Thursday, May 22, 2008

My Graduation Speech

The following is a speech I wrote to present as a candidate for my law school's graduation student speaker (the graduation took place earlier today). Though I wasn't chosen to speak ,and the student who ultimately gave the speech was excellent, I thought I would post the written version of my speech online:

On a Sunday afternoon in August 2005, we arrived at school to have our pictures taken in Golding Lounge and to receive our orientation materials. Little did we know that those pictures would be the last time we would look so relaxed. Three years later, after toiling through long nights in the law library and after heeding dire warnings that missing any one of the endless series of mandatory career service information sessions would prevent us from graduating or, worse yet, would require us to watch a video recording of the information session that we missed we are now about to receive our diplomas, accompanied by the customary exhortations to apply our extraordinary education and freshly minted JDs to achieve excellence in our chosen profession, without forgetting of course to pass the bar exam on our way up.

Before we look ahead I would like us to step back in time for a moment and imagine that those pictures in Golding Lounge were never snapped. I would like us to imagine a world without lawyers. No doubt, many outside this theater will be quick to conclude that our world would be a better place. They might say that lawyers only make life more complicated and contentious. But what would a world without lawyers really involve?

This past fall in Pakistan, General Musharraf disbarred lawyers en masse and ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court, leaving bloodshed to fill in the vacuum where the rule of law once stood.
By contrast, lawyers and judges in our own country have helped to ensure the integrity of political processes without resort to civil unrest.

Recently, I took a class field trip to the federal women’s correctional facility in Danbury, CT. We left at 7AM at an hour that is much earlier than law students – and law professors – are ever expected to be functional. Admittedly, many of us arrived at the bus with a headache, a result of the previous evening’s activities after our crushing loss to our uptown rivals (Columbia) in our annual head to head charity basketball game. In a meeting at the prison that we had with several inmates, one woman in particular stood out. Vicky, who has no law degree or formal legal education, has dedicated herself to becoming the prison’s resident legal scholar. Unlike many of us sitting here today, she can actually shepardize a case by referencing the bound court reporters without clicking on Lexis and Westlaw. Vicky stood out because she spends virtually all her free time in the law library and counsels every newly-arrived prisoner on her rights to appeal. She does this precisely because most of the prisoners do not have effective lawyers representing them. “Remember” she told us before we left, “there’s freedom in these books.” There is freedom in these books.

Our collective experience at NYU Law School has led us to the realization that the law provides us with a key that will unlock many doors in front of us and in front of the clients for whom we work. Two years ago, I traveled to New Orleans to aid in the massive relief effort that took place after Katrina, as part of NYU Law School’s inaugural Alternate Spring Break program. The work and energy that we brought to New Orleans and, as our Alternate Spring Break program has expanded, to communities throughout the country, have helped pave the way for individuals to move ahead in their lives. In the classroom, our law school professors have given us the tools to resolve complex problems and issues that affect real people. Besides our formal training, the bonds that we have formed with one another and that sustained us these past three years will continue to provide support as we move forward in our personal and professional lives. Our minds are sharper and our horizons have been expanded because we engaged each other in substantive debate, forcing us to think critically and also to respect opinions different than our own.

Our achievements as law students allow us to imagine what we will accomplish when we take off our cap and gown and begin our careers in earnest. Because of our work, merger agreements will be completed, securities regulations will be enforced, and labor rights will be applied. We will improve the welfare of our local communities by advocating for laws that protect groups of individuals routinely disadvantaged in our country. We will push for democratic reforms and accountability around the world.

Today, we know that a world without the NYU Law School Class of 2008 is a world that will not be a reality. And the world will truly be a better place for it.