Desperately Seeking a Voice
Jeffrey S. Lehman
Call it decanal laryngitis.
I had experienced variants of this malady before, whenever I had taken on new
jobs. Losing my voice, I mean. It had happened in milder forms when I had become
a law clerk, a lawyer, and a law professor.
But the decanal variety was more potent. And more debilitating. So many more
people were paying attention to me. Listening to me. Caring about what I sounded
Now before I talk about the laryngitis question, I need to explain something.
You see, I think of myself as having a "true voice." Thatís what I
hear when I think. Or when I mutter to myself. Sometimes I hear it when Iím
speaking about something difficult with a friend whom I really, really trust.
"Authentic" is a major buzzword nowadays. For me, the word
"authentic" makes me think of my true voice. The authentic
"me" uses short paragraphs. Short sentences. My true voice usually
speaks in first-person-singular. Its sentences often begin, "I donít
know," and "I wonder if other people Ö" Itís sentimental.
In some ways, my true voice isnít very "professional." Thatís a
problem. It means that I need other voices for work.
Iím gong to come back to decanal laryngitis in a minute. But first let me
say a little more about the earlier moments of professional laryngitis. I think
that will help me make my point.
When I was a law clerk, I had an in-chambers voice, for talking with my
judges and my co-clerks. It was pretty authentic, most of the time. But I needed
another voice to use in drafting or editing opinions that would be published
under the name of another person.
Law clerk opinion writing was a kind of ventriloquism. I tried to master the
cadences and rhythms and characteristic argumentative modes of my judges, and I
imitated them. Each of my judges struck his own balance between the decisive,
let-me-walk-you-through-the-syllogism style of writing, and the more personal,
style. Each had his own sense of humor.
Ventriloquism was challenging, but it was fun too. I didnít feel my ethical
core was on the line very much. I do, however, think that my judges felt their
ethical cores were on the line. They had to make sure that my
"contributions" didnít move their voices into a place that felt
inauthentic to them.
When I became an associate at a law firm, I generally used the same kinds of
voices Iíd been comfortable with as a student and as a law clerk. But there
was one environment where I really had to develop a new voice: negotiating.
My old voices werenít up to the task of negotiating on behalf of a client.
It was a whole new role. The partner I did most of my work with spent a lot of
time explaining why my old voices werenít right for this task.
He taught me about the undertones of negotiation. Everything we said to the
opposing lawyer was accompanied by an implicit subtext. Sometimes the undertone
would be, "You and I are just technicians, trying to implement the
agreement of our principals." Or sometimes, "You and I are supposed to
help guide our clients toward a bargain that reflects general principles of
justice and efficiency." Or sometimes, "You and I are supposed to make
sure our clients donít walk away over some trivial little point."
I often felt that my ethical core was on the line when I was negotiating. I
was using my voices for my clientís advantage. I was speaking strategically. I
needed to respect certain boundaries of honesty, integrity, and (here it is
again) authenticity. Yet I felt that it was always up to me to determine where
those boundaries were. (To his credit, my mentor always encouraged me to think
carefully and self-consciously about those boundaries, and to pay attention to
I kind of liked those negotiator voices. I even enjoyed that struggle to find
voices that were instrumentally effective without being intolerably inauthentic.
That struggle, more than the voices themselves, would be good preparation for
later episodes of professional laryngitis.
When I started teaching, the first month was awful. I worried about whether I
could survive the vocal challenges.
First, there was speaking with students. I wanted desperately to be
professorial, whatever that meant. I also wanted to be candid and honest. I
wanted to show my students that it was good to struggle with complex issues and
to be profoundly self-critical. I also wanted to be sensitive and responsive to
their confusion. So I over-interpreted every yawn or furrowed brow. I
assumed they were hung up about a point when often they were just hung over. And
I wrung my hands so much about the nuances of tax policy that they worried I
didnít know what I was talking about.
When I figured out that this wasnít working, I careened to the opposite
extreme. I began to exude more confidence and certainty than I really felt.
Slowly, over time, I became more comfortable in my role. And my classroom voice
underwent a change that I believe is normal: a slow regression towards the
But there was also the need to find a voice in print. Writing a scholarly
article was different from writing a judicial opinion, a brief, or a client
letter. I had to claim for myself (at least implicitly) an original insight or
understanding. But too much boldness can be dangerous before tenure. A rash
blunder can be humiliating. So my early written voice was towards the cautious
end of the spectrum. Only after tenure did my writing style regress towards the
more authentic, slightly bolder sense I had of my own contributions.
So now I can talk about the startling transition to being a dean. Suddenly,
the old voices didnít work any more. Not even my tenured faculty voice. My
colleagues heard me differently from the way they had a month before.
Consider irony. People take what deans say far too seriously. Even
colleagues. Especially colleagues. And it took me a while to adjust to that
fact. If I indulged in the gentle teasing that used to be the stuff of collegial
bonding ("Do you ever wonder if you are ever going to have another original
idea?"), I risked launching a fragile colleague into a full-blown panic
Then there is the problem of being "on the record." I was suddenly
a much more quotable source than I had been before. Random musings in which I
had no investment would circle back to me in weird ways. ("Jeff, I just
heard from somebody else that you were disappointed by the faculty turnout at
the student talent show. What are you planning to do about it?")
Being a dean forced me to speak more carefully, more precisely, more
directly. If I wanted to tell a colleague something in confidence, I could no
longer assume they would infer that desire from the context. I had to say, right
out loud, "Please donít tell a soul about this." If I wanted to
float an idea, I had to say, "This is a really tentative preliminary
reaction that I have no commitment to, and Iím going to need help thinking it
through." I couldnít scowl unless I wanted to frighten someone. I wasnít
allowed to cry unless I absolutely couldnít help it.
Up to this point Iíve been talking about how my old voices needed to be
modified. But thatís really only the tip of the iceberg. The overwhelming part
of being a new dean was finding myself in a million new situations, each
demanding an entirely different kind of voice. Here are five voices that I hadnít
experienced before but that became regular features of my life as a dean:
1. The cheerleader voice. This turned out to be the most important
voice for me to develop. Everyone from students to faculty to alumni needs
reassurance that things are going to go well, to be all right. Part of my
duties called for me to find credible and encouraging ways for everyone to
feel good about being members of such a swell team. And to do that without
sounding completely ridiculous.
2. The coach voice. I needed this voice for junior colleagues
especially. With proper coaching, outstanding entry-level hires should be
able to earn tenure. But it took some time to find the balance that
offered encouragement and guidance without understating the magnitude of
the challenge that modern tenure standards pose.
3. The comedian voice. I have always enjoyed my own sense of humor (who
doesnít?). But until I became a dean I had not appreciated the broad
range of situations in which a gently self-deprecating joke can put people
at ease and allow everything to proceed more smoothly.
4. The preacher voice. Our alumni magazine includes a page for a deanís
message in each issue. I have used the column to pen homilies in which I
hold forth about qualities of heart and mind that most great lawyers seem
to share. I have, frankly, loved the opportunity that the deanship has
provided to be just a wee bit preachy about the core values of our
5. The authoritative voice. At different times, I found myself having
to explain that the Law School (or I) had made a decision, and why we were
standing by that decision. The audience could be students, colleagues,
graduates, the general public, or (often) applicantsí parents. For those
occasions, I needed a voice that could project warmth and sensitivity, but
more importantly firmness and resolve.
So whatís the punch line? (Sentimentalists always need a moral for the end
of the story.) I have two.
Number one is that I think itís a real shame that we have to give up some
voices when we become deans. But if we donít, we wonít last long.
Number two is that, after seven years of deaning, I have actually come to
enjoy using the new voices I acquired. When I started out, each of them felt
artificial, and in truth they were barely adequate to the task. But over time,
each has regressed towards the authentic. (Maybe the right word is
"progressed.") Each has gradually taken on more and more qualities of
the voice I hear when I am sitting alone at my computer, talking to myself.
I think that is part of why I love Commencement so much. In an auditorium
packed with graduates and parents and colleagues, I get to cheer, to joke, and
to preach. I get to tell an audience of thousands how proud I am of these
students and their school. I even have a few minutes to hold forth
authoritatively about some matter of substance I think important.
Commencement challenges me to deploy all the voices I have picked up over the
years. Sometimes, in the middle of my remarks, I find myself listening in an
out-of-body way to the sound of my own speaking. And I always feel a little
surprise, a little pleasure, and a healthy dose of gratitude when I realize that
the voice I am hearing is, truly, mine.