Kamala Harris

Commencement Address at Berkeley Law - May 11, 2012

Kamala Harris
May 11, 2012— Berkeley, California
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As Prepared for Delivery

Dean Edley, distinguished faculty, families and friends. Members of the Class of 2012. Congratulations! And what an experience you’ve had. No doubt, it was a team effort. Your family and loved ones—the people here in the audience—have stood by and supported you for these last 3 years. And they aren’t the only ones.

Look around—the people sitting next to you now will be in your personal and professional lives for years to come. You are now part of an incredible tradition. A tradition built on shared values. A tradition to go into the world and create a more just society. A tradition that has led you to be part of the 100th class at this institution. And you have the distinction of being the only law school class that applied to one school—Boalt Hall—and ended up graduating from another—Berkeley Law.

And, like the many classes before you, I can say with certainty that you are going to take on the big fights and the big challenges. I’m sure of it. After all, that is part of the tradition of Berkeley.

This is, after all, the home of Mario Savio… Judge Thelton Henderson… and, of course, Earl Warren, the 20th Attorney General of the state of California, and the author of Brown v. Board of Education. This is also where my parents first met as young graduate students at a time when people were marching and shouting for justice in the halls of this university and in the streets outside. And it’s the place where, for the last 3 years, you and your classmates as students have already begun working in the service of others.

So, today, as we celebrate your graduation, there is I believe an expectation that a commencement speaker should propose the biggest issues and challenges facing us today. But, instead today, I’d like to talk about a methodology for approaching your work—principles and practices that I believe will help you fulfill your oath: to serve with greatness.

To be sure, there is no shortage of challenges and crises that require the attention of a great lawyer. And when I reflect on my own experience—first as a student and then as a lawyer—I realize that I’ve worked on a number of issues and challenges throughout the years and that they’ve been quite varied and quite unpredictable.

When I was a prosecutor fresh out of law school, I joined the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, once headed by Earl Warren. And that was the era of the crack epidemic. The toll it took on our most vulnerable communities was undeniable. When I was later elected District Attorney of San Francisco, it was the era that we first recognized the pervasive exploitation of young women and girls who were being trafficked on our streets and across our borders. And now, as California’s Attorney General, I see the results of the global financial crisis—a man-made disaster. I see it in the faces of the 1 million children displaced by foreclosures over the last 4 years in the Golden State. And, as Attorney General, I also see the dangerous rise of transnational gangs, trafficking drugs, guns and human beings into our state.

The point is, of course there are always enormous challenges. The issue is, how can you serve with greatness? The very principles that bind us together in this profession demand that we serve with greatness. We’re bound to serve with loyalty, to serve our clients with zeal, and to serve with candor and mutual respect. These timeless principles are part of the recognized methodology for serving with greatness.

But I’d like to add a few more principles to the list. In particular, today I’d like to encourage you to serve with your impact on real people as your yardstick and guide, to serve with endurance and stamina, to serve while embracing the mundane, and to serve with an appreciation for the significance of the passing of time.

So, the first principle is probably best stated as a question: What is the impact of my work on real people? Some would say that this is an obvious point. But I’ll caution, that when you find yourself in the heat of battle as a lawyer—whether in negotiation or litigation, in a deposition or a trial—you’ll also find yourself in a moment fueled with intensity and adrenaline and in a moment where voices are loud and tempers flare… where invariably one person across the table will have had one too many triple mocha-chinos.

But in the midst of that scene, don’t be consumed. Step back and remember your focus—what’s the impact on real people? Remember to ask that question, which will always help you know which way is up.

I’ll give you an example.

Right after taking office, one of my first areas of focus was the state’s foreclosure crisis. For 2 years during the campaign, I had met with folks up and down California who had lost their homes, and it was shortly after I took office that we quickly became involved in a major investigation of the nation’s largest banks about foreclosures.

Soon, months turned into a year of marathon negotiations, and, there we were, all practically sitting in one room: the 50 Attorneys General of the United States, representatives of the United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the General Counsels from the 5 largest banks and their CEOs. Each with a different perspective and all under the heat of media lights and a national call for reform and accountability. It was quite a scene.

When the first offer was figuratively slid across the table, lots of people, including people I respect, told me, “this is as good as it gets.” “If you fight, you’ll get nothing.” “Take the deal as it is.”

But, for me, I kept coming back to the question: What’s the impact on real people? Folks like the homeowners I had met during the campaign. And, in thinking of them, I knew we could do better. I knew we had to do better. And, months later, in February of this year, we did.

We won $18 billion to help California homeowners, while maintaining the ability to investigate and keep fighting for the people of this great state.

And we are still fighting for California homeowners. We’re in Sacramento now pressing for permanent reform—a Homeowner Bill of Rights that will restore fairness and transparency to the industry and due process to the folks who were caught in this crisis.

This leads me to the second important principle. You’ll also need to have stamina. Because when you first start your careers, you’ll probably be required to perform some fairly mundane, “everyday” tasks. And what am I talking about? Well, think: Document review. Due diligence. Long legal memoranda. Cite-checking.

These tasks are the reality of what you’re going to have to do at beginning of your career. But embracing the mundane, “the everyday,” is often the difference between vision and execution. The difference between having a plan to end world hunger and actually ending world hunger.

It’s painstakingly combing through every piece of evidence before a criminal trial and finding the one overlooked item that makes the case. It’s finding the one case that perfectly proves your point – that you’ll find only after you’ve read the 400 other irrelevant cases before it. It’s crafting a package of legislation by painstakingly looking at 100s of statutes that govern our foreclosure system.

The stamina to master the details, to embrace the everyday, the mundane— this will reward you richly in your career.

The last principle I’d urge you to consider is the significance of the passing of time. And here’s how I think of this. First, it has to deal with patience. Think about the architects of the Civil Rights Movement—Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley, and Thurgood Marshall.

They understood the importance of time in their strategy for serving with greatness. In fact, they were among the reasons I became a lawyer.

Think about Brown v. Board of Education. As we know, that historic decision was strategically preceded by years and reams of litigation. To reach their goal, to carefully build cases and precedents, it took time. It took patience. And emulating these giants in the law will invariably take the same kind of strategic patience from you.

There’s another takeaway from Brown about time: each day is not equal.

Why do I say this? Well, Brown v. Board of Education—authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren—was decided on Monday, May 17, 1954. Fast forward to many years later, and there I was starting elementary school, part of only the second class to integrate Berkeley public schools.

The obvious point there is that although Brown was decided in 1954, it took a long time before our own Berkeley, California first required busing to desegregate its public schools. And you should know, that year – the year before I started elementary school – those same schools were either approximately 90% white in the hills, or approximately 95% black in the flats.

And, today, Berkeley Law grads, 58 years after Brown, when we know that only 40% of California’s African American and Latino ninth-graders will graduate high school, we know that Brown’s essential moral promise remains to be fulfilled —the promise of an adequate education for all children

We know, for these children, each day is not equal.

We know, for the hundreds of thousands of California families who have lost their homes, each day is not equal.

We know, for the thousands of our fellow California citizens who, since Prop 8, have been denied the right to marry, each one of those 1,285 days is not equal.

We know any day lived with injustice is one day too many.

So, Berkeley Law grads, here is your challenge: to serve with greatness… to serve with stamina and endurance in the face of enormous challenges… to serve while embracing the everyday details… and to always think of the impact you’re having on the people you serve.

Today, you become lawyers. I cannot wait to see what you do tomorrow.

Thank you, God Bless you, and good luck.

Speech from https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/remarks-california-attorney-general-kamala-d-harris-berkeley-law-school-2012.