Ketanji Brown Jackson

University of Pennsylvania Law School Commencement Address - May 17, 2021

Ketanji Brown Jackson
May 17, 2021— Virtual
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Jackson delivered this address for a virtual commencement ceremony.

Hello, University of Pennsylvania Law School class of 2021. I am delighted to be able to offer my warmest congratulations to you.

As graduates, you've worked really hard to get to this point in your professional journey and I hope that you'll be able to do something fun in celebration of this great achievement. Your graduation from law school is a milestone and it is also a huge accomplishment, especially during this extremely challenging year.

I'm sure that when you accepted the offer of admission to come to the University of Pennsylvania to study law, this is probably not at all how you imagined your eventual graduation day would be. We have all been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, but I am acutely aware of the difficult circumstances that you have faced as a student in particular during this extraordinary time.

One of my daughters was a freshman in college this year, and she took all of her classes online from home, which could not be more different than the typical college experience. She was certainly grateful to be able to continue her studies during a time in which there was literally nothing else to do, but she was also deeply disappointed that her entry into college was so dramatically different than what she had hoped for and expected.

So I know that your last year as a graduate student was not at all what you thought it would be, and that's really hard.

But as I've said to my daughter, I hope that you will one day be able to recognize and appreciate one aspect of this experience and it is this: this past year has provided you with a relatively unique opportunity to demonstrate your own capacity for resilience at an early point in your professional journey, and that is an important realization, both in legal practice and in life.

Think about it for a second. However you handled coursework and classes and exams and interactions with students and professors prior to 2019, once the law school pivoted as a result of COVID- 19 and you had to adapt quickly to dramatically changed and unexpected circumstances, you fundamentally altered the way in which you studied and processed and learned. And not only did you make that change, but we're here today because you ultimately thrived.

Sure, your predecessors had their own challenges. You know, they had to walk to school during Snowmageddon, uphill both ways. But you were able to complete your legal studies and earn a professional degree in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

So in addition to being able to play the ultimate storytelling trump card, tell me—what can possibly stop you now? The bar exam? A less than robust job market? Unreasonable filing deadlines set by an overworked and cranky judge?

Believe me, if you can shift your mindset and transform the way in which you absorb nuanced legal information basically on a dime, you can do anything.

So more than anything, I hope that the fact that you've now faced extraordinary and unexpected challenges and triumphed has given you the confidence to do hard things.

And of course your well-earned confidence in your own abilities also necessarily carries with it certain responsibilities. Adaptability is your new superpower, but what will you do with it? That is, how will you direct your time and talents moving forward?

Let me start to provide a potential answer, because one of the things that we've all observed over this past year is that the United States of America has many resources but it also has many needs, including the need for skilled lawyers who can defend the rule of law and promote access to justice. As you head out into the professional world, I sincerely hope that you will keep both of these responsibilities in mind.

On the rule of law front, you've now all been trained regarding core constitutional values, and if you intend to practice law you will be required to take an oath affirming those principles. That is a solemn pledge, and once you've taken it, it will be your obligation to ensure that your practice conforms to the highest standards of ethics of our profession, including honesty, character and fidelity to the principles that animate our constitution and our justice system, no matter what arguments you're making or whom you represent.

Practicing lawyers are also obligated to ensure that every member of society has access to justice.

As recent graduates and new practicing lawyers, there will come a time when you're asked to take on clients who may not be able to pay for your services and you might even be called upon to represent indigent individuals who are unpopular or who have been accused of committing crimes.

When that opportunity arises, please take it. The rule of law to which we are all committed cannot flourish unless the legal system is fair and open to all, and that means everyone is entitled to have effective representation.

Pro bono legal service is both a good skill-building opportunity and a high calling, because our justice system can only function properly if talented lawyers like you step up and do the work of representing people who do not have financial means with just as much zeal as the work that is done for paying clients.

This duty always reminds me of the front facade of the Supreme Court. You may have seen it in person or in pictures. And of all the things that could have been engraved above the front door of our highest legal authority, what is there? Standing alone are four words—equal justice under law. That is a stark reminder that equality is a critical component of our justice system and that lawyers are the primary protectors of that core constitutional value.

In short, I urge you to remember that ensuring access to justice for all through pro bono service is both a privilege and a duty, and I know that you will always act in accordance with the highest ethical standards as is necessary to support and defend the rule of law.

There will be plenty of time to put these principles into action as you chart your professional course, and I'm sure that your resilience skills will serve you well in the months to come.

In the meantime, I hope you will take pride in what you've already accomplished and to that end let me thank your friends and family for all of the support that made this day possible and once again express my sincerest congratulations to you for a job well done.

The future is yours. Good luck and be well.