I tried out to be the graduation speaker at my graduation in May… but, they didn’tpick me. I think this speech was not quite up-with-people enough. Here’s what I would have said if I was chosen:
During my 1L year I took a trip to Mexico for Spring Break to the Oyamel fir forests of Michoacán state where Monarch butterflies end their impressive annual migratory journey. It is estimated that between 200 million and 500 million Monarchs make the 3,000 mile trip each year from Canada to reach their final destination in the Mexican hills. When migrating, Monarchs can fly up to 80 miles a day. The butterflies who end the journey are not the ones who began it, but their offspring who, born along the way have picked up the journey until they reach the final destination.
I hiked down with a guide to the area of the forest where these beautiful orange and black creatures were congregating that day. The scene was shocking in its beauty. Millions of Monarchs were clumped together on the majestic firs. They covered every branch of every tree and nearly every bush and surface in sight. They were resting together in brilliant orange masses to conserve heat in a natural display of solidarity. As the sun rose and warmed the forest floor the butterflies began to flit off and fill the skies en masse. This massive multitude of butterflies was a glorious sight. Having known something of their journey made the assemblage that much more awe-inspiring. It was something so picturesque that I can hardly even begin to describe it in words. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced.
Being in my 1L year during that trip, it was hard to escape thinking about law school and lawyering, even on spring break. And, yes, even these butterflies reminded me of lawyers. Too often law students seem to think that being smart means being practical about what is possible, instead of knowing that wisdom is defying what is possible to be good. I know lawyers who delight in tearing other people’s ideas to pieces and proving how undoable they are. But, I would say to them that being ethical requires a big idea, as big as the flight of monarchs from one place to a distant land. It means knowing that you die on the march, but you make life better for the future. It means knowing that those who came before you also died along the way to make this part of your journey possible.
Many lawyers, activists and students have come before us on the journey to social justice. In 1964 a student named Mario Savio gave a historic speech at the University of California, Berkeley. He famously said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part… And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
While his speech motivated and inspired students and activists to oppose oppressive systems generally, Mario was specifically responding to a school administrator he faced who referred to the school as a factory which produced workers for industry customers out of raw material: students. Mario’s response was: “we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to – have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!”
I bring up his iconic speech to emphasize that WCL is not a lawyer factory and we are not products of a machine. There is no particular mold that we must fit into or singular pre-determined destination for our lives and careers. There is no such thing as a surplus of lawyers, because while we may be productive, we are not products. We are flexible, creative, problem-solving human beings. To critics who claim that the “legal bubble has burst” and there is a surplus and undesirable supply of lawyers, I would point out that according to a 2011 ABA report, there are an estimated 150 million Americans without access to the legal services they need.
There are people in need of help getting asylum in the United States from political persecution in their own countries. There are detainees who face torture and abuse, like those incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. There are protesters whose rights to free speech are being violated, both in our country and others around the world who need a voice to speak up for them in judicial proceedings designed to protect them, but that are often used to punish and deter them.
As law graduates, and not merely products of an educational system, we have control over our own destiny and there are millions of Americans in desperate need of critical legal services. To bridge the gap of those in need of legal services and the legions of lawyers unable to find employment in traditional firm and non-profit sector jobs we’ve got to get creative. As someone who continues to search for meaningful employment myself, I know how disempowering a reactive job search can be. It is exceedingly frustrating looking at lists of jobs that you know thousands of other equally qualified candidates will apply to. But, it has helped me to not think of myself as a product, but as a dynamic problem solver with something unique to offer.
At the most basic level, lawyers are, after all, problem solvers. We have studied (and studied, and studied) over these three years to be able to solve complex legal conundrums. We are capable, amazing, innovative people. As I stand before this remarkable group of future attorneys today, I am certainly overwhelmed by our potential and capacity for good. Like the Monarchs, I look at this outstanding cluster of graduates and see a thing of beauty.
We must resist the temptation to think that our careers are limited. It takes real courage to look back at past generations who have come along this same path, at previous customs, and the way things were done and then to turn and look forward into the daunting hollow of the unknown — knowing only one thing– that we must do things differently. But, there is a unique beauty that can be found in a massive group, a force, a collective. As attorneys we can band together, to not only focus on ensuring our survival (and securing inflated salaries) but to advance the progress of our society and to use the law to benefit ordinary people – the world through.
A beloved WCL professor, Peter Cicchino, was a gleaming example of those who have come before us in the March with the grace and beauty of a majestic Monarch. He had these words to say in an address given shortly before he died of colon cancer:
“There is really only one important question from which all others flow: In what does a good human life consist and how do we go about living such a life?”
Peter said, “Our lives are the only things that are completely ours… One of the things that makes me saddest when I talk to law students and lawyers is the recurring impression I get that they have lost a sense of their own agency, i.e., the sense that their lives are theirs to make of what they will. Because of that loss, people who are among the most gifted and privileged in the world instead live with a sense of drastically constricted possibilities of what they can do with their lives.”
Peter insisted that living a happy and good human life can be found in laboring to secure such a life for others, and that this requires the bravery to overcome the fear that prevents us from doing what our ideals tell us. I would add that it requires an imagination, and the vision to see beyond what has been done to create new possibilities.
Another example of a fearless pioneer who has come before us is one of the most influential yet, perhaps, little-know alumnus of our institution who graduated from WCL in 1922. Alice Paul was a fierce advocate for women, and brought the cause of suffrage to the next level after foremothers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been fighting for the cause for decades. Alice Paul rallied for a constitutional amendment at a time when many women thought it was entirely impossible to achieve and a waste of time and resources. She had a vision that led the movement forward, and the tenacity to see it through.
Alice Paul was influenced by the more radical, and the far less demure movement for suffrage in Britain and in 1917 helped stage the first political protest to ever picket outside the White House. The picketers, known as “Silent Sentinels,” held banners demanding the right to vote. Paul and others were arrested in front of the White House and were subsequently convicted and incarcerated. In protest of the prison conditions, Paul commenced a hunger strike, which led to her being forcibly moved to the prison’s psychiatric ward and violently force-fed raw eggs through a feeding tube. It is largely to her zealous advocacy, unchecked bravery, and innovative tactics to which we owe the 19th Amendment and the fact that every woman in this room has the opportunity to vote. Her courage and ingenuity took past work of amazing women activists, and moved it forward in creative and courageous ways. She started something that WCL students should figure out how to finish with the same steadfastness and bravery.
Alice Paul was an activist from the Quaker tradition, and the Quaker Journal published a short poem that speaks to our journey as lawyers and as members of society who intend to fight for social justice standing on the backs of those who fought before us:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justice now.
Love mercy now.
You are not obligated to complete this work, but neither are your free to abandon it.”
As we can see in our every day interactions, there are many injustices in the world around us. There are plenty of journeys that righteous lawyers of the past have taken up that have not reached a final and equitable solution. There are many battles in the struggle for human rights that are yet un-won.
Our obligation, and opportunity, is now to find our place in this struggle and in our profession, and continue the long migration towards justice, no matter how impossible the journey may seem. May our efforts be added to those who came before us, and those who are now in the throng, so that we can add our talents to the legal profession in beautiful and innovative ways.
Like the Monarchs, there is strength in our numbers and beauty in our potential.