Eastern District Judge Carol Bagley Amon addresses Brooklyn Law School graduates at Avery Fisher Hall on June 1. NYLJ/Rick Kopstein
Over the last month, nearly 6,000 J.D. and LL.M. students graduated from New York’s 15 law schools. Most were treated to sage advice from featured speakers.
Among the issues raised were the importance of public service and pro bono work, the impact of tort litigation and the globalization of the legal profession.
The speakers encouraged the graduates to hone personal traits that will make them better lawyers and better citizens—to “stay stubborn” and to “be dreamers.”
One assured the graduates, who are facing a tough job market, “It’s all going to work out.”
Here is a sampling of the remarks.
Albany Law School
Judge Victoria Graffeo of the New York Court of Appeals told the graduates at a May 11 ceremony that, despite technological advances, “the qualities that define a well-respected attorney have not changed in the last century.”
Regardless of where they practice, Graffeo said young lawyers “will be evaluated on how hard you work, how conscientious you are and how you treat people.” She suggested the students follow the example of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who attended Albany Law for a year.
“His life and career represented the quintessential American success story but, in truth, it was anchored in hard work and tenacity, an enduring respect for our democratic principles and the rule of law, and an unwavering dedication to providing his clients the legal representation to the best of his abilities,” Graffeo said. “His is a legacy of perseverance, a life-long love of learning, self-discipline and service to others that should inspire you throughout your careers.”
Brooklyn Law School
After saying she had found little inspiration from the Bible, Torah, Quran, legal documents and movies, Eastern District Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon commented, “Perhaps the real question is why my generation should be the one to give you advice.”
The judge noted at the June 1 commencement that her generation has fostered a “greed is good” attitude that led law firms to focus on their “bottom line” and facilitated the financial crisis, created a 24-hour news cycle that “thrives on mindless partisanship” and brought us the “ultimate oxymoron”—reality TV.
All that considered, she said, “You don’t need us, we need you. We need you desperately—your creativity, your fresh new ideas, your entrepreneurial spirit.”
Amon urged the graduates to use the tough legal job market as an opportunity to focus on their true aspirations. Recalling how, out of law school, she took a “deadly boring” job with a corporation before a roommate’s connection led her to a job at the Department of Justice, she told the students, “Do not get discouraged.”
University at Buffalo Law School
Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow (right) focused her speech on remembering. Noting that scholars now suggest that memories “reflect the narratives available to you from your culture, history and emotions,” she said that lawyers “can help shape what we and others come to remember” through law that “produces collective memories for a community or nation.”
“We can and we do create arenas for testing, articulating, contesting and improving public memories—exposing false versions of the past, retaining memories of the past so we can learn from both what worked and what did not work,” Minow told graduates on May 19.
She recalled a commencement address once given by columnist Art Buchwald at Georgetown University, who said, “Graduates, we the older generation are leaving you a perfect world. Don’t louse it up!” Actually, Minow observed, “We’ve given you a flawed, only partly remembered world; you each can and must have a hand in what we come to remember.”
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman addressed graduates at both the May 20 graduation at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University and the June 4 ceremony at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Reminding the graduates that they will be the last class not required to complete 50 hours of pro bono work to be admitted to the New York bar, Lippman stressed the obligation each has to help address the “crisis” in access to justice for the poor.
“The rule of law—the very foundation of our democracy—loses its meaning when the protection of our laws is available only to those who can afford it,” Lippman said at both ceremonies.
He told Hofstra Law students that “if we cannot deliver on the promise of justice for all, we might as well close the doors of our courthouses and our law offices.”
At Cardozo, Lippman praised the work of the law school’s Innocence Project, which has exonerated more than 280 people in 20 years. “By addressing the scourge of wrongful convictions,” Lippman said, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld “took on the great stain of our judicial system.”
“We all must earn a living, but we cannot define our existence by the billable hour or paychecks alone,” Lippman told both audiences. “Our profession should not be seen as argumentative, narrow or avaricious, but rather one that is defined by the pursuit of justice and the desire to be of service.”
City University of New York School of Law
Southern District Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis told the graduates that “the biggest problem facing our profession and our nation is that we have too many people who are talking about the problems the nation is facing, problems the legal profession is facing.”
Noting at the May 18 commencement that he is looking for “individuals who can find solutions,” he said, “I have found these qualities, developed and nurtured and available in abundance at CUNY law school.”
Ellis challenged the students to “be dreamers,” saying, “When we see injustice, we must speak out. When we encounter wrongs, we must strive to right them. When we encounter intolerance, we must not tolerate it.”
Columbia Law School
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. (right) reminded the graduates of his alma mater that the point of a law degree “is not to confer on you a source of economic advantage over your fellow citizens.”
“We lawyers are better paid than ever, but too many in the profession—not all, but too many—have drifted away from the core values that define what it means to be a lawyer. It has become too much about economic advantage and not enough about public responsibility,” Verrilli said at the law school’s May 17 commencement.
He encouraged the graduates to follow the example of Columbia Law alumni Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Attorney General Eric Holder and go into public service.
Verrilli also counseled the students not to “try to plot out a direct line from here to your predetermined goal.” He said that, while a controversial pro bono work he did on behalf of death row inmates would not have been considered “an especially wise or savvy move” by someone plotting to become solicitor general, the experience helped qualify him for the job.
Fordham University School of Law
“It’s all going to work out,” Michelle DePass (left), assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, assured candidates at a May 20 commencement.
Recalling how she graduated from law school at the end of the last recession without a job, DePass said the low-paying first position she finally landed introduced her to the emerging environmental law field. Calling the relatively new practice area the “Justin Bieber of the legal field,” DePass encouraged the graduates to be creative and “try things that have never been tried before.”
“It can be easy to follow the path of least resistance, file the boilerplate motions, write the brief, cite a couple of cases, shout at opposing counsel over the telephone, collect your fee, and go home,” she said. “Don’t be that lawyer.”
New York Law School
Kenneth Feinberg, the founder and managing partner of Feinberg Rozen, gave graduates at a May 21 commencement three pieces of advice. First, he said, “do not be afraid to assume new challenges, to choose the road not taken,” adding that “we lawyers can point with pride to the role we have played in our nation’s history in pursuing the uncomfortable, the contrary view, often at odds with citizen sentiment.”
He encouraged the students to defend the legal profession against its critics, noting that while it is “fashionable” to criticize lawyers, “the sacred rule of law, the pillar on which our freedoms depend, cannot effectively serve our nation without lawyers at the helm.”
Finally, he advised the students to help make the law more affordable and accessible, saying “as new members of our profession, you have the duty and obligation to do what you can to make the rule of law and the costs of justice more accessible and meaningful to our fellow citizens.”
New York University School of Law
Anthony Foxx (right), the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., urged graduates to “take ownership” of their career and follow their passions at a May 18 commencement. Encouraging the students to “stay stubborn,” Foxx told them to “take the skill you have and the passion you have and make a difference.”
At a later ceremony for the law school’s LL.M. candidates, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago emphasized the impact globalization will have on the graduates’ careers.
“The legal profession has, with the gradual integration of nations, experienced sweeping changes and, throughout the world, the laws that defined our differences are becoming intertwined to reflect our shared values and common objectives,” she said, adding that “lawyers of today need to be at ease operating in multiple jurisdictions and be adept with different legal sources.”
Patricia O’Brien, United Nations under-secretary-general for legal affairs and legal counsel, told the LL.M. students that, with the privileges that come with an NYU law degree, “comes the responsibility to speak out.” She also told the graduates not to “succumb to cynicism.”
“I hope that, as lawyers, you will recognize that your contributions to the legal field may not yield immediate results, but that does not make your day-to-day efforts any less important,” she said, encouraging them to “dream the impossible.”
Pace Law School
Southern District Judge Andrew Carter Jr. called graduates “superheroes,” imploring them to use their new “power to help others” for good.
Carter encouraged the students to never lose their sense of joy or allow their work to slip into drudgery. Amplifying lyrics by the Beastie Boys, he urged the graduates on May 20, “You’ve got to fight for your right to have a job that feels like a party.”
St. John’s University School of Law
Eugene Orza (left), the former chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association, told graduates that their exposure to New York City’s diversity would enhance their legal careers.
“Stay close to this city,” said the 1973 graduate. “Stay close to its culture, to its museums, to its theaters. Most importantly, stay close to the people who live and work in this city.”
At the June 3 ceremony, Orza also noted that compromise is essential to harmony in society, encouraging the students to “cultivate a way of understanding and perceiving what’s left unsaid” because “therein is the fruit of settlement.”
Syracuse University College of Law
Former Vice President Dan Quayle noted the parallels between his former job as vice president and his opportunity as commencement speaker “to get up and say a few words that most people won’t remember anyway.”
Quayle called a legal degree a “non-depreciating asset” that is “valuable in any place and time.”
Arguing that the country is facing a “tort crisis,” Quayle urged the students to remember that “litigation is rarely a good or desirable thing.”
“Without reform, the litigation culture will only get worse, at the expense of jobs, innovation, and opportunity in this country,” he said at May 11 ceremonies.