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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at Harvard Law School Class Day
Cambridge, Mass. ~ Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dean Minow; distinguished faculty, administrators, and alumni; proud parents, family members, and friends; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2012.   It is a pleasure to stand with you today, and a privilege – not only to congratulate you on the many achievements that have marked your time here in Cambridge – but also to officially welcome you into our nation’s legal community, and into the service of the law.

 

Dan, I want to thank you for that very kind introduction, and for all that you, and your fellow class marshals – as well as your classmate, Meena Harris – have done to welcome me, and to make me feel as though I was the first choice – and not the fourth choice – for this year’s Class Day Speaker.

 

Now, don’t worry, I’m not offended that future leaders of our nation’s justice system would prefer to hear from Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, or Tina Fey – before the 82nd Attorney General of the United States, who happens to have made history by being the first something or other.   And I hope you won't be offended by the research I've done to prepare my remarks.   I have been able to find an old document that reads, in part, "Dear Mr. Holder, it gives me great pleasure to report that your application for admission to Harvard Law School has been accepted."  

 

Now as you know I chose to go law school at a small, not very well-known, place called Columbia.   So you guys weren't my first choice either.   Buy let's just see if we can all get along for the next few minutes.

 

The truth is that I wouldn’t have missed this moment – and this opportunity to speak to so many of tomorrow’s legal scholars, advocates, judges, jurists, and policymakers – the men and women who, no doubt, will extend Harvard Law School’s extraordinary tradition of excellence, achievement, and service.

 

And although I may not know anything about creating an Emmy-winning comedy series, or exposing the absurdity of modern politics through a satirical newscast – though I frequently encounter the absurdity of modern-day American politics – I do know something about what you’ve experienced, and about how you feel – right now, in this moment, with so much hard work and so many long nights of studying behind you – and an exciting, but uncertain, future now before you.

 

It may have been years before most of you were born, but I still can remember clearly how it felt to be in your position: at the end of three long years of legal training; on the threshold of joining a highly competitive profession at a time of unprecedented national and global challenges; and nervous – to put it mildly – about what awaited me beyond the law school community I’d come to know and love.

 

Like so many who came before you – over the last three years, I’m sure you’ve made friends, and shared experiences, that will be with you for the rest of your lives.   You’ve cheered the Crimson football team to victory over that other New England university.   You’ve participated in many of the traditions and rites of passage that have become essential parts of the Harvard Law experience – from Tacky Prom, to the annual parody show, to the Barrister’s Ball – where, I understand, extra security was needed this year to ensure that no penguins were kidnapped.

 

You’ve also celebrated a number of significant milestones – and marked some important firsts – during your time in Cambridge.   Back when you were idealistic, young 1-Ls – arriving on this campus from 44 states, the District of Columbia, and 19 foreign countries – your class became the first to take part in the innovative, new “Problem Solving Workshop.”   Since then, you’ve celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Ames Moot Court Competition, the 375th of this University, and the long-awaited opening of Wasserstein Hall.   You had the chance to watch as our nation’s former Solicitor General – and this law school’s immediate past dean – was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice; you made history in electing the first openly gay editor of the Harvard Law Review; and you even accomplished something that none of your predecessors had ever done: survived three whole years with Dean Minow.

 

So there’s no question that the Class of 2012 has much to be proud of – and much that you will be remembered for.   But this afternoon, as you prepare to take leave of this place and say goodbye to the many things that make HLS so unique – terrible free coffee, the Gropius Complex, and, of course, Professor Feldman’s immaculate hair – I invite you to take a moment to consider not only where you’ve come from and where you’re going – but exactly how you plan to get there.

 

Whether you’re about to embark on a career in private practice or public service, the fact is that you will soon be stepping into a future that is far from certain, an economy that’s still in the midst of a steady but fragile recovery – and a world that is plagued by division, scarred by terrorism and war, and beset with a host of complex challenges.  

 

Before you know it, you and your classmates will fan out around the country and across the globe – armed with your new skills, and with the power that a Harvard Law degree affords – seeking to make a living.   Trying to make your mark.   And striving to make a difference – for instance, in the lives of children who are victimized by violence, abuse, and neglect; in countless American neighborhoods where young men of color are more likely to be murdered than to die by any other cause – and where too many kids go to prison and too few to college; in nations around the world that have been shattered by conflict and crisis; and in the pursuit of an elusive ideal – one that has been at the center of your legal education, and that must now become your common cause: not merely to serve clients or to win cases, but to do justice.

 

As lawyers – and as graduates of this remarkable institution – this will soon be your solemn obligation.   And no matter what professional path you choose – or which direction your career will take after you receive your diploma – as you move forward, each of you will be faced with a critical choice. Will you accept – and be satisfied with – things as they are?   Or will you dare – in spite of the obstacles before you and the odds against you – to reach for your vision of a better world?

 

Now, the answer may seem obvious as you sit here today.   But these questions are not merely rhetorical – and, contrary to what you’ve been taught, the correct response to is not “it depends.”

 

Since before the birth of this Republic, Harvard has educated leaders who have gone on to do nothing less than shape – and re-imagine – the world we live in.   More than two centuries ago, one early generation of graduates read news reports of a massacre in Boston, resolved that they would be held no longer in the bonds of tyranny, and joined their fellow colonists in the fight that forged a new American union.   Less than a century later, another generation took up arms once again to preserve this union – and to undo the great sin of slavery.   And – even within the lifetimes of some of your more distinguished professors – when Jim Crow and “separate but equal” were defining aspects of our society, and racial discrimination was enshrined in law – Harvard students, faculty, and alumni took to the streets, the front lines, and the courtrooms – fighting tirelessly and courageously to secure civil rights for every American.

 

Your predecessors include more distinguished leaders of government, the media, and the private sector than I have time to name.   They’ve served as governors and past attorneys general; as Members of Congress, diplomats, and business leaders.   They include people like Charles Sumner, Rutherford B. Hayes, Charles Hamilton Houston, and even George Lewis Ruffin – who, in 1869 – almost a full century before the civil rights movement would transform our nation and our legal system – became the first African American to graduate from this Law School.

 

Some who once stood in your shoes have gone on to become presidential candidates, the current First Lady and President of the United States, and more Supreme Court Justices, past and present, than any other Law School in this country – including a majority of those currently serving on the Court.   However you identify with this rich and storied history, I hope it will always serve as a source of inspiration – and a reminder of what is possible for each one of you.

 

This is the community of which you are now an integral part – and the legacy that you will soon begin to define for your own generation.   And, based on everything the Class of 2012 already has achieved, it’s clear that each of you is well prepared for the journey ahead.

 

From the moment you arrived on this campus, you’ve been surrounded by advocates, activists, and experts in every field from torts to bankruptcy law – many of whom are regarded as leaders far beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts.   You’ve had the chance to engage with – and even to challenge – some of the foremost legal minds in the world – not to mention global innovators, business leaders, and even Lady Gaga.

 

In addition to surviving Professor Warren’s merciless questioning – an experience I may soon share with you, if she becomes a member of the Senate next year – many of you have taken “evidence” from Professor Nesson – a class that I understand is co-taught by a Yorkie named Sweetpea.   You’ve discussed landmark Supreme Court cases with former Solicitor General Fried – a brilliant attorney who I’m confident will not be forced to eat any hats any time soon.   And some of you have even endured what I’m told is the single most difficult class in the history of any law school – when you passed my good friend Professor [Dan] Meltzer’s class on federal courts.

 

As a result of these experiences – and many others – you’ve learned a great deal.   You’ve acquired the rare skills, and critical insights, that can make each of you a truly great lawyer.

 

But now, graduates, it’s time to face a difficult truth.   As of this moment, not much of it actually matters – except to the extent that you put your legal training to use.   And, whether you envision a future defending the accused in court, ruling from the bench, prosecuting dangerous offenders, advising corporations or governments, running for office, bringing war criminals to justice, leading movements, or charting some other course that’s altogether your own – the question today is not what you know, but what this knowledge can empower you to achieve – and to contribute.

 

I realize that’s an intimidating thought.   And, as you’ve learned in your clinics, internships, and pro bono activities, determining your path forward won’t always be easy.

 

There will be false starts and setbacks.   You will encounter both failure and frustration.   But – as another of this school’s legendary alumni, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., might remind you – at every juncture and moment of decision, the important thing is to stay true to yourself, to summon the courage of your convictions, and to move confidently into the future – no matter what it might bring.

 

“To act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly,” Justice Holmes once said. “More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out.”

 

This sentiment strikes me as particularly relevant today – and not just because we’ve assembled on a field that was named for this great jurist’s father, whose home once stood only yards from this spot.

 

It’s relevant because Oliver Wendell Holmes casts a long shadow at this University, and his words have had an extraordinary impact on our nation’s legal system.   But on the day he graduated from Harvard Law – as a member of the Class of 1866 – none of this was inevitable.   He knew his country faced a long period of healing and reconciliation following a catastrophic civil war – a war of which he was a decorated veteran, like several members of the Class of 2012.   He knew that there were novel legal questions, and major controversies, that he and his classmates would be called to address – just as you will.   Yet he never wavered in his enthusiasm, his dedication to principle, his faith in America’s highest ideals, or his commitment to justice – despite the fact that, when it came to determining the outcome of important cases, he frequently found himself in the minority.

 

But that’s precisely why we remember him today.   It’s why his brilliant – and often blistering – opinions have led scholars to call him “the Great Dissenter.”   It’s why we think of him as a man whose actions were marked, throughout his life, by fidelity to the law, optimism about the challenges that lay ahead, and great faith in our nation’s legal system.   And it’s why, as you take your place upon the path he once traveled – and among the ranks of so many other extraordinary alumni – I urge you to heed his advice.   To learn from his example of public service.   And – no matter where your career may take you – to find ways to call on our country to come together, to aim higher, to become better – and to do more for those who need our help most.

 

When you leave Cambridge, you will take with you much more than a first-rate legal education.   You’ll find that you possess a unique passion – and ability – to right wrongs, to improve lives, and to protect and empower our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

 

That’s because public service is not only a key part of Harvard’s curriculum; it is a central component of this school’s culture, its DNA.   And we can all be encouraged that – thanks to you – this tradition is stronger than ever before.

 

As a class, you’ve worked with clients in 32 clinical programs and 10 student practice organizations – completing more than 339,000 hours of pro bono work.   You’ve helped provide low-income legal services and local housing advocacy for people in need all over Boston.   And you’ve spent your spring breaks organizing Latino communities in northern Alabama, working with farmers on land rights issues in the Mississippi Delta, and participating in human rights investigations in Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Brazil.

 

Now, you must continue this work – and not just the 74 of you who will soon be going into public service.   However you decide to make a living – at law firms, in clerkships, or in the U.S. military; at major corporations, in public defender offices, or even – in the case of Sonia McNeill – working for me at our nation’s Department of Justice – you must put your skills to use in helping to define our future.   And you must keep up the habit of pro bono service and advocacy that you established here.

 

Never doubt that you are among our nation’s most qualified young people – and our best prepared to lead, to serve, and to give.   Always have faith that – no matter how uncertain the end – if you commit yourselves to it, transformative change is possible.   Improbable – and even once-unimaginable – progress can, and indeed must, be achieved.   And even the most persistent obstacles can be overcome.

 

As I look around this crowd today – despite the challenges that lie ahead – I can’t help but feel optimistic about where your efforts will take us from here.   In your ability to live up to the history of this place, and to carry forward the work of those – like Oliver Wendell Holmes – whose legacies are now entrusted to you.   And in your drive to advance the cause that is at once your great privilege and breathtaking opportunity – to create a world that is committed to justice, and that reflects your aspirations for a brighter future.

 

In these efforts, I am grateful to count each of you as colleagues – and as partners.   I’d like to thank you, once again, for the chance to share this moment with you.   I am proud of each and every one of you.   And I am counting on you all.

 

Congratulations, Class of 2012.

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