Highlights of the Day
Graduation Day Wrap-up
Law School Celebrates Class of 2008 During Graduation Festivities
May 22, 2008, New York—Some 650 Columbia Law School students from the Class of 2008 strode across the stage to collect their J.D., LL.M. and J.S.D. degrees on Thursday as their faculty, family and friends looked on and applauded their accomplishment. The students culminated their studies with celebratory whoops and smiles and were exhorted by multiple speakers to use their new credentials to help make the world a better place.
The day began overcast with occasional showers, but that failed to dampen the excitement under the three white tents on the South Lawn of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, as thousands of guests arrived for the afternoon festivities.
The students, dressed in Columbia blue graduation gowns, heard from several peers on the stage, as well as from keynote speaker Cynthia McFadden ’84, a co-anchor for ABC News. Dean David Schizer and Professor Philip Genty, who was selected by students as winner of the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in teaching, also spoke.
Dean Schizer spoke about the importance of the rule of law for society, and the important role the new graduates will have within that framework.
“The great genius of our system is a constrained government, whose officials are accountable and whose powers are limited. Citizens can concentrate on living happy lives, on pursuing their dreams. This is what our legal system does,” Dean Schizer said.
“But the rule of law is a precious and rare condition in the world, requiring dedicated guardians who protect and refine key institutions and defend our ideals. This cannot happen without you,” he told the graduates. “We need your commitment, your contribution, and your sacrifice. I know you are up to the task. You have been trained for it, and you are ready.”
In her welcoming remarks, Shawndra Jones ’08, co-chair of the graduation committee, brought her classmates back to their first days on campus. “Although our professors assured us that law school would teach us to ‘think like a lawyer,’ many of us were anxious about what exactly that entailed and whether we could do it,” Jones said. “Yet in spite of our apprehensions, we have made it!”
Devora Whitman '08, the other co-chair of the graduation committee, also spoke during ther ceremony.
Tope Yusuf ’08, outgoing student senate president, described the past three years as “a wonderful journey.”
She noted the tremendous change that has occurred locally and around the world in that time, and how the Class of 2008 repeatedly responded to events and were at the forefront of change. She noted, for instance, that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans just weeks after they began their first year at Columbia Law School, and that over the next three years many students volunteered hundreds of hours of legal assistance to those in need.
Many students also served as poll monitors at sites around the country during the mid-term elections in 2006, Yusuf said.
“I am certain that we can do even more after graduation,” she said. “As lawyers, we can have a positive impact on the world. Whether it is arguing for an expansion of civil rights before the Supreme Court or structuring microfinancing to assist developing nations, yes, we can make a difference.”
During the ceremonies, the students awarded Prof. Genty with the Reese Prize. In presenting the award, Alison Wright ’08 described him as “kind, delightful, amazing, a treasure.”
“Part of the reason we think he’s wonderful is the genuine respect he shows us,” Wright said. “But most of all, we value him because he has helped so many of us develop the knowledge, confidence, and experience to become the kinds of lawyers we want to be.
“He challenged each of his students to ask herself honestly, ‘What do I value? How will I treat my clients? What responsibility do I have to my community?’ Because of Professor Genty,” Wright said, “we will be better, more ethical lawyers. But also, I think, we will be better people.”
Genty was visibly touched by the award and Wright’s comments.
“My late mother was a teacher, and most of my important role models have been teachers, so for me there is no higher honor than being recognized for one’s teaching,” Genty said. “I will cherish it always.”
Genty provided the graduates with some of the same insight that makes his classroom so engaging for them. “What makes lawyering particularly exciting, fun, and hard,” he said, “is that at its core, it is about human relationships in all of their richness, and messiness.
“In whatever setting you choose, your work will therefore focus to a large extent on relationships – relationships with clients, supervisors, co-workers, judges, administrators, adversaries,” Genty told the graduates. “You will have to master the ability to communicate effectively with diverse groups of people in domestic or international settings. You will have to balance a variety of ethical tensions in these relationships.
“But as lawyers you will also have the opportunity to affect society as a whole,” he said. “So ours is a dynamic profession and one that holds out almost limitless promise for having a real impact on people’s lives and on your larger communities.”
Genty said that he and his fellow faculty may, through their work, prepare students to be lawyers. But he said that the faculty receive something from the students as well. “Through your idealism, creativity, passion, and intellect, you have renewed and inspired us and caused us to see the law and lawyering with fresh eyes,” he said.
Earlier, as the student entered the tent in procession, family members and friends crowded to the edges of the aisles with cameras and camcorders to capture the moment.
Dean Schizer addresses the graduates.
Toward the front were Mary and Bill Breeding, parents of Jason Breeding ’08 of Sacramento, Calif. Mary, Bill and other family members held aloft giant laminated copies of a photo that had been taken of Breeding when he was three years old, dressed in a tuxedo as the ringbearer at a family wedding. “Mildly embarrassing for him,” Bill Breeding said with a laugh.
As Jason passed, he saw his family – and then the oversized photos, and started to laugh and point. “He’s the first lawyer in the family,” said Mary Breeding. She said Jason, already a certified public accountant, has secured a job in the San Francisco office of Skadden Arps Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
Also in the crowd were Lisa and Frank Ellias of Farmington Hills, Mich., the parents of Jared Ellias, who received his J.D. Jared is following in the footsteps of his father, a real estate and tax attorney. “Jared always liked to argue and discuss issues,” Frank Ellias said, explaining his son’s decision to enter law school. “He always took the opposite argument of what I believed in,” Frank Ellias added, laughing.
He said Jared will begin a job soon with the New York firm of Brown Rudnick.
Nearby in the tent was Grace Pollak of New York City, whose daughter, Elana Rachel Pollak, participated in two graduation ceremonies this week – one for her master’s degree in social work, and the other for her J.D.
Grace Pollak said Elana had always had an interest in child advocacy, having worked at the Vera Institute of Justice and at Legal Aid. She will spent three weeks in Africa traveling after graduation, then start her new job at Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Grace Pollak. “She has worked so hard and she looks forward to doing wonderful things.” With Grace were Elana’s father Kenneth, her brother Daniel, who will go to law school in the fall, and her grandmother, Flora Pollak, who is 94.
Mohamed Egal was also on hand, to see his daughter Zahra Egal receive her J.D. Mohamed, who emigrated to the United States from Somalia many years ago, settled in Oneonta, New York, where Zahra grew up. He said Zahra was first interested in law school when she won a high school “Law Day” competition in her upstate county. “I’m very happy to see her graduate,” he said.
Marching in the procession were several members of the Class of 1958, celebrating their 50th reunion year this year.
Wallace Boch ’58 brought his 1958 yearbook, which he and his classmates pored over during lunch. He said he kept it in his office and “primed” with it to get ready for his return to Columbia.
Harold Rosenthal ’58 said, “The first three years I spent here induced me to stay connected for the next fifty.” He was also a member of the Class of 1955 at Columbia College, making this is his second time marching for a 50th reunion.
Judith Vogel ’58 remembered being “one of about 10 women” in her class. When she graduated, she couldn’t get a job as a lawyer because she was a woman. She took what she could, which included a brief stint at the New York Law Journal, where they assigned her to write obituaries.
Eventually she was hired by Cornelius Wickersham, Jr., the U.S. Attorney for what she described as a “half secretarial, half legal position.”
“I was a terrible secretary, but I wasn’t a bad lawyer!” Vogel said. Eventually she became head of appeals. She went on to work at Whitman and Ransom and became the firm’s first female partner in 1971.
She still recalled her days at Columbia Law School. “I loved Professor Powell’s class in trusts and estates,” she said. “It was like a fancy crossword.” As a result, she chose that area of legal expertise as her focus at Whitman. She met her husband Howard ’57 at Whitman. Their son Michael graduated from Columbia Law in 1991. “So I love this place,” she said.
ABC News co-anchor Cynthia McFadden, a 1984 Columbia law school graduate, gave this year’s keynote address, and provided the Class of 2008 several pieces of career advice.
McFadden, who grew up in Maine and was the first in her family to go to college, recalled what her father, a phone company employee for 42 years, told her on her graduation day from the Law School. “He stopped in the center of the quad, paused a long moment,” McFadden said, “and, looking up at the statute of Alma Mater said, ‘Just remember one thing little girl. You’ve struggled real hard to get this degree. Now it is up to you to find work that gives you joy. Anyone can have a job they don’t like.’
“So make sure you don't,” McFadden said to the graduates.
McFadden said her second bit of career wisdom came from Fred Friendly, who she had worked for at Columbia when he ran Media and Society seminars. Once, when McFadden had made “some awful mistake,” she entered friendly’s office, head hung low.
Friendly pointed to a series of four small photos on his office wall, McFadden recalled. “‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it is someone hitting a baseball.’” McFadden recalled. “That is not just someone, Cynthia, THAT is Babe Ruth,” Friendly told her. “The greatest ball player of all time, and he’s not hitting the baseball he is striking out. All the greats do.”
“If you don’t strike out once in a while you are not in the game,” McFadden told the graduates.
McFadden, who joined ABC News in 1994 as the network’s legal correspondent, was named co-anchor of “Nightline” in 2005 and co-anchor of “Primetime” in 2007.
McFadden closed with a challenge to the new graduates. “You are beginning your new lives just as America is re-evaluating itself,” she said. “The latest poll numbers show 81 percent of the American people believes our country is headed on the wrong track.
“I call on you … to use your fine minds and hungry hearts to make change.”