To the Boston College Law School
August 31, 2004
I am delighted to be here with you, and to be in a room full of so much energy.
And you should be energetic: today you launch your professional career, and
begin the important next phase of your life’s journey.
I remember how I felt at my law school graduation here thirty-two years ago,
where you will be in three short years. And I remember how anxious I was about
the next stage of my life, knowing that I loved the law, but not sure where
it would lead me. I remember that worry, and I imagine that some of you feel
it now. But standing here on this side of the lectern I see things a bit differently.
In this room I see the hope, and the promise, and the joy, of the future.
You have reasons to be joyful. You are now part of a profession that, depending
on the choices you make, can give you great fulfillment and satisfaction. Without
a doubt, you will be in a position to influence the lives of countless people,
and the direction of your country.
During your professional career you will work on hundreds of cases. They will
earn money for you. For some of you, a great deal of money. And that will give
you a certain power and freedom. But if affluence and power are all you seek,
and all you gain, I believe that you will not find much joy in our profession.
Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J., was Dean of this law school when I attended.
Over the years he has been a close friend, trusted adviser, and inspiration
to me. Three weeks ago he was presented the ABA’s highest award, the ABA
Medal, given for a lifetime of dedication to public service. During his career
Father Drinan has served as a law school professor, Dean, author, Congressman,
diplomat, legal scholar, international human rights activist, and respected
ABA leader. He has always viewed the law as an engine for social justice, and
he is for me the embodiment of the lawyer as public servant.
In his eloquent acceptance remarks Father Drinan reminded the hundreds of lawyers
from throughout America in the audience that the lawyer’s noble mission
was defined 1700 years before Christ, in the opening paragraph of the first
written code of the law in the world, written by Hammurabi: “the purpose
of the law is to protect the powerless from the powerful.”
I believe that the purpose of being a lawyer today – almost 4000 years
after Hammurabi’s code – continues to be protecting the powerless
from the powerful. The joy of being a lawyer comes from using your legal training
to help human beings in need, and to help improve society for the benefit of
all, regardless of their economic or social status. The joy comes from doing
well, but also doing good.
As you heard in Dean Garvey’s introduction, I became president-elect of
the world’s largest professional organization, the American Bar Association,
at our annual meeting three weeks ago in Atlanta. The ABA is comprised of more
than 405,000 lawyers, judges and associate members from all across the country
and around the world.
We represent all aspects of the legal profession: business and trial lawyers,
prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges, law professors and law students.
And we have a responsibility – one that we take very seriously –
to uphold the rule of law and insure the fair administration of justice. The
ABA’s motto is “Defending Liberty and Pursuing Justice.”
The ABA was formed in 1878 in by 100 lawyers from 21 states who saw the need
for a national bar association that would serve as the voice of the profession,
and that would establish standards for legal education, lawyer and judicial
codes of ethics, and promote public service.
Today, the stated mission of the ABA is “to be the national representative
of the legal profession, serving the public and the profession by promoting
justice, professional excellence and respect for the law.” Goal X of the
ABA specifically is to “preserve and enhance the ideals of the legal profession
… and its dedication to public service.”
Let me step back for a moment and tell you a little about my own journey.
I was born in Europe, came to this country at the age of seven from a small
village in southern Italy, and grew up in a village in Illinois, near my mother’s
birthplace, where I received an excellent public school education. After graduating
from high school, I attended Princeton University on an academic scholarship.
After Princeton, I was a high school English teacher for several enjoyable years,
including two years at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and then came
to Boston thirty-five years ago, to this great law school, for my legal education.
Following a clerkship on the 2d Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, and a
Fellowship in Italy at the University of Florence Law School, I have practiced
and lived in Boston ever since.
I became a trial lawyer 32 years ago, spending the first 30 years with the outstanding,
former Boston firm of Hill & Barlow, and now with the great firm of Kirkpatrick
& Lockhart --- firms that I joined not only because of their commitment
to excellence, but because of their commitment to public service.
I tell you these things for a reason: because as someone born in Europe, as
an immigrant to this country, I know first-hand the true meaning of that eloquent
promise, “equal opportunity for all in America”, and I have deeply
cherished the opportunities for growth and freedom that I’ve been afforded.
From personal experience, I can tell you how important it is that every young
person in America be given the opportunity to work hard, to develop his or her
abilities, and to contribute to this great nation. And as a lawyer I will continue
to do—and I ask you to join me in doing – everything possible to
help ensure that the promise of “equal opportunity for all” is a
promise kept, for everyone in America, regardless of color, gender, race, national
origin, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.
I love and respect our profession. I have found great joy and satisfaction in
being a trial lawyer. The true joy has come from the sense of fulfillment that
I’ve had from representing those who cannot protect themselves, and from
taking on just causes.
The first pro bono case I worked on at Hill & Barlow as a first-year associate
was a class action lawsuit brought against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
on behalf of hundreds of mentally retarded young people living in substandard,
and even inhumane, conditions in state-operated institutions. I came to know
many of those young people, and their families, and to feel their suffering.
It took many years to conclude that case, but the result was substantial. In
the end the Commonwealth entered into a consent decree requiring it to expend
millions of dollars to vastly upgrade the living conditions in those institutions,
and to provide a higher standard of care and attention to the residents.
The result gave all of us on the legal team the great feeling that we had positively
influenced many lives – that we had helped people who were powerless to
protect themselves. For me that was the first of numerous public interest causes
that I have been involved with during the past thirty-two years. Those cases
have been an important counterbalance in my very busy trial practice on behalf
of paying clients of the firm.
Three years from now, you will raise your hand and take the lawyer’s oath.
The oath includes:
- Undertaking representation of the oppressed, the defenseless, the dis-empowered
and the just cause, without regard for considerations personal to yourself;
- Upholding the rule of law.
I say to you today, and I ask you never to forget, that public service is a
vital part of your career in the legal profession. Public service is what defines
the lawyer’s role in society, and what sets us apart from every other
You and I are fortunate, because being a lawyer is not just a job. It is a noble
calling, a way of life. To know the law is to understand how to make our communities,
our country and our world better through its proper application. To practice
law properly is to engage in public service of the highest order.
President Woodrow Wilson reminded us that there is “No higher religion
than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”
But let me share with you what a young graduate of George Washington University
National Law Center wrote recently about the mindset today on the part of many
in our law schools, and bear with me because the quote is a bit long:
Throughout history, ‘lawyers’ have not solely been mouthpieces who
stand up in court and argue for anyone who will pay them to do so. Lawyers have
been writers and politicians, entrepreneurs and activists, teachers and parents.
Yet we do not learn about these lawyers’ lives in law school. In law school,
we learn that in order to be worthwhile, we have to try to make it into the
biggest, highest paying, and most ‘prestigious’ firm that will take
us. To do anything else is to fail. We buy into this myth and structure our
lives around it. In doing this, we perpetuate the public image of lawyers as
money-hungry slobs. We fail to serve those who need our bright minds. Most importantly
we betray ourselves, our true dreams, talents, and interests.
I believe it is time that we change that mindset, and that we rekindle, and
nourish, and preserve, and celebrate, the idealism that leads us to choose law
as a career.
During the coming year I will be planning the initiatives and programs that
I will seek to implement as ABA President a year from now. My major initiative,
which I believe is now the most pressing priority for our profession, particularly
for the young lawyers of America, is what I call a “renaissance of idealism”
in our profession.
You may find several years from now, as other recent law school graduates have
found, that law firm demands on your time and economic pressures may make it
difficult for you to engage in public service. If that comes to pass I want
you to recall what I say to you today: the lawyer who contributes to the public
good is a fulfilled, complete lawyer, and one who is truly a “professional.”
A healthy society is made up of people who care about fellow human beings, and
about the future, who contribute to society’s development for the common
good, who reject the “me” culture in favor of President John F.
Kennedy’s “…ask what you can do for your country” philosophy.
As lawyers, we are in a better position than anyone else to do just that.
Lawyers are in a position—especially in this challenging post-9/11 era—to
protect the ideals that have defined America to the freedom-loving nations of
the world. Lawyers are the true guardians of the Bill of Rights, and of civil
liberties, and the American people look to us to protect their constitutional
rights. If we do not do so, no one else will.
It is the lawyer who can make the world a better place. And so we bear a heavy
responsibility to the people, and to our nation. That responsibility to the
public, and to the administration of justice in America, is at the heart of
the oath that we take as lawyers.
Just last year the American Film Institute published a list of the 100 greatest
movie heroes of all time. The list included many of the usual suspects, action
heroes portrayed by Arnold Schwarznegger and Bruce Willis. But the number one
movie hero of all time was Atticus Finch, the dedicated and noble lawyer of
To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, the greatest hero of all time in film is a lawyer.
Atticus Finch – the lawyer as public servant.
I believe that public service, which can take many different forms – from
representing a pro bono indigent client to service on a non-profit or community
board --offers the possibility of making each of us a better lawyer as well
as a better person. By offering our time and talent to an organization or to
an individual whose path we may not regularly cross, we not only improve our
legal skills, but more importantly, we expand our own horizons.
We all know of great lawyers who were public servants on a grand scale: Thomas
Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and the list
But, think of those great lawyers about whom we don’t often hear. For
- lawyers who are public officials, and who, through considerable risk and
sacrifice, have changed the world;
- labor and union lawyers who won victories for workers in this country; and
- the tens of thousands of lawyers who work every day, every hour, in every
community in America, without recognition or fanfare as they protect those
in society who are most in need.
Yes, it is more difficult today for lawyers to find time to engage in public
service than it was when I became a lawyer. Requirements for billable hours
in law offices have increased, and so has the debt that now heavily burdens
law school graduates. These are pressing issues that we must address, and that
I intend to address as President of the American Bar Association.
Those of us in a position of influence -- such as the leaders of the bar, of
universities, law schools, and business – will help me make the case –
as we can and must do – to all legal employers, and to solo and small
firm practitioners throughout the country, that we need to change the way we
now practice law, for the greater fulfillment of lawyers, for the good of the
profession, and for the benefit of the American people.
With the help of those respected leaders throughout society, we will set forth
the compelling reasons, including reasons that are in the law firms’ own
interest, as to why time must be freed up for lawyers who want to engage in
public service while they pursue careers at their firms. And we must provide
financial relief to new law school graduates who want to pursue a career of
service in the public sector but who face prohibitively heavy educational loan
I will appoint an ABA Commission to consider these issues, and to develop practical
solutions that can be implemented in our law offices, businesses, universities
and law schools. This is a dialogue that all of us must engage in.
I believe firmly that the health, and the future, of our profession depend on
reinvigorating, nourishing and preserving the role of the lawyer as public servant
I hope that in time you will be part of the renaissance of idealism in our profession
that I will ask the ABA and its 405,000 members, particularly the young lawyers,
Meanwhile, as you embark on your wonderful journey, I ask that you never abandon
your idealism. Reach out with your legal skills to those who are less fortunate.
Help them. Protect them. Never forget why you became a lawyer. Your career,
your development as a human being, and our country depend on it.
I conclude with these concrete suggestions:
- Check out and join the ABA Law Student Division by visiting the ABA website
– abanet.org -- and get involved in ABA policy-making on issues that
have a direct impact on you, such as our law student loan forgiveness program.
- Participate in the work of a legal aid clinic during your law school years.
- Consider public service employment next summer.
- And, most important: during the next three years work hard, but also find
time to enjoy yourself.
I welcome you to our profession. I hope very much that as a lawyer you will
do well – and, equally important, that you will do good.
You have my best wishes.