Good afternoon. [audience responds, “Good afternoon.”] Thank you so much, Dean Fairfax, for that wonderful introduction. Thank you, President Burwell, the Board of Trustees, for the tremendous honor of being given an honorary degree.
It is a pleasure for me to be here with all of you today and to welcome the class of 2023 into the legal profession.
To all of the graduates—congratulations, you did it! [cheers and applause] You should be extremely proud of this huge accomplishment.
To all of the friends and family members who have encouraged and helped these graduates in large and small ways throughout their time in law school—congratulations to all of you as well.
Now I want you all to know that I consider having the chance to address the graduating class of the American University Washington College of Law to be very special as an invitation. As you might suspect, May is a very busy time at the Supreme Court and to be quite candid, I don’t know that I would have carved out the time to be here if it had not been for my pre-existing, long-standing relationship with Dean Fairfax and the excitement he’s been conveying to me over these past few months. [laughter]
Dean Fairfax is one of my dearest friends. We met in college and he’s married to one of my best friends and former roommates, and he’s been one of my professional champions and confidantes throughout my career, and I for him.
As you know, Dean Fairfax is a brilliant attorney, legal scholar and recognized leader in legal education and higher education, and he’s also respected throughout the profession and the academy. And among Dean Fairfax’s many talents, as those of you who’ve been fortunate enough to work with him know, is that he can be quite persuasive. [laughter] So when he turned to me and said, “Do this,” I said, “Yes, sir.” [laughter] And I’m truly delighted to be here with all of you on this wonderful occasion.
Twenty-seven years ago, I was sitting at my own law school graduation, trying to take it all in. I can’t quite recall what the commencement address was about or who even was the speaker, but I remember being so excited to enter the legal profession.
I’d been thinking about a career in law pretty much since the time I learned to read, because my father, who had been a public high school history teacher, went to law school when I was four years old and some of my earliest memories were of watching him studying, mastering the law and using the law as a vehicle for change.
I could not have known when I was sitting where you are know the incredible journey I would find myself on some two decades later, but I do remember studying very hard in law school, trying to understand all the new terms and concepts, and navigating spaces that were generally unfamiliar to me in so many ways.
So by the time of graduation, I was very eager to get to work, and get to work I did. You heard my basic biography and I won’t repeat it, but what you may not know is that my first job after law school was as a third-year summer associate at a law firm where I worked during the day during the summer and studied for the bar at night.
And on top of all of that, during the same span of time of all of the various things that were talked about, I was managing a personal life as well, as a wife to a wonderfully supportive but busy surgeon, as the mother of two daughters and a rescue dog.
When I think of all that has happened to me since I was in your shoes, I can only say that my life has been quite a whirlwind and it’s actually difficult for me to believe that I finally landed as a member of the Supreme Court. I still wake up some mornings, confused as to whether this is really happening to me or am I living in a dream. And even at this moment, where we are right now, it’s a bit surreal.
To be honest, I’m actually feeling a fair amount of pressure right now, given that this is my first commencement address as a Supreme Court justice.
Over the past few months, I found myself racking my brain for stories and insights that you might be able to relate to as new graduates and that might be helpful to you as you start out on your careers. And when you've lived as an eclectic a life as I have thus far, there are lots of possibilities. So in preparation for this, I stepped back and I looked deeply inside myself to try to figure out what to say.
And upon doing so, I realized exactly what it is that I wanted to talk to you about today—Survivor. [laughter]
Yes, that's right. When I say Survivor, I am indeed referring to the reality TV show where people are stranded on an island and compete to become the last person standing. And if you can believe it, that show has been running 23 years and is currently in its 44th season, and I am a Survivor super fan. [laughter]
I have seen every episode since the second season and I watch it with my husband and my daughters, even now, which I will admit, it's not easy to do with the demands of my day job but you have to set priorities, people. [laughter]
And that's exactly the first lesson that I have for you today.
As you leave this wonderful institution and embark on your careers, you will sometimes face difficult choices about how to spend your time as you balance work and family and all of the other things that are important in your life. But no matter how busy you get, you can and should find time for the things you love—and I love that show. [laughter]
Now, for those who are not familiar with Survivor, you really do need to have a basic understanding of what the show is about in order to be able to follow what I’m going to say, so bear with me while I quickly lay out the background premise.
Each season starts with 16 to 18 strangers—real people—who are brought together, randomly divided into teams called “tribes,” and whisked off, usually by boat, to a remote tropical location where each tribe has to find its own food and build its own shelter.
Now, the tribes are very diverse. Each one includes a variety of Americans of different ages, they come from different areas of the country, they have different backgrounds.
And in addition to finding ways to live together, they also compete against other tribes in challenges that test contestants’ physical ability, mental acuity, and endurance. It is great fun to watch.
And at the end of each episode, the losing tribe from the challenge gets together with the host at a meeting called the “tribal council,” where they hash out happenings about the challenges and camp life and then they vote one person off the island.
So someone gets voted off, week by week, which means that the overall body of contestants gets whittled down until there are just three people left. Those are the finalists, one of whom will win—get this—one million dollars. [laughter]
How does that happen? Well—this is important—the winner is chosen by the contestants who have been voted off. That’s right—when you’re out, you don’t just go away. The ousted contestants serve on a jury that watches tribal councils throughout the season, hears from the finalists at the end, and decides who deserves the title and the money.
All right, so now I’m sure that some of you had an “aha” moment during that description, and you’re thinking that the jury aspect of the show is why I chose Survivor as the theme of my speech at a law school graduation. But no, that’s not why I’m focusing on the show today.
Rather, I actually think that Survivor holds a number of broader lessons that are helpful for becoming a good lawyer, making the most out of the skills that you've learned here over the past few years.
So I've chosen that theme to highlight three Survivor-related lessons that I think are valuable for law and life.
Lesson number one: make the most of the resources that you have.
So earlier in my career, prior to my having become a judge, I had the honor of working as an assistant public defender in the District of Columbia, serving the community by handling appeals. I represented people who had been convicted of crimes and had the right to an appeal but could not afford a lawyer.
It was challenging work, as you can imagine, and among the many challenges was that criminal defense, the defense side of the case, seemed to be perpetually out-resourced when litigating against the government. Federal defenders are some of the most brilliant lawyers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, but as an office, the defense bar generally had less funding and less manpower than the prosecuting office bringing the case.
And at the appeals stage, you really are facing an uphill battle since the defense often has to show that mistakes not only occurred below but that they prejudiced the outcome.
What I learned from that experience and what I hope you’ll take away, is that whatever the status of your resources, you are enough. Yes, sometimes it will seem like the deck is stacked against you or others have an unfair advantage, but you've graduated from an outstanding law school that has given you all the skills and tools that you will need to thrive in whatever legal arena you enter. Whatever twists get thrown your way, know that you are prepared to roll with the punches and make the most of what you have. And with patience determination and grit—and creativity—you'll find a way.
Indeed, overcoming the inevitable challenges that lawyers face, whether it’s being under-resourced or having to make arguments despite unfavorable precedents, it’s not all that different than what the contestants on Survivor have to do—as I was reminded of, just this past season during one of the most epic episodes in recent memory, involving one of the most beloved contestants of all time.
Now, this contestant, Noelle, was a Division 1 lacrosse player who had lost her left leg in a moped accident in college. After being given a prosthetic leg, she went back to college and continued to play lacrosse. She then became a para-Olympian, she set a U.S. record in track and field, and on top of all of that she started a foundation to help children with amputated legs get prosthetics that they needed to run. So basically, Noelle was a force to be reckoned with well before she arrived on the island.
She was also a fierce competitor on the show, and her team routinely won challenges, thanks in no small part to her. But there was one challenge that proved to be quite difficult, and it is one that she has talked about a lot since.
In this particular episode, there was a balance beam challenge, and each individual player had to compete on their own. To set the stage, imagine a balance beam that is about this wide [holds hand apart about six inches] and it’s laid out over an extended course that zig-zigs, at an incline, and then drops down. Midway through the balance beam is a sandbag that is tied on to it, and at the end is a very tall pole.
Now the task was to get on the balance beam, proceed along, bend down, untie the sandbag—without falling off—continue walking on the beam until you reached the end, then hop off the beam and throw the sandbag up to the top, to get it to land on the top of the pole.
Most of the contestants traversed the balance beam quite quickly. They turned to the side, as if on a skateboard, sliding one foot along and then the other, and then ran down the beam at the end.
But Noelle had a really hard time fitting the blade of her prosthetic leg onto that beam. She tried hopping, she tried going sideways, she even tried crawling on her hands and knees across the beam. But each time, she fell off, and with every fall, she had to go back to the beginning and start again. The minutes went by as she kept getting a little farther but then falling off and having to start over, over, and over again.
And during this whole time, the other contestants were down at the end. They’d effortlessly run across the beam, and they were throwing their sandbags up on the pole, each time getting closer and closer to having it land on top and winning the whole thing.
Despite the difficulty, Noelle took her time, kept her composure, and somehow, someway, she eventually stepped and hopped at just the right angle to get across to the other side of the beam. And then she landed her sandbag on top of the pole after just a few tries, and she won the entire challenge. It was incredible!
Now, none of the odds that I personally have faced thus far in my career have been that daunting, thanks in no small part to the civil rights era trailblazers who opened doors for me and my generation. But I do know what it is like to commit to moving forward even when the deck is stacked against you.
When I represented indigent defendants, rather than spending my time focusing on the government’s advantage or worrying about my difficulty of succeeding on appeal, I kept my composure, put my head down, and figured out how I could combine the facts and issues and case law in a way that might work to my client’s advantage. I put forward maximum effort and made the most creative and persuasive arguments I could, and sometimes those arguments landed exactly as I hoped.
So my advice to you is to do your best to shut out distractions. Use your time wisely and figure out how to make the most of what you have. If you can do that, you will increase your odds of success in law and life, even if it seems like others have a significant head start.
Lesson number two: know your strengths.
In addition to doing the most with what you have, I also think it's critical to know what you can do. That is, what are the particular strengths and interests that you bring to the table and can leverage as you build and shape your legal career.
As your particular strengths are yours, they might not necessarily look like other people’s.
In the law there are lots of stereotypes about what makes for a good lawyer. For example, people think that good trial lawyers have to be gregarious and combative, or that great oral advocates are those who can speak in full paragraphs off the top of their heads without missing a beat.
But as you'll soon find out, there are many ways to excel in the legal profession and you do not need to become someone you are not. You do you. Lean into your personal strengths and use them to get you where you want to go.
This lesson was brought home most clearly to me when I transitioned from working as an appellate lawyer to becoming a trial judge. Those roles are very different and they require very different skills sets, and at times I felt really out of my element. My expertise was in criminal appellate law, and most of the work that I was assigned to as a trial judge was civil and it involved presiding over trials.
But as a former member of my high school speech and debate team, I knew my personal fortes included communicating orally, marshalling facts and arguments in real time, and explaining things in a way that people can readily understand.
So I brought those skills to bear as I settled into my new role. I held hearings whenever I could to figure out what the parties were arguing and why they were making the particular claims at issue. I re-read the rules of evidence before every trial so I could quickly think on my feet and rule on objections from the bench. And I made it a practice to write my opinions in a way that litigants before me and the broader public could comprehend.
And upon reflection, I can now see that I was playing to my strengths in those early days in a manner that was similar to the way in which one of my favorite characters in the game of Survivor plays.
This contestant, Cirie, is a mother of three who arrived on the island initially—the first of four times she’s been on the show—as a self-described couch potato. She was from the city, she had no particular affinity for the great outdoors, she was even nervous about touching leaves on the ground because she was afraid of what might be underneath them.
So to put it mildly, she was not an especially strong physical threat in the challenges to start. But she nevertheless became one of the most successful contestants ever to play the game, because she used what she did have, which was extraordinary social and emotional intelligence.
She watched. She listened. She observed the social dynamics of her own tribe and the others in a way that no-one else could, and that enabled her to gather important information. And because she was so empathetic, all of the other contestants really liked her and she earned everyone’s trust, which she ultimately used to her own advantage when proceeding as the game requires.
Even today, Cirie is credited with making some of the most significant moves ever, including saving herself by persuading her teammates to vote out the physically strongest woman, even though strong players are generally considered very valuable.
So the lesson you should draw from this is to know your strengths and to use them to make your mark.
Cirie never tried to fit the typical Survivor mold. She did not attempt to become a master of the outdoors and she didn’t get hung up on the fact that she was not as physically imposing as the rest. Instead, she knew what worked for her—her style and her expertise—and by staying true to her herself, she knew she could make it through to the end.
That brings me to the third and final lesson: play the long game.
You've probably gleaned from what I've already explained that there are different kinds of players in the game of Survivor. Some are physically dominant players who get to the end by winning immunity in every challenge, while others go far by plugging into and managing social dynamics. But whatever differences the contestants have, what the audience quickly realizes is that they all have to live and work together in order to make it to the end.
Survivor is not an individual game. The contestants need each other for food, for shelter, for challenges, for support, so they really have to find a way to get along. And season after season, the players who tend to do really well are those who appear to come in with the understanding that this game is about existing both in community and conflict, and understanding that helps them to have the right mindset to withstand the isolation, deprivation, and stress to which they are all being subjected.
Devoted audiences can almost pick them out early, the players who will go far. They’re the ones who build alliances—that is, they try to get to know players on a social level, almost immediately gaining friends who will have each other’s backs as the game progresses. They choose optimism, lifting the spirits of the other tribe members no matter what happens. They try to stay as even-keeled as possible, not getting too carried away by dramatic wins or heart-breaking losses. And no matter how tense or difficult a particular situation between tribe members can become, the best players always find a way to resolve it as amicably as possible. They never burn bridges with anyone.
As lawyers, you have chosen a profession that similarly exists at the intersection of community and conflict. It is an exciting place to be and if you choose to join the practicing tribe, you will have important work to do. You will need to build alliances, stay optimistic, remain level-headed. You will have to disagree without being disagreeable. And it will be important to see things from others’ perspectives and to work hard to keep everyone on board.
As each ultimate Survivor can attest, it is the bridges that you build to connect with other people that will sustain you in the long run.
I can attest to that, as well. When I was in your seats as a new graduate, I knew that a number of exciting career opportunities were waiting for me out in the real world. But I could never have imagined at that point in time that I would be where I am today.
It is common knowledge that I'm the first African American female to ever serve on the Supreme Court. But I was also one of only a few black women in other roles that I had along the way. I was only the 40th African American female to be appointed to the federal district court and the ninth African American woman to be appointed to the federal circuit court.
If you find yourself in a situation like that down the line, remember—you are not alone. We are always in community. All of us—the friends you made in law school, the family members who supported you, the mentors who inspired you, all of those with whom you found connection both inside and outside the workplace are your tribe. Connect with them throughout the journey and they will help you find your way.
I will end with one of my favorite recurring parts of Survivor. It is something that occurs several times in every episode. At the start of each challenge, the host holds up one hand in the air and the other he holds down by his side, and he says, “Survivors ready? Go!” [laughter]
That dynamic charge which gets things up and running is the key part of the message that I hope to leave with you today.
You are ready.
You've been trained at one of the nation's great law schools in the heart of our nation's capital. If you make the most of the resources you have, use your strengths to make your mark and play the long game in your interactions with others, you will not only survive you will thrive—and not only now at the start of your career but for the rest of your professional lives.
Class of 2023, welcome to the legal profession. I wish you all an enjoyable, engaging and fulfilling time in our shared profession. There is a lot to celebrate today and much excitement in store for you in the future. Congratulations again, go forth, and be well. [applause]
American University Washington College of Law. 2023. “AU 2023 Commencement KBJ Speech.” [Video] May 20. https://vimeo.com/828633341/a1d2b95d47?share=copy