Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ritual Matters

Twenty times I've sat in the University ballroom in mid-semester, hearing welcoming speeches from representatives of the University, the College of Law, the state bar, and the state judiciary. Twenty times, I've seen students, staff, and faculty dressed to the nines and rapt in attention, whatever the lecture's subject matter. The signature event at my law school is the annual Sherman J. Bellwood Lecture, named after the state judge who left a generous (and evidently quite unexpected) bequest to fund endowed lectures. During the Bellwood Lectures, we've heard about topics ranging from federal Indian law to Abraham Lincoln, from racial injustice to climate change. We've heard perspectives from the right, left, and middle of the political spectrum, with speakers from Janet Reno to Kenneth Feinberg, Haleh Esfandiari to Alan Simpson.

The exposure to different ideas matters, as does the exposure to key persons in academia, the bar, the judiciary, and public policy. But as I left this year's lecture, I couldn't help but think about how much the very ritual of Bellwood matters. It undoubtedly mirrors similar events in schools across the country: a meet & greet to allow the student body to meet the distinguished speaker, an "in-house" panel with the guest speaker, a large public lecture, and several formal receptions and meals with invited dignitaries as well as law students, faculty, and staff. At and after the public lecture, I noticed students were energized: they were discussing ideas of justice and policy, whether directly connected to the lecture or not. I thought how important this event was, not only to bring the speakers' new ideas and insights to the school, but perhaps more importantly to remind all of us of the power of big ideas. Rather than dwelling on the pages of reading, or the disappointing grades from quizzes and midterms, students were prompted to think of those passions that drove them to law school: "Who or what do I care about? How can I serve these people or values in my legal practice?"

Every law school has rituals of welcoming in (convocation) and sending forth (commencement). The legal profession has rituals for swearing in members of the bar and of the judiciary. Rituals help us concentrate, learn, and viscerally understand our system of shared values. For example, when our state supreme court justices step down from the bench after oral argument to shake hands with counsel, this simple ritual powerfully speaks to the value placed on collegiality in our bench and bar. Rituals overdone can become stultifying customs or habits, but done at the right frequency, and with the right amount of emphasis, can help us lift us out of the ennui and lethargy that often creeps into our thinking and actions. Daniel Kirzane writes, "Both rituals and education seek to order, orient, and transform." In the coming months, I'll be on the lookout for ways of incorporating meaningful rituals, great and small, to celebrate, focus, and transform in my small corner of the legal community.

(Nancy Luebbert)

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