2013 J.D. Class Commencement Address
Emily Peterson delivers the J.D. Address
Emily Peterson of Duluth, Minn., was chosen to deliver the J.D. Graduation Address at the May 18, 2013, Commencement Ceremonies by her classmates. Following is the text of her address.
Thank you Dean Wippman. Governor Dayton, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, class of 2013, and family and friends:
When I started to write today's commencement speech, I thought of an ongoing argument I've had with my friend Ethan during law school. Usually, it is in jest, but once in a while one of us ends up storming away.
It starts with Ethan calling me a sell-out. Now, I'm not alone in this—he's called lots of people sell-outs—if you've ever even thought about taking Corporations as a class, chances are you're on his list. In my case, he says that as a self-respecting liberal, I should not go work at a big law firm after school.
He says, "You've lost your way. You've gotten so caught up in the rat race of law school that you've forgotten what is important about being an attorney." One night at a bar, we talked about what we imagined our spirit animals to be—you know, the kind of animal that best represents your personality. He said his was an otter, because they were small, feisty and clever. He said mine was probably a lemming.
The thing is, the more I think about it, I think Ethan might be on to something—although he's way off about my spirit animal. By necessity, law school teaches us to challenge how we think. It is a transformative experience. But that can create a sense of "relativism" in us. We each started law school with a concrete picture of those we wanted to help, a picture that evaporated a little every time we were cold called and pressed to come up with a clever counter-argument. Suddenly, it seemed like a game.
So today, I want to remind us of our pre-law school selves, those people that have been suppressed over the past three years. Consider it group therapy. I'm going to tell you a few short stories that represent three guiding principles that are important for all of us as we begin our careers.
First and foremost, remember what brought you here.
I recently re-read my law school application essay. It started with a story about a 17-year-old boy I met while working for the Star Tribune. Alex had been harassed by two of his teachers at a local high school because they thought he was gay. My essay, however, was only tangentially about Alex. It was more about the lawyers I met while reporting his story. And it talked about becoming a lawyer to help people like Alex stand up for their rights. But my essay left out a lot of unofficial reasons I am here, too.
I came to law school because when I was in college, my younger sister died of leukemia at the age of 19. I promised myself at the time that life was too short to not follow through with what I wanted to do—too short to always wonder "What if?" or "Am I ready?" I came because my parents told me I'd be good at it, and because an ex-boyfriend said I'd never go through with it. And I came because I wanted student tickets to Gopher basketball games. (In retrospect, when you include the price of tuition, I would have been better off just buying a suite.)
Remembering the reasons you are here is important because these are the reasons you have kept going—through the all-nighters, the self-doubt, and the stress. And these are the reasons that you will keep going, through a career that will often ask more of us than we have to give.
My friend Emma, in her application essay, talked about living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. That made her realize the importance of our social and governmental institutions, and how vulnerable they can be when something goes wrong. She said she always gets upset when life seems unfair, so she wanted to devote her life to seeking justice for people. We can't change the whole world, she said, we just have to try to make our little corner of it better, one person at a time.
Which brings me to my second point: Don't forget the human element of legal work. Our work has real consequences, and we cannot forget how much we owe to the legal system we serve.
This fall, all of the clever abstractions of law school came crashing down one morning when I was working as an intern at the U.S. Attorney's Office. I wrote a brief for a sentencing hearing, arguing that a convicted drug dealer should serve five extra years in prison because of how the law worked in his case.
Several weeks later, I attended his sentencing. He sat just a few feet in front of me. The judge found in my favor, and for a split second, I was excited. I won! I was officially undefeated as an attorney. But that excitement disappeared when I saw his shoulders slump. His family came to hug him. They all cried, together.
At the time, I told myself it wasn't really my fault—I was just a law student, and if I hadn't been there, someone else would have written the brief. I was not personally responsible for those extra five years. But was I? The justice system depends on lawyers doing its bidding. We are the justice system. The sort of argument that "if it weren't me, it would be someone else" avoids the clear responsibility we all have to make sure justice is done.
Last week, my friend Matt told me a story about one of his clinic clients, who was having trouble moving beyond her past with an teenage conviction for assault on her criminal record. At a hearing last week to expunge the record, she cried and thanked him for changing her life. The lessons of the hearing were not lost on Matt. He said law school is so theoretical, that getting a chance to actually help someone showed him the power of the profession over people's lives. He told me "Law school is so focused on the 'me,' my classes, my grades, my job. But this experience was about someone else, and what I could do to make her life better."
Remembering the human element of the law reminds us that we are all better than the worst thing we have ever done. And we owe it to our clients and ourselves to not treat the law like a game.
Finally, take pride in your work and recognize what you've accomplished.
The school has blessed us with an incredible tool going forward, a dangerous mind that will help us whether or not we practice as lawyers. We have learned to think critically and question our long-held beliefs. We showed up here three years ago as business owners, campaign workers, filmmakers, chess instructors, power lifters, engineers, and yes, there was even a paratrooper—and today, we are all leaving here as lawyers.
We all know, however, that our hard work has come at a price. The challenges we've faced in school have strained our relationships and our psyches, as we've dealt with everything from family crises to mental health problems and substance abuse. For getting us through it, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our family and friends—many of whom are here today—for putting up with us through law school. For their support, through hundreds of phone calls filled with dramatic whining and distress, they all deserve their own honorary degrees. So on behalf of my classmates, I want to give you all the biggest thank you in the world.
I also wanted to thank our incredible professors, who have worked hard to challenge and educate us. You have provided us with great examples of what attorneys should look like—ethical and dedicated public servants. It's an example we will strive to live up to during our years of practice. You did not like to make things easy on us, though! Last night, I told my parents about my number one quintessential law school memory, which was from Professor Carpenter's First Amendment class last year. He called on a student, who then tried to answer his question. Professor Carpenter thought about the answer for a second, then said, "Let me rephrase. Perhaps it was my poorly-worded question that led to your irrelevant response."
Now, any honest commencement speech cannot avoid discussing the current state of the job market, and the sense of worry and discouragement that is sure to accompany a day like today. Many of us are sitting here, looking at a world filled with question marks, and wondering, "Now what?" Not knowing the answer to that question is scary. Try to take solace in the fact that the most rewarding lives are those not lived in a linear fashion—they take unexpected zigs and zags, and the only thing we can do is stay true to ourselves.
And for today, at least, don't let this diminish the real sense of accomplishment you should feel. We have done something incredible and it was really, really hard. So, congratulations! Go out and celebrate! And study hard for the bar exam. The world might have a lot of lawyers, but it doesn't have enough good ones.