Loretta Lynch

Commencement Address at American University Washington College of Law - May 22, 2016

Loretta Lynch
May 22, 2016— Washington, D.C.
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Thank you all for this warm welcome. President [Neil] Kerwin and Provost [Scott] Bass, thank you so much for this wonderful introduction; Dean Grossman, the faculty, the students, the entire American University College of Law family – thank you for making me one of you. Thank you so much for being this wonderful institution. President Kerwin and Provost Bass have lead this institution, this center of learning, and cultivated not just world-class scholarship, but world-changing progress. Dean [Claudio] Grossman: in two decades at the helm of this school, you have transformed this law school as much as you have shaped the lives of all of the students you have been honored to teach and whom they have been privileged to work with you – students who have gone on to improve countless lives themselves by practicing the law they learned here. They are a testament to your stewardship. They are, in fact, the best evidence of your commitment and dedication and the love of the law that you carry in your heart. Let me join the chorus of voices that are congratulating you on two decades at the helm of this wonderful institution.

I so am honored to be here today and to share this event with all of you. To the faculty and staff members, in particular – the heart of this institution – let me say thank you to all of you, all of you who are here on stage with me, all of you who have worked with this class the past three years – thank you for taking what I see before me, this group of smart , brilliant, talented people who thought they wanted to be lawyers and turning them into a group of smart , brilliant, and talented people who know they want to be lawyers. That transformation is, indeed, exceptional. To the friends and family members who are here to see their support and encouragement pay off, to all of you, my thanks you as well – for standing by these graduates as they embarked on an uncertain yet life changing journey and for sticking by them now and into the future. Because their journey is also your journey. And as this journey continues to unfold, you've walked with them for the past three years and I know that in a few moments when they traverse this stage you'll be up here with them as well.

And of course, family is an important part of American University. It is certainly the bedrock of all that I have done in my life and all that I've been able to achieve and I'm so honored that some of my family is here with me today. My husband, Steve Hargrove, and my father, Reverend Lorenzo Lynch, the fourth generation of ministers in our family. They're here with me as well.

But the stars of the show, the class of 2016 – congratulations to you all. You all are such a special group. Those of you who are joining us in the profession of law and obtaining your JD degree, those of you who are obtaining an LLM degree or further, showing that learning never stops even after you take the title of attorney – you are a very special group of individuals. I am so impressed with all of you. What really impresses me most about this class – as well as so many of the graduates who have come before you – is that out of all the choices you had to apply your skills, to apply your talents, to apply your ideals, you made the choice to apply them here, in this school and devoting them to this wonderful profession of ours. You made the choice to truly live your motto and to “champion what matters.” You are the dreamers. You are the ones who still say you want to become a lawyer “to help people.” You are the ones who say “I want to make a difference.” And you are the ones, when asked about your goals, you still say “I want to change the world.” Don't ever lose that. And that you have in fact chosen the law as your vehicle of change, as your champion’s spear, makes me not only grateful but so very proud of you. This is a student body steeped in public service, human rights and international engagement, causes you are already working to uplift. Many of you were toiling in the vineyard of public service even before you arrived on campus. You worked on Capitol Hill to advance our democracy; volunteered in the Peace Corps to expand global opportunity; served in our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to protect our country; some of you even taught children in elementary school, helping to nurture our most precious resource. You have continued to walk this path here at WCL, working on projects ranging from clinical programs on women’s rights, domestic violence and immigrant justice to international projects on torture, war crimes and human rights. These are the choices you have made and that so many of you look to make going forward. These are the choices of those who care deeply about justice in this world. These are the choices of those who put others before self. These are the choices of champions and champions – for justice, for equality – are what we need in this world and in this profession right now.

For those of you who have walked this path, many of you know these choices bring different things for all of us. They do not always bring glory or fame – and in fact many of these choices lead one away from the headlines and out of the limelight. But they do lead directly into the heart of the challenges of this time and of the people who struggle against them. They lead into what truly matters. And as the very ethos of this school reminds you, what matters is that men, women and children here in this country and around the world – be they in towns or cities, camps or villages – are afforded the recognition of their human dignity and the protection of their human rights. What matters is that there is somewhere for those who are troubled, threatened or afraid to turn to in their darkest hour. What matters is that there are those who are willing and those who are able to use the law – this beautiful law that we all love – as an instrument of inclusion, as an instrument of protection and as a source of freedom.

But I will tell you, these choices are not the easy ones. They are rarely the lucrative ones. They are often the choices that other people turn away from. But know this, they are the best ones. They truly are. And as you go forward from this place and leave a campus that encourages your passion for advocacy and your passion and dedication for service, I urge you – never lose sight of how vital it is that we, as lawyers, as citizens, as partners in humanity, continue to choose those tasks and champion what truly matters.

It isn't always an easy path and it's not always clear. What it means is you'll be raising your hand when others are sitting on theirs. It means you will be taking risks – even the risk of failure – when you find the choice you must make. And it can mean taking a leap of faith and choosing the path that no one understands but you.

Sometimes that will be difficult. You come out of a wonderful institution with the pressure of your family and friends upon you, with the loans at your back and the desire to make a difference in your heart, and it is hard to know what that choice will be. We do not know where our choices will take us. But I will tell you the best choices are made based not on what they bring to us, but what they allow us to bring to others.

And I will tell you, I have tried to use that as the lodestar for the choices I have made in my own career. Shortly after I first left government in 2001, I had the opportunity to join a group of dedicated lawyers in teaching a trial advocacy course to the prosecutors of the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, located in Tanzania. I had taught before in the department and in law schools. For several years, I traveled to the tribunal once a year to teach this course. And I will tell you that being able to contribute to the work that was being done to bring justice to a country that was ravaged by genocide was incredibly rewarding. And I will also tell you that I was very comfortable in that choice. I was very secure in that move. I began to work in New York and build an active practice. I was a partner at a major law firm. And I made a trip once a year and thought that I was doing all that I could do. But in the summer of 2005, the tribunal approached me and asked me to do more. They asked me to take a step out of that comfort zone. They asked me to take a step out of the familiar and work more directly with them and to conduct a witness tampering investigation on their behalf, looking into whether tribunal witnesses who were already traumatized by pain and suffering, were being intimidated or even bribed by those who were trying to get them to recant their previous testimony. And I will also tell you, that as part of the ironies that only life can present, at the exact same time I was approached with a request about running for elected office, a role that would also have allowed me to work on behalf of people and to advance causes I truly cared about. This certainly was the traditional choice for many of us seeking to make a difference in our world. By running for office or holding a position, you can in fact make a name for yourself, you can advance positions and laws that can benefit so many people. It can be a stepping stone for you to other offices, even appointed. And certainly for many who think of going into government again, even at looking at the attorney general's chair, it can be the obvious choice. I was a partner in a law firm, working on building a practice, and I was considering a choice that would take me to a small east African country that, despite its history, few had ever heard of. And I'd be there for weeks at a time. I was considering a choice that would bring in no money to my firm and no new clients to me. Now let me say that, if the political arena is your choice as you work to keep our democracy strong and our essential freedoms accessible for all, then that is what you should do and I salute you, because we need champions in all walks of our civic discourse. But ultimately, for me, I chose to go to Rwanda. And it was the best thing I have ever done.

When I went, I'd had the privilege of spending time with the tribunal and reading about the cases. I had also already been a prosecutor for years and I'd worked on some challenging matters. I had sat in a room with murderers and listened to them tell how they'd been taught to kill people. I'd held the hands of the the families of the murder victims as I told them how their loved ones left this earth. But nothing had prepared me to hear the story of the woman I met in Rwanda who recounted hiding under a pile of dead bodies during a churchyard massacre, then climbing out and going to the priest seeking sanctuary, only to be turned away. It hadn't prepared me for the story of the woman who was betrayed by those who had promised to smuggle her out of the country but instead turned her over to the genocidaires, from whom she barely escaped with her life and who still suffered pain when the sun shone on the machete wound to her head. But I also heard incredible stories of faith and hope, from the man who saw his entire family struck down beside him, yet went on to marry again and adopt eight genocide orphans. You see, I went to Rwanda to help people there but they ended up helping me. I went there to share my talents and my experience, but they gave me gifts that were deeper and broader and which I can never repay. And every day I was there I knew – in my heart – that I had made the right choice. Because despite the overwhelming evidence of man’s inhumanity to man that I sat and heard about every day, I saw a hope and joy in life that was inspiring. I saw a faith and a trust in the law and the very concept of justice that to this day inspires me to continue to make it real. Those experiences stay with me today, and made me a better person and made me a better attorney and they have made me a better attorney general. They have enriched my understanding of what it means to bring justice to those who need it most. They inform the work I do as I lead the Department of Justice – the only cabinet agency named after an ideal, in the work we do to make that ideal a manifest reality for all.

But when I sat in that room in the summer of 2005 and made that choice, I had no idea where it would lead me. I had no idea if that would be right for me. I had no idea if it would hurt or harm my career. All I knew was that it was what I had to do.

And what I want to share with you today is that this is my wish for you, this is my wish for all of you – as you move forward into this great profession of ours, with all your gifts, with all your talents, with all your ability, with all your promise – that you make the choice and find the things that bring you closer to your ideals, that you make the choice that speaks to your heart, that you take that leap of faith when you find it presented to you. You may already be on that path. Your choice may not be as stark as mine, it may not be as extreme. But know this – the world needs you to make that choice. We need you. The world needs champions. The world needs you. The needs for your skills go beyond those of the tribunal, go beyond those of even the courtrooms of this land. Too many people in this world and other still find the path to opportunity blocked. Too many still find the path to education, to housing, or even to the ballot box blocked by discrimination and worse. Too many still face discrimination based on nothing more than what they look like, where they are from, how they worship, whom they love or something as fundamentally private and personal as where they use a restroom.

And as you look out and see all of these issues and as you look back and see all that went before and all the fights that were fought, I ask you not to be discouraged, not to think that the presence of these problems means that they cannot be surmounted. The presence of these problems means that it is only the fact that every generation must pick up the fight, pick up the spear and join the fray and fight this battle with us. And now it is your turn. Now it calls upon you and now we wait for you.

Now, many of you will ask yourselves, how I will know? How will I know what that choice is before me? How will I know when that life-changing event is there? Well, there is no way to predict from this seat. There is no way to look ahead and see. And even in that moment you may not know where it will take you or what it will mean. But know this – you're already on your way. First of all, you've made the decision to come here – to this school, to this place, to be with the people in this room who support the ideals of freedom and equality. You've already made that choice. Please trust me when I tell you that you, all of you, have everything you need to make the choice when it's presented to you. It may not be in focus for you now, as you go into the world and hone your skills. And I will tell you that you will wonder about it at various points in your career – whether you’re poring over corporate records, whether you're desperately trying to raise money to fund a public interest venture. There are times in your career – especially early on – when you will wonder if you are fulfilling your ultimate choice. Is this what I was brought there to do? But that’s all right. I am here to tell you that life is long and so is your career. Your time here has prepared you not just for your first job in our beautiful profession that you will have but your last one and for all those moments in between when you will be faced with decisions, large and small, that rest on your understanding of justice – of justice.

I don’t know what choices will be presented to you. I don’t know when your challenges will come. But I do know that champions are needed now more than ever – to protect our vital liberties, to provide relief from oppression and to uplift the dignity of every individual. And I know that you – all of you – have all that you need to make those choices. And so I say to you all, my fighters, my champions, my newest colleagues, I congratulate you. I salute you. I welcome you to this wonderful profession of ours. I cannot wait to see what you do next.

Thank you for letting me spend a few minutes with you today. Thank you for committing to the cause for justice and equality around this world. Thank you, thank you for choosing to be on the side of those who ever need you. Thank you so much.

Speech as prepared for delivery at https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-loretta-e-lynch-delivers-commencement-address-american-university.

Video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKFsezBLjX0.