Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Assistant Attorney General Tony West at the University of California Hastings College of the Law Commencement

May 16, 2010, 18:22 ET from U.S. Department of Justice

SAN FRANCISCO, May 16 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ --

Dean Martinez, Dean Marshall, members of the Board of Directors, distinguished faculty, proud family members and friends, and most important of all, members of the Class of 2010:  Thank you and congratulations:  you've finally made it.

It is such an honor for me to share in this moment of joy and celebration with you.  Being invited to address this Hastings graduating class is no small privilege—even the other lawyers in my family were impressed, and, believe me, if you know them, then you know that they don't impress easily.

In addition to me, there are two other lawyers in my family: my wife, Maya Harris, who's now Vice President of the Ford Foundation but before that was head of the ACLU right here in San Francisco; and then there's her sister—my sister-in-law, Kamala Harris—herself a graduate of this law school and San Francisco's first female District Attorney.

And, actually, it's two-and-a-half other lawyers because my daughter, Meena, just finished her first year of law school.

And, let me tell you, these women—they are no joke.  Each one is smart, talented, sharp-witted and strong-willed—no shrinking violets there.   So in one family I've got a civil liberties lawyer, a first-year law student who never met an argument she didn't like, and San Francisco's top prosecutor.

Can you even imagine what Thanksgiving dinner is like at my house?  I've got the ACLU on one end of the table, the District Attorney at the other, the first-year law student somewhere in the mix—and guess who's in the middle?  And my daughter Meena will be arguing her point, eloquently—because everyone knows that everything you need to know about the law you learned in your first year of law school—she'll turn to me and say, "Don't try to play it off—you know I'm right."  And Kamala will be arguing her point, forcefully and persuasively, then she'll look at me and say:  "Now, Brother-in-Law, you're a former prosecutor.  You agree with what I'm saying, right?" And then there's my wife.  Her argument is no less forceful, no less eloquent, and she'll turn to me and say: "Honey, I know you agree with me, right?"  Well, the merits of the various arguments notwithstanding, my mother did not raise a fool.  And I do not like sleeping on the couch.

This truly is a great honor for me to be with you today.  For one, I'm so proud of my own personal connections to Hastings—not only did Kamala attend this great law school, I was privileged to serve on Hastings' Board of Directors for a period of time.  And I'm grateful for the opportunity to see long-time friends and former colleagues on your faculty and board.  And, of course, I appreciate your bringing me home, to the city of my birth and the Bay Area where I grew up and will one day return.  

This is also a privilege because being with you reminds me of the unique and special bond all law school graduates share with one another—across class years, across law schools, even across generations. 

Because although nearly two decades and a different alma mater separate my law school graduation from yours, believe me:  I know what you've been through to get into those seats.  The all-nighters; the humor in tort cases that nobody outside of law school seems to find funny; or the anxiety dreams—you know, the one where you suddenly realize it's the night before the final exam in a class you've never been to because you'd forgotten you signed up for it.

Yes, we've shared many of the same doubts, faced the same challenges and rejoiced in the same triumphs.  And these "mystic chords of memory," as Lincoln called them--they bind us together in a web of common experiences, common language and common history. 

And while each of you traveled different paths to get to Hastings, there is a collective appreciation amongst all law school graduates, past and present, about just what it took for you to be sitting here today; a shared understanding about the tireless effort, personal and family sacrifice, and individual talent that conspired to bring you here, to this moment. 

This moment of celebration; of renewal and change; this day that signifies an end as well as a beginning for you, the ones you love, and the ones who love you—especially the ones who love you. 

Because when this day was still just a possibility in your mind's eye—and maybe sometimes a shaky possibility, at that—the ones who love you were there for you.

When you hit that rock of resistance—maybe it was a mind-numbing exam or writing that never-ending paper, or maybe just a crisis of confidence that seized you in a particularly vulnerable moment—a friend, a partner, a mother or father, a sister or brother, a spouse or child, a pet—somebody who is in this hall today—was with you in that moment then; there to tell you don't give up; you can do this; you must do this; you will do this.

And because sometimes the only confidence you had at all was the faith they had in you, I want you to rise and give them the appreciation and thanks they have earned by standing by you these last several years. 

And family members and friends, this Class of 2010 will continue to need your love and support for years to come, I guarantee it.  Because graduates, you enter the legal profession at a difficult hour for our Nation.

While our economy continues to improve, there are still too many working families who are hurting.  Too many Americans are still looking for work, especially in communities of color, and those who have jobs are working harder for less.  As everyone here knows all too well, education is too expensive and for too many graduates, opportunities are few.

Faced with this season of uncertainty, many are tempted to put the blinders on and turn inward.  And as rational, as entirely understandable that response is given the challenges each of us face in our own lives, I'm going to ask you to resist that temptation.

As you begin to navigate your paths as individuals trained in the law—whether you find yourself practicing law or not—I want to challenge you to do three things.

First, I want you to have the courage to serve others.

Dr. King often spoke of the individual who had "ascended to the heights of economic security" but was courageous enough to risk "descend[ing] into the depths of human need."

At its best, the American spirit is exemplified by service—the commitment that we make to one another, to stand together.  In difficult times it is this quality that moves our Nation forward in acts both good and great.  When we "act with one heart and one mind," as Jefferson said, we move forward as a people. 

Now, you don't have to have a law degree to serve.  Anyone can serve.  Yet you know that along with great opportunities, the legal education you now possess brings with it great responsibility:  to reach out beyond the boundaries of our own comfort and security and to lead in ways both big and small.

And while your service need not be legal, there is no doubt that the need for your legal services will be great.

As the Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department's Civil Division, I oversee much of the federal government's litigation throughout the country.  And as the United States' senior civil attorney, I am reminded everyday that in a civil justice system where you're five times more likely to prevail with representation than without it, access to justice requires access to quality legal services.

Because when budgets tighten, and courthouse doors close, the need for legal services among poor people, immigrant communities and people of color, working families and small businesses trying to make it—that need grows.

At the federal level, the Obama Administration has taken steps to close the justice gap.  Last year the President requested and Congress approved increased funding to the Legal Services Corporation—the organization created over 35 years ago to help poor families obtain access to the courts when they faced pressing civil legal matters. 

And at the Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder has launched the Access to Justice Initiative, creating a permanent effort within the department to enhance the fairness and integrity of our legal system by improving access to counsel by the poor.

Now, while these efforts to increase funding and change policy are important, they are not enough.  It will take the private bar, state and local governments, foundations, law schools—most of all, it will take you, the Class of 2010, to help us close this justice gap.  No longer students of the law you are now, as the Attorney General likes to say, stewards of the Nation's justice system.  And with that comes the responsibility to make service a part of your life's work.

Second, I hope you will have the courage to become engaged in the world around you.

As you undertake your careers and struggle to balance your professional lives with your personal obligations, you will increasingly be tempted to focus exclusively on the immediate concerns of your everyday life. 

I know; I've been there, too.  And while each of us has to learn how best to strike that balance, we must also find a way to engage in the national conversation that sets our collective agenda. 

And Class of 2010, your voices are crucially important to that discussion, for history teaches us that it's lawyers—and often young lawyers—who lead the Nation in moments of change.  Of the Framers who drafted our Constitution, most were trained in the law and many were under 35 years old—just like most of you.

In times of crisis, lawyers remind us that the rule of law is the foundation of liberty.  And in times of hope, those same voices lift us to the possibility that the law can push us beyond the world as it is and closer to the world as it could—as it should—be.

Now, I know that this is not easy because engagement in our public discourse often requires personal sacrifice, and sometimes it's hard to know whether you are making any difference.

At the time this graduation ceremony was held last year, the excitement of having experienced an historic presidential inauguration and the change it promised was still fresh in our collective memory.

And in the year since, we've made great progress.  In the Justice Department's Civil Division which I lead, for example, we've greatly expanded our efforts to protect families falling victim to mortgage and consumer fraud; we've recovered over $4 billion in taxpayer funds lost to health care fraud; and we're vigorously defending this Administration's top priorities in federal courts across the country—historic initiatives like landmark health insurance reform or the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Act that finally protects our Nation's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters from vicious hate crimes.  So we're making significant strides.

But we also know there's still much work left to do, and I know for some—especially some young people whose first real engagement in our democratic process occurred during the last election—I know that for them change may seem to be slow in coming; that the world is still uncomfortably uncertain.

But if there is any message that our shared democratic legacy teaches us, it is this:  don't give up.  Even when the change you seek is just a glimmer on hope's horizon, don't give up.  Government will disappoint you sometimes.  This Administration may not always meet your expectations.  And leaders will make mistakes.  But don't stop being engaged. 

Because the unsettling lesson of history is that change—like love—is sometimes frustrating and often hard, demands patience, requires persistence and sacrifice.   Change takes time; it does not happen all at once.

So continue to be part of that national conversation that is pushing our common agenda forward—that conversation which is moving us closer to realizing the aspirations of this Nation's most fundamental promises of freedom, opportunity and justice.

Finally, allow yourselves the courage to take risks.

One of my favorite political cartoons depicts Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, speaking to an endless sea of spectators.  And he says: "I . . . once had a dream.  But you know, I'm having second thoughts.  You see we've done some polling, held some focus groups.  Turns out the dream has pretty high negatives.  I'm afraid someone else must dream." 

We lawyers are trained to be risk-averse, to be masters of caution.  We minimize chance and embrace predictability.  And often, such prudence is rewarded with stability and security.  

And yet, there will be moments when you'll be called to move beyond the comfort zone of your own careful plans, when your personal growth and the measure of your public contribution depend on your engaging the uncertain.

Sometimes that risk will involve taking on a particularly challenging assignment or venturing into a new legal practice area, or perhaps embarking on a new career path entirely.  

And sometimes that risk will require you to have the courage to take a stand, sometimes alone:  the young attorney who discovers a serious ethical breach by a well-paying client; or the prosecutor who realizes a significant legal error after a defendant's been convicted and sentenced; or the lawyer who stands in the well of a courtroom defending an unpopular client. 

It's the kind of courage we are called upon to exercise unexpectedly, when it's inconvenient—what King called the "Knock at Midnight"—the quiet courage we sometimes exhibit in spite of ourselves.

It's the courage of a young woman named Clara Foltz who, in 1879, came to this law school shortly after it opened only to be kicked out after only two days because she wasn't a man.  Nobody would have thought twice had this 30-year-old, single-mother of five given up on the law and faded into obscurity.  But Foltz took a huge risk; she answered the "Knock at Midnight" and sued Hastings in a case that wound its way up to the California Supreme Court.  She won, and the legal victory she secured back then now gives over half of you the opportunity to walk across this stage today.

It's the courage of Meghan Covert who's dared "to descend into the depths of human need" to ease the suffering of the homeless; or Jesse Basbaum's endless pursuit of social justice; or so many others of you who are accepting the invitation to be who you truly are, to be your best selves.

Because, Class of 2010, you may not know when the call of destiny will come, but when it does, I know you'll be ready to stand up, to step in, to rise to the challenge of having the courage to serve, the courage to engage, the courage to take risks.

You are scholars and musicians, soldiers and artists, parents and children, teachers and doctors; you exemplify the best that Hastings and our Nation have to offer. 

And like so many whose names we admire, your success will be measured not by the cases you win, or awards you receive, or the money you make; but by the hearts you touch, the souls you enrich, the doors you open and the lives you change.

Congratulations; I'm proud of you.  Good luck and Godspeed.


SOURCE U.S. Department of Justice