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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks to Law Students in Paris



Good morning, everyone. And, thank you, Ambassador Rivkinfor your kind words, and for hosting this important discussion. It is a pleasure to join the Ambassador in welcoming you all here, and a privilege to be among so many dedicated students, scholars, professors – and future leaders.

Over the last two days, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside Ambassador Rivkin, and with my French counterparts – and our fellow G-6 ministers – in discussing the shared concerns, goals, and priorities that bind our nations to one another, and to our allies across Europe. In addition to focusing on our common threats, we reaffirmed our common values – and explored strategies for improving international cooperation when it comes to protecting the safety – and the sacred rights – of our citizens. We also considered the most effective ways to prevent and combat transnational crime and terrorism; to safeguard personal privacy and civil liberties; and to build upon the record of successful collaboration that exists between our governments, as well as our law enforcement and legal communities.

Of course, this week’s ministerial meetings are just the latest in a long series of conversations that – since America’s earliest days – have reinforced the bonds between France and the United States. In describing this critical relationship, I think that one of my predecessors and personal heroes – and perhaps America’s most famous Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy – may have put it best when he traveled to Paris nearly half a century ago.

“The United States and France are the oldest of friends,” he observed, and predicted that, “We will have differences in the future . . . But we will be friends, and we will be allies…and, in the major matters, we will support one another.”

Robert Kennedy was exactly right. And today, almost 50 years later, our charge is to ensure that his words remain true, and that the special relationship between our nations is continually renewed, reinvigorated, and reflective of our common path and collective progress.

In so many ways, our histories – and our greatest successes – are connected. Two and a half centuries ago, our soldiers stood together on the battlefields of Yorktown – during the American Revolution. And, in recent years – from Kuwait to Kandahar–they have continued to fight, side-by-side, for lasting peace and security. Our astronauts have ventured into space together. Our scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators have worked together to drive the wheels of progress. And our students and educators have taught – and learned from – one another in fields ranging from mathematics, to business management, to engineering, to international law.

Just as surely as our nations’ pasts are intertwined, their future progress is clearly – and permanently – linked. Especially in this time of urgent and unprecedented challenges, the course that we will follow – and, ultimately, the world that we will create – depend on the goals that we set, and the policies that we establish, together. And our ongoing progress will be rooted in how well we honor the common values – of fairness, equality, and due process – that underlie both our legal systems – and must guide our collective pursuit of justice.

Because of this, the need for cooperation extends far beyond diplomatic meetings like the ones that have brought me to your beautiful city this week. In a very real sense, the future of both France and the United States will be determined by the next generation of leaders – by students, and – if history is any guide – by aspiring attorneys, just like you.

Without question, what you are learning – and the skills that you are honing – will serve both you and your country well. As you venture from your classrooms – to courtrooms, boardrooms, and beyond – you will soon see, firsthand, that the law is not an abstraction. It is a powerful tool – one that can either build walls, or build bridges. The legal system that you will serve is nothing less than a strong, deft instrument – our most effective means to safeguard all that we hold dear, to solve both community and global problems, and to improve individual lives and entire societies.

As some of the country’s best and brightest students, very soon, you will be in a position to use the power of the law – as well as your own gifts and knowledge – to build the future that you hope to see.

It’s an exciting idea. But I realize that, at times, it can feel overwhelming. After all, I was once in your position – though it was long before most of you were born. Even so, I remember what it was like to be in your shoes – discovering, and hating, contracts; growing accustomed to all-nighters; being inspired by the concept of equal justice under the law; and becoming thoughtful about what career path I could, and should, pursue.

That was more than 35 years ago. Yet, in many ways, it was much like today – a time of significant economic challenges, of war and political unrest, of widespread suffering and injustice, of new threats and long-standing divisions, and – also – of extraordinary promise.

In such times, I believe that law students have a special duty. You must focus, not only on the academic papers and exams that mark your progress; but also on how your studies fit into the larger picture. And you must consider what role you will play in the world that surrounds you – and awaits you.

No matter your area of interest or expertise, you all have something important in common – with each other, and with the law students I frequently speak to in the United States: you are entering the legal profession at a critical moment. This is a time of novel legal questions, and of substantial, consequential challenges. Before you know it, these questions and challenges will be yours to help answer and overcome.

This means that – as the next stewards of France’s legal system – you will have an extraordinary opportunity to achieve remarkable things, no matter which professional path you choose. But I believe that this opportunity comes with a critical obligation: to serve the cause of equal justice, to stand up for the rule of law, to protect the most vulnerable among us, and to uphold the values we hold most dear.

This work has always been vital – for democracy to flourish, for prosperity to expand, and for peace to take hold. But, in many ways, advancing these efforts has never been more difficult.

Your generation of lawyers and leaders will grapple with increasingly sophisticated legal challenges. And, as you do, you will be connected in a way that the world’s legal community never has been before. Thanks to the end of the Cold War and the ubiquity of the Internet, the legal world you’ll soon inherit increasingly knows no borders. Law, like commerce before it, has in many ways become globally focused. And, in this landscape of evolving legal questions, so must you.

Especially in the decade since the September 11th attacks – which were attacks not just against the United States, but against all of us – we can be proud of how our nations have come together – bound by our collective resolve – to meet the serious threats before us, and to act with an historic commitment to our joint security, as well as our common values. Over the last decade, lawyers and policymakers from t he EU and the United States have come together to negotiate landmark legal agreements, and forged groundbreaking procedures for judicial and law enforcement cooperation on a scale the world had scarcely seen before. And we have done so while protecting the civil liberties of our citizens.

This has reaffirmed the strength of our partnership, and it has underlined our determination to stand together in combating global threats. It also has set the stage for a new era of legal cooperation between the United States and Europe – an era that you will help to lead.

Now, I realize that’s an intimidating thought. But the fact that you’re sitting here today proves that you’re up to the challenge. And, as I look around this room, I cannot help but feel optimistic about where your efforts will take us from here.

Whether you intend to go into private practice, join a corporation, teach, write, advocate, or become involved in government, I hope that you will – and I believe that you must – seek out and seize opportunities to serve others. You all have the potential – and will soon have the power that a law degree affords – to confront today’s most pressing challenges, to improve your own circumstances, to assist and protect others, and to lead your nation – and our world – toward a new age of prosperity, healing, and opportunity.

Of course, this won’t always be easy – and I recognize that the progress we seek may not come as quickly as we might like. But, as you pursue your own passions – and work to fulfill your collective responsibilities – I have every expectation that you will also extend one of France’s longest and proudest traditions: a legal system that, for so many generations, has served as an example to all the world. I also hope that you will strengthen this nation’s recent efforts – to promote international cooperation and progress, and to serve as a partner to allies across, and beyond, Europe.

I do not exaggerate when I tell you that the world is counting on you. And, as you begin the journey ahead, I appreciate this chance to hear from you, to learn from you, and to discuss what you plan to do with the extraordinary moment before you.

Updated August 18, 2015