Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, marveled on Friday at the rich real-world experiences this year’s law school graduates have gained at Northeastern. From providing legal assistance to communities in need through the school’s clinics to engaging in global co-ops across six continents, she said graduates have fought for refugees’ rights and worked for environmental organizations.
Richards—a globally recognized and respected leader for women’s health and reproductive rights—said Northeastern is where law students come to study to make a difference in the world, and there’s no time to waste.
“You may already actually be the smartest graduates this year in America having figured out, somehow, three years ago that getting a law degree for social change would turn out to be the hottest commodity of 2017,” Richards said in her commencement address to graduates. “Talk about right place, right time. This country has never needed smart, creative lawyers more than we do right now. So welcome to the resistance, my friends.”
To make the most of their law education, Richards urged graduates to think like an organizer—“we’ve got to be as committed to fighting in the streets as we are to fighting in the courtrooms”—and noted that “we only get the justice we fight for.” Working for social change and justice, she added, is a path toward living a fulfilling life. “It’s all I’ve ever done and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said.
Throughout the day, the nearly 200 graduates gathered in Northeastern’s Matthews Arena celebrated their classmates’ many achievements and heard inspiring remarks from university leaders, faculty, and peers.
Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law, also underscored that graduates’ practical experience gained at Northeastern has prepared them to think and act like lawyers. He noted that graduates earning juris doctor degrees have collectively performed 211,000 hours of legal work at a combined 550 co-op placements. What’s more, 83 percent of those students did at least one public interest co-op. “Your clients or the organizations you serve will count on you to help them navigate the laws,” he said, “and you will do them proud.”
“This country has never needed smart, creative lawyers more than we do right now.”
Paul said graduates will have many opportunities to do well in their careers—and do good. He said they graduate at a time of great political polarization and when many longstanding norms have been shattered. He called upon them to weave justice into the fabric of everyday life.
“My generation is counting on yours to insist that law functions as it always has: to hold the powerful accountable to the people,” Paul said. “Your livelihood and the future of our democracy depend upon a robust system in which everyone plays by the rules.”
In his commencement remarks, Paul also congratulated the law school’s first cohort of Master of Legal Studies graduates and recognized two law professors—Mary O’Connell, L’75, and Melinda Drew, L’87—who he said are retiring this year and will be deeply missed.
The student speakers—Tara Dunn, Morgan Wilson, and Clarissa Kalil—encouraged their peers to use their positions as lawyers to amplify the voices of those who’ve been silenced, to never give up on their goals, and to financially support causes they believe in. Dunn and Wilson both also shined a light on America’s incarceration rates, which they say are among the highest in world and disproportionately target black and Hispanic males.
“Never underestimate your ability to use the law for change,” Dunn told fellow graduates.
The faculty speaker, teaching professor Margaret Hahn-Dupont, presented three core tenets of being a Northeastern law graduate. One, she said, is recognizing your common humanity and speaking like a human being—in other words, don’t use Latin phrases. “Lawyers,” she said, “are meant to serve and you can’t serve clients well if you speak in an arcane language that only works to separate and distance you from others and to underscore an elite status.”
The second tenet, Hahn-Dupont said, is to understand that law is a social construct—one that calls upon lawyers to view the law from a critical angle, examine whether it reflects society’s values, recognize the inherent power dynamic in the creation and application of the law, and question authority and laws when necessary.
The third is to recognize that lawyers must bear the responsibility for making change and fighting for social justice.
In closing, she said: “In pursuit of the great, people often overlook what is good and they neglect to see the need right in front of their eyes. I believe that the result of our collective efforts to do good is greater than our individually trying to achieve greatness.
“Now is no time for aspiration. It is time for action. It is time for deeds, not dreams.”