Graduation 2023: Celebrating Successes and Anticipating the Future
Members of Columbia Law School’s Class of 2023, including J.D., LL.M., E.LL.M., and J.S.D. students, savor their achievement with encouragement from U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.
Gathered with family, friends, and faculty, the Class of 2023 celebrated the completion of law degrees at an evening ceremony on May 15. Held on the South Lawn of Columbia University’s Morningside campus, the Class Day event honored nearly 750 candidates for J.D., LL.M., E.LL.M., and J.S.D. degrees. The graduates’ degrees were officially conferred at the University Commencement on May 17. (Watch the full ceremony above.)
Faculty, administrative leaders, and, in a longstanding tradition, members of the 50th Reunion Class of 1973 led the procession of graduates into the Law School ceremony.
Dean Lester: Slow Down to Gain Speed
Graduation Committee Co-Chair Cameron Patel ’23 welcomed graduates, family, and friends to the ceremony. While Columbia Law training means “endless readings and enough free pastries to justify our tuition,” he said, “let’s not forget the power that comes with our education. Remember: Just because you can argue both sides of an argument doesn’t mean you can bill for both. It is up to us to use our newfound abilities to make a difference.”
Patel introduced Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, and praised her for navigating the unique circumstances of the class’s first year of law school, held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Yet, while guiding us through the pandemic, [Dean Lester] managed to continue important initiatives, like an expansion of the loan forgiveness program and increased funding for students working for the public interest,” he said.
Speaking to the thousands of friends and family gathered under the graduation tents, Dean Lester praised their support of the graduates throughout their legal training. “This is your day, too,” she said. To the graduates, she urged them to maintain “patience, and care, and precision” despite the intense pace of legal practice. “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast,” she said, invoking a maritime adage. “The practice of law will pull you along as fast as you will let it, in your days at the office and on your days off. Promise yourself that when you embark on this exciting career that lies ahead, you will also commit to exercising care and deliberateness in experiencing the people and passions that give you joy outside the law.”
Student Speakers: “Cherish This Community”
Outgoing Student Senate President Aditi Thakur ’23 introduced J.D. Class Speaker Ali Jiménez ’23 and LL.M. Class Speaker Gianinna A. Romero Medici ’23 LL.M., who were elected by a popular vote of their respective classes. She traced the trajectory of the J.D. class from “faceless black boxes on Zoom” during 1L classes conducted online to celebrating on the South Lawn “in our Instagram-worthy graduation robes.”
“We have indeed come a long way,” she said. “Your resilience, empathy, and kindness inspire me every day.”
Jiménez reminded classmates of one of her cohort’s early lessons of law school: “how not to look like we were sitting in our beds on Zoom, when we most definitely were still sitting on our beds.” But the real legacy, she said, is the community of students, “my best friends, people I will hold on to . . . Despite the uncertainties and difficulties we faced, our concerns about community ultimately became one of the greatest strengths of the Columbia class.”
She asked her fellow students, as they leave Columbia Law, to remain “changemakers” and to “lead with empathy.”
“Our education gives us the responsibility to improve the systemic inequalities that we have inherited and to use our positions to leave the world a better place by centering our advocacy around issues of racial justice, socioeconomic inequality, and gender justice,” she said.
Romero Medici, the LL.M. class speaker, recited the Columbia University motto, “In thy light shall we see light.”
“Let’s ask ourselves: How can each one of us be a light for others?” she said. “The care you showed for each other should be the blueprint for the care that lawyers, at their best, should show for society.”
Willis L.M. Reese Prize Recipient: “Learn From Lives Well Lived in Law”
The annual Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching was awarded by a vote of the Class of 2023 to Associate Professor of Law Kellen R. Funk. In his introduction, Shahar Hasan Syed ’23 shared with students Funk’s interests—like his passion for Lego—and said Funk is “relatable.”
More important, he added, “Professor Funk challenges his students to think about the real impact and sometimes the real violence that the law creates, because Professor Funk understands that law is not a story of doctrine. The law is a story of real people suffering from real consequences.”
Funk, a legal historian, recalled a graduation speech given in 1870 by Law School Dean Theodore Dwight in which he pointedly criticized another lawyer on the graduation stage, David Dudley Field, whom Funk called “less of a jurist than he was a mercenary . . . who chased a dishonest fee over an honest representation.” Yet Dwight never mentioned Field in his enormously popular class lectures, even when discussing the cases in which Field played a notorious role, Funk said.
Dwight wanted students to learn “not the technical moves and countermoves,” Funk said, but rather “the kind of lawyer one should be . . . And that kind of lesson simply could not be lectured; it had to be lived.” Dwight himself was such a lawyer, Funk said, and throughout their careers, students should “look for these characters, find them, and continue to learn from them. We all still have much to learn from lives well lived in law and in equity.”
Kathryn Judge, Harvey J. Goldschmid Professor of Law and vice dean for intellectual life, announced some of the Law School’s most prestigious academic prizes. Andrew J. Nassar ’23 received the Samuel I. Rosenman Prize; Fatima Bokhari Hasanain ’23 was awarded the Pauline Berman Heller Prize; the John Ordronaux Prize was given to Stijn Peter Talloen ’23; the Walter Gellhorn Prize was awarded to Alexander Painsi ’23 LL.M.; the E.B. Convers Prize was won by Eileen Li ’23; and Olivia Dominique Jones Martinez ’23 won the Campbell Prize.
Graduation Committee Co-Chair Juan Andrès Bosch ’23 LL.M. announced that Tom Rogers ’79, a longtime member of the Law School’s Dean’s Council and Harlan Fiske Stone Society, along with his wife, Sylvia, had made a gift to the Law School in honor of the Class of 2023. “His gift is a reminder to us all of our potential to give back to the students who come after us, like the countless alumni and friends who . . . offer us wisdom and guidance,’’ Bosch said.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams: “You Belong in All the Places”
In his keynote address to the class, Damian Williams, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, praised students for reaching “this mountaintop of achievement” despite living “in a time when very little is stable and sturdy.” Every life has valleys as well as mountaintops, he said.
“We cheer the mountaintops, but we get real quiet about the valleys in between. As if the valleys aren’t part of the journey, too. . . . A full life is filled with both.” Williams shared his own story of being labeled “slow” as a 5-year-old, and how long it took him to overcome the self-doubt that label caused. “I still feel doubt in some way, shape, or form every single day. But now my doubt sits side by side with my confidence. My doubt grounds me. It checks me. It humbles me. And that’s a good thing. It’s made me a better leader. And a better person.”
Have faith in yourself, Williams told graduates, “because there is simply too much at stake for you to be paralyzed by doubt. . . . The rancor and war, the fights over the rule of law and constitutional rights, the very future of democracy. Well, those problems will be there for you tomorrow. And this nation will turn to you soon enough to help solve them. That is no easy task. The clients you represent and the causes you champion will demand your focus, your attention, your creativity, and, above all, they will demand your belief in yourself.”
Across the Stage and on to the Celebration
Greeted by both Dean Lester and keynote speaker Williams, degree candidates crossed the ceremonial stage to cheers from the audience. Bosch, the graduation committee co-chair, closed the ceremony with a look back—and ahead. “We have all played a part in making this experience one of the most memorable and enriching chapters of each other’s lives,” he said. “It is bittersweet to leave behind this chapter of our lives, yet thrilling to see the paths that lie ahead.”
See more photos of the Columbia Law School Class Day ceremony and celebration.