Voice of the Class Speech - Zachary Greenberg, JD '13
The Materiality Standard
Good morning. On this long-awaited day, I’d like to welcome faculty, staff, family members and guests, and most importantly, the Class of 2013!
Nearly every lawyer I have interacted with, and I’m sure many that you have as well, talks about law school in terms of its “disconnect” with the profession. They make comments like, “Law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer” or “I hardly use a single thing I learned in law school in my practice.” And while the call for law school reform is echoing loudly across the country, I believe that Washington University has prepared us for practice in more ways than the obvious . . . beyond the clinics and the drafting classes, the seminars and the externships. It’s often possible to find inspiration in places you least expect.
Think about the countless tests, standards, bright-line rules, and terms we’ve learned throughout our three years. Although we often just “dump” the information after the final exam, there are certain terms and concepts we just can’t seem to get away from, no matter how hard we try. These legal nuggets are the diamonds in the rough – the concepts that are being ingrained in your mind when you aren’t looking.
Consider the term “materiality,” for example. The word might conjure up the “cash and credit” from Madonna’s hit song, but in the law, the concept is inescapable. It appears in securities law, tort law, evidence, patent law, and is a regular point of contention when it comes to drafting contracts.
Sure, for every exam we learned the specific definition of materiality, but this nebulous, shifting standard can be summed up quite easily. Things that are material are important. They are meaningful. They make an impact.
Materiality is always a function of context. Materiality can mean different things to different people at different times in different situations. Just as materiality takes on many forms in the case law, so too can it morph to fit the facts and circumstances of the practitioner.
And that is the beauty of the term. In the coming months some of us will head east and others west, some to rural areas and others to bustling cities. We will be public defenders, associates at private law firms, non-profit lawyers, policy makers, and entrepreneurs. We will practice international law, family law, corporate law, criminal law, environmental law, and numerous other specialties. But regardless of the context, each of us has the chance to make an impact – to be material.
For example, consider the work that goes on in the Non Profit Clinic here at Washington University. Students are often tasked with guiding clients through the steps of corporate formation and the rather mundane paperwork required to obtain § 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. No one down on the first floor is negotiating a deal that will hit the front page of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, but I guarantee you that each client leaves that office with a newfound confidence about his or her endeavor. The students working in that clinic, and in all clinics, make a difference. That is the materiality standard at work.
As a lawyer and counselor each of us has the chance to be material to our clients each and every day, no matter what their circumstances call for.
Madonna might be “living in a material world” but her lyrics in the same song also say, “Experience has made me rich.” And as we strive to be material, there is so much of value we can take from our experience here at Washington University. To the faculty members who purposefully left countless questions unanswered, and who taught us to speak with confidence and conviction, even when we were clueless as to the answer—thank you. To the administration and support staff who work tirelessly to make Washington University the inviting and comfortable school that it is— thank you. And to the parents and grandparents, significant others, children, and friends who bore the brunt of our frustrations and shared in the excitement of our successes and achievements—thank you.
To the Washington University Law Class of 2013, CONGRATULATIONS! It’s hard to believe that just three years ago we stood not far from here, a group of strangers, posing in front of Anheuser-Busch Hall for a photo of the entering class. Fast forward through weekly bar reviews and happy hours, Section Wars, too many intramural sports games to count — and some studying when time permitted—and here we are. Soon there will be no more exams to prepare for. The theoretical will be replaced by the practical. The hypothetical replaced by reality. Through it all, consider materiality to be the standard to which you hold yourself as a lawyer. We all leave here today as future lawyers, advisors, and counselors who are poised to make a difference, to have an impact, to be material.