Sally Quillian Yates

Harvard Law School Class Day Address - May 24, 2017

Sally Quillian Yates
May 24, 2017— Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Camille, thank you for just a beautiful and generous introduction.

Dean Minow, distinguished faculty, family, friends and most of all to the graduates of the Harvard Law School Class of 2017, thank you for inviting me to share in this special day with you. It is such a privilege for me to be here.

To the graduates of the class of 2017, I want to say congratulations. You have worked incredibly hard to get here today, and I hope that you're going to take a moment to really let the full weight of your accomplishments sink in and that you're going to revel in this a little bit.

To the parents of the graduates that are here today, you have to feel a tremendous sense of pride and just sheer joy in what your children have accomplished. So congratulations to the moms and dads here as well. [applause]

Dean Minow, I really can't let this moment pass, this moment of your last commencement here as dean, without also recognizing the inspirational leadership and vision that has marked your tenure.

To the student award recipients today that we all just heard about and to all of the students here today that were recognized for their pro bono service, I got to tell you I am humbled by your unselfish dedication to justice, a dedication that you've exemplified even before you have graduated from law school.

I've really been excited about the opportunity to be able to talk with you all today, but as the date grew closer, I'm going to admit to you that I started to get a little bit anxious. This is a big moment for you and I wanted any words that I had here today to be commensurate with that occasion.

The anxiety gotten worse a few weeks ago when I was at breakfast with my family, my husband and my daughter Kelley, who's here with me, and my son-in-law, Zach. They knew that I was going to be giving this speech and so the topic of commencement themes quickly surfaced. They started going around the table naming what they consider to be overused, trite commencement themes—follow your dreams, don't give up, find your inner passion. I'm playing along with this but as they keep going I'm starting to feel a little sweaty because one by one, with every derisive chuckle, they are eliminating every possible theme that I could have here for today. And I knew that I would be busted because I knew that my daughter and son-in-law were going to be here.

So I went back to the letter that I received from your class marshals—and I just have to tell you they write a heck of a letter—and they told me that this was the bicentennial of the school's founding, that for over 200 years that graduates of this school had been changing the trajectory of both our country and the world.

If you think about it, from both ends of the political spectrum and every point in between, presidents, Supreme Court justices, foreign leaders, activists, CEOs, journalists and 11 attorneys general have graduated from Harvard Law School, including my former boss and a woman I was proud to work under, Loretta Lynch. [applause] Now, some of the Harvard law graduates are obviously household names, but others are known only to the people whose lives they have changed forever, and now all of you are following in their footsteps.

And as if the bicentennial were not enough, they also told me that this year was the first time that there would be an equal number of men and women graduating from the law school.

That's a long way from when my grandmother was admitted to the Georgia bar. She didn't even go to law school. She did what was called "reading law" then, which was essentially studying under the tutelage of another lawyer, and then she took and passed the bar exam.

But back then, passing the bar exam and being able to practice law as a woman—especially in the South—those were two very different things. So she became a legal secretary to my grandfather and then later my father and my uncle. Truth be told, she was smarter than all of them, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for her to have spent her career typing someone else's thoughts. She would be thrilled that for the 380 women graduating today, they have another destiny.

The letter of invitation from your class marshal said that this is the last opportunity for you to receive the wisdom and advice from someone outside the law school before you embark on your careers as lawyers and advocates around the world. So I thought back to my 31 years of being a lawyer, the vast majority of which I spent with the Department of Justice.

For me, being a career prosecutor wasn't just my job, it was a really important part of who I was and who I still am. And that's because I believed so strongly in the mission of the Justice Department, in the privilege of public service, and both the opportunity and the responsibility that lawyers have to use that special gift that we have to bring this world a little closer toward justice.

As I thought back over those years, I came to realize that I envy all of you today. I envy that you are on the front end of this wonderful, challenging, rewarding, sometimes gut-wrenching but also sometimes uplifting adventure of being a lawyer.

And so I thought I would share with you today four observations or lessons that that I have learned over this time about what it means to be a lawyer and what being a lawyer has taught me about life in our country.

So observation number one: we are all better than our worst moment but sometimes we're not quite as good as we think we are, either. As bright, talented and driven as all of you are right now, you need to give yourself the space to develop into great lawyers. You weren't born one, and as rigorous as your education was here, there's still more for you to learn and more dimensions of your lawyerly self to be developed.

I learned this the hard way not long after I graduated from law school. I was working in a big firm in Atlanta and we were working on a case involving the failure of one of those giant cranes that they have in ports. The failure of a giant crane in the Savannah port—a spine-tingling topic that may give you some insight into why I left private practice. I was a new associate in the firm and we had traveled to Savannah to depose the other side's expert. Looking back on this, I realized that that expert must not have been too important to the case if they were letting me do the deposition, but nonetheless that's what we were doing. So we get there and the expert is a Russian engineer with a very heavy accent who chained smokes—with one of those long cigarette holders, holding like this—for the entire deposition. This is back when folks could smoke in depositions. I was incredibly nervous and I have to tell you, throughout the whole thing he is literally—not just figuratively—but literally blowing smoke in my face. I also have to admit to you I did a miserable job. He owned me during that deposition. I don't think I made a single point.

Well, on the flight back, the partner that I was with thought that this might be a good time to critique my performance in the deposition. We're both sitting on the aisle seats. He's one row ahead of me, so he has to turn around to me to talk to me, and he for the entire flight back to Atlanta in excruciating detail and what felt like a booming voice told me and the entire flight just how much I had totally screwed up that deposition. Well, I got home and I recounted the events to my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I told him how I completely blown this thing, and he reminds me that at the end of this description I exclaimed to him, "But I thought I would be so good at this!" Well, I got better at it and thankfully that miserable deposition didn't define my career. I was better than that bad moment though not as good as I thought I would be.

That's going to happen to you, too. You're going to make mistakes. You're going to have mediocre moments and sometimes some outright blunders. You're going to be disappointed in your performance. And while I'm not suggesting to you that any of this is something to aspire to, you need to give yourself the space to learn from that, to not be defined by it.

You know lawyers aren't the only ones who are better than their worst moment as well. I've come to appreciate that over time about the individuals who I've prosecuted over the years.

You know, social justice and criminal justice don't exist on non-intersecting planes. Rather, every single day as a prosecutor, I saw how a generational lack of access to education and economic opportunity converged—or more accurately collided—with our criminal justice system every day.

As a society, we compound that when we fail to ensure that the thousands of individuals who are being released from prisons every single year across our country. We compound that when we fail to ensure that they have the basic tools they need to be successful when they're released. Everyone should have the opportunity to rise above his or her worst moment.


Second observation: you never know when a situation will present itself when you're going to have to decide who you are and what you stand for. The defining moments in our lives often don't come with advance warning. They can arise in scenarios we would have never expected, and they don't come sometimes with the luxury of a whole lot of time to go inside yourself for some serious introspection.

So how do you prepare for all of that? You're type-A people. I know that. You want to be prepared.

I had such an experience recently with the travel ban. As you heard, it's a tradition at the Department of Justice for the deputy attorney general to stay on during the transition between administrations, and that's for good reason. It's important to have continuity. And so I agreed to stay on as acting attorney general until President Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, could be confirmed.

It was supposed to be an uneventful time. We had agreed with the incoming team that while I was the acting attorney general things would stay just as they were. No positions of the Department of Justice would change. Everything would stay status quo.

Well, I was in the car on the way to the airport late in the afternoon of Friday, January 27 when I learned from media reports that the President had signed an executive order of restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Even though this was the very first we had heard of this, we were going to have to have DOJ lawyers in courts all over the country defending it within a matter of hours. And on Monday, I learned that we had to take a position at the Department on the constitutionality of the order.

This is not what I was expecting. My former chief of staff had jokingly told me that during the short time that I was acting AG, I'd have time for—and these are her words—"a lot of long, boozy lunches," as we expected that everything was going to be quiet during this time. But I can tell you, there wasn't time for lunches at all, boozy or otherwise.

Now don't worry. I'm not about to launch into an exhausting discussion of constitutional law or immigration law, and I appreciate that people of goodwill can have very different views, both on the legality of the order and what I should have done in this scenario. But I do think that it's illustrative of an unexpected moment when the law and conscience intersected and the decision had to be made in a very short period of time.

After reviewing the legal challenges and reading cases and in conferring with the DOJ lawyers, I came to the conclusion that defending the constitutionality of the travel ban would require the Department of Justice to argue that the executive order had nothing to do with religion, that it was not intended to disfavor Muslims, and this was despite the numerous prior statements that had been made by the President and his surrogates regarding his intent to effectuate a Muslim ban. I believed that this would require us to advance a pretext, a defense not grounded in truth, and so I directed the Department of Justice not to defend the ban.


I appreciate that some believe that I should have just resigned instead of ordering the Department not to defend the travel ban, and that's a fair question. I grappled with that all over the weekend and during the day on Monday. But I believed then and I believe now that resigning would have protected my personal integrity but it would not have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice is not… [applause] DOJ isn't just another law firm, and this wasn't just any legal issue. It was about the core, founding principle of religious freedom. And I couldn't in good conscience send DOJ lawyers into court to advance an argument that the travel ban was unrelated to religion when the evidence of intent reflected that that was not the case.

Now, there wasn't much time to examine the weighty constitutional law concepts that were implicated here, nor was there a lot of time to craft the directive that we ultimately issued to the Department, but I didn't make this decision just within the 72 hours from the time I learned of the ban until I issued the decision. That decision was the result of what others had taught me over my entire 27 years with the Department of Justice.

I drew on the lessons of mentors who while I was an AUSA who had instilled in me a reverence for the privilege of representing the people of the United States and upholding the law and the Constitution, from the judges who rightly expected DOJ lawyers to be held to a higher standard than lawyers representing private litigants—because after all we were the Department of Justice—and also from my interactions with people who I served, the people who had made clear time and again that they were looking to the Department of Justice to stay true to our founding principles and to protect people's rights.

That compass that's inside all of us, that guides us in times of challenge is being built every single day with every experience that we have, and I was fortunate to have learned from some inspiring people in my life who not only served as role models for me but challenged my assumptions and my way of thinking and helped to build my core.

Over the course of your life and your career, you too will face weighty decisions where the law and conscience intertwine. And while it may not play out in such a public way, the conflict that you'll feel will be no less real and the consequences of your decision also significant. The time for introspection is all along the way to develop a sense of who you are and what you stand for, because you never know when you're going to be called to answer that question.

The third observation: the safest course is not always the best course. Be bold.

Over the course of my legal career, I have encountered people who seem to always take the safest route, and this can manifest itself in a variety of ways. It's prosecutors who don't want to lose, so they won't bring the difficult, hard-to-prove case even though the individual is guilty and shouldn't get away with it. Private practice lawyers whose advice is generally that which is least likely to come back and blow up on them rather than what's necessarily best for the client. They put every possible argument in a brief, they put every piece of evidence in a trial, because they don't want to take the risk that they've left out something important even though their briefs and their trial presentations are less effective because of that. This is the person who reads which way the room is going before he or she speaks up, who never tells people in authority something that don't want to hear, who's in authority and just surrounds him or herself with people who will simply affirm their own judgement.

Now, this person can rock along pretty well, probably make partner in the firm, climb up the corporate or institutional ladder—but do you want to be that person? Would you find that a very satisfying way to live, much less to practice law?

From my perspective, you may be advancing your career by practicing law like this, but you're not doing your job. Doing your job means that you're not simply a reflection of someone else's values or opinions. You're the person to whom the leader turns when he or she needs to hear the truth. And I can tell you from my experience, both as deputy attorney general and as US attorney, I could only trust the advice of the people around me if I knew that they were willing to tell me when they thought I was wrong.

I'm not advocating being reckless or irresponsible, but from my perspective to fully embrace both life and practicing law you got to be willing to take a risk, to be uncomfortable, to be bold.

But taking a risk also means that you have to be willing to be wrong, and that can sometimes be a lonely place to be. But I hope that the fear of being wrong won't keep you from acting, because inaction, doing nothing or simply going along—well, that's a decision, too. And it seems that it's the times in my life when I haven't acted, that that's when I have regretted it the most.

Being willing to be wrong also requires that you're willing to own it. We're all wrong at times. It's going to happen to all of you as well, and there's nothing worse than the person who never wants to have his or her fingerprints on anything controversial and who will try to slip out of responsibility when things hit the fan. Not only does this generally not work very well, but if your colleagues sense that you're going to cut and run when things start going south, they're not going to trust you. And if they don't trust you, they're not going to include you in the big moments, in the moments you went to law school for.

Being bold, taking a risk and owning it isn't easy to do, and the instinct for self-preservation may continually draw you to the safe, risk-free course. But I urge you to resist that instinct. Not only is a life of hedging your bets unsatisfying, but it means you're unlikely to make much of a difference. You can either glide across the world or impact it. It's your choice.

Which brings me to my last point, which is actually a question, and that is what are you going to do with that diploma that you receive tomorrow?

When I ask you that question, I'm not asking you so much what your job is going to be. I'm asking you who you're going to be. Regardless of whether you go into private practice or public interest work, whether you're in the corporate world or academia, you're now a lawyer, and that means that you not only have the unique opportunity and ability but also the attendant responsibility to foster justice in this world, to reveal truth, to stand up for the voiceless, to hold our country to its promise of equal justice for all.

I believe that the people of this country care deeply about those values. They care about the rule of law, they care about our Constitution and the principles and freedoms on which our country was founded. And they are counting on you, the lawyers, to do what Bobby Kennedy said. And that is to breathe and force into the concepts of liberty and justice.

If you've ever doubted whether that was true, if you've ever doubted whether the American people really care about all that or not, just think back to that first weekend after the travel ban when protests erupted all over the country and thousands of people streamed to airports—East Coast, West Coast, big city, small town—all demonstrating about what they believed was an attack on our Constitution and our core values.

But lawyers streamed to the airports, too. Lawyers streamed there to represent people who were being turned away. And of course they weren't getting paid anything for it.

The most remarkable thing about that whole experience to me was that all of these people who were flooding the airports to protest or the lawyers who were showing up to represent individuals—for the most part they weren't personally impacted by the travel ban. Not them, not their family members, not their friends. It didn't impact them, yet they still felt compelled to act and to speak out.

An example of this was illustrated in a letter that I received. After I left DOJ, I got a letter from a couple in Oregon who had gone to the airport there with their with their young son to protest the travel ban, and they sent me a photograph of him—this little, bitty boy holding up a sign that said, "Immigrants and refugees, welcome." And they said that they did that because they wanted both their world and their son to know that as a country, that's who we are. That's what we stand for. [applause]

A friend of mine shared with me an old Irish story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and asks to be let in, and St. Peter says, "Of course. Just show me your scars." And the man says, "Scars? I have no scars." And St. Peter responds, "Pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?"

There's plenty worth fighting for. For me, it's criminal justice reform, so that we can have a fair and proportional criminal justice system that applies equally to all, regardless of race or wealth or status. [applause]

It's also respect for the brave and men and women and law enforcement who risk their lives every day to protect us. [applause]

It's holding accountable corporate executives who lie and cheat and steal, so that we can ensure that that just doesn't become the way of doing business. It's the right of all Americans to marry the person whom they love, regardless of whether that person is the same or an opposite sex. [applause]

And it's the rule of law and the principle that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be free to do their work free of political interference or intimidation. [applause]

Those are the things on my list. That's what I think is worth fighting for. But you've got to come up with your own list. You have to decide what you believe is worth fighting for.

Now, I'm not suggesting by this that all of you have to devote your entire career to public service or public interest work. Indeed, the students who are being recognized today, the students who did a thousand or two thousand hours of pro bono work—they did that on top of their job of going to law school. The lawyers who showed up at the airports to represent individuals after the travel ban—they weren't public servants in the typical sense of the word, in terms of being government employees.

Instead, all of these lawyers and lawyers-to-be recognized that they were people who were—in the words of your law school—moved to question, prepared to reason and called to act.

The arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, but it doesn't bend there on its own. And so I would urge you to grab hold of that arc and not let go, because the people of our country and indeed the entire world are counting on you.

Thank you again for the privilege of being able to join you today, and congratulations to the Class of 2017. [Applause]