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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, it’s great to be here to congratulate Washington College of Law’s (WCL) Class of 2022.

Dean Fairfax, I am especially pleased to be here with you, a distinguished alum of the Department of Justice – where you got your start as a lawyer in the Attorney General’s Honors Program.

You are a great – and free! – advertisement for our recruiting efforts.

I would also like to thank Chairman Duber, President Burwell and Provost Starr, for their leadership of this great institution, as well as the members of the Board of Trustees and the distinguished alumni here with us.

Thank you for the honor of the degree conferred upon me today and for the privilege of addressing this commencement.  

I am particularly grateful to be here with the Class of 2022 – yours is an extraordinary class.

That is not commencement hyperbole.

Throughout your law school years – the majority of which have been on Zoom – you’ve overcome a lot.

You learned how to position your laptop for the best virtual meeting background. You figured out how to make your own masks.

Some of you got a dog, or a good sourdough starter, or maybe both.

But you’ve also struggled with isolation, and anxiety. Some of you have suffered the loss of a loved one. So even as we celebrate today, I want to acknowledge the unusual burdens borne by this class.

I also want to acknowledge all those who helped get you here – the faculty and staff of WCL, you have stewarded this class into the legal profession at a challenging time.

And, to the families, friends and loved ones of the Class of 2022 – you have been an infinite source of much-needed love, support and encouragement at every step. You also deserve our thanks.   

But this truly is an extraordinary class – because you’ve navigated extraordinary times.

Over the past three years our country and our world have undergone some profound changes — to name a few: a once in a century pandemic; a new national conversation on race and criminal justice; an attack on a foundation of our democracy – the peaceful transfer of power.

In spite of – and perhaps because of – the past few years this class is even better prepared to take on the challenges facing the nation and the world.

You’ve thrown yourselves in to responding to the world around you. As a result, as a result you have a head start on your life as a lawyer.

Hundreds of you have participated in a clinic, externship or pro bono program.

You have worked alongside lawyers to help real people solve real problems.

As pandemic-related eviction moratoriums around the country expired, you responded to the Attorney General’s call to action; you helped tenants get emergency rental assistance and stopped scheduled evictions.

Your Women and the Law Program began educating this community about the impact of the crisis.

You filed compassionate release motions for your clients when COVID-19 was surging in prisons.

These experiences have given you an opportunity to see yourself in others, to be exposed to what it means to put your education to work, to see the law in action.

And, just as important – to see what is out there for you – the challenges, yes, but also the incredible opportunities – to do good, to effect change, to live your values.

Ultimately, what you learned here – and will learn – as you put your skills to work will mold you not just as a lawyer – but as a person.

I say all this based on my own experience – as a lawyer and public servant – a path that actually began for me before law school.

I moved to D.C. right after graduating from college. I thought I’d work for a year and go to graduate school in English.

As luck – and perhaps fate – would have it, one of my roommates at the time was leaving her job as a junior staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and I found myself taking up her role.

To say I was a low-level staffer would be generous. But I had a front row seat that set me on a path I never could have anticipated or planned for.

In that job, I worked on the Violence Against Women Act – I saw, first-hand, what you could do with a law degree to effect change.

The young lawyers on the committee staff – and the even younger recent college grads like me who worked for them – helped write the legislation, researched and drafted reports to make the case for the law and we responded to letters from survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

At the time, before the law was enacted, 98% of rape victims never saw their attacker caught, tried, and convicted.

My interactions with survivors, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, emergency rooms and police departments made clear the lack of accountability for these crimes.

This experience stirred in me a sense of purpose; it led me to law school and to a career in public service.

With the passage of the original Violence Against Women Act, I saw how a law could make a real difference in people’s lives.

That law changed the way society and the criminal justice system treats domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

It recognized that violent crimes among those who know each other are every bit as deserving of justice as violent crimes among strangers.

The Violence Against Women Act provided services for survivors; and tools and training for law enforcement to respond and hold perpetrators accountable.

I learned working on this legislation that the law could be a tool for change.

It’s easy to be cynical these days about the power to effect lasting change.

Well, I’m here to tell you reject that cynicism.

Last October I returned to the same committee room that I worked in as a young staffer almost 30 years earlier – this time as the Deputy Attorney General of the United States.

I was there to testify in favor of re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Five months later – this past March – I was at the White House to celebrate President Biden signing that bipartisan bill into law.

We have much more work to do – much more work on behalf of far too many – to ensure equal justice under law.

But the genius – and the responsibility –  in the design of our union is that it was born to be made more perfect.

You will be the ones to lead that work. Never doubt the power – your power – to be part of real change.

My experience working on the Violence Against Women Act introduced me to mentors, people who took an interest in me and began my education as a public servant.

But I really gained that education – where I grew up as a lawyer and public servant – at the Department of Justice.

My first job as a lawyer was as counsel to Janet Reno – the first women to serve as Attorney General.  

She was the furthest thing from a Washington insider – a true American original.

A daughter of the Florida Everglades – who had never worked in the Department of Justice –but from her I learned to lead with humility and to love the department and revere its mission in our government – as an independent investigator and enforcer of law – an institution whose job is to do justice without fear or favor.

I spent the first 15 years of my career at the Justice Department – as an advisor, a prosecutor and later as a national security leader until my path led me to the White House to serve as the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor to President Obama.

I was responsible for our policy to disrupt terrorist threats, to thwart cyber-attacks, to respond to natural disasters and pandemics – you know, light stuff.

My job earned me a nickname from President Obama: Dr. Doom.

I was tested in that role time and again – including in my third week on the job when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred. On the day the bombs at the finish line rocked my hometown, my twin brother was somewhere along the route cheering on the runners, just as we had done every year as a family growing up.

As worried as I was about him, my job that day was to advise the President and coordinate our response to the unfolding crisis.

I wasn’t a lawyer in that job but I used my legal training to be rigorous and thoughtful in my analysis and to understand that often what you need most are not technical legal skills – although you surely have those now – what you need most is judgment.  

Judgment is a kind of compass that guides you when there are no easy answers.

You will need your compass to guide you as you advise not just on what the law allows but what is wise.

Your experiences here, and the ones you gain along the way, will form that compass.

Today, I am privileged to help lead the Department of Justice, whose mission is to protect the American people, to ensure civil rights, and to uphold the rule of law.

I consult my compass and draw on past experiences every day – as do the women and men of the Justice Department.

As they confront hate-filled terror like the events in Buffalo last week; as they seek justice for the attack on our democracy; and as they work to build trust and keep our communities safe.

Before you leave this arena to start the next part of your journey, I want to share with you three pieces of advice from my own.

The first is to be brave enough to seek out experiences and people that stir something in you.

As soon-to-be graduates of the first law school founded by women – more than 120 years ago – you have that bravery in your DNA. This law school’s founders had to be brave and tenacious to pursue their dream of learning the law.  

So, whether it’s changing the law to make our society more equal and more just, whether it’s starting your own school, or something else – find work that stirs a sense of purpose in you – and go for it.

My second piece of advice is to develop your own compass – the stuff that will guide you when you are tested – when you are required to navigate the gray areas you will wander into – in law and in life.

Your compass will help you make decisions when, as Janet Reno used to say, you will be “damned if you do, damned if you don’t, so you might as well do the right thing.” 

Well, the “right thing” can be hard to discern. And this is where your compass comes in.

Starting today, you can make the choice to be guided by the principles and values aligned with the kind of lawyer and person you want to be.  

My final piece of advice is to remember compassion – for perspectives different from your own and the people that hold them.

As a lawyer you will be called upon to make many decisions, to give advice, to choose the least bad option.

Remember that the best outcomes come from hearing different points of view and that a thoughtful process can be your friend.

An approach that is open to – and inclusive of – people and perspectives that differ from your own will always render a better decision.

Finally, I’d like to extract from you a pledge – a pledge to reject in your lives a piece of advice I once received and have long since discarded.

That advice went like this:  be nice to people – no matter who they are, whether they are a Senator or a Secretary – because they could be your boss some day.

Please ignore this advice.

Be kind and be respectful – not because of what it can get you but because it’s the right thing to do.

Class of 2022 — if you are brave enough to pursue work that moves you; if you are guided by your compass; if you remember compassion and kindness, I have no doubt you will make a difference in our profession and that you will change – for the better – this flawed but wonderful world.

Congratulations Class of 2022!

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