Thank you, Paul [Clement]. It’s good to be with you and with so many distinguished attorneys, educators, leaders and friends. I’m honored to accept this wonderful award. But I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to tell Street Law’s leadership and staff team, as well as its circle of volunteers and supporters, how much I appreciate the work you do and the service you inspire. Your commitment to improving how young people understand and interact with our justice system is, quite simply, unparalleled.
Over the course of nearly 40 years, Street Law has encouraged hundreds of attorneys, paralegals and law students – in this room and beyond – to provide thousands upon thousands of hours of empowering, and often life-changing, lessons about the law. And the educational materials you’ve developed have benefitted teachers and students across this country and abroad.
Your work strengthens our entire legal system. It inspires legal careers. It improves how communities relate and respond to law enforcement. And it empowers young people who need the guidance, direction, and attention that attorneys, educators and aspiring law students can provide. In this work, Street Law’s approach isn’t just comprehensive; it’s creative and cutting-edge. Here in D.C., your Save the Streets program has provided critical help to teenagers charged with weapons offenses. Your Breakfast with a Legend program has enabled legal organizations across the city to give back to their communities. And your Corporate Legal Diversity Pipeline program has encouraged countless high school students to consider and pursue careers in the legal profession.
And that’s just what you’re doing in D.C. Street Law’s impact, of course, is felt around the world – in more than 30 countries – and in dozens of cities across the United States. It’s also felt at the Department of Justice, which is proud to call Street Law a partner. Our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and our award-winning Pro Bono Program have been working with your team for years to bring our attorneys into neighborhood schools. And I’m encouraged that our Pro Bono Program is currently working with many of you to find new ways to collaborate.
This evening, we’ve gathered to reflect on the power and importance of this work and, also, to celebrate the example of public service that Chesterfield Smith’s life and career continue to provide us. As Chairman of Street Law’s Board, as president of the American Bar Association, as a founding partner of Holland & Knight , and as an outspoken champion for the right to counsel , Chesterfield Smith transformed how America’s private sector viewed public and pro bono service.
He often argued that a lawyer’s skills and training must be used not simply to make a living, but also to make a difference. And throughout his career, he seized every possible opportunity to remind his colleagues that justice is not a special privilege of the rich. It must be the right of all.
His efforts brought our profession – and our country – far. It wasn’t so long ago that, within many legal offices, the idea of providing services free of charge was virtually unheard of. But this ceremony – and this group – is proof that community service has become an essential part of the culture in our nation’s premier corporations, law firms and law schools.
In 1974, during my first year of law school, Chesterfield Smith stood before a class of law students and said, "If you don’t intend to work to improve the quality of justice, then I hope you flunk your exams."
This may sound harsh, especially to the law students who are here with us tonight. But it shows how seriously he took the responsibilities that attorneys share. I, too, believe that the privilege of earning a law degree, and of living a life in the law, comes with a condition – an ongoing obligation to advance the cause of justice and the quality of our legal system.
Today’s Justice Department is acting on that obligation – not only by carrying on the long tradition of our traditional pro bono work, but, as of March 1, by launching our new Access to Justice Initiative. Just as many of you have pro bono programs at your firms and corporations, I wanted to be sure that in our house, too, there was a permanent effort to provide access to justice and to work to continuously enhance the fairness and integrity of our legal system.
Now, I’ve been a lawyer for more than half my life, and I’ve spent three decades in public service. But I know that government alone cannot advance the cause of justice or improve how our legal system is understood and accessed.
We need your help. And we will continue to rely on the public service that Street Law and its partners provide. By informing young people of their rights, you are empowering them to engage. By providing critical negotiation skills, you are creating a fairer system. By inspiring students to want to stand in a courtroom one day as an attorney and not as a defendant, as an advocate and not as an accused, you are translating civic lessons into civic action.
On behalf of the Department of Justice, I am proud to count you all as partners.
Together, I believe we can extend our country’s finest traditions of public service and civic engagement. And I’m certain that we can prepare – and inspire – the next generation of Americans to do the same.
Thank you all.