Distinguished faculty, administrators, and alumni; proud parents, family, and friends; and, above all, members of the Class of 2012: thank you for inviting me to share in this moment, and for welcoming me to your extraordinary campus. It’s easy to see why Michigan has built a reputation as "the most beautiful law school in the country." It was a pleasure to visit the historic law quad – and to see the stunning, new, state-of-the-art South Hall. And it is a privilege – and a very humbling experience – to share the stage with an academic leader who is very widely regarded, and has even been named by AbovetheLaw.com, as "America’s hottest Dean."
Dean Caminker, congratulations on reaching this pinnacle in your career – and for having the good judgment to quit while you’re ahead, which I can only assume is the reason you’ve announced your plans to return to the classroom and to your love of teaching after the next school year. However, I must admit I’m holding out hope that you might follow the path of your colleague – and fellow "beautiful person" – Steve Croley, who’s currently on leave from this law school and doing important work at the White House, where he’s become known as "the Tom Cruise of the West Wing."
But, of course, Steve is just one of many Michigan alums who is standing out – and providing critical service – at the highest levels of government. Along with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar; United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Barb McQuade, who I’m glad is here with us today; Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett – and so many others – lawyers who were trained here at U of M are making meaningful contributions – all across, and far beyond, the country – in advancing the goals that we share, and affirming the values that inspired the founding of this remarkable institution – and brought each of you here to Ann Arbor.
Because of you and your predecessors – and because of the graduates we celebrate today – Michigan Law School is much more than a Mecca for good-looking people. It is a meeting ground for the thoughtful exchange of ideas – where issues of national importance, and global consequence, are regularly discussed and addressed; where policies aimed at expanding opportunity – from integration to affirmative action – have proven their value and provided a model of success; where a spirit of both community and compassion has taken hold; and where, for every person on this campus – no matter what you look like or believe; no matter where you’re from or how you worship; no matter who you are or who you love – you can be assured that, when it comes to protecting your best interests and basic rights, your classmates and colleagues are willing to stand up, to speak out – and even to walk out – on your behalf.
That concept – of unity and solidarity; and that the suffering of one affects the security of all – has been a defining characteristic of Michigan’s culture for more than 150 years. And I’m hardly the first to recognize it.
More than half a century ago, in the fall of 1960, when then-Senator John F. Kennedy visited this campus – to announce the concept of the Peace Corps – he observed the very same thing. Standing on the famous Michigan steps, he noted that "this University is not maintained by its alumni, or by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose."
That night, the soon to be President spoke directly to the students gathered before him. He called on them to reexamine their attitudes and to reconsider their possibilities. He reminded them of their readiness, and responsibility, to serve. And he enlisted their partnership in the pursuit of peace, progress, and – above all – justice.
Today, graduates, I ask the same of you. And I also ask that, for a few minutes, you set aside your concerns about job prospects, though I know they are many; that you set aside the fresh memories of final exams, though I hope they are already fading; and that you instead consider why, of all things in this world, you chose to become lawyers.
Whether you’re imagining a future defending the accused in a courtroom, drafting rulings in your chambers, prosecuting human rights abuses in your homeland, serving the people of your state in Congress, or some other path altogether, I would wager that your presence here today has something to do with the wisdom JFK offered to future generations half a century ago – only yards away from this very spot.
The obligations that President Kennedy spoke of – to contribute to the strength of this country and to help protect the rights of others and to respect the dignity of all – have now become your charge. This afternoon, as you celebrate everything you’ve achieved and experienced here, I know the last thing you want to think about is a new bond of responsibility. But, starting now, that is precisely what you must do.
Yes, you are entering an uncertain world – one burdened by economic difficulty but showing signs of recovery. And you are taking leave of this campus in an age, not only of change, but also of unprecedented challenge, new threats, and an ongoing terrorist war. A time when – despite the incredible healing, and the once-unimaginable progress, that we’ve seen in recent decades – longstanding divisions and disparities remain. It is also a time when the poorest among us continue to suffer most. There are also more systemic threats to our society: terrorists who live only to murder the innocent; an environment in the balance and at the mercy of mankind; a justice system whose promise of fairness is too often compromised by the large number of people who cannot afford or access adequate representation; and the alarming number of children who are exposed to crime, violence, disease, and neglect.
Yet, you must resist the temptation to feel as though you have been dealt a bad hand. In fact, what you have been given is a rare chance.
Know this: times of difficulty, of novel questions and new tests, are the most exciting, and consequential, times to be a lawyer. Since our nation’s earliest days, the service and contributions of attorneys – and, very often, of young attorneys – have kept the great and unique American experiment in motion. Throughout our nation’s history, people with exactly your training and experience were on the front lines of efforts to abolish slavery and segregation; to secure voting rights for women and civil rights for all; to ensure that our schools were accessible – and affordable – for our students; to provide health care for our seniors and our poor, and to guarantee decent wages for our fellow workers and their right to organize.
Now, graduates, it’s your turn. And, today, it is your time – to improve the course of our country and world, to strengthen the structures and rules that govern our society, to find the most innovative and effective ways to combat injustice, and to ensure that the change that you envision is transformed into the reality of people's lives.
I realize that I’m asking you to take up – and to carry forward – some weighty responsibilities. But I have no doubt that you are ready. And, after three years on this campus, you are superbly prepared. Just think about what you have learned here – and how much you, already, have achieved.
Each one of you survived "Transnat." You’ve mastered the rules of "Whirlyball." You’ve made it through Professor Seinfeld’s exhaustive lectures – not only about legal theory, but about the Jersey Shore. You’ve put on the most acclaimed Culture Show, and the most successful SFF Auction, in school history – however, you did fail to keep some of these events off of YouTube. All I can say is: Lady Gaga would be proud.
Throughout the football season – on game day – you made sure the law school section of the "Big House" was always packed – and the same was true for the law school section of Rick’s. I’m certain that your unwavering support was essential in propelling the Wolverines to become this year’s Sugar Bowl Champions. Go Blue!
And although the members of this class have become known for their willingness to do just about anything for free food – especially if Zingerman’s sandwiches are involved – when it comes to giving back, your generosity has set a new standard. In fact, the Class of 2012 has raised record levels of funding to support critical public interest programs and projects – and to help close alarming, and unacceptable, gaps in legal services nationwide.
But you haven’t just served as role models for the 1-L’s and 2-L’s. You’ve become leaders for the entire campus. And you’ve made a difference – and your efforts have had a measurable impact – far beyond this University. You’ve contributed thousands of hours volunteering to help struggling residents, students, seniors, and veterans in Detroit. You’ve worked to provide pro bono legal assistance to tribal communities. You’ve traveled the globe to enhance freedom of expression, rallied against torture, and led international human rights workshops. You’ve gained hands-on experience helping victims through the very first human trafficking clinic in the nation – and you’ve shown your resolve to raise awareness about these heinous crimes – and to document, and strengthen, the record progress that the Justice Department and partners like you have made in combating them – by compiling the first public database of human trafficking cases in the United States.
You’ve also brought together judges, activists, and Supreme Court Justices to discuss ways to strengthen our legal system. And you’ve joined forces with local officials and community stakeholders to seek out ways to combat gang violence, to assist struggling entrepreneurs, and to protect the rights of immigrant families. And through your internships and your partnerships with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and with local law enforcement, you’ve worked to honor and uphold essential civil rights protections – including the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law nearly 3 years ago, marking a crucial step forward in safeguarding gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals from vicious hate crimes.
In short, you have defined your time on this campus – and your pursuit of a law degree – not as a means to an end, but as a step toward a larger societal goal. And it’s no surprise that you’ve advanced this common goal in many different ways – for this is a terrifically diverse class.
You represent 38 states – plus Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands – as well as 14 countries. Some of you had never set foot in the United States before you arrived in Ann Arbor – and one graduate had never been in a motorized vehicle until she boarded a plane to America to seek political asylum. Many of you are the first in your family – not just to receive a law degree, but to have attended college. And you’ve come from 144 different undergrad institutions.¡¡ You range in age from 21 to 63. Twelve percent of you already have an advanced degree – and nearly all of you have post-collegiate professional or academic experience.
You are Fulbright and Truman scholars, AmeriCorps and Peace Corps volunteers, and Teach for America alumni. You’re filmmakers, musicians, reporters, military and police officers, and intelligence and legislative analysts. We have a former Notre Dame tight end, a nuclear reactor systems engineer, a wilderness ranger and a wild-land firefighter, a shoe designer, and a sheep farmer – and someone who, I’m told, has the same level security clearance that I do.
You’ve accomplished a great deal already. And there is, quite simply, no limit to what you can achieve. As you move toward continued success, we can all be encouraged by the plans that many of you are making for your future.
Already, one quarter of today’s graduates have accepted public interest positions – and will be filling a variety of exciting – and essential – posts at government agencies, judicial courts, and non-profit organizations.
For example, Kate O'Connor and Sam Dratch will be bringing their skills – and experience working with the Innocence Clinic – to state public defender offices in North Carolina and Florida. Jena Gutierrez will be joining The Florence Project in Florence, Arizona – representing unaccompanied minors detained in Arizona for immigration removal proceedings. Nick Hambley and Zach Dembo will be joining the U.S. Navy JAG Corps. Paige Fern will be moving to Los Angeles to continue the work she began here in Ann Arbor to protect the rights – and to raise awareness about the needs – of foster children. Colleen Manwell will be heading to the Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem to represent individuals with mental health issues in civil cases. Stacey McClurkin will be joining the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office in Jonesboro, Georgia. And Amanda Klovers will be returning to Washington, D.C. – and coming to our nation’s Department of Justice – where she’ll be working for me.
But no matter your plans or future path, however you choose to move forward, each one of you will find your own answer to a question that Dean Z posed when you first arrived here as 1-L’s.
"What could be more exciting," she asked, "than studying for a career that gives you the opportunity not only to shape the world but to improve the world?"
Class of 2012, I’m here to tell you that there is, in fact, something more exciting than studying for this career – and that’s starting this career.
As of today, you are no longer merely students of the law. You are now stewards of our justice system. However you decide to seize this opportunity, I can think of no more exciting time to be entering the legal profession than in this new decade of the 21st century. You all have the potential – as well as the power that a Michigan law degree affords – to improve your own circumstances, to assist and protect others, and to lead our nation, and our world, toward a new era of prosperity, healing, and opportunity.
So, let me be the first to officially welcome you into a profession that will provide countless chances for you to hone your new skills, continue your learning process, channel your greatest passions, and to shape and improve the world we share.
That is your mission – and that, Class of 2012, is your responsibility.
Congratulations on reaching this moment – and thank you, once again, for allowing me to celebrate it with you. I am proud of each one of you – and I am counting on you all. A world that is still so riven with misgiving and despair is also full of hope, and hungers for the possibility of change. You must use your God-given talents and acquired skills to make this world – your world – a truly better place. I know that each one of you has that ability – and that possibility – within you. Your duty is to make certain that "what might be possible" does not become "what might have been." I am confident that you will meet your responsibilities, exceed your expectations, and help to transform our nation – and this world – for the better.
Congratulations, Class of 2012.