2012 Keynote Address
Donald B. Verrilli Jr. ’83, Solicitor General of the United States
Dean Schizer, distinguished faculty, alumni, proud parents and family members, and, most importantly, members of the graduating class of 2012: Thank you for inviting me to join in this wonderful celebration of all the achievements that have brought you to this day, and of all that you will accomplish in the years ahead.
It is a special honor for me to be with you today, almost three decades after my own graduation from this exceptional law school, and to welcome you into the alumni family and its legacy of leadership and service.
You don’t need me to tell you that you are about to enter a world of great challenges and more than a little uncertainty. The country is fighting its way back from a devastating financial crisis in 2008, but we still have a ways to go. And the legal profession continues to face its share of economic stress. Especially for many of you who will begin your careers with the heavy burden of student loan debt, wrestling with your personal financial challenges may seem like more than enough to take on. I understand why you would feel that way. But I am here today to urge you to look beyond those challenges, as daunting as they may seem today. The most important challenge you will face in the years ahead is not weathering the current economic climate. The nation has summoned the will to overcome economic challenges before and is doing so again now. The legal profession will weather the storm, and so will you. In fact, you will very likely do quite well.
The greater challenge for each of you lies in what you will make of the rights and privileges that come with the degree you receive today. Starting from your earliest days in this profession, you will be faced with choices that will shape the lawyer you become—of course, the big choices (the forks in the road), but also the choices you make each day about how you conduct yourself and carry out your responsibilities. And just as importantly, the choices you make will shape what the profession will become, because, as graduates of this great law school, you are destined to be leaders of this profession.
The point of the degree you will receive today is not to confer on you a source of economic advantage over your fellow citizens or entrée into a life of wealth and power. You are joining a profession—if you are lucky, you will experience it as a calling—and at the core of the profession is an ethic of public responsibility. There is, or at least there should be, nobility in our work: taking on other people’s problems as our own and moving heaven and earth to solve them, being the voice of the voiceless, standing up for the rule of law in everything you do. To be a lawyer is to take on these public responsibilities. That certainly means devoting time to pro bono work or community service every year. But it also means having the integrity to say no when the law will not permit what your client wants to do, even as you try to find a way for the client to accomplish its ends within the law. It means being candid with the courts about the law and the facts, even as you zealously advocate for your client’s interest. It requires a constant appreciation of the public consequences of your actions, and those of the clients you advise and represent.
The evolution of our profession over the three decades since I left here has not been an entirely happy one. 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. As a profession, we need to reclaim these core values. And it is up to you to do that, to make the choices that will make a difference.
I hope that for many of you, an embrace of the ethic of public responsibility will lead you to full-fledged public service—hopefully sooner rather than later. It took me more than 20 years to take that step, but I can say based on my last three and a half years of government service, that it is the most professionally rewarding thing you can do—whether it is putting the people in jail who need to be there, or defending their liberty with everything you’ve got, or being a watchdog for consumers, protecting our environment, policing against financial shenanigans, working in the intelligence community, or holding elected office. The happiest lawyers I know are those who have taken up public service. There is no better time to serve than during a time of great challenges. That time is now. And there is no better person than you.
If you need inspiration to make such a commitment, you need look no farther than the example of two of the Law School’s most distinguished graduates who are an important part of my world. The first is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who as a tenured member of this school’s faculty and as a gifted Supreme Court advocate made such historic contributions to the cause of women’s equality, and who as a jurist has been a beacon of principled judgment in upholding the rule of law. The second is our Attorney General, Eric Holder, who started his career in DOJ’s public integrity section, rose to be a judge, then a United States Attorney, then Deputy Attorney General and now the leader of the Department of Justice, and a fiercely principled and committed servant of the public interest.
Because this is a commencement address, I am of course obliged to offer you advice. So bear with me as I do so. The first piece of advice is this: Do not think of your professional life as a ladder to be climbed. Whatever you aspire to, don’t try to plot out a direct line from here to your predetermined goal. That approach is almost guaranteed not to get you where you hope to go. If you are always asking yourself, “What is the next rung on the ladder and how do I get up to that rung,” you are going to miss out on the experiences that could actually make the biggest difference in helping you get where you want to go. Even more importantly, you will miss out on the experiences that could reshape, or even revolutionize, your thinking about what really matters to you. Commit yourself to what you believe to be important. Take risks to do so. Success will follow from those commitments, in ways you could never have predicted or planned. Success may look different than you had initially imagined. But it will be success on your terms.
As I look back on my own career, the single thing I can identify as having had more to do than any other with me being the lawyer I am today is something that a person plotting a course to become Solicitor General would not have considered an especially wise or savvy move, and that is taking on pro bono work on behalf of death row inmates—not exactly the way to avoid controversy. My involvement on this issue goes back to my earliest days as a lawyer. In 1984, when I was serving as a law clerk to Justice Brennan, the pace of scheduled executions in the United States had started to pick up considerably. The clerks had to review the last-minute stay applications that came in seeking to halt executions. It struck me reviewing those petitions that the difference between being on death row and not being on death row often seemed to come down to the competence of the defense counsel at trial. Based on that experience, I resolved that I would try to contribute to bettering this situation, and so I started taking on pro bono habeas corpus representation of death row inmates soon after I started practicing. In my early years, I found inspiration in the great work done here at Columbia by Jack Greenberg and by Jim Liebman, whose pathbreaking efforts continue to advance the cause of justice. I handled quite a few of those cases over the years. Five different times, my representation of death row inmates brought me before the Supreme Court as an oral advocate. So a good deal of the experience that qualified me to be considered for my current position came out of my commitment to representing death row inmates.
Even more to the point, I came to understand what it means to be a lawyer. For these clients, I was what stood between them and execution. It was my responsibility, even as a young lawyer, to make the judgment calls about what arguments to make and how to make them. It was my responsibility to do the digging needed to make sure that those judgments were based on the best information. And it was my responsibility to stand up in court—from the county courthouse in Jackson, Georgia, or Gulfport, Mississippi, to the United States Supreme Court—and give the best argument I could on their behalf. Through these cases, I came to appreciate what it means to be an advocate for a client, and that understanding became the norm for all my work. And I also came to appreciate the importance of the principle that every person deserves vigorous advocacy on his or her behalf. Now, I will say that working on these cases disabused me of the notion that everyone on death row is some gentle soul misplaced inside a jail. While I forged good relationships with some of my clients, others were, shall we say, more difficult. But the legitimacy of our adversarial system of justice depends on vigorous advocacy, and that legitimacy is most at issue when a defendant faces the most serious consequences. So it was imperative that I give my very best for all of these clients, no matter what I thought of them or their actions. And that lesson also infused itself into my work for all my clients. That kind of commitment is the essence of what it means for a lawyer to represent a client. I became better at everything I did as a lawyer because of that experience. And I came to understand, that, at its core, being an advocate means putting yourself on the line.
Which brings me to my second piece of advice. While it is surely right to focus this afternoon on the promise the future holds for you—and it is full of promise—a day like today should not pass without a reminder that life is not always going to be smooth sailing. Adversity will come your way, and the more you put yourself on the line, the more adversity you may face. There will be times when things just break badly for you. You won’t always live up to the expectations you have for yourself and those others have for you. It happens to all of us. And when it happens it can be tough, believe me.
But what ultimately matters in life is how you respond when adversity hits. That is when you show what you are made of. And what you are made of is going to be the product of the choices you have made along the way. If you have acted with integrity throughout your life, you will know how to act with integrity when times get tough. If you have shown courage, you will know how to summon up courage. If you have shown decency and respect to your colleagues and, even more importantly, to your adversaries, you will continue to do so—and you may find surprising sources of support when you do. And if you have put yourself on the line publicly for something you believe in, you will know that a few hard knocks are no reason to stop doing the work that makes a difference. So, for this reason too, remember that what you do every day as a lawyer matters. Each day’s choices shape what you will become and replenish the reserves you will have to draw on when you need them.
One of the most important lessons in such times—and this is something I hope you know already—is that in your most difficult moments you will be sustained by the people who love you, your family and friends. And that will surely include the friends you have made at this great law school. That has certainly been true for me, and it will be true for you. So take a moment now, before you leave this place, to look around and reflect on how fortunate you are to have the friends you have made here. They are the ones who will be there for you 10, 20, 30 years from now.
Of course, your family and friends are also going to be there to share in your triumphs, and in the many good things you will accomplish quietly and without fanfare. And there will be many triumphs and many accomplishments. Just make them the right kinds of triumphs and the right kinds of accomplishments. In other words, Columbia Law School Class of 2012, choose well. Make a difference. I thank you deeply for allowing me to share this moment with you, and I wish you the very best of luck.