Judge Milan D. Smith: “Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity.”

By Maren Hendricks February 12, 2024

A line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “sweet are the uses of adversity,” set the stage for BYU Law forum remarks by Judge Milan D. Smith of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on how setbacks for several historical figures paved the way for their extraordinary contributions.

  • William Blackstone, denied a professorship at Oxford, devoted himself to studying English common law. The resulting treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England became one of the great resources in the western legal world.
  • George Washington, fatherless at age 11 and with no hope of formal education, joined the military. At his mother’s insistence, he declined a plum opportunity in the British Royal Navy. Instead, he served as a military officer in many disastrous battles of the French and Indian War, gaining military, political, and leadership skills that would be invaluable during the American Revolution.
  • US Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor struggled to find a job after graduating from Stanford Law School in 1952 because law firms were not hiring women. She initially worked without pay as a deputy county attorney and got into politics. Her government work was instrumental in her eventual appointment to the bench; as the first female member of what she labeled a “small firm—of nine,” she paved the way for female attorneys for generations to come.

Judge Smith shared his own experience with adversity’s silver lining. In 2006, he resigned in protest as vice chair of California’s Fair Employment & Housing Commission after the governor vetoed legislation permitting sexual harassment victims to collect monetary damages. His resignation would be instrumental in his appointment to the Ninth Circuit 15 years later. Judge Smith’s advice for students: “Bad things aren’t necessarily disastrous; they can be a pathway to something else that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”