Graduation 2020: Highlights of the Day

J.D., LL.M., J.S.D., and Executive LL.M. students celebrate graduation, with Joseph R. Biden Jr., the 47th vice president of the United States, delivering the keynote address during the online graduation ceremony on May 20, 2020.

Gathered in spirit and online, the Class of 2020 graduated from Columbia Law School on May 20. Family, friends, and the Law School community joined more than 700 graduates for the virtual celebration. The ceremony included wisdom, advice, and exhortations from faculty, students, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the keynote speaker, who challenged the graduates to “rewrite the social contract that’s been scrambled by nature’s fury and human failures.”

Welcoming Graduates 

Graduation Committee Co-chair Udoka Okafor ’20 welcomed graduates and families to the virtual ceremony which, she noted, was unanticipated but nonetheless meaningful. “Take this as the joyful occasion that it should be,” she told her classmates. Student Senate President Elizabeth Rivera Cruz ’20, introduced Dean Gillian Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, who “has shown us time and time again what it looks like to effectively and compassionately lead under unpredictable circumstances.”

The COVID-19 crisis has brought losses profound and quotidian, and with them, “the gift of perceiving with greater clarity who and what we are grateful for,” Dean Lester said. “Don’t ignore this perception. Act upon it. For to know what you are grateful for—and to express it freely—is one of life’s greatest sources of joy.” 

Dean Lester also cited Theodore Roosevelt—“one of Columbia Law School’s greatest dropouts”—and a line from his autobiography: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” 

“I have never seen a more full-hearted display of character of the kind Roosevelt so prized than by you, our graduates, over these past weeks,” she said. “Coming into 2020, we had already seen your brilliance. But these recent months have shown us also your courage, your compassion, your wisdom, and your humility.” 

Student Speakers: ‘Lead With Empathy’

Graduation Committee Co-chairs Maria Acosta ’20 and Lucas Caiado ’20 LL.M. introduced the student speakers—Caleb King ’20, a Davis Polk Leadership Fellow, and Manel Chibane ’20 LL.M.—who were chosen by popular vote of their classmates. 

“It is time for us to lead with a spirit full of empathy. Over the years, I’ve seen so much frustration and so much pain within so many of our communities because of issues that have become even more critical during this pandemic,” King said. “As attorneys, we all know we have a responsibility to uphold a standard of excellence. But I believe that we all have an even greater call to be civic leaders in our community. And that, that is done by living a life full of compassion and empathy for others. Compassion and empathy for those who might have different experiences, who might have different stories from ourselves.”

“Our Columbia degree is a key that opens doors to political and influential spaces—spaces that matter most when disinformation is rampant and inequality systemic,” Chibane said. “Our world is currently such that the same words uttered by different mouths are not heard equally. Ours are heard, and yes, we earned it, but this is called privilege. Let’s use it well and own these spaces, to restore trust in knowledge while highlighting our narrative.”

Bert Huang Awarded Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching 

Okafor presented the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching, which is awarded by the graduating class, to Bert Huang, Vice Dean for Intellectual Life and Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law. Huang also received the 2020 Columbia University Presidential Teaching Award. Okafor praised Huang for his commitment “to not only the highest standards of learning, but also kindness and fun,” and noted his work to connect with students outside the classroom particularly at affinity group functions.

Huang in turn praised and thanked his own teachers, from his first grade teacher who helped him overcome his shyness to Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, who could “evaporate that ‘fourth wall’ in the theater of the classroom.” All, including his parents, were “teachers who press with their whole beings against ignorance. Teachers who lead with their compassion, knowledge, conscience, decency.”

Huang urged graduates to thank their own teachers and others “who hold you upright in your most crushing moments,” and to ask who they, in turn, would thank. “Think of it like you’re tracing a family tree, a ‘genealogy of thanks,’” he said. “Today I have you to thank, not just for choosing to recognize me, but because you were there with me in that classroom, as my students and teaching assistants, making it all happen. And so you are now branches in my genealogy of thanks.”

Joe Biden Tells Graduates, ‘Remember, a Good Life Is Not Perfect’

Rivera Cruz introduced the day’s keynote speaker, former Vice President Biden, the grandfather of classmate Naomi Biden ’20.

Speaking to a class graduating into a pandemic and an uncertain economy, Biden told the Class of 2020 to remember, “There’s a purpose for you and for your generation: to turn trauma, chaos, and cruelty into a greater measure of healing, progress, and hope for the future.”

“From this pandemic, you can remake the world as it should be,” Biden said. “To see COVID-19 as a force majeure that compels us to rewrite the social contract that’s been scrambled by nature’s fury and human failures.”

He compared the Class of 2020 to his own law school class of 1968, when the country was “deeply divided by war, by race, by class, by politics, by culture,” and to the classes of the Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt told graduates, “Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you.”

Biden noted that Roosevelt turned to Columbia Law graduates to build his New Deal administration and urged the Class of 2020 also to rise to the challenge of this time. 

“No matter your differences of opinion, protect the very foundations of democracy. Trust in self-governance because right now it’s under attack. The very people tasked with enforcing the rule of law are abusing their powers, protecting their friends, weakening the very principles that make our country work,” he said. “Yes, our legal system is adversarial by design, but it depends on rules, norms, and ethics. Our democracy is messy. But a free press and checks and balances hold that democratic project together. And as we know, power corrupts and democracy doesn’t just happen. We have to earn it. Defend it. Forge consensus. That’s a tradition you’re part of, not just of a school or profession, but of this country.” 

Congratulations to the Class of 2020!

“Class of 2020, thanks for standing strong. We are unique to the history of this university.” —Graduation Committee Co-chair Lucas Caiado ’20 LL.M.


Yadira Ramos-Herbert

Commencement is an iconic moment in the life of our students. We were motivated and inspired to capture the spirit that the in-person graduation ceremonies offer. Our online ceremony, filled with deeply moving remarks from our wonderful community, and the graduation gift box allowed us to honor our graduates until the time we are able to celebrate in person.

— Dean of Students Yadira Ramos-Herbert

Spotlight May 14, 2020

A female graduate waving and wearing regalia at Law School graduation.

Graduates celebrating their reunion years welcome the newest members of the Columbia Law School alumni network with some words of wisdom.

Class of 1965

Dale Schreiber

“Get your priorities straight: Today, physical and mental health must be maintained through the current pandemic. The ‘thereafter’ will take care of itself.”

Class of 1970

Richard T. Andrias

“Follow your instincts, not your bank balance. You have a license to help people not schooled in the endless intricacies of the law.”

Class of 1970

Bruce Eben Pindyck

“A legal education is valuable no matter what you choose to do professionally. Your opportunities are endless. I use my legal education almost daily, especially in these extraordinarily difficult times. I have also found that having gone to Columbia Law School and Business School gives me immediate credibility with all of the constituencies that I deal with.”

Class of 1975

Edward Byrne

“Hang tough! It will get better, and a great career awaits you. Stay true to your principles; it’s possible, if not always easy.”

Class of 1975

Robert Faron

“Follow your dreams as to why you became a lawyer. Sometimes the draw of one direction— large law firm, public interest law, or corporate law—is not right for you at the moment, but do not be afraid to change directions or law activities. Maximize your outreach and stay connected to a variety of lawyers (other classmates) and keep networking.”

Class of 1975

Gerard E. Lynch

“Surprising things will happen, both good and bad. Don't take yourself too seriously and always remember that what you have and what you accomplish in life are in large part the product of luck. So (just as your parents and grammar school teachers always told you):
Don't get a swelled head, and give back to the community what you receive.”

Class of 1980

Felix Leatherwood

“As an African-American attorney and Columbia graduate, I think that it is most important to aggressively protect your reputation, enjoy all opportunities presented, and enjoy the practice of law. I have found the practice of law to be incredibly fulfilling, especially in the areas of litigation. Columbia Law School has a fine and wonderful tradition [of] providing support for the great civil rights leaders and freedom fighters of our times. Achievement at the highest part of our profession is important, but to me, carrying on the traditions of the giants that walked before me is truly significant.”

“The development of a fine lawyer is like the preparation of a fine meal, the writing of a great book, and taking on a marathon. Be patient with yourself and others. Love your family and friends. Most importantly, try to enjoy the journey.”

Class of 1980

George Madison

“I can share this advice based on my 40 years. You will experience several “black swan” events in your next 40 years. And each one will be traumatic and consequential to our country and you and your family personally. You will survive each one. In my career, I lived through a deep recession in the early 80s; a savings and loan meltdown that caused a severe financial crisis; a series of human pandemics like Madoff, Enron, etc.; an Asian financial crisis initiated in Japan; a sovereign debt crisis in South America; terrorist attacks causing confusion, anxiety, fear, and an economic meltdown; political upheavals associated with the war on terror and resulting unchecked federal spending; the financial crisis of 2008–2009 followed by the Great Recession; and now [the] COVID-19 pandemic. And those are the ones that I can remember. Each event impacted law school employment, caused furloughs at law firms and other legal employers, and changed the trajectory of many careers.” (continued next slide) 

Class of 1980

George Madison (continued)

“They also caused untold damage to the wider community and those in need of assistance. Every Columbia Law class impacted was resilient, persevered, and moved forward. You will too. Expect the unexpected. I know it is a cliché. Be open to new opportunities. Work hard and establish yourself as an outstanding professional. Be kind and helpful. Be a team player. Be diligent as you have all of your lives. These are the qualities that will serve you well throughout your career and will enable you to be successful even in the face of highly improbable events.”

Class of 1980

Rob Spitzer

“Be kind and respectful to legal assistants and paralegals (in addition to the other lawyers you work with). You will rely on their guidance and assistance throughout your careers. . . [And] take more time off for adventure!”

Class of 1985

Steven Froot

“Although you are in charge of your career, and although some people know exactly what they want and charge ahead to get it, many, if not most, lawyers would not necessarily have predicted the twists and turns their careers have taken. It is very difficult to game it out ahead of time because you will change, you will learn what you enjoy and what you don't, and you will find out about ways of practicing law (or doing something different with your law degree) you did not know about or could not have known about when you graduated.”

Class of 1990

Rudy Carmenaty

“When asked what I would do differently in terms of my professional path, my one regret is that I never clerked for a judge. In light of the pandemic, and because I work in the area of social services [and am] experiencing the impact up close, I would tell myself to focus as much on family and the personal. I have worked in many fields since graduation, this being the most rewarding, but nothing comes close to my life at home. Lawyers are called upon to do a great many things, often at the expense of their home lives. By all means be dedicated, but also be thoughtful as you find a proper balance. Life and the law are not incompatible; they should be compatriots not combatants as you evolve in your career.”

Class of 1990

Elise Holtzman

“Although it may be difficult to believe now, the people in your law school class will eventually be leaders in the law, government and politics, business, and global change. No matter how busy you are or how far-flung your classmates may be, maintain and nurture relationships with them so you can learn from each other and support one another's goals. You will be able to offer one another opportunities such as jobs, client referrals, and the chance to assume leadership and create impact for the communities of which you are a part.”

Class of 2000

Luciana Aquino-Hagedorn, LL.M.

“Be open-minded. You may find interesting opportunities in unexpected places.”

Class of 2000

Ana Brun, LL.M.

“Whether in private practice, government, public interest, or something else, and no matter the deadlines and tight schedules, do not forget to be mindful of yourself and spend time with family and friends.”

Class of 2000

Lawrence Dempsey

“Be willing to take chances with your career path. There are many paths to a rewarding career. Working at a law firm is great. Clerking, working at a start-up, for the government, or at a nonprofit are all excellent paths. . . . Try not to stress too much about the bar exam. If you put in long hours studying, you will pass. No matter how busy you get, make time for your friends and loved ones.”

Class of 2005

Eric Haskell

“Your reputation is everything, even in a large market like New York City. In everything you do as a lawyer be civil, reasonable, friendly, forthright, and, above all, honest. All of these things will, in the long view, win you a reputation that opens doors. . . . Don't be afraid to get off the beaten ‘career’ path. Even though many Columbia Law School graduates follow a familiar path, at least for the first several years, the truth is that a Columbia Law graduate can add tremendous value anywhere that there are problems in need of solving. Be creative and proactive about identifying your own path.”

Class of 2005

Roberta Pimentel Fonseca, LL.M.

“Always be open to change, be positive, and never forget your principles and values! . . . You enjoy work and are curious, always wanting to learn new things, which is great, but remember to stay healthy, and don’t forget to dedicate time to family and friends! Balance is everything!”

Class of 2005

Lincoln Yeh

“Challenging times often require us to make difficult decisions, but they also present new opportunities that, if properly seized, may deliver professional growth and pleasant surprises in the longer run.”

Class of 2010

Sarah Rice

“You are graduating in a time of uncertainty. The best things you can do are maintain your network, work hard, and be persistent. Take every opportunity to say yes, learn from your mistakes (you’ll make them—it’s OK), and make sure to give back to your community. . . . Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Legal research and writing is the most important class you have taken. Always, always remember your audience. The legal field is small, so be kind to everyone, even opposing counsel.”

Class of 2010

Elina (Khasina) Teboul

“Cultivate positive relationships. Discover your signature strengths and your values, and use them to guide your decisions and achieve your goals. Most of the skills you need to become a successful person and professional have little to do with IQ and academic success.”

Class of 2015

Diego Gallegos, LL.M.

“Don’t be nostalgic! The life-altering experience of coming to Columbia does not end here; the friends and the career choices you made this year will keep impacting your life many years from now. . . . Keep your Columbia Law School network going! It is one of the most valuable assets you take with you.”