‘We need your big heart.’ Northeastern University School of Law celebrates its 2023 graduates

The Northeastern School of Law commencement at the Matthews Arena.
Maya Marie Hill, who was chosen by her classmates to speak at the commencement, addresses the audience gathered at Matthews Arena for the School of Law graduation.

As members of the Class of 2023 marched to their seats during the Northeastern University School of Law commencement ceremony at Matthews Arena on Friday, the joyful audience hollered and gave them a standing ovation.

The graduates were soon reminded that their degrees come with great expectations.

“A law degree is an accomplishment,” said James Hackney, dean of the School of Law, “but it is also an obligation.”

Subpar ethics and “flagrant abuse of power” threaten American society and democracy, he said.

“It is your job to advance the public good, whether that is through full-time advocacy or critical volunteer work,” Hackney continued.

Almost 300 students completed their studies at the School of Law this year. Hackney praised them for taking the risk and earning their degrees during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The class of 2023 completed 350,000 hours of legal work at 706 co-op placements that took the students to 29 states and five countries. They also devoted more than 140,000 hours to public interest co-ops.

“It’s one of the reasons we remain peerless among law schools dedicated to public interest law,” Hackney said.

Embracing the racial reckoning of the past three years, graduates engaged with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic, Center for Law, Equity and Race, and Center for Public Interest Advocacy and Collaboration at Northeastern.

Professor Daniel Medwed, a leading authority on criminal law, saluted the graduates on behalf of the faculty. His message might have come as a surprise to some.

“I want you guys to fail, often and spectacularly,” Medwed said.

He explained that every failure helps a lawyer become better, wiser and stronger as an attorney and an advocate. 

Corey Thomas delivered the commencement address. He is the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors of Rapid7, a Boston-based leading cybersecurity solutions company.

“We need your big heart, your experience and your audacious dreams,” said Thomas, a member of the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee and the elected chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

The Class of 2023 will have to navigate big changes involving artificial intelligence, politics and climate. However, the ability of individuals to adapt to change, Thomas said, depends on the health, power and quality of American institutions and systems.

“And let’s face it, our current institutions are not up to the challenge,” said Thomas, who co-founded the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, a coalition of Massachusetts Black and brown executives focused on addressing systemic racism and racial inequity in Massachusetts.

Society needs the young lawyers to be gardeners, fixers and tuners, he said, who will make business, government, civic and nonprofit institutions not just effective, but also trustworthy.

“We need those who stretch boundaries, expand relationships, negotiate and reconcile contrasting ideas,” Thomas said. “We need you to be deeply invested in building our institutional capacity.”

While this role may be hard, Thomas assured graduates that they won’t be doing it alone.

“We’re going to be all working on this together,” he said.

Provost David Madigan presented Thomas with a citation for his “visionary leadership in building a transformative innovation company that drives impact by empowering people and communities.”  

Class of 2023 student speakers Obioma Okonkwo and Maya Marie Hill movingly spoke about their journeys at the School of Law and the communities they are now part of.

​​Okonkwo, who is from Nigeria and represented Master of Laws graduates, studied intellectual property and innovation law while at Northeastern. She said her classmates were some of the strongest, most intelligent, resourceful and resilient people in the world. Master’s in law graduates, according to Hackney, came from such countries as Azerbaijan, Brazil, Egypt, Kenya, Peru and Saudi Arabia, among others.

“Our experiences, both shared and unique, bonded us together,” Okonkwo said. “We have gained something truly invaluable: a global network of friends, colleagues and future changemakers.”

She told her classmates that they now possess the skills to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

“I am incredibly proud and honored to have met each and every one of you,” Okonkwo said.

Hill, who was graduating with a degree of Juris Doctor, said one of the most important things graduates gained from their time at Northeastern is a community.

“Everywhere I turned, every time I almost fell, there was a community of people ready to pick me up, dust me off and help me try again,” she said.

Hill urged her classmates to continue building communities and choosing compassion, despite a divisive political landscape.

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.