Read Michelle Jacobs’ UF Law commencement speech from Dec. 2015 and view gallery
Below is the complete transcript of the commencement speech given to the graduates of the University of Florida Levin College of Law on December 17, 2015, by UF Law Professor Michelle Jacobs.
Congratulations to today’s graduates for reaching this very significant milestone. I have been honored by your classmate, Chris Croce’s request that I give you some parting words about this awesome field you have chosen for your career. If you are bored to tears by the end, you can punish Chris. As of today, he’s out of my jurisdiction now so I am powerless to seek retribution!
Before I speak to you about the power of law, however, I want to address the parents, spouses and loved ones in the audience. Your adult child or your spouse or loved one has just finished a three year endurance run. Of course, they could not have done it without your love, support and encouragement, but for the most part, they’ve accomplished the achievement we celebrate today through individual hard work and effort. And, if those of us here at the College of Law have done our jobs, your loved is not the same person he or she was when the race was started three years ago. The very essence of the law training requires us to take a lay person and to reshape his or her mind and the way she processes information so that the new lawyer will be able to perform competently. This training requires great sacrifice for them personally, spiritually and emotionally. Now they must walk forward on the path of the law trained. Now they must step up to the mantle of being responsible, problem solving adults. The next parts of their journey, preparing for the bar, will be taxing and exciting as well. They will continue to need your love and support, but, give it to them as one adult to another. Hopefully as you watch on the sidelines, you will find their transition will be exciting and rewarding for you. Lastly, these graduates will be able to make a living that will make them independent of your checkbook! It’s true, I know it doesn’t sound possible but it will happen. In my experience, the only lawyer who cannot make money is the one who doesn’t want to. But seeking money is not the same as developing competence, good reputation and enjoying your profession. As a corollary to that, to our graduates let me say: happiness in your chosen profession will not come from chasing money. Study after study has shown that the lawyers who do what they are passionate about, are the ones who have the careers that are fulfilling and make them happy.
Albert Camus said:
“A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are taken for the end.”
I promise you that if you pursue your passion, whatever that is, the money will follow you, you won’t have to chase it.
As you sit here today you have only one last hurdle to clear before you can be sworn into this most hallowed of professions. You are seeking entry into one of the most powerful and privileged professional groups in the world, and entry is near. But with entry comes great responsibilities and burdens, some of which you learned about in professional responsibility and some you will learn as life lessons as you grow within the field. No matter what area of law we enter, you will end up carrying a burden that regular people will neither care about nor understand.
I am sure you all have heard bad lawyer jokes and our profession is often publicly reviled. I want you to think about why that may be so and I am going to suggest to you that it isn’t because there are so many bad lawyers. We do have bad lawyers, but every profession has its members who lack competence or do not perform ethically. I suggest to you that people do not like lawyers because when they come to us for help they are in need, they are in, if you will, a weakened state. And no one enjoys acknowledging weakness. Sometimes, they are in need because they themselves have engaged in poor decision making, their lives have spiraled out of control and they need help to get back on track. Sometimes they want to accomplish some business objective and cannot do it on their own, perhaps because it is too complicated or because they need to ensure that their financial positions are protected. Sometimes they are under pressure or their rights are being attacked by another and they need protection. We are first and foremost service providers and problem solvers. We apply our skills and reasoning, writing and argumentation to build bridges, avert tragedies, help establish dreams and fortunes and to protect the weak and the dispossessed. We do all of that and there is no one day in your career ahead where you can be less than competent, where you should be less than zealous, where you should strive for anything less than excellence. If you do that, your interactions with the public will shore up our image and remind those who question our worth that we are invaluable to a well-run, orderly society.
We are privileged to be in a profession where our work can be new every day, where every day we can challenge ourselves to be better than the day before. We face a lifetime of learning and growth of the mind and honing of our skills. And we are rewarded handsomely for it. The law merely asks a couple of things from us:
That we study it, and try our best to understand it. We need to know words, understand their meaning and their impact. I often tell my first year law students that our tools are words. It is what I learned as a law student. As I was preparing for today I attempted to find out where that expression came from. The closest I found was an expression from Felix Frankfurter, an associate justice of the Supreme Court:
“All our work, our whole life is a matter of semantics, because words are the tools with which we work, the material out of which laws are made, out of which the Constitution was written. Everything depends on our understanding of them.”
Be a wordsmith but never forget the black letter language of law. Dedicate yourselves to knowing and understanding it. The knowledge will serve you well throughout your career.
The last thing the law asks of us is that we love it, in all of its majesty and with all of its defects, as indeed, it has many defects. The people who wield it are not perfect either. Law is a tool but in the hands of some it is used as a weapon and law can do great violence. It is the lawyers who stand between the people and those who would wield the law as a weapon. I know some of you are thinking “well that’s great and if I was doing public interest work what she is saying would mean something, but I’m going to do corporate!” Let me suggest that public service comes out of all lines of legal work, there is no area of law that excludes the possibility of lawyers creating a benefit for society at large. Love your corporate law, but always, always, look to see where justice can be achieved.
I want to spend the last moments I have talking to you about lawyers being citizens and members of the community at large. You know today, the world’s problems seem insurmountable. And due to the pervasive use of social media and the abdication of the responsibility to do real news coverage by our networks, we have all been primed to be perpetually afraid of the world in which we live. We have text alerts, breaking news bulletins, color coded threat levels and rampant fear of anyone who is different. Those of your generation have been led to believe that you could be blown up or killed at any moment and that this is the first time in our civilization we have experienced such heightened levels of fear. You have been encouraged to be intolerant and to resort, as a first measure to the removal of rights for others to ensure your own safety.
Fortunately, I have the benefit of being old and my memory is still intact at the moment… now, after I finish grading my first year students’ exams, who knows, maybe I will be completely addled. But at the moment I still have the ability to recall, so I wanted to clue you in on something. The world has been where we are now many, many, times before. Even within the United States we have been here before. One only has to go to the 1960’s forward with a Google search to find a list of bombings and attacks that have happened right here in the U.S. Who can forget the image of the bombed church in Birmingham, Alabama where four little black girls were killed on a beautiful Sunday morning by Klu Klux Klanmen in 1963; where black people lived in daily fear of bombings, kidnappings and extrajudicial lynching? Is that too far back for you? How about the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, an anarchist from Montana, who for almost twenty years mailed bombs to universities and airlines? How about Timothy McVeigh bombing the Federal building in Oklahoma in 1995 and Eric Rudolph blowing up the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996?
Even in Europe, there have been waves of violence directed at democratic societies, the Red Army Faction in Germany, The Red Brigade in Italy, the Basque separatists in Spain. Greece, Portugal and Belgium have also experienced periods of violent unrest. And the airports in Paris have been getting blown up over the course of my entire adult life. Extremism is not unique to our times, nor is it the special reserve of only one ethnic, or religious group.
At the same time the efforts to restrict rights in response to unrest is also not new or unique. And in the name of fear mongering our country has done terrible, terrible, injustice to the innocent.
For a person, who loves law, as I do, how painful was it for me to hear a politician in 2015 invoke internment of Japanese Americans during WW II as a solution we should try again for a different group of people? Korematsu v. the U.S. was the case where our own Supreme Court, including Justice Frankfurter whom I just mentioned, shamefully upheld the legality of the internment of innocent Japanese American citizens because we were mad and scared after Pearl Harbor, and politicians egged Americans to stand for hate. The people who were interned (and that is a euphemism for put into concentration camps) had done nothing. Their only offense was that they were of Japanese ancestry. Despite the fact the Japanese Americans were exonerated in a different case many years later and Congress issued an apology and gave reparations, the Supreme Court holding in Korematsu was never overturned. Over the years since then, many jurists and legal scholars have argued that Korematsu didn’t need to be overturned because everyone knows now the decision was morally repugnant and should never have been decided as it was. And yet, the law of Korematsu was, in fact, used by the U.S. government to support its argument that 1200 Muslims detained and held incommunicado and without the benefit of counsel after 9/11 was constitutional. Just as with the Japanese, none of the people detained had been found to be involved with 9/11 or any other crime occurring in the U.S. And yet, like the Japanese, many of their lives were disrupted and ruined by this political assault on their rights. Now, we have another politician suggesting a system of apartheid be established here in the U.S. based on religion as opposed to color. Didn’t we just finish fighting against apartheid in South Africa? Isn’t that why we hailed Nelson Mandela as a hero, because he fought against apartheid? And these atrocities don’t just happen to foreigners. All Americans were subjected to scrutiny and suspicion during the McCarthy era, and again during the protests against Vietnam. Lives and careers of people were ruined based on whispers and innuendo.
Here’s the part where lawyers as citizens come in. Because we have knowledge of law, we have an obligation in these times to come forward, to stand up, to counter with knowledge those who use ignorance and fear to weaken our law. We place ourselves between those who would use law as a weapon and the people who have been made vulnerable, no matter whether you share the view of those attacked or not.
When you pass the bar and take your oath which includes a promise to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida; and there is language towards the end of the oath where you will promise not to reject, from any consideration personal to yourselves, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, … This is our solemn oath.
The protection of our constitution may be the biggest challenge your generation will face in your individual lifetimes. You must, if we are to survive as a civilized society, do your best to protect our most valued foundational document.
I charge you with this responsibility. I encourage you to stay informed and to be intelligent whether you are in your office or not. Be a full participant in the development of society and the world.
Gandhi is attributed as saying, “You can judge a society by how they treat their weakest members.” When you come to the close of your careers many years down the road, will you be able to look back and say you helped use the power of the law to help the weakest of us? Over the next months as we continue through this charade of an election process, I hope you will reflect on these words.
I will wrap this all up by encouraging you to love law. I hope that you will. I wish it for you because I know in the 32 years I have been privileged to be called a lawyer I’ve loved every single minute of it, the good ones and the bad. I still get goosebumps talking about new wrinkles in the law or when something comes up that law has never seen before. At those moments, I’m a geeky kid in a law candy shop. I cannot imagine how dull my life would have been had I not chosen this profession. And it is my sincerest wish that you will grow to love law as I do, as we all do. Your lives will be so much richer for it. I conclude simply by saying, all of us here at the College of Law are proud of you. We have great hopes for you and even greater expectations of you and we welcome you into the phenomenal community of law.