State Representative Kevin Cotter earned his Juris Doctor from Western Michigan University Cooley Law School in 2006 and was the keynote speaker for WMU-Cooley’s graduating class this May. He was first elected in November 2010 to serve the citizens of the 99th House district in Isabella County, Michigan, as well as 10 townships in Midland County. Representative Cotter serves as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the Majority Vice Chair of the Elections and Ethics Committee, and is a member of the Insurance, Michigan Competitiveness, and Tax Policy committees. Below are his words of wisdom to his fellow graduates during the May 22, 2016 commencement, along with his Michigan’s Big Show radio interview.
Good afternoon graduates, administrators, faculty, family and friends. It is an honor to be here with you today to celebrate the achievements of this graduating class. I am especially honored, because it was 10 years ago this month that I sat in your seats and received my law degree from this fine institution. I am thankful to this institution for giving me a unique education that set me up for success for a lifetime.
Congratulations to those of you who are crossing the finish line today and moving on to the next phase of your professional lives.
For some of you, that means beginning your careers. For others, it means finishing a goal and advancing careers that already exist.
You should all be proud of the incredible effort that you have put in to get here today. Like all important life milestones, the time you spent here will change your life. It will start you on a new path, and it will open you up to new people and new ideas. You now have the tools you need to accomplish great things.
The classes and instructors at Cooley have given you skills you can’t get elsewhere and an opportunity to prepare yourselves for a lifetime of making a difference.
As I think back to my special day 10 years ago, many of the memories of that day have faded. But I can remember one aspect as clearly as if it were yesterday. I can remember sitting in my seat almost in tears thinking about my family and friends that joined me that day. I was amazed by the sacrifices that they had made and all of the love and support that they gave me throughout the journey. I have no doubt that all of you are feeling the same way today. Graduates, will you please rise and with a round of applause, make sure that those that have joined you today know how thankful you are for all that they have given to you.
Graduates, today is a milestone, and it is a significant one. It should be celebrated and cherished, but remember that it is a milestone and not a final destination. Now the question becomes, what will you do with the degree that you receive today. It will be proudly displayed on your home or office wall for the rest of your life, but don’t look at it as a piece of paper in an expensive frame, look at it as tool. A tool to do great things in this world to advance your life and to have a positive impact on the lives of others.
I would like to share with you some advice that I received long ago from a mentor. He was talking to me about life and I believe trying to open up my mind to the many options that existed that I may not have seen at the time. He asked me if I had ever sailed and if I knew what tacking was? I answered “no” to both questions. He explained that when you are sailing, the wind often is not blowing in exactly the direction that you need it to, to get to where you would like to go. Sometimes you have to go this way and then that way to make incremental progress toward your ultimate destination. This is tacking. This conversation stuck with me and my professional career has certainly been, and I expect will continue to be, one of tacking.
I expect that many of you can or will one day be able to relate to this. Some of you came to law school directly from undergraduate school, while others like myself took a less traditional path.
After receiving my undergraduate degree, I entered the workforce while taking graduate school classes in the evenings. Laws school was not even on my radar at that time. However after graduating with a master’s degree and working for a couple more years, I decided to pursue a different track and attend law school. After receiving my law degree, and passing the bar exam in July, I returned to my hometown of Mt. Pleasant and opened a private practice. I later merged my practice with another attorney and things were going very well. However, I was about to make another course change.
Up until that point in my life, the only elected office that I had held was that of treasurer for my freshmen class in high school. I choose to forgo re-election and was at peace with permanently ending my political career. However in 2009, Michigan was in a very dark place and I saw the effects on many in my community and my family firsthand.
I saw family and friends forced to leave the state looking for work. They had to leave their loved ones and their lives behind just to make ends meet.
I knew someone had to step up and make a difference, and so I chose to do it myself.
It was a risk, and it is scary to jump into the unknown in such a public and potentially embarrassing way.
What’s more, being a few years into practice it was not an ideal time to give up everything and essentially start over. But I felt that it was the right thing to do.
Now, six years later I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out. I even had the honor of being elected by my peers to serve as the Speaker of the House. This has allowed me to do even more and have an even bigger impact on the fortunes of this state.
I had to learn new skills to excel in this new role. But more than that, I had to relearn how to use and apply the skills I already had.
The education I received at Cooley prepared me for the world, not just for my legal practice. I only had to realize that and apply the skills in a new way. Don’t ever be afraid to tack.
My experience is not unique in the modern economy. All over the country, people are having the same realization. The days of 40 years at the same company and a gold watch are largely over in this country. That’s been hard for a lot of people to accept, but it also presents opportunities. Opportunities for the people who can adapt their skills and use their talents in new ways.
Many of you here today have already experienced mid-career changes, and that’s what brought you here. Many of you haven’t had the chance to experience it yet, but you know you may and that’s why you’re here, working on skills you can use anywhere, for a lifetime.
Now that I am in the legislature, I see how all the training I’ve received really did prepare me for this. I just didn’t know it at the time.
Many assume that most politicians are lawyers, but this is not the case. Having a law degree is very useful in drafting legislation and having an appreciation for how important every word or comma in a statute can be, but you would probably be surprised to learn that less than 10 percent of my colleagues are attorneys. They are doctors and dairy farmers. They are realtors and teachers.
They too took skills from every possible background and found a way to translate them to have an impact on the world. I’m certain the apple farmer and store clerk never started their careers planning to end up in the state legislature, and neither did I. But we all learned valuable skills and found new ways to use them to make a difference.
Even though I didn’t know what I would end up making of it, I couldn’t be happier with my education and every experience I had here at Cooley. The opportunities I had to grow and challenge myself set the stage for everything that has come after. I hope that sharing a bit of my story will is some way be helpful to you as you move forward in your exciting journey.
I can’t wait to see what this group of graduates goes on to accomplish. I look forward to reading about it and hearing the stories that you will all have to tell.
But don’t be scared if your circumstances change and all of a sudden you find yourself needing to tack. Believe in yourself and your abilities and know that you would not have made it this far if you didn’t have what it takes to overcome any challenge.
Be proud of your accomplishments, but be prouder of the skills you’ve learned that will allow you to succeed over and over again.
Thank you again for this opportunity and congratulations to our graduates!
Read Kevin Cotter’s story in WMU-Cooley’s alumni publication, the Benchmark, in the upcoming Summer 2015 issue.