Kelly Ayotte

Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law Commencement Address - May 16, 2015

Kelly Ayotte
May 16, 2015— State College, Pennsylvania
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Well, first of all, I want to thank Dean Houck for that very kind introduction. And I am honored to be here with President Baron, Trustee Benson, members of the university administration, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, family, friends, but most of all, I am honored to be here with the Class of 2015. Congratulations on what you have accomplished today. [applause]

I have to say, it is wonderful to be back here on campus at Penn State. And with what you have accomplished in receiving your law degree today, you can look back on the years of hard work in law school and take great pride with what you have achieved. And you can look ahead with confidence in knowing that you have received an excellent education at the Dickinson School of Law here at Penn State. And that this education will allow you to reach your full potential and to make a difference.

I have to say, I regret there was no law school here when I went to Penn State as an undergrad, and so I'm so glad to see all of you here and graduating from this great institution today. On this campus as an undergrad, I had the opportunity to have my first experience with the Triad Leadership as a student leader. And it was here not only that I gained a phenomenal education, but it was also here that I had the opportunity to appreciate the reward of what it means to work with other people, to get things done, to try to solve problems for the greater good, and I have to say—I have to mention—I did have a lot of fun here, too, because who doesn't like Penn State football?

As a Nittany Lion, one of the things I can assure you as you go forward to all of you today is that not only have you received a law degree that is going to prepare you for success in the future, but with this graduation, you are joining one of the greatest alumni communities in the world. Because everywhere you go, you will find Penn Staters. You will find a network of people who share your common experience, who want to mentor you, want to help you. So really take advantage of that alumni network as you are charting your path and career. Because I can tell you, we have a very active alumni group in the state of New Hampshire, and there is not a place you will go in this country where you won't find a fellow Penn Stater—and around the world; we're very glad to have so many international students.

It seems like yesterday I was sitting where you are, and I remembered feeling full of lots of optimism, fear, and also in debt, I have to say, which I'm sure many of you are. Many of you may know what your next step is. Some of you are going to go off and clerk for a judge or you are joining a law firm, working in a company, or perhaps becoming a government lawyer.

And you may think you can have the plan chartered already for your career, but I can assure you there is one thing about your career path as you go forward right now. There are going to be many twists and turns along the way. And rather than thinking of those bends in life as a detour—which sometimes they may feel that way—look at them as opportunities. Opportunities to find a career that you love in the law.

After I graduated from law school, I have to tell you the thought of becoming a murder prosecutor or attorney general or, for that matter, a United States senator—that was not on my radar screen, that was not what I thought my plan would be in life.

When I went back to New Hampshire after graduating from law school, my plan was to go work for a private firm because I had to pay some students loans off and make money and really just be in the private practice of law. Which can be very rewarding. That's what I did. But my life changed, because you will find that with your law degree, there are many opportunities to use your degree in many different ways.

So one day, the firm that I was working at in New Hampshire, there was a partner who came to me and he asked me to cover for him at an arraignment in federal court, in a criminal case. And so, of course, a partner comes to you, you are eager to prove yourself and I said, Yes, I'll do it. What I didn't know at the time is that he was sending me up in a very significant criminal case. It was one where it involved a bank robbery in New Hampshire where, unfortunately, two guards were murdered. And it involved charges against five defendants that were charged with committing bank robberies up and down the East Coast of the United States. And this was a case where I walked into federal court, and I have to say, I had never done an arraignment. I had only been a lawyer for a few years, and I felt way over my head, and I was surrounded with many other experienced lawyers. Even my client had more experience in the courtroom than I did. [laughter]

In fact, I have to tell you the first time I went down to meet my client, because he was charged with a very serious matter, I went down to the cell block and I met this very tough-looking individual. And here I am, a young women, and he looked at me, I looked at him. He had a look of terror on his face, this tough guy, and the only thing I could think to tell him is, "Don't worry. I am not your only lawyer." [laughter]

So at that first hearing, I spent most of the day at that arraignment just looking at the other experienced lawyers in the room, thinking, am I standing in the right place? Am I supposed to be here? As many of you who may have looked at and study criminal law, the arraignment is just to appear in court. You really don't have to do much at that point other than obviously enter a plea for your client. But then the real beginning of the proceedings happens after that.

On my way back to the office that night, I'm thinking about this case and I'm thinking, Wow, this is a big case. And I'm obviously a new lawyer. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought this was an exciting opportunity to do something I didn't think I would ever do. So I went back to the partner who had sent me to this case and I said, "I want an opportunity to work on this case with you." Obviously, he was much more experienced and the appropriate lawyer to be handling the case. But he gave me the opportunity to work on this case with him, and as a result my first jury trial. I spent three months in federal court. I learned about DNA evidence. I had the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.

And most of all, I found a different path in my career. I realized that I wanted to be in the courtroom. I realized that I wanted to serve the public. Because it looked very exciting, first of all, to be part of a very important case on either side, and to know that it made a difference to the people of our state.

So I applied for a job as a prosecutor at the attorney general's office. And I wasn't hired on the first try, but I kept at it and they finally hired me. In fact, I took a pay cut to take that first job at the attorney general's office. But it was worth it. Because after that, I spent years prosecuting cases and within a decade at the attorney general's office, I became the first woman to serve as attorney general in our state.

And what I took from that experience is that don't be afraid to take on cases or a new job or a new issue that really stretches your boundaries and really pushes you. And it looks difficult and it looks like you may be over your head. There are people that will help you, but it will push you on to the next level and allow you to really push yourself to show what you are capable of.

The other thing that I took from that whole experience is that sometimes what looks like a detour in your career is actually something that is going to bring you to your true calling, and something that you have a passion for. I think that passion is the secret ingredient that drives hard work and excellence.

My passion is to serve the public, to be in the arena of public policy, to have the opportunity to solve problems for our country, to be in a position where I can make a difference.

And I wish for each of you that you use your law degree and the degree you are getting today to find your passion. That you find that career path which allows you to use your law degree to its fullest so that you can excel in whatever you do and that you can make a difference.

It's a privilege to serve the country in the United States Senate and serve the people of New Hampshire. In fact, I wake up every day with a sense of purpose. We have many problems that need to be solved in Washington—I think we can all agree with that. But I want you to know as much as I love what I'm doing as a United States senator, I have not lost my love for the law. Keep that love you have for the law and why you are getting this degree today. In fact, my job as a U.S. senator has made me appreciate the law even more. And what it has made me appreciate is the importance of the rule of law to our democracy.

I serve on the Armed Services Committee, as the dean mentioned. And as a result of that, I have had the opportunity to travel to different countries around the world. Countries in the Middle East, countries in Eastern Europe, countries in Asia, in other areas around the world. And what I have noticed in traveling to other countries that are embroiled in conflict, in countries where sometimes women are treated as second-class citizens, or where people are being persecuted because of their faith—in the countries where we see these challenges and we see these problems, one of the things that is often absent and I would say is the more glaring thing that becomes absent, is the rule of law.

In some countries, people are fighting to the death because there is no second place. In the United States, because we are a nation of laws, you can lose an election and keep your life. In the United States, you can lose an election or you can disagree with our leaders or our government and you won't lose your business, you won't lose your family, and you won't lose your freedom.

What you see in areas where you have conflict or you have people who are dying and fighting over trying to take control of a government or to fight for their freedom, you see that when people don't believe that today will find justice in a system of the rule of law, they will try to obtain their own justice and it won't be an objective justice. It will be one that is based on people's subjectivity. Think about places like Syria. When you dare disagree with the leader, you are met with violence.

This is something that I think we take for granted too much in this country. Think about our own elections. The case of Bush v. Gore. The most powerful office in the world—the president of the United States—was decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, with less than 1000 votes in the state of Florida would decide the outcome of who would serve as president of the United States. Yet once the Supreme Court decide the outcome, it ended with a peaceful transfer of power and we accepted it. How many people live in conflict or tyranny around the world that wouldn't want to live in a system like that?

Yet as important as the rule of law is, we have to make sure and we have to be aware that if we don't nurture our legal system or if we overly politicize it, we will erode it. And by eroding it, we will erode our democracy.

Today, as you graduate and you receive this degree and you receive your law degree from this great law school, you have become a guardian for the rule of law. And by doing do, you are a guardian. For our international students, you are a guardian for your countries. For all of us, we are guardians for our democracy in the United States of America.

Regardless of the role that you choose in the law, every lawyer has the ability to speak truth to power. That means standing up for what you believe is right, no matter how difficult it is. You have the ability to do so and the talent to do so with your law degree.

That means standing up for the weak or disaffected or those who do not have a voice. To understand that when we defend the most unpopular among us, you do a great service to our justice system. It means telling clients not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. That's what a good lawyer does.

I will let you it means admitting what you don't know. Because often there is so much we don't know and we need to know if we are going to do a good job in our legal profession.

And finally, it always means applying the Golden Rule. And I believe the Golden Rule is the most important rule as you go off into the legal profession. And that is to treat adversaries and opposing counsel like you would want to be treated. In the law, more than any other profession, what goes around comes around. And you will be surprised as you go forward in your career how many lawyers that you've had on the other side of the case that will refer you to your next case. Why? Because they saw how you treated them with respect and they saw how good a lawyer you really are.

When you receive your law license, don't underestimate the awesome opportunity that you have been given to affect people's lives for the better or for the worse, and the responsibility which comes with that opportunity.

With the degree that you receive today, you have the opportunity to make our country—and to the international students, to make the countries from which you come here from—stronger, more just and more compassionate. Don't squander that opportunity. Embrace it. Remember a good lawyer is a godsend to a free and democratic society. And you have the tools you need today to be that godsend for our country.

We are all so proud of you and that you have chosen this noble profession. I just want to say congratulations and I will see you all in court. [applause]

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