Carol Steiker: ‘Choosing wisely is more important — and less important — than you might think it is’

Carol Steiker ’86 began her Last Lecture to the class of 2018 with the questions she is frequently asked by students, ranging from what electives and classes to take to what summer job they should seek. “My advice is that it doesn’t matter that much.” The choices confronting them now, however, will be more consequential. “I want to talk to you today about choices. Not how to make them, but rather what’s at stake for you in making those choices,” said Steiker.

Point one, continued Steiker: “Choosing wisely is more important than you might think it is.” Point two: “Choosing wisely is less important than you might think it is.”

Digging into point one, Steiker gave examples from her own experiences upon graduating from HLS. “I at 25 believed I was fully formed,” she said, “but what I didn’t realize was that life experiences really do have a way of shaping you and changing you into the person you become. There are many different people within you who you could be, and your choices nudge you slowly and gently toward one version or another of yourself.”

Steiker recalled her early years as a public defender, and how those four years shaped and changed her life in “profound ways.” The extreme poverty she witnessed during her stint in juvenile court made her recognize her own privilege and altered how she later parented. Those years also freed her from a “lifelong reliance” on seeking approval from authority figures, as “a big part of the job is pissing off judges,” she said with a laugh.

Moving on to point two, Steiker read aloud the Carl Dennis poem, “The God Who Loves You,” illustrating the futility of agonizing over past choices, and the importance of inhabiting the present. “Don’t dwell, don’t look back,” counseled Steiker, “even if we choose as wisely as we can, so much is serendipitous.” Pulling another example from her time at HLS, she recalled her deep disappointment at being unable to work for a federal prosecutor for part of her 2L summer, being too busy as the new editor of the Law Review. She later realized that she likely would not have been hired as a public defender had that been her only experience in criminal justice. That disappointment, she said, ended up “being really lucky and helped create my life today.”

Steiker concluded her talk by wishing the class of 2018 the very best in their work, and in love. “I hope that your choices shape you, in ways that you find pleasing and rewarding” she said. “Although you will never know if those choices were the best ones you could have made, you should be ok with that,“ she continued, “accept, and even welcome, the times when things don’t go according to plan. Because even while I wish you much success, I also wish you many mistakes and fortuitous failures.

The Last Lecture Series is organized by the 3L and LL.M. Class Marshals, and asks HLS professors to give talks addressing the graduating class. This year’s series also featured Professors Jody Freeman LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’95, Alex Whiting, and Visiting Professor Paul Butler ’86.