J.D. Speaker: Alexandra Swain '16
Good afternoon, everyone. It is such an honor to address you today as the J.D. commencement speaker. As my formal legal education comes to an end, I have reflected on the legal landscape and the collective experiences we have shared over the past three years. I have come to be extremely reverent of the bonds that we have created with each other. We have been through a lot together.
We experienced the release of not just one but two Beyoncé albums during finals week. I think I have spent as much time discussing the intricacies of Beyoncé albums as I have spent discussing the intricacies of judicial deference to administrative agencies.
But in all seriousness, this has been a tumultuous time to be in law school. As soon as we stepped into this place, we inherited the weight of understanding both the merits and limits of the law as a tool for social justice.
In the summer of 2013, just months before we J.D.s entered law school, we watched the heart-wrenching daily coverage of the Trayvon Martin murder trial. The Supreme Court decision in the Shelby County case struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, leaving the most fundamental right of millions of Americans hanging in the balance. Yet, that same summer, we also experienced a triumphant victory in the path for equality in Windsor. It was against this complicated backdrop that we began our legal education.
I vividly remember sitting in the lobby of Jerome Greene Hall with my fellow students and watching news coverage of the various non-indictments of police officers for the killings of black Americans. We shared stories of our experiences and discussed fears for our own safety. But I also remember learning, in Professor Metzger’s federal courts class and Professor Johnson’s anti-discrimination class, about the difficulties faced by those who have been wronged by the law, whether in the complexities of filing habeas corpus petitions in federal courts, or in the fact that most litigants go pro se in these cases, or in the pullback in federal causes of action in anti-discrimination jurisprudence.
I remember experiencing all of this and having moments when I felt genuinely hopeless in the legal system’s ability to effectuate the vision of equality and the American dream that we are taught growing up.
But then I turn to you all—the Class of 2016—and I am so inspired. I have watched you all save lives. I have seen you all take trips to prison on Friday mornings to meet with clients to discuss having their sentences lightened. I have seen you all secure asylum status for your clients. I have also seen you all write reports to the U.N. on human rights abuses, obtain protective orders for victims of domestic violence, and compose impactful legal scholarship.
Professor Wu has a theory that going to law school is about becoming fluent in a set of terms: Learning the law is like learning to speak another language, and that one of the most remarkable things about going through law school is being able to read these incredibly dense documents and make sense of them. But I would add to this theory; I have learned more than that. I believe we have gained confidence and inherited a great responsibility to use our law degrees in productive ways. We now have the tools—and the will—to effect change.
The challenges of using the law as a means to attain social justice may seem daunting. But we are strong, smart, and passionate. We have learned how to solve problems and how to take the realities of a situation and make creative legal arguments. The world needs lawyers like us more than ever!
I look forward to returning to Jerome Greene Hall for our 20-year reunion. Beyoncé will probably be president by then. I look forward to coming back and being inspired again by the good we have done with our Columbia Law School degree! By then, we will be judges, prominent litigators, CEOs, counsel to major corporations, politicians, government officials, and heads of advocacy organizations.
So I say to us, the Class of 2016, thank you for inspiring me. I am looking forward to seeing what we do next! Congratulations to the Class of 2016. We did it!