Kamala Harris

UCLA Law School Commencement Address - May 13, 2009

Kamala Harris
May 13, 2009— Los Angeles, California
Print friendly

Dean Schill, distinguished faculty and staff,

Families and loved ones,

And last but not least, to the UCLA Law School Class of 2009...I’m so pleased to say, you did it!

There is no doubt it was a team effort, involving your family and your friends, Gilbert’s Outlines, and of course, mass quantities of Red Bull!

Graduates, continue to keep all of them around you, especially the Gilbert’s and Red Bull.

They’ll get you through the next phase – the Bar Exam!

And I promise you will pass the Bar!

So folks, I think it is only appropriate to begin this afternoon by acknowledging the elephant in the middle of the room.

It’s undeniable.

The world is in a very different place today than it was the day you applied to law school. This is the first class to graduate since the economic crisis hit, and I know these are anxious times for graduates and their families.

I know that some of you students have seen offers revoked and start dates deferred. I know some are still trying to find jobs.

There’s something else I know. I know you’ll make it. Each and every one of you.

And how can I be so sure?

You graduates not only represent one of the finest collections of legal talent anywhere,

You are part of the generation that changed the history of our country and the history of the world by making Barack Obama President of the United States!

I can’t wait to see what you do for an encore!

Graduates, it’s been three wonderfully excruciating years, and the years have no doubt transformed you. No doubt you’re different today, and we couldn’t be more proud.

As you know from your studies, the legal community has always functioned as a sort of brotherhood and sisterhood.

With this diploma, you’re now a lawyer. You’re one of us now!

This is bigger than you. You’re now part of a larger fabric, a continuum of thinkers and doers stretching back to the earliest days of common law.

And when we remember this history, we’ll also remember that the law was traditionally a trade profession – a profession where you learned on the job in apprenticeship with an experienced practitioner of the art.

By the very evolution of our profession, we know that to be a lawyer is to be a teacher – and a student – your entire life.

Graduates, I come here today with a humble spirit hoping to offer a little wisdom based on 18 years on the job as a courtroom prosecutor.

I believe it all starts with the basic lesson of every law class you ever took.

We were taught that the law fundamentally exists to protect the voiceless and the vulnerable. Indeed, the law is our democracy’s most powerful tool – and often, the only available remedy.

This has always been the case…from the industrial revolution to the wireless age…across millions of individual actions in thousands of courtrooms, the day-in, day-out work of legal professionals has always been a guiding hand urging our nation closer to the light.

So, I say let the late night comedians have their lawyer jokes! We know better.

We know that it was an assortment of lawyers who gathered on a summer day in Philadelphia to assert a nation’s independence based on a universal declaration of human equality.

We know it was the work of lawyers that broke Jim Crow.

And over four centuries of case law, from labor to torts to the environment to civil rights, it’s been lawyers who’ve animated our values by insisting we live by the letter of our words and the spirit of our ideals.

As lawyers we understand that our unique role confers a special responsibility.

As lawyers, we are officers of the court, and we all have an obligation to serve.

And graduates, this why, when we step into a court of law, we must conduct ourselves with reverence. Because a courtroom is sacred ground. Life-changing decisions are made with grinding regularity every day in courtrooms around the country. Whatever the stakes, whatever the nature of the proceeding, whatever the underlying cause of action, we should always recognize that even the smallest case is of global consequence to the human beings involved.

Here’s the basic lesson I think you’ll need to carry with you every day. In the end, when it’s all said and done, all we lawyers have of value is our reputation.

Sure, we can make money. We can acquire fame. We can win awards. We can read our names in the legal journals. But what matters at the end of the day is your name.

A reputation for preparation. A reputation for fairness. A reputation for good judgment. And above all, a reputation for keeping your word.

You know, this won’t always be easy.

In fact, scientists have studied us – we lawyers. Years ago, an endocrinologist put our profession under the microscope, and he found that lawyers have more testosterone than practically anybody else. That explains everything, doesn’t it?!

I see heads nodding up and down. Families, you know what I’m talking about. And as an aside, let me warn you:

It can be challenging to live with a lawyer. I’m sure you were challenged living with a law student – I know it’s not easy to be cross-examined before you’ve even made your coffee run in the morning.

We lawyers are intense. We can be stubborn. We are fighters. We are competitive by our very nature. And so, graduates I will warn you:

When you are in the adversarial environment of our profession, it is possible to get seduced.

You can get seduced into believing what matters most is winning.

But we know better. We know that what matters most is what you’re winning for.

In my area of law, we often say a good prosecutor wins convictions. A great prosecutor has convictions.

Growing up, my heroes were the great civil rights lawyers. Thurgood Marshall. Charles Hamilton Houston. Constance Baker Motley. And from where I sat, growing up in an apartment on the other side of the railroad tracks in the flats of Berkeley and Oakland – safety was among the most important civil rights issues people faced.

And I knew that the people most likely to get preyed on and exploited are our society’s most vulnerable. Immigrants. Women. Poor people. The homeless. The very people who are all too often the subject of hate crimes.

I’ll tell you something else about the neighborhood where I grew up. There was a richness of conscience. People looked out for each other. Neighbors cared about what was going on up and down the block. And safety was a community value. This had a deep impact on my view of the law.

And it must have been in law school when I made the obvious connection between civil rights and public safety. I noticed when we file a criminal complaint, we don’t write the name of the victim versus the name of the defendant. We write “The People” versus the defendant.

In fact, it’s a point I often make to victims. “The People” means all of us. It means that when someone commits a crime against any one of us, it is a crime against all of us. We say the community is harmed when you are harmed.

It was twenty years ago that I graduated from Hastings, your sister campus in San Francisco. I went home to Alameda County, and I joined the very office once headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren. I always loved the symmetry of this circle.

Here I was, a product of the second class that had integrated Berkeley public elementary schools. And thanks to Earl Warren -- the very lawyer who courageously wrote for a unanimous majority in Brown v. the Board of Education, I now had a desk in the DA’s office.

And I’ll tell you: Deciding to become a prosecutor is one of the best decisions I ever made. And it’s been a deeply rewarding eighteen years. I’ve sat with more victims than I could possibly count or name. And I can tell you, having sat with so many crime victims over so many years, there is a profound solace that comes with justice.

When we “The People” give a voiceless victim of child sexual assault, senior abuse, mortgage fraud, or violent crime the consolation of justice, we make the statement that in our society nobody is alone.

And graduates, I know you’re entering a challenging environment. But I’d like you to think about this great Chinese proverb that fits the times. It goes like this: "A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind."

So, if the storms of this global economic crisis are all around us, we should see: so too are the opportunities for talented young lawyers like you to ride the wind – through both public and private practice.

Don’t you get blown over. Ride the wind. See the opportunity. And remember that historically in times of crisis, this is what lawyers have always done. Your country needs you.

We need litigators to stand up for consumers and investors against the wave of corporate greed that has plunged us into the worst economic crisis in 80 years!

We need banking lawyers to save our mortgage and financial industries.

We need prosecutors who will keep our communities safe.

We need public defenders giving legal voice to the poor.

We need environmental lawyers who will write the rules that will reduce global warming.

We need entertainment lawyers to be passionate advocates for the First Amendment’s unbridled protection of artistic expression.

We need civil rights lawyers who will make marriage equality the law of the land.

And, ladies and gentlemen, we need to stand together, as a legal community – new lawyers and old – to ensure that the practice of torture never happens again…not in these United States of America!

I want to leave you with a little advice. It’s the same advice I give every junior prosecutor on their first day when they start working in my office.

I tell them when you open a new case file for the first time, what you really need to do is open your eyes. Give the case your undivided concentration!

And when you’re doing that, have a legal pad right next to you. Write down every thought that occurs to you as it occurs to you. Because I can tell you from years of late nights preparing for trial, there is a special quality to the cognitive light that is only visible with new eyes.

By the time you get trial, you will have spent hundreds – even thousands – of hours poring over that file. You’ll lug it around in your briefcase. You’ll dream about the facts. You’ll find yourself mulling the testimony as you go fumbling for a drink of water at three o’clock in the morning. But you will never again, in the life of that case, see it the way you saw it…when you saw it for the first time.

Graduates, the file today is the possibilities in front of us. It’s time to open the file. See your future with fresh eyes. Write down what you see. Write down every ambition. Every dream. Everything you want to be and do and why.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the mad rush, in the rush of working hard…in the scramble up that learning curve...in the fight for that big first promotion…it’s easy to lose that original clarity of vision and purpose.

Write down what you see. Keep it with you. Keep it close. Always remember why you became a lawyer.

Class of 2009, you’ve spent three years among the books. And now it is your time to write the next chapter.

We’ll be watching you. And we will be applauding the whole way!

Congratulations one and all!

Part II of the speech can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELHGeuiGG2k