Good morning, Pace! What a great way to start the day! This is an amazing, amazing honor.
Let me begin by thanking you for this morning. I want to say a very special thank you to the dean, to the president, to the Board of Trustees, to the professors. I am truly grateful and I am humbled to accept this honorary degree from Pace University. Thank you. [applause]
I also just want to say I am especially honored to receive this distinguished honor along with my sweetie, Bruce. So thank you, sweetheart.
You know, I was a law professor for many years, so this is not my first commencement. But if I go longer than 10 minutes it may be my last commencement, so let's just get right to it.
So to all of the graduates—you worked hard and we are here to celebrate your success. Congratulations to the class of 2023. [applause] You bet!
And yes, you have made it, but we know that without the love and the support of your family and your friends, this day would not be possible. So to all the parents, all the grandparents, all the family, friends and spouses and loved ones, for every auntie who sent a Zelle payment and for every uncle who hauled around boxes of stuff from one apartment to another—we salute you! [applause]
So graduates, this is a day for celebration. You have earned it. But I know that this is also a day that is tinged with sadness. I mean, this is it. For nearly all of you, there will be no more assignments, no more finals, no more term papers, no more classes, no more cutting classes, no more weekends that start late on a Wednesday and end sometime in the early hours of Monday. Now, real life is bearing down on you and you face the question, what comes next.
Now, one reason that I wanted to be here with you today is that I love the Haub School’s motto: Opportunitas. Opportunity. Says it all.
Pace has worked for generations to live up to that motto. The Elizabeth Haub School of Law has been right here for nearly 50 years, building out a world of opportunity for you. Your opportunities are expanded and strengthened by all that you have learned in the past three years.
You know—pause for just a minute—think about it this way: you, unlike most of what is referred to as the real world, you actually know the four elements of a tort: duty, breach, causation, damages. You know the special meaning of the word “consideration.” Hint: it is not about stifling a loud burp after you guzzle a beer. You know the difference between the pleading burden, the moving burden, and the burden of the risk of non-persuasion.
I'll bet you didn't know you would get a little bar review here this morning. But it's true and as scary as it may sound, you are now just one bar exam away from being real-live lawyers. One miserable exam away from being certified as the people who have the skills and the training to fight important fights and make real change in this world. [applause]
Now, you are very fortunate to graduate with a world-class education. And after three years at Pace, with a mandate to use your education and your training to serve your communities, to make structural change, and to create a fairer, more just, and more equitable society. You will graduate from this extraordinary law school with the tools you need to wage those battles and make those changes.
Which brings me to my graduation advice: be courageous. Be courageous. That means trust yourself. It means don't sell yourself short. Don't settle for work that you don't believe in. Don't assume you can't make a difference.
We are living in a time of great uncertainty and instability. Multiple pandemics have made clear that humanity itself is fragile. The wealth gap continues to grow, while greedy corporations pump filth into our air and pour poison into our water.
And if that reality wasn't enough, right now an army of corrupt legal minds are conspiring with hateful politicians across America to silence our voices, to steal our votes, and to deny us our freedoms. They want to attack trans people, give comfort to white supremacists, and declare themselves the ones to judge a woman's personal medical decisions. I say no. [cheers and applause]
Now I get it. That is a grim list to talk about on graduation day. But this list describes the world you are graduating into and the fights that are raging around you, and this is the world that needs you, the world that desperately needs you.
So be courageous. Don't turn away from the mountain of troubles we face. Don't back off from the fights. Step up find, out what you can do, and make the things you do really matter.
A law degree and particularly, this law degree, is a powerful tool and how you use it is entirely up to you.
I get it. You may choose to use it for personal profit, helping clients who are already rich and powerful get richer and more powerful. It is your life. These are your choices.
But I am here to respectfully ask you to consider other paths where the need is great. I ask you to consider those other paths precisely because you have so much to offer.
Armed with nothing more than a law degree—a law degree from a state school not very far from here—I discovered a million doors were open for me, and over time I became a teacher and a researcher and an expert witness. I wrote books and amicus briefs and statutes, and eventually I went to Washington. I got to work for President Obama. I got elected to the Senate. I even got to run for president.
And I'm not telling you that to show off. I'm telling you that because I want you to think of all the doors that are open to you. And know this—my list is small compared with all that is open to you and small compared with all that this world needs you to do.
So before you roll your eyes and think, “Oh please, you just don't know how hard it is today,” maybe. But I want you to know this—I was a first-gen student. I graduated from law school without a job. I hung out a shingle because I couldn't get anyone to hire me. Seven months later I got my first job working for someone else. It was part-time and temporary. I sometimes worked for free to get experience. The first case that I ever tried ended in a whopping judgment for $147.58. Your first one's always burned into your memory.
So I didn't leave my law school graduation thinking I was the Golden Child destined to change the world, but I did leave it with an appreciation for the power of a law degree combined with a willingness to wade into righteous fights.
And yeah, it was scary, and plenty of times I was in over my head. I got knocked on my butt many times and that wasn't just at the beginning. Shoot, I literally, literally got thrown off the floor of the United States Senate for trying to keep Jeff Sessions from becoming attorney general. That is my footnote in history [applause]. Oh, it gets better. The following year I ran for president and I watched as millions of people across this country voted for not me.
But every time I scramble back up, and that's why I say have courage. Trust yourself. Give it a try. The obvious path out of law school is a job that is steady, dependable and not scary. Law firms will pave a road from here to a nice office in a nice building in a nice area.
But think about doing something scary. Think about striking off on your own. Think about not following the expected path. Think about government service or non-profits or NGOs. Think about running for office. Think about doing a podcast or writing a column or otherwise becoming a part of our great national debates.
But most of all, think about taking a chance, about trying something different, about trying something big. Have courage. Take a risk, because our nation, our world needs you.
And have courage for another reason, because here is the most amazing part—for all that you'll give, for all that you risk, for all the scary stuff you take on, and even for all the failures that you will endure, you will receive far more than you will give.
In all the years since I sat right where you sit, with all the scary parts and all the frustrating parts and all the knocked-on-my-butt parts, every single day I have awakened every morning thinking about what I get to do today. Not what I have to do, but what I get to do. And that's been true on days I've won, it's been true on days I've lost, because every day I've known that I got to do work that matters.
I don't kid myself. I haven't solved every problem. I have owned up to a lot of mistakes. But I've stayed after it every day, persistently, and it is worth it.
So that's my advice—have courage. Courage, because life is fragile. Courage, because our nation needs you. Courage, because you will live a richer life, make your families proud, make your communities proud, make your teachers proud, make your dean proud—but most importantly make yourself proud.
Thank you. [applause]
Pace University. “Commencement 2023: Louis Armstrong Stadium Ceremonies.” YouTube video, 7:18:46. May 15, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrosTKxLRnA