Department of Justice Seal

Remarks* of Deputy Attorney General
New York University School of Law
Madison Square Garden, NYC
May 16, 2003

   It is truly an honor to speak to this audience on this occasion which is so important and meaningful to all of us – whether you are on the platform or in the audience.

   Greetings to the faculty and staff of this great law school. I know you've worked hard to make this day possible.

   Greetings and congratulations to the Class of 2003. You have accomplished a great deal and have reason to be proud today, but I do ask that you take a moment to recall all the people who helped you to get to this day – probably most importantly, your parents and families. That their efforts are bound up in your own reminds me of a wonderful story I heard Alex Haley – the author of "Roots" – tell several years ago.

   Haley and a friend were walking down a long and winding path that was adjacent to a beautiful, rather tall, wall that was constructed with a polished slick stone. As they were making their way down the path, Haley noticed a large turtle sitting atop of the wall. Thinking to himself how impossible it would be for a turtle to climb this tall slick wall, Haley asked his friend, "How did this turtle get on top of this wall?" The friend thought about the query for a moment and then said, "I don't know, but you can bet on one thing – he did not get there by himself."

   Twenty-nine years ago, I sat where you sit today, albeit at the University of Michigan Law School. And I cannot remember for the life of me who the commencement speaker was, so I have no illusion that what I say today will achieve the permanence of the Gettysburg Address. Perhaps I can only attempt to emulate its brevity.

   But, using my prerogative as your speaker, I would like to take this opportunity and share with you a few observations – based on my life experiences – that may prove useful to you as you move on beyond New York University Law School. These observations – three of them – on (1) public service, (2) money, and (3) professionalism, are not profound. They are simple. But perhaps you will remember them.

   Let me begin these observations with public service which has been such an important part of my legal career. I was in New York City a little over a month ago representing President Bush at the dedication of the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse. In preparing my remarks for the occasion, I ran across a description of the ideal lawyer that was written by Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in 1942. I would like to share it with you. Justice Jackson described the ideal lawyer as a lawyer who loved his or her profession and who had a sense of dedication to the administration of Justice. To this ideal lawyer, the law was like a religion, and its practice was more than a means of support; it was a mission. This, of course, completely describes Justice Marshall and his dedication to public service. It also describes the dilemma of the modern lawyer.

   Today, there are many in the profession, including myself, who are concerned about the practice of law becoming simply another white-collar industry where the non-economic aspects of the profession, that were once considered responsibilities, are ignored. Many of us are also concerned about the seeming reluctance of many lawyers, especially younger lawyers, to enter public service. Not so with Justice Marshall.

   Shortly after he began his law practice in Baltimore, Justice Marshall's teacher and mentor, Charles Houston, cautioned him not to neglect the development of his own practice for the work he was doing for the NAACP on the side. Fortunately, for the nation, Justice Marshall did not listen to this advice and told Houston in 1935: "Personally, I would not give up these cases here in Maryland for anything in the world, but at the same time there is no opportunity to really hustle for business."

   Justice Marshall's career was never about how much money he could make as a lawyer. Instead, his career was one of commitment to the public profession of law – a great example for all of us.

   A call to public service may be easy for a lawyer like myself who has retired his student loans. But I believe public service is important to a lawyer for reasons that may be considered selfish. Whether your public service be full-time or part-time, volunteer work or pro bono cases – it will be important to you as a lawyer and give meaning and satisfaction to your professional life. Because of that, I am very proud of the Diversity Program the Department of Justice implemented this past February that will help make public service more financially viable for all lawyers wishing to work at the Department. This effort involves a student loan repayment program for all qualifying new attorneys entering the Department under the Honors Program or laterally, and also as a mechanism to retain experienced attorneys.

   I have been a prosecutor three different times in my legal career and also have been a criminal defense lawyer in private practice. Public service has meant a lot to me from a professional standpoint, and these are truly historic times to be serving the public's interests in the Department of Justice. The Department's number one law enforcement priority is doing what it can to ensure public safety by preventing and disrupting terrorist attacks on innocent civilians.

   The Department is also addressing the despicable culture of greed and deceit that spawned the recent spate of corporate scandals. Both of these efforts are as righteous and worthwhile causes as I have ever had in my professional life.

   My second observation is somewhat related to the first but more pointed. Never, ever take a job just for the money. I have taken three significant pay cuts in my legal career. In fact, some of you may question my judgment for being so financially unfocused.

   However, with the clarity of hindsight, I can tell you that the times I have been the most satisfied professionally have been those when I was doing something I wanted to do solely because I felt it was the right thing for me to do at the time and not because the job or position paid the most money.

   I have come to realize the obvious. Life is, in fact, a one time deal. You do not get to go around twice here on earth – and the times you will remember are those (1) when you did something that made a difference, (2) when you risked much for an even greater reward, and (3) when you reached beyond the everyday to engage yourself in the broader world.

   You will have to learn to put money in perspective and not always put it first. I believe if you take care of your clients, nourish your development as a lawyer and value your reputation in the profession, the money will come.

   When I graduated from law school 29 years ago, this clearly was a different world. We had just finished fighting a war in Viet Nam that we did not want to win, and we were finally winning the war against widespread racial discrimination in our country. Times have changed. Communism is basically dead, and race is no longer a significant barrier to someone ascending to the highest levels of our government or to the executive suites of business corporations.

   But new problems have emerged that will cloud your future. Some of them involve your profession, and that gets me to my third observation.

   Remember above all that the law is a profession – not a business. I mentioned the corporate scandals that we are dealing with at the Department of Justice. In these fraud cases, investigators and prosecutors have come to examine the role of professionals – including lawyers – in the wrongful activity. Based on my experience both in private practice and in government, lawyers advising corporate clients in these cases tend to get into trouble, I believe, when they make one or both of the following mistakes.

   First, they forget who their client is. We all know from our basic corporate law class that the client – in these corporate representation cases – is the corporate entity. It is not the CEO or General Counsel who actually hired the lawyer. A recent survey conducted by the American Corporate Counsel Association is very disturbing. It found that more than 20 percent of the general counsels felt that their corporate culture encouraged them to view "senior management" as the client as opposed to the corporate entity. Yes, this is a minority view, but too large for such a sophisticated and knowledgeable group – and large enough to get plenty of companies into trouble.

   Second, some lawyers fail to give their clients – especially corporate clients – their independent professional judgment. That phrase "independent professional judgment" is, and ought to be, redundant. A professional lawyer, by definition, is a person retained to render independent judgment. Giving independent judgment is more important than job security. Independent judgment is the most important thing lawyers, as professionals, have to offer. Think about this: without it, we are mere hired guns who trade off the integrity of our profession.

   Now, I want to warn you: at some point in your career, and even earlier than you think, you will be invited to abandon your principles to satisfy a client. Don't do it. It's not worth it. Don't be afraid to lose a client – or even fire a client – if it means compromising your independent judgment or what you believe to be right and appropriate.

   More than a century ago, Elihu Root, a renowned corporate lawyer, Senator, Cabinet Secretary, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and an 1867 graduate of this great law school, observed that "About half the practice of a decent lawyer consists of telling clients that they are damned fools and should stop."

   Now let me get back to the beginning of my talk and remind you again to not forget those who will have made it possible for you to get where you will be in your professional lives. Stay in touch with your professors – and other senior lawyers who will make a difference in your professional lives: (1) partners, (2) judges, and (3) even adversaries.

   For example, I value my continuing relationship with one of my law school professors. It has enriched my life personally and professionally. I have continued to learn from him.

   Permit me to be a bit personal and read to you something one of my professors wrote to me.

   "Did I tell you my first job was located in the office of Deputy Attorney General? The Deputy was Nick Katzenbach. Jim Vorenberg was his special assistant for Johnson's war on crime, and I was Jim Vorenberg's assistant. I spent a good deal of time in what will be your office, and it fills me with a sense of full term that you now should be sitting in an office where I began."

   This coming to full term is the nature of things, and – as you leave one of the country's truly great law schools – that sense of full term will come to you as you distinguish yourselves in the profession, your communities and countries, and our Nation.

   I wish you luck and Godspeed in the process.

   Thank you.

*NOTE: Mr. Thompson frequently speaks from notes and may depart from the speech as prepared. However, he stands behind the speech as presented in written format.