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Justice Speeches

Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Commencement
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
May 15, 2022

Good afternoon and thank you Dean (Lee) Fisher for that introduction.

President Bloomberg, Provost Sridhar, Former Justice O’Neill, judges, law school faculty, distinguished guests, friends and family, and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Class of 2022, it is a high honor to serve as your commencement speaker today on the 125th Anniversary of the College of Law.  I am honored to be among you and these distinguished Alumni.

I know many of you are feeling excitement and nervousness. You are at the very beginning of your career, extremely lucky to be where you are… and to be entering the professional world armed with a law degree!


Because of the changing dynamic of the practice of law in Ohio and around the country – and because of the opportunities for change in our system of jurisprudence.

You are poised for success in so many ways.

I would love to be where you are and knowing what I know now.

But today, I am in a different place in my professional timeline.

The Ohio Constitution is telling me it is time to do something new. So, at the end of the year, I will step down as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

But before I do, I want to share the benefit of my experience as you excitedly head into your professional life.

Some of you will “practice law” in the traditional sense -- that is representing clients, individuals, and businesses.

Others will use their law degree to teach, to work in-house for corporations or non-profits, to work as a public servant, to become entrepreneurs, and the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.


Whichever path you take, remember what Abraham Lincoln said, “The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It.”

You might think that’s easy for him to say, he was the President of the United States. He could create anything he wanted. But he was not president when he said it. He was a young person who was smart and a hard worker. He was persistent. He experienced failure and rejection and yet he held tight to his dreams.

So, Create Your Future. It is up to you to find a niche that suits your talents and interests.

Experts tell us that chances are you will change places and types of work four or five times during your career. That is exciting.

Far from causing trepidation for graduates this fact should be liberating.

I know because that’s my story.

There is a myriad of options to use your law degree to reinvent the practice of law. Do not be locked into a traditional, join a firm and stay 40 years, that model may no longer exist.

Whichever way you go, my experience has reinforced what you already know…: Do Your Very Best and opportunities will present themselves.

I started out in practice by hanging out a shingle and taking criminal appointments, representing small businesses in the community, and by taking probate cases. I loved trial work.

It was interesting and stimulating, and I had success at it. Judges appointed me to all kinds of interesting cases. 

I was trying cases. Clients referred other clients; I was on a path.

When you work hard and do your best, you will have success and you will also get noticed.

In Summit County, where I practiced, there was an opening for a magistrate on the probate court. I had handled cases in probate court, and I guess impressed a long serving magistrate.  

I was asked to consider becoming a magistrate. Now that was not part of my plan. But when I was asked to apply, I thought about it.

I had a husband, two young children, law school debt, and while it did not pay much, I think $26,000 a year at the time. The benefits were good. As we weighed it, it was a good move for our family.

That was the beginning of my career in public service, and it has been 37 years since that decision.

Obviously, I had a few intervening jobs since probate magistrate…it was not a straight path to chief justice.

My point is, when you do your best – and you are noticed, opportunities present themselves.

But here is the advice.

Most people think that identifying a goal and making a plan to reach that goal is all there is to a career.

The flaw in that approach is that while trying to go from point A to point Z, wearing blinders, you may miss great opportunities along the way.

Your career, like mine, could involve some very interesting twists and turns.  Do not miss them. The best part of life happens in the interesting twists and turns.

Working on the probate court, I became interested in local politics. And I got politically involved. I watched the common pleas judges and thought, I can do that.

And becoming a Common Pleas judge was then my goal.

Make decisions purposefully. As I said I became active in politics. Helping my boss the Probate judge when he ran and running myself a few times without success.

But that was OK because I was ‘paying my dues.’ 

I knew that there were several judgeships that would be opening due to retirements. I knew the governor made the appointments. I knew that the local party put forth names of preferred candidates.

The local party recommended me, and Governor Voinovich appointed me. Later I was elected to the common pleas bench with 70% of the vote. I attribute it to doing my very best, which earned me a reputation for solving problems, large and small. 

I advise you to build the very best reputation you possibly can and Guard Your Reputation.    

Show people and colleagues that you are:

Humble and kind

You work hard

Be an example of fairness, integrity, and civility.

Be an example of that every day, in all you do.

While law school will soon be in your past, remember that learning is not. You will be amazed at all the things you have to learn. Keep Learning and never stop.

Some of you may be Masterpiece Theater fans.

It’s a show on PBS that is brought to us by Viking Cruises. Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen, grew up in a small Norwegian village. He talks about the values instilled by his parents… kindness, honesty, and hard work…then he adds a fourth….be curious.

Be curious about the law but so much more too. When I mentioned to a friend of mine, Judge Brendan Sheehan, presiding and administrative judge of Cuy Co. Court of Common Pleas, that I was speaking to the new graduates of our alma mater, he asked me to mention the advice he received right out of law school.

Read something other than briefs, treatises, opinions, and journals. Read for pleasure…several times a week at least.

It will keep you entertained, thinking, and doing something interesting for yourself. It helps to satisfy your curiosity…about life.

Do not worry if you have not secured that dream job yet. That is OK. Do not be discouraged. Use this time as a gift. This could be an opportunity for you to provide public service and sharpen your skills at the same time.

Once you pass the bar and are admitted to the practice of law think pro bono.

Countless fellow Ohioans and fellow Americans are disadvantaged and need legal advice. You can use your growing wisdom and expertise to help them.

Think about it this way:  Helping others will build your confidence in applying the law and advocating for clients. Your local bar can connect you with opportunities for pro bono in your community.

Pro bono work goes hand in hand with the privilege of practicing law – because it can change lives. If you wait to take on pro bono work, you may never get around to it. And there are too many people in need. So, start now and build the habit for your whole career.

Remember:  to whom much is given, much is expected.

Please, exceed that expectation!

I went from being a judge, to being the Summit County Prosecuting Attorney. It admittedly often happens the other way around.

But Remember, Be Open to Opportunities. When the long-time prosecutor was elected to the Court of Appeals, I saw an opportunity to do good things, and serve. Service has been a constant in my career plan.

I left my judgeship to become the prosecutor. I never expected to do that I thought that I’d be a common pleas judge for the rest of my career…but the prosecutor opportunity presented itself and I was uniquely qualified to fill the opening.

While doing my best and having developed a good statewide reputation as Summit County Prosecutor, I was approached by Bob Taft, Secretary of State, who was running for governor. He asked me to be his running mate…I never expected or planned to do any such thing…but I said yes, and we were elected.

Here is the advice I’m trying to get across…be ready to take advantage of what presents itself.  Chances are it won’t be anything on your radar, but I may just turn out to be the perfect fit.

When a position needs to be filled, whether in politics or private sector…if you work, are standing out, are willing to take a risk, you will be surprised what will come your way.

But I must caution you about risk. If you cannot handle the risk, don’t take a risky path.

If you will be devastated – by loss in the political arena - do not run for office. If you are going to be devastated by loss in the courtroom, do not be a litigator. There are so many other options.

Follow your own plan. You do not have to take every good opportunity that comes along. You may not be ready, or it is not for you.

Don’t do anything because others say you should, but in your heart, you know it’s not right for you.  There will be others.

But I can tell you that stepping just a bit outside my comfort zone led to some of the most valuable experiences of my life. So, know your own risk tolerance, but do not be afraid to stretch.

I have always wanted to see what’s around the next corner…I’m curious!

During that stretch, and throughout my career, I have met a wide range of smart and interesting people who have continued in my life. One of them is your dean.

Lee Fisher and I were on opposite sides of that gubernatorial race I mentioned a moment ago. Yes, two smart people in different political parties. While we had philosophical differences on some issues, I respect him as someone with a lot of talent who committed to serve others and did a lot of good for Ohio and continues to serve today in remarkable ways.

As you grow your network in the legal community – and in life – do not look for the differences you have with others. Look for the common ground and the ways you can admire your adversaries. Because a courtroom battle should not be a fight to the death. The law should prevail. And in the future, you may find yourself on the same side of a different issue or case and you want to be able to work well alongside all kinds of capable people. It will make you stronger.

What starts as good manners and civility can lead to friendship.

So, your last law school lesson – let it be from me – and let it be that Civility must prevail.

And civility in the law was the theme echoed recently by a juror in what has been characterized as one of the largest murder cases in state history. The defendant was acquitted.

The juror said, “"The fact that we were going to have strong opinions was going to be undoubtedly true, it was paramount that we all walked out after having very intense debates and arguments and disagreements, but we never lost the first rule, which was respect each other. That really helped hold us together."

Last thing I want to emphasize with you is that you use your law degree and law license to help your fellow human beings.

In 2008, J.K. Rowling addressed the graduating class of Harvard University. Her words resonated with me, and I hope they do with you, as I close:

“If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better”

God Bless!

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