Highlights of the Day
A Spirit of Sacrifice Must Accompany Success in the Law, Dean David M. Schizer Tells Columbia Law School Graduates
Keynote Speaker George Madison ’80, Top Lawyer in the Treasury Department, Calls on Students to “Remake the World”
New York, May 16, 2011—As the Class of 2011 leaves Columbia Law School ready to become “stewards of the future,” Dean David M. Schizer reminded students that their achievements in the legal world must be accompanied by a spirit of sacrifice.
“Great societies look to the future,” Schizer said. “They are willing to make sacrifices today in order to make the world better tomorrow. That spirit helped to create the prosperity and freedom we now enjoy.”
Schizer addressed J.D., LL.M. and J.S.D. candidates, as well as a capacity crowd of their friends and family members, on Columbia University’s majestic Morningside Heights campus.
“What is essential . . . is for us all to recognize that what’s at stake is not—and cannot be—the comfort of current generations only,” Schizer said. “We need to protect the interests of people who are not yet old enough to vote. Generations before us have sacrificed to give us the extraordinary opportunities we have today, and we owe it to future generations to do the same.”
Before his address, Dean Schizer received the 2011 class gift, to which 201 J.D. and 209 LL.M. students contributed.
Joining the graduates, who hail from 39 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 22 countries, were members of the Class of 1961, who will celebrate their 50th reunion next month.
The graduation keynote speaker was George Madison ’80, general counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. As the chief law officer for the Treasury, Madison oversees about 2,000 lawyers within the department’s headquarters and its many agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Mint.
“You are receiving your diploma at a point where the tectonic plates of the world are shifting,” Madison said. “The path forward is uncertain, and our time demands that you reimagine, redesign, and remake our world.”
To highlight why that idea is more than just a concept, Madison hearkened back to September 2008, when the J.D. candidates had just begun their studies at Columbia, and the market meltdown was at its peak. He spoke about the “bold, urgent and remedial actions” taken to prevent a total collapse of the financial system.
“Not all of the decisions were perfect, and it is easy to nitpick them in retrospect, but on the whole they succeeded,” Madison said. “They quelled the panic, restored stability, and prevented disaster. These events, the crisis and the recovery, form the bookends of your time at Columbia.”
Indeed, Charles Wolf ’11, the Student Senate president, made note of going to school during a “unique and unpredictable time” as the recession hit. “What is significant about this fact, however, is that no matter how bad things were, we never turned on each other,” he said.
Professor Trevor Morrison ’98, co-director of the Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security, received the annual Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching, as voted on by students in the Class of 2011. A former assistant White House counsel, Justice Department lawyer, and clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, Morrison extolled the virtues of public service.
“Government is a creature of law,” said Morrison, “but the laws that create and constrain government are only as good as the lawyers attending to them. That’s where you come in.”
Although classes may be over, there is little respite for the graduates, as Reuben Schifman, the J.D. class speaker, reminded his peers, “with great privilege comes great responsibility.”
“There are many people in this world that—unlike us—are not better off than the average person in 100,000 B.C.,” he said. “And for them, things aren’t exactly looking up. To give just one example from my own focus: Our laws continue to encourage the burning fossil fuels that poison the air, melt ice caps, devastate food and water supplies, and drown entire nations. Yes, the world is full of incredible problems. But as Columbia graduates, we have incredible power to address them.”
The LL.M. candidates receiving graduate degrees may not have a bar exam in their future, but they have their own set of challenges, as LL.M. class speaker Brynn O’Brien noted.
“The challenges we now face may be terrifying, they may be overwhelming,” said O’Brien, a native of Australia, “but our time at Columbia has equipped us to better face them.”