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Attorney General Eric Holder at Boston University School of Law’s Convocation


Boston, MA
United States

Dean O’Rourke, distinguished faculty, proud parents, family, and friends, and, above all, members of the class of 2010. I am proud to salute you. And I am honored to stand with you on the day that, more than any other, marks the start of your journey of service to the law – and to the people it protects and empowers.

You are well prepared for this journey – and for many other pursuits. Not only have you been trained at one of our nation’s most distinguished schools of law, you’ve been taught by some extraordinarily well-rounded professors. In addition to constitutional law, Professor Baxter helped you master proper yoga poses. From Professor Ryckman, you learned about property law – and proper fashion. And Professor Pettit made sure you understood both contract and consumer law, as well as the value of being able to rap our legal code.

Today, as you take leave of professors you will never forget and friends you’ve come to rely on, you are entering an uncertain world – one burdened by recession but showing signs of recovery, an age of unprecedented challenge, an era of new threats, and a time of war. I realize the circumstances before you are not what you imagined, or hoped for, when you first arrived on this campus.

But you must resist the temptation to feel as though you have been dealt a bad hand. You have not been dealt a bad hand --- you have been given a rare opportunity. Consider the many examples throughout history of people your age, with exactly your training, who have improved the course of our country and strengthened the structures and rules that govern our society. And then consider how many of those leaders were trained in the law.

You should also consider how many other students have passed through this campus during similar times of challenge. In fact, BU’s inaugural class of law students arrived here during some of the most dramatic, and difficult, days in this city’s long history. It was 1872 when this University welcomed its first class of future attorneys – a year that would bring the Great Boston Fire, which destroyed much of downtown and nearly all of the financial district. Months later, the Panic of 1873 hit, launching a nationwide, and worldwide, depression. When that first class received their diplomas, our Union was still struggling to reconstruct itself, still working to realize the vision of a President who’d been slain, and still seeking to navigate through the web of legal questions raised, and legal changes made, in the aftermath of the Civil War.

And you thought you had it bad.

Those students, like many who followed in their steps, discovered something you soon will learn. Times of difficulty, of novel questions and new tests, are often the most exciting, and consequential, times to be a lawyer. Since our nation’s earliest days, we know that the service and contributions of attorneys – and, very often, of young attorneys – have kept our great American experiment in motion. Through our history, young lawyers were on the front lines of efforts to abolish slavery and segregation, to secure voting rights for women and civil rights for all, to provide health care for our seniors and our poor, and to guarantee decent wages for our workers.

And now, graduates, it’s your turn.

As I say this to you, I am reminded, above all, of my own law school graduation and of how I felt then – in the spring of 1976. When I was in your position, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew where I was going to go: to the Department of Justice, where I would be working in its new Public Integrity Section. My path wasn’t orthodox. But it resonated most with my idea of the law at its best – as a powerful instrument of positive change.

And so, in preparing for this speech, I could not help but wonder – three and a half decades later – whether that vision had been realized, or proven naïve. And, fortunately, I found myself siding with one Boston University graduate, Dr. Martin Luther King, who believed, and once said, that, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Consider that in 1969, when I entered college as an 18-year-old, I could not vote – even as a war was being fought, in large part, by American teenagers in Vietnam. Now, of course, the right to vote is afforded to every 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old. Or consider that, when I became Attorney General last February, there was not a single line in the nearly 225 year history of the United States Code that referred explicitly to gender identity. Today, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Act – which the President signed into law last October – does just that, finally protecting our Nation’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals from vicious hate crimes.

Those are only two examples of hundreds. In every field of the law, progress has been pursued – and made. In almost every case, lawyers have re-imagined – and in so doing, re-invigorated – the law. And they have since the beginning. Our Constitution, of course, was not simply created in the course of a few months, in a cramped room in Philadelphia. In reality, the existing law on the books – the Articles of Confederation – was re-imagined over the course of years, until enough energy existed to build a stronger foundation for our country.

Now, don’t worry. I’m not here to deliver a lecture on the law. I’d say you’ve had your fair share of those. Trust me, over the past year, I have, too. Instead, I’d like to talk to you about people – people not unlike each of you.

Robinson, Kikuchi, Jones. Bailey, Hewlett, Brooke. You may not recognize these names, but they once sat in your seats, minutes away – as you are now – from a BU law degree. And then, equipped with nothing more than energy, passion, confidence, and the famously close-knit BU Law alumni community, each went on to re-imagine the law and, by extension, recreate our society – often against great odds and always for the better.

Leila Josephine Robinson graduated in ’81 – that’s 1881 – as the first female law graduate in Massachusetts and one of the first in the nation. By 1882, she had convinced the Massachusetts bar to admit its first woman. And just a few short years after that, she had published Law Made Easy: A Book for the People – a revolutionary, and herculean, effort to communicate the law in plain language to the American people.

Takeo Kikuchi, class of 1877, was one of the first Japanese people to study law in the United States and, less than a decade after graduating, co-founded Chuo University, one of the most prestigious schools in Japan.

Clarence Benjamin Jones, a 1959 graduate, became one of Martin Luther King’s closest counselors – and, only four years after graduating, helped him to write his "I Have a Dream" speech for the March on Washington.

Consuelo Northrup Bailey, class of 1925, was the first female lieutenant governor in the United States. Emanuel Hewlett, the first African-American graduate of BU Law in 1887, argued the only criminal trial in Supreme Court history. And, of course, Edward Brooke, who received his LLB in 1948 and his LLM in 1949, became the first African-American Senator elected by popular vote. Now, he’s a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

Wherever you look in the history of BU Law, you find a tradition not only of excellence, but also of adventure – graduates attempting new feats and pursuing smart innovations that, simply put, no one else is trying. Perhaps it all started more than a century ago, when the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes chose this school as his platform for expounding a theory – in his famous "Path of the Law" speech – that would inspire one of the most important legal movements of the twentieth century. Or maybe its roots are in your law school’s well-known tradition of unrivaled – and unusual – teaching excellence.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that this institution has more to brag about than its claim to the nation’s tallest law school building – and the fact that a hawk has chosen to take up residence there. BU Law has developed a grand tradition. Across the world, its alumni have improved our laws to an incalculable degree. And the class of 2010 now has the opportunity, and responsibility, to build on this legacy. For each one of you now joins a professional legal community that’s more attuned than ever to its obligation to give back and – at no charge – to help the most vulnerable and underserved among us.

In truth, it’s not about where you’re heading now – or even where you end up. It’s about what you do along the way. It’s about whether, throughout your career, you continue to pursue your ideals for improving our justice system and our world – the ideas you formed here, talking with your professors and classmates, working in your legal clinics, or volunteering in organizations across this campus and city. One day – perhaps soon – you may be told that your ideas for a better system need ripening, or worse, a reality check. But I say: Trust your instincts. Trust yourselves. Trust your own vision.

And I say this because of what I’ve learned about this class – from your faculty members and professors. Your commitment to each other – and to the community beyond these gates – has inspired them. Your commitment to public service, and to public interest work, has impressed me.

Just look at all you’ve accomplished. Many of you, through work at the Morin Center, have made important contributions to the debate over financial regulatory reform. Some of you helped to author an influential paper on the Federal Home Loan Bank System. Others participated in high-impact clinics everywhere from Boston and Atlanta to Geneva and Ghana. You’ve been to Louisiana to help Hurricane Katrina survivors, to Texas to work on immigration issues, and, after Commencement, some of you will be heading to Cambodia. In other words, you’ve already proven the value of your legal ideas – and youthful energy – in making a positive, and critical, difference.

And, now, you must continue this work. Whether you eventually lead movements, rule from the bench, return to the classroom, run for office, advise clients, or defend the accused, you are now ready to define our future. You are no longer just students of the law; you are now, beginning today, stewards of our nation’s justice system. And I believe the privilege of earning a BU Law degree bears with it a lifelong responsibility to use your gifts and training to improve that system. However you decide to contribute, I hope that you will serve as a participant – and as my partner – in the pursuit of justice for all.

In 1897, when Justice Holmes came to BU to help dedicate the old Isaac Rich Hall and to deliver that legendary "Path of the Law" speech I mentioned earlier, he concluded with a statement that, at the time, was considered provocative. Today, I believe, it couldn’t be more appropriate. He said, "To an imagination of any scope, the most far-reaching form of power is not money; it is the command of ideas."

So, today, I encourage each of you to set for yourself one singular objective, even before you turn to that new job or that well-deserved break: to take command of your ideas. Consider them now. Refine them tonight. Tell your family and friends about them during graduation dinners. Talk with your professors about them as you say goodbye. By doing so, you will have taken the first step toward fulfilling the full measure of your promise. You will have taken the first movement toward honoring the tradition of service that makes me so proud to be at this school, and part of this ceremony, today. And you will be not only sharpening your new tool – your law degree – as a powerful force of positive change; you will be using it, too.

The future, I believe, demands no less from each of you. And history leaves me with no doubt that I am looking at 487 faces of dreamers and, most importantly, doers who will not merely meet these great expectations, but, like so many other BU Law graduates, will exceed them.

Good luck, graduates, and congratulations to you all.

Updated March 14, 2016