EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two stories examining the start of the new school year at the University of South Dakota School of Law and the progress the school has made in recent years.
VERMILLION — Neil Fulton, dean of the University of South Dakota School of Law, welcomed the freshman law school class to their new home Monday morning as they gathered in the law school courtroom.
“We are a community defined by excellence, service and leadership,” he told the 87 students, adding that the USD law school has been defined by these ideals since its founding in 1901. The law school’s founders, Fulton said, recognized the need for USD’s law school to produce lawyer-leaders for South Dakota and the surrounding world.
“The history of South Dakota has been written by the graduates of this law school,” Fulton said. “The ideals of excellence, service and leadership have guided more than 100 years of our alumni in shaping their world as practicing lawyers, judges, elected officials, entrepreneurs and innovators across South Dakota and beyond.
“Today you encounter the opportunity and I believe the obligation to take up these ideals and carry them forward in your way,” he said.
Fulton told the students that one of those ideals — excellence — is the endeavor to always do one’s best in all things.
“We’re tempted to see excellence as a static point we reach, but excellence is a process, not an outcome,” he said. “It’s silent in the steady, enduring effort to produce work that’s noteworthy for its innovation, impact and importance,” he said.
Fulton told the freshman class that excellence as lawyers “will be rooted in the habits of mind and discipline and purpose to consistently do your very best. It will be sustained by your commitment to be better today than yesterday in every endeavor and to courageously seek out to take on new challenges and opportunities.”
Service, he said, continuing his discussion of the law school’s ideals, is a practical application of excellence through care for the world and the people in it.”
“We truly serve when we take on opportunities to apply our talents to better the lives of the people around us,” Fulton said. “As lawyers, we do that through our dedication to preserving the rule of law, working to improve our laws and legal system, the advancement of justice, equity and inclusion and care for the least among us.”
He told the students that their lifestyles after they graduate from the USD School of Law also ultimately will define who they are.
“It must deal with an orientation toward service to our community, our profession and interest beyond simply the parochial and self-serving,” Fulton said.
Leadership, he said, is the willingness to run toward problems, not away from them.
“It requires a commitment to curiousity, creativity and problem-solving,” Fulton said. “Leadership begins with making ‘yes’ our premise and a commitment to seek solutions, even when they’re not easy or come at a cost. Each of you can and must lead.”
True leaders, he said, are those who can identify a purpose, make it clear and convincing to people around them and work tirelessly toward its implementation.
“Leadership can be applied to issues large and small, communities near and far and to any issue or idea to which we are looking toward,” Fulton said.
He told the law school’s Class of 2022 that the ideals he described don’t stand alone.
“We are a community of excellence, service and leadership and that matters. Each of us can commit as individuals to these ideas. However, to be community-oriented towards them means we must continually encourage and support everyone around us to do the same,” Fulton said. “The law is a collective, not an individual endeavor. While we first bear a responsibility for our own actions and outcomes, our greatest achievements will be realized in the community and through our efforts to improve the lives of not only ourselves, but each person around us.”
He said the alumni of the USD School of Law “have pursued excellence, offered service and manifested leadership in all of the roles to which their imagination and purpose could turn,” he said. “As I speak to you today, I can’t know what your purpose and context for these traits will be. What I can say with clarity and certainty, however, is that these traits are alive within you, that the faculty and staff of the USD School of Law will help you hone and unleash them and that among you are leaders that will change South Dakota and the world around you in ways that we cannot yet imagine but will define who we are in the future.”
Fulton took a moment to describe the academic adventures that await the first year students.
“It will be unlike any course of study you have undertaken to date,” he said. “The vocabulary and structure will initially be foreign, the demands will be greater than anything you’ve done before and pressure will be intense. You will need to develop new techniques of study and new intellectual and emotional resources to successfully pursue it.
“But you won’t be solo. You’ll be supported by faculty and staff committed to your success,” Fulton said. “Each of us are passionate about the law and passionate about this community. We’re passionate about passing on tools to the next generation of lawyers to succeed.”
He advised the students to thoroughly prepare for each class, plan a reading schedule, budget their time and stay current.
“Coming to class prepared will make your class time more engaging, understandable and rewarding,” Fulton said. “If you’ve been able to fake it and make it before, you can’t do that and stay here long. You must begin with preparation.”
He told the students they must attend each class, take notes and be engaged.
“Think deeply about what your professor tells you or asks you. Try to connect it to what’s come before and ask questions about things that don’t initially make sense,” Fulton said. “Be present; be engaged. Your active engagement will open up new connections and new ideas will make the material come alive in your mind.
“The study of law is nothing if not alive with possibilities. The law isn’t static. Each of us has the chance to change it and that begins with our deep engagement with it,” he said.
Fulton advised the students to set aside time to regularly review what they’ve learned.
“Regular review is necessary. It will facilitate your attention and improve your ability to comprehend all that comes next,” he said.
Fulton told them they must construct their own cognitive scheme – “that is to say, you must gain command of the information by building your own mental map. You must frame it in your mind your way.”
He added that each of the students must test themselves. That, in turn, will help them form an individually-tailored plan for their learning. “You can follow-up with consultations with your professors, discussions with your study group and additional review and study that helps you cement what you know and identify and continue to learn.
“This is the path to success and you must put one foot in front of the other on it every day. If you do, you will get where you want to be, believe me,” Fulton said, adding, after taking a closer look at his audience, “There are a lot of curious faces out there. It’s going to be OK.”
The most valuable tool the students must use, he said, is resilience.
“You need resilience because the study of law, while incredibly rewarding, is hard,” Fulton said. “It takes work. And along the way, each of us engaged in the study of law will fail. You’ll fail to understand an assignment. You’ll fail in your initial analysis of a summation. You’ll fail to meet the expectations of your professors and even your own.
“Failure, in the study of law, is inevitable. But so it is in the practice of law and in life,” he said. “I continue to fail to this day. But it’s not these failures in the moment that define us. We’re defined, ultimately, by our response to failure. You can choose to respond with more rigorous analysis, more careful study and a plan to improve.”
Fulton reminded the students only they can provide the resilience that fuels the improvements they need to make.
“Each of you has the potential to thrive, grow and succeed at USD School of Law,” he said. “Each of us, in this community, is committed to that process with you and your realization of true, lasting success.
“It’s going to be great,” Fulton said. “Trust me. It’s going to be great.”