound so bad, but in my student experience, civil procedure was a jumble of abstract, arcane rules that were difficult to understand if you had no litigation experience, and, of course, we had none. A friend once remarked, that civil procedure was so boring that during one class he bet the student sitting next to him $1 that the class would never end, and 10 minutes later the second student paid up!
However, a decade after graduating from law school, there I was teaching at CUNY Law School. What subject? You guessed it: civil procedure. Not only was I teaching civil procedure, but I was totally psyched about it! You see, in the summer following my first year of law school, I got a job working in the Harlem civil office of The Legal Aid Society. In my first week, I was able to literally stop an eviction dead in its tracks because I knew a little about civil procedure! At that point, I realized that civil procedure is, as we say in Latin, “da bomb.”
Why tell you all this? I’m getting there. Years ago, I gave a talk to a group of students. I showed them a picture of the 1933 graduating class at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, which was located on 145th Street in Harlem. The class was comprised of about 150 14- and 15-year-old boys (at the time, New York City public junior high schools were not coed). One of those boys was my father.
It is doubtful that any of those teenagers realized that, in a few short years, they would join the military and serve in World War II. I know that one of them, my father, had no inkling in 1933 that a decade later he would become a fighter pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen.
A lot has changed since 1933 when that photo was taken, but one thing remains constant—the inevitability of change. In the clinic I co-direct, we study the impact of technology on law practice and the profession. We observe that the pace of change has accelerated not only in law but everywhere around us.
The point is that now, more than ever, we cannot know exactly what we are preparing ourselves for.
Recent reports out of MIT, Stanford, and Duke all confirm what you already know, which is that your generation of graduates will likely move through multiple jobs and even multiple careers before you retire. The familiar employment patterns that shaped my generation of lawyers—staff attorney to manager, associate to partner, untenured to tenure—are all under attack from a variety of forces.
You will be a far more professionally mobile generation, both because you can be and because you must. Like me, you are likely to be surprised by the opportunities that present themselves and the paths your careers take. You are uniquely positioned to prosper in this environment. One reason is that today, you will receive one of the most prestigious and versatile degrees on the planet.
You have been wise to invest in yourselves. Given the likelihood that you will hold several positions over the course of your careers, creating value in yourselves is exactly right. There are those, however, who will seek, subtly or not, to devalue your investment. They will intimate that you are of little independent worth unless you follow a particular well-worn path or work for them, doing only what they find useful or profitable. Through your hard work, your training, your degree, and one more thing that I will talk about in a minute, you are now and will forever be a free agent.
Being a lawyer, I try to act strategically when the need arises. I have therefore been careful not to admit in front of the dean who sets my salary that I have the greatest job in the world. However, I suspect he knows that. Therefore, as a matter of strategy, I lose little by conceding the obvious.
Where else can you get paid for following the path of your interests so long as: 1) it has something to do with the law; and 2) you are willing to have students join you on the journey.
Not just any students, but people of incredible ability who still feel, correctly, that they can make a positive difference. We on the faculty have had the opportunity to work with you in a variety of settings, whether in a course, or through seminars, supervised research, writing projects, work as a teaching assistant, or in clinics, where we take on real cases and projects that have an immediate impact on those we serve. Collectively, we have had a close-up view of what you can do.
Your contributions are real, and we trust that you will carry the knowledge that you can make a difference wherever your careers lead. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. You need not be a cog in the machine. It makes little sense for you to have come this far, and paid so dearly in money, time, and effort, to spend your careers in jobs you never wanted in the first place.
One final point: Soon you will add one more accomplishment to your already dazzling profile. It is something that, in addition to your Columbia degree, will greatly assist you in navigating the waters of a successful career. How many of you plan to take a bar exam? That means that in a few short months you will have passed the bar.
Little side note: To be admitted to the bar in New York, and in most other jurisdictions, you need to pass the bar exam, and also be approved by the Committee on Character and Fitness. Those of you seated here have many reasons to be grateful to those seated there. (Let’s face it, they are not here for the cheese dip—they’re here to cheer you on.)
You may think of them as family and friends, but they are also people we, in the law, call potential “affiants.” An affiant is one who signs an affidavit swearing to or affirming the truth of the allegations contained therein. In English, that means that at some point in the near future, you are likely to call upon some of those people to sign an affidavit attesting to your good moral character.
In addition, those of you who were in a clinic and plan to practice in New York, will need your clinical professor to sign an affidavit of employment attesting to your excellent job performance and impeccable character. So, when you pass the bar—and you will; when you celebrate—and you will; please keep your celebrations off of YouTube! We’re good, but there is just so much we can explain away to the Committee on Character and Fitness. A little tip from your uncle Conrad.
In any event, not only will you leave today with an amazing degree, but in a short time most of you will have earned a license to practice law. That is an incredible privilege, and it allows you the freedom to follow the path of your interests. Enjoy it, cherish it, use it in all the many ways that a law license can enrich your life and the lives of those around you.
Before I go, I need to thank some people: My family and friends, in particular my incredibly patient wife Marianne and two wonderful children; my parents, who are somewhere in the cosmos smiling; the late Professor Kellis Parker, who provided a model of caring deeply about students; my colleagues, especially my clinic co-directors, Professors Mary Marsh Zulack and Brian Donnelly, as well as our clinic administrator, Brenda Eberhart; and, of course, thank you to my favorite graduating class ever. This award has meaning because it comes from you. I will never forget your kindness.
I wish you a long and happy career, with the satisfaction that practicing law and teaching has given me. I once heard an old musician say, “[I]t’s a good day when your gratitude exceeds your expectations.” May this be a great day for you, as it has already been for me. Thank you so much for this incredible award.