Home News Speeches The Way of Honor, the Light of Truth, and the Will to Work for Men: The UVA Legacy
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  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Presentation of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, University of Virginia School of Law
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • April 12, 2013

Remarks prepared for delivery.

Good morning. Thanks to Dean Mahoney for having me here today. It is good to be back in Charlottesville at one of the best law schools—one could argue the best law school—in the country. I say that remembering what I found unique about this school 40 years ago.

Then, as now, UVA was different from other law schools. Rather than simply teaching the basic tenets of the law, it sought to provide the foundation for future leadership.

As you have heard, I came to the law school from the Marine Corps, with a tour in Vietnam. As you all know, the Vietnam War was deeply divisive for our country, and there were a number of law schools that were not receptive to veterans of Vietnam. Not so UVA.

The university was looking for a range of experiences, understanding that a true legal education is an amalgam of the law and of values, with the goal of preparing its students for service—service to the country, service to Virginia, and service to others.

Then, as now, a variety of views were represented. Many of my fellow students—good friends—opposed the war in Vietnam.

I do remember that on the first day of classes, I sat down next to a somewhat scruffy classmate. I still had a Marine Corps hair cut and was dressed rather neatly. He had hair down to his shoulders, a Fu Manchu mustache, and was dressed in a grubby t-shirt and shorts…and he was not wearing shoes. He never wore shoes.

I very quickly came to find out that he was a conscientious objector. He did not pay much attention in class and seemed to be there for the ride.

At least that is what I believed until the first grades were posted. He was at the top of the class, while I was lingering somewhere in the middle.

We actually became fast friends, and our debates fostered mutual respect and a sharing of vision. Ironically, he is now a very well-paid antitrust lawyer, while I have spent most of my career in some form of public service.

The qualities that drew me to UVA all those years ago are the qualities that have made UVA such a unique institution. And for me, these qualities are what make receiving the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law such a special honor.

Today, I would like to speak to what I believe to be three basic tenets for a rewarding professional life. The first is integrity. The second is commitment to the rule of law. And the third, the value of public service.

Before I address that topic, I would like to take a moment to talk about the FBI—the institution with which I have been fortunate to be associated for the last several years.

When I took office as Director on September 4, 2001, I had expected to focus on areas familiar to me as a prosecutor—drug cases, white-collar criminal cases, and violent crime. But days later, the attacks of September 11 changed the course of the Bureau.

National security—that is, preventing terrorist attacks—became our top priority. We shifted 2,000 agents from our criminal programs to national security. We also understood that we had to focus on long-term, strategic change. We had to enhance our intelligence capabilities and upgrade our technology. We had to build upon strong partnerships and forge new friendships, both here at home and abroad.

We are now an organization 36,000 strong—14,000 of whom are agents; 3,000 of whom are analysts; and the balance, other professional staff.

At the same time we built these capabilities, we had to maintain our efforts against traditional criminal threats. And we had to do all of this while respecting the rule of law and the safeguards guaranteed by the Constitution.

Today, the FBI is a threat-focused, intelligence-driven organization. National security does remain our top priority. Terrorists with global reach and global ambitions seek to strike us at home and abroad. Spies steal our state secrets and our trade secrets for military and competitive advantage. Cyber criminals lurk on our networks, stealing information for sale to the highest bidder. Computer intrusions and network attacks are becoming more commonplace, more dangerous, and more sophisticated.

Simultaneously, we face a wide range of criminal threats, from white-collar crime and public corruption to transnational criminal syndicates, migrating gangs, and child predators.

And indeed, the threats we face are varied and ever changing. We as an organization must continually evolve in order to prevent terrorist and criminal attacks, because terrorists and criminals certainly are evolving themselves.

This description of the FBI today provides the backdrop for my comments on the values that contribute to a rewarding career.

* * *

Nearly 100 years ago, the university unveiled the formal east entrance to the grounds, known as the Senff Gateway. It still stands today, by the old medical school building.

You may have passed under it many times without noticing the inscription atop one of the two archways. It reads, “Enter by this gateway and seek the way of honor, the light of truth, and the will to work for men.” The inscription is attributed to President Alderman, who believed that these were the three great principles of life at the university.

Though the words may be a bit different from my own, they embody the tenets I mentioned earlier—integrity, commitment to the rule of law, and the value of public service.

Let us begin with integrity—what the archway calls “the way of honor.”

As improbable as it may seem, particularly to a 1L muddling through civil procedure or contracts, as a lawyer you may one day end up in the highest ranks of judicial power. You may manage multinational law firms, advocate for those in need, or set groundbreaking precedent.

In the end, it is not only what we do, but how we do it. Whatever we do, we must act with honesty and integrity. Whether we are working with a client, opposing counsel, or in court, we are only as good as our word. We can be smart, aggressive, articulate, and indeed, persuasive. But if we are not honest, our reputations will suffer.

And once lost, a good reputation can never ever be regained. As the saying goes, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. And if you don’t have it, nothing else matters.”

The FBI’s motto is Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity. Uncompromising integrity—both personal and institutional—is the core value. For the men and women of the FBI, integrity should be reflected in all that we say and all that we do.

For attorneys and non-attorneys alike, there will come a time when you will be tested, in ways both small and large. You may find yourself standing alone, against those you thought were trusted colleagues. You may stand to lose what you have worked for. And the decision will not be such an easy call.

Certainly Virginia has prepared its students for such a test, for integrity is a way of life here at UVA. Nothing sets Virginia apart from other universities more than the concept of honor. The Honor System, in place since 1842, and the community of trust it enables, rests on one precept—and that is integrity. Our careers in the law, our professional and our personal success—and indeed, our reputations—rest on that same precept.

Moving to the second tenet, the rule of law. This is, to my mind, what the archway’s inscription describes as “the light of truth.”

Every FBI employee takes an oath promising to uphold the rule of law and the United States Constitution. Each of you will take a similar oath upon admission to the bar. For us, these are not mere words. They set the expectations for our behavior…the standard for the work that we do.

For the American people to respect the Bureau, we must be objective and we must be fair…and that also means we must be apolitical. That has been one of the great things about my job—that it has allowed for the benefits of public service, but without the politics.

We at the FBI take great care to consider the privacy and civil liberties implications of our programs and our investigations. When writing policy or investigative guidelines, or when taking on new projects, we consult with not only our in-house counsel and the Department of Justice, but also with groups such as the ACLU.

And in a practice started by my predecessor, Louis Freeh, all new agents visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington to better understand what happens when law enforcement becomes a tool of oppression—or worse.

For if we safeguard our civil liberties but leave our country vulnerable to attack, we will have lost. If we protect our citizens from crime and terrorism but sacrifice our civil rights, we will have also lost. It is not a question of conflict; it is a question of balance. The rule of law, civil liberties, and civil rights—these are not our burdens. These are what make all of us safer and stronger.

Turning to the importance of public service—or as the gateway reads, “the will to work for men.”

To be sure, it is difficult to consider entering public service upon graduation from law school, often with the burden of student loans.

As I mentioned earlier, I did have the opportunity to serve as a Marine in Vietnam. Those years—those experiences I shared with my fellow Marines—shaped my world view. I do consider myself fortunate to have survived my tour in Vietnam. There were many who did not. And perhaps because of that, I have always felt compelled to try to give back in some way.

I have been lucky to spend the better part of my career in public service and to benefit from the intangible rewards that come from such service. One such unexpected reward is that public service often can be a humbling experience. And there are few of us who would not benefit from a lesson in humility—myself included.

In this regard, I tell the story of my old friend and college classmate Lee Rawls, who was naturally humble. He had spent many years working on Capitol Hill, and we had served together in a previous administration. When I became Director of the FBI, I asked him to join me as a close adviser, and, remarkably, he agreed.

Lee was a mentor. He knew how to cut through nonsense and get to the heart of the matter better than anyone else. He also knew how to put me in my place. During one particularly heated meeting, everyone was frustrated—mostly with me—and I myself may have been a wee bit impatient and ill-tempered.

Lee sat silently, and then—out of the blue—posed the following question: “What is the difference between the Director of the FBI and a 4-year-old child?”

The room grew hushed. Finally, he said, “Height!”

On those days when we were under attack by the media and being clobbered by Congress…when the Attorney General was not at all happy with me…I would walk down to Lee’s office, hoping for a sympathetic ear. I would ask, “How are we doing?”

Lee would shake his head and say, “You’re toast. You’re dead meat. You’re history.” He would continue, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, because no one else around here does.”

It was that innate sense of humility—the idea that the world does not revolve around you—that was central to Lee’s character. That same sense of humility…that constant reminder of one’s place in the grand scheme of things…that sense of being in the world and of the world…is central to public service.

UVA’s public service program is testament to Thomas Jefferson’s concept of educating citizen-lawyers—a belief that schools should instruct students to be more than just good lawyers, but also good citizens. A belief that they should use their legal training to work for the common good, and that their careers should amount to time well spent.

As I look back, I know that I have been truly fortunate to have been able to spend such time in the public sector. It has given me the opportunity to participate in investigations such as the Pan Am 103 bombing…to work with homicide detectives in Washington, D.C., bringing criminals to justice…and, for the last 12 years, to work with one of the finest institutions in the world. These were experiences that would be difficult to replicate in the private sector.

I should add that I say this understanding that there are a number of you who are contemplating what you will do with your degree. I, of course, am not above urging you to consider the FBI as a career.

In any event, each of us must determine for ourselves in what way we can best serve others. Those of you who are students will leave UVA with a firm grasp not only of the law as it stands, but the law as it should be, and the law as it could be.

Find something you love, some way in which you can contribute—something that will leave you believing that your time has been well spent.

* * *

It seems only fitting, as we celebrate Founder’s Day, to again look to Thomas Jefferson. Citizen-lawyer. Founding father. Delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Governor of Virginia. Envoy to France. Our nation’s first secretary of state. Vice president. And, of course, our third president.

Before he died, Jefferson wrote his own epitaph, which records none of these astounding accomplishments. Instead, it lists just three things—author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia. These were, to his mind, his greatest contributions to society. Time well spent, indeed.

Thank you for having me here today. I would be happy now to take a few questions.

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