Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
By TIME Staff
May 25, 2017

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates delivered remarks Wednesday on the occasion of Class Day at Harvard Law School.

Dean Minow, distinguished faculty, family and friends, and most of all, graduates of Harvard Law School, thank you for inviting me to share this day with you. It is such a privilege for me to be here today. And to the graduates of the class of 2017, congratulations! You have worked incredibly hard to get here, and I hope that you’re taking a moment to let the full weight of your accomplishment sink in and that you revel in it for a bit. And to the parents of the graduates, you have to feel an enormous sense of pride and sheer joy in what your child has achieved. So congratulations to all the moms and dads as well!

Dean Minow, I can’t let the moment of your last commencement here as dean pass without recognizing the inspirational leadership and vision that marked your tenure.

And to the student award recipients today and all the students recognized for their pro-bono service while in law school, I am humbled by how you have demonstrated your unselfish dedication to the cause of justice before you’ve even graduated from law school.

I’ve been really excited about the opportunity to talk with you today. But as the date grew closer, I began to get a little anxious about what I would talk about. This is a big moment for you, and I wanted any message I had to be commensurate with the occasion.

So I went back and read the letter of invitation I received from your class marshals. And let me tell you, they write a heck of a letter. They told me that this was the bicentennial of the school’s founding. For over 200 years, graduates of this law school have been changing the trajectory of our country and indeed the world. From both ends of the political spectrum and all points in between, you have graduated presidents, Supreme Court justices, foreign leaders, academics, activists, CEOs, journalists and eleven Attorneys General of the United States, including my former boss, a person under whom I was proud to serve, Loretta Lynch. Some are household names, and others are known only to the people whose lives they have forever changed. And now you follow in their footsteps.

As if the bicentennial weren’t momentous enough, they also told me that this year, for the first time, there are an equal number of men and women graduating from Harvard Law School. That’s a long way from when my paternal grandmother was admitted to the Georgia Bar. She didn’t even go to law school. She did what was known as “reading law,” studying, under the tutelage of another lawyer, then took and passed the bar exam. But passing the bar was one thing. Practicing law as a woman at that time, particularly in the south, was quite another. So she became a legal secretary to my grandfather, and later my father and uncle. Truth be told, she was smarter than all of them, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for her to have spent her career typing someone else’s thoughts. She’d be thrilled to see that the 380 women graduating here today have another destiny.

The letter of invitation from your class marshals said that this is the last opportunity for you to receive the wisdom and advice from someone outside the law school before you embark on your career as lawyers and advocates around the world.

So I thought back on my 31 years of being a lawyer, the vast majority of which was with the Department of Justice. For me, being a career prosecutor at DOJ was not just a job, what I did, it was a big part of who I was and still am. And that’s because I believe so strongly in the mission of the Justice Department, the privilege of public service, and both the opportunity and responsibility to use the special gift of being a lawyer to try to move this world a little closer toward justice. And as I thought back over those years, I came to realize that I envy you. I envy that you’re on the front end of this wonderful, challenging, rewarding, sometimes gut-wrenching, but sometimes uplifting adventure of being a lawyer. And so, I thought I would share with you four observations or lessons that I’ve learned over that time about what it means to be a lawyer and what being a lawyer has taught me about life and our country.

We are all better than our worst moment, but sometimes we are not as good as we think we are either.

As bright, talented and driven as you all are now, you need to give yourself the space to develop into great lawyers. You weren’t born one. And as rigorous as your education was here, there are still more dimensions of your lawyerly self to develop and more for you to learn.

I learned this the hard way not long after I was out of law school. I was working in a big firm in Atlanta, on a case involving the failure of a huge crane at the Savannah port (a spine tingling topic that may give you some insight into why I left private practice). I was a new associate and we had traveled to Savannah where I was to depose the other side’s expert in the case. In hindsight, I realize now that this expert must not have been too important to the case or they wouldn’t have let me do the deposition.

The expert was a Russian engineer with a heavy accent who chain smoked with one of those long cigarette holders that he held from underneath. I was incredibly nervous, and throughout the entire deposition, he was literally, not just figuratively, blowing smoke in my face. And I have to admit to you, I did a miserable job. He owned me during that deposition. I’m not sure that I made a single point.

On the flight back, the partner I was with decided that this would be a good time to critique my performance. We were sitting both in aisle seats across from each other, he one row ahead of me. So he turned around, and in excruciating detail, for the entire flight, he told me and everyone else on the plane, just how much I had totally screwed the thing up.

I got home, recounted the events to my then boyfriend, now husband, telling him how completely I had blown it, and I then exclaimed, “But I thought I’d be so good at this!”

I got better at it. And thankfully, that miserable deposition didn’t define my career. I was better than that bad moment, though not as good as I thought I would be.

That’s going to happen to you, too. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to have mediocre moments and some outright blunders. You’re going to be disappointed in your performance. While I’m not suggesting that is something to aspire to, give yourself the space for that, to learn from it, and not be limited by it.

Lawyers aren’t the only ones who are better than their worst moment. I’ve come to appreciate that about the individuals whom I have prosecuted over the years. Social justice and criminal justice do not exist on separate planes. Rather, every day I saw how generational lack of access to educational and economic opportunity converge, no, actually collide, with our criminal justice system. And as a society, we compound that when we fail to ensure that the thousands of individuals being released every day from prisons all across this country have the basic tools they need to have a fighting chance at being successful when they leave prison. Everyone should have the opportunity to rise above his or her worst moment.

You never know when a situation will present itself in which you will have to decide who you are and what you stand for.

The defining moments in our lives often don’t come with advance warning. They can arise in scenarios we would have never expected, and don’t come with the luxury of a lot of time for you to go inside yourself for some serious introspection. So how do you prepare for that? I know you’re all type-A people. You want to be prepared.

I had such an experience recently with the travel ban. It is a tradition for the Deputy Attorney General to stay on as the Acting AG during a change in administration. It’s important for continuity, so I agreed to stay on as Acting Attorney General during the few weeks that we anticipated it would take for President Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to be confirmed.

It was supposed to be an uneventful time. We had agreed with the incoming team that, while I was Acting AG, things would stay as they were. No positions of the Justice Department would change during my tenure. Everything was to stay status quo.

I was in the car on my way to the airport to go home to Atlanta for the weekend late in the afternoon of Friday, January 27 when I learned, from media reports, that the President had signed an executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim majority countries. This was the first we had even heard of it, but within a matter of hours, we were going to have to send DOJ lawyers in to courts across the country to defend the executive order, and on Monday, I learned that we had to take a position on the constitutionality of the order.

This was not what I was expecting.

My former chief of staff had jokingly told me that during the short time I was Acting AG, I’d have time for, in her words, “a lot of long, boozy lunches” as everything should be quiet during that time. But it turned out there was no time for lunches at all, boozy or otherwise.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into an exhausting discussion of immigration or constitutional law. And I appreciate that people of good will have different views on the legality of the order as well as what I should have done in this scenario.

But I do think it’s illustrative of an unexpected moment where the law and conscience intersected, and a decision had to be made in a very short period of time.

After reviewing the legal challenges, reading cases, and conferring with the department lawyers, I came to the conclusion that defending the constitutionality of the travel ban would require the Department of Justice to argue that the executive order had nothing to do with religion — that it was not intended to disfavor Muslims, despite numerous prior statements by the President and his surrogates regarding his intent to effectuate a Muslim ban. I believed that this would require us to advance a pretext — a defense not grounded in truth, so I directed the DOJ not to defend the executive order.

I understand that some believe that I should have just resigned rather than direct the department not to defend the order. Indeed, I grappled with that very question over the weekend and during the day on Monday. But I believed then, and believe now, that while resigning would have protected my personal integrity, it would not have protected the integrity of the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice is not just another law firm, and this wasn’t just any legal issue. It was about the core founding principle of religious freedom. And I could not in good conscience send DOJ lawyers into court to advance the argument that the travel ban was unrelated to religion when the evidence of its intent reflected that this was not the case.

There wasn’t much time to examine the weighty constitutional law concepts at issue here or to craft the directive to the department. But I didn’t make the decision just within the 72 hours from the time I learned of the ban until the time I issued the directive. That decision was the result of what others had taught me over my entire 27 years with the Justice Department. I drew on the lessons from my mentors while I was an AUSA who instilled in me a reverence for the honor of representing the people of the United States and upholding the law and the constitution; from the judges who rightly expected DOJ lawyers to adhere to an even higher standard of conduct than lawyers representing private litigants, because we were, after all, the Department of Justice; and from my interactions with the people whom I served who had time and again made clear that they were counting on the DOJ to protect people’s rights and stay true to our founding principles.

The compass that is inside all of us, that compass that guides us in times of challenge, is being built every day with every experience. I was fortunate to have learned from some inspiring people in my life who not only served as role models, but who challenged my thinking on issues and molded my core.

Over the course of your life and career, you, too, will face weighty decisions where law and conscience intertwine. And while it may not play out in such a public way, the conflict you will feel will be no less real, and the consequences of your decisions also significant. The time for introspection is all along the way, to develop a sense of who you are and what you stand for. Because you never know when you will be called upon to answer that question.

The safest course is not always the best course. Be bold. Take a risk.

Over the course of my legal career, I have encountered people who seem to always take the safest route. This approach can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

Prosecutors who don’t want to lose so they won’t bring the tough, hard-to-prove cases even though the individual is guilty and shouldn’t get away with it.

Private practice lawyers whose advice is that which is least likely to come back to blow up on the lawyer rather than what’s best for the client.

They put every possible argument in a brief, every piece of evidence in at trial, because they don’t want to take the risk they have left out something that’s important, even though it means their briefs and trials presentations are less effective.

This is the person who reads which way a room is going before he or she speaks up and gives their opinion.

Who never tells people in authority something they don’t want to hear.

Who is in authority, and who surrounds him or herself with people who will simply affirm their judgment.

This person can rock along pretty well, make partner in firm, advance up the corporate ladder.

But do you want to be that person? Would you find that a satisfying way to live, much less practice law?

From my perspective, you may be advancing your career by practicing like this, but you’re not doing your job.

Doing your job means:

You are not simply a reflection of someone else’s talents or opinions.
You are the person to whom a leader turns when he or she needs to hear the truth. I can tell you that from my experience, both as DAG and U.S. Attorney, I could trust the advice of the folks around me only if I knew that they would tell me when they thought I was wrong.

While I’m not advocating being reckless or irresponsible, from my perspective, to fully embrace both life and being a lawyer, you have to be willing to take a risk. To be uncomfortable. To be bold.

But taking a risk means that you also have to be willing to be wrong. And sometimes that can be a lonely place to be. But I hope that fear of being wrong won’t keep you from acting. Because inaction, doing nothing, or just going along, that’s a decision, too. In my experience, it’s been the times that I haven’t acted rather than when I did that I’ve regretted it the most.

Being willing to be wrong also requires that you’re willing to own it. We are all wrong at times. It’s gonna happen. And there’s nothing worse than the the person who doesn’t want his or her fingerprints on anything controversial — who tries to slip out of responsibility when things hit the fan. Not only does that generally not work, if your colleagues sense that you’re going to cut and run if things go south, they’re never going to trust you. And if they don’t trust you, you’re not going to be included in the big moments — the moments you went to law school for.

Being bold, taking risk, and owning it, is not easy to do. And the instinct for self preservation may continually draw you to the safe, risk-free course.

But I urge you to resist that instinct.

Not only is life of hedging your bets unsatisfying, it also means that you’re unlikely to make much of a difference. You can either glide across the world, or you can impact it. It’s your choice.

What are you going to do with your diploma?

Which brings me to my last point, which is actually a question. “What are you going to do with that diploma you’re receiving tomorrow? “

When I ask this question, I’m not so much asking you what your j​ob​ is going to be. I’m asking you who ​you ​are going to be. Regardless of whether you go into private practice, or the corporate world, whether you become a public defender, a prosecutor or a public interest advocate, you are now a lawyer. And that means that you have not only a unique opportunity and ability that non-lawyers don’t have, but also the attendant responsibility to foster justice in this world. To reveal truth. To stand up for the voiceless. To hold our country to its promise of equal justice for all.

The people of this country care deeply about these values. They care about the rule of law, and our constitution, and the principles and freedoms on which our country was founded. And they are counting on you, the lawyers, to in Bobby Kennedy’s words, “breathe life and force” into the “promise of liberty and justice.”

If you have ever doubted whether any of this matters to the American people, think back to the weekend the first travel ban was announced. Protests erupted all over the country. Thousands of people gathered at airports in big cities and small, East Coast and West Coast, and everywhere in between demonstrating and speaking out against what they believed was an attack on our constitution and the core values of our nation. Lawyers streamed to airports too, to represent people who were now being denied entry to the U.S., staying there for days on end, of course not being paid. And the most remarkable part about all of this is that the people who were flooding our airports and protesting across the country, the lawyers who dropped everything else they were doing to answer a call to justice, for the most part, these folks weren’t personally impacted by the travel ban. Yet, they felt compelled to act and speak out. An example of this was illustrated in a letter that I received after I left DOJ from a couple in Oregon who had gone to the airport with their young son to protest the travel ban. They sent me a photograph of the 2-year-old boy holding up a sign that said, “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” They said they wanted the world and their young son to know ​that’s​ who we are. That’s​ what it means to be an American.

A friend of mine shared with me an old Irish story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and asks to be let in. St. Peter says, “Of course. Show me your scars.” The man said, “Scars? I have no scars.” St. Peter replies, “Pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?”

There is plenty worth fighting for. For me, it’s criminal justice reform — so that we can have a fair and proportional criminal justice system that applies equally to all regardless of race, wealth or status. It’s also respect for the brave men and women of law enforcement who put their lives on the line to protect us. It’s holding corporate executives who break the law accountable so that cheating and stealing doesn’t become just a way of doing business. It’s the right of all Americans to marry the person whom they love, regardless of whether they are the same or opposite sex. It’s the rule of law, and the principle that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies must be free to do their work without political interference or intimidation.

Those are some things on my list. That’s what I think is worth fighting for.

But you’re going to have to come up with your own list. You’re going to have to decide for yourself what you believe is worth fighting for — how you’re going to breathe life and force into liberty and justice.

I’m not suggesting by this that you must all devote your entire career to public service or public interest work. Indeed, the students recognized here today for their pro-bono work did that on top of their job of going law school. The lawyers who rushed to the airports after the travel ban weren’t public servants, at least in the traditional government-employee sense. But all of these lawyers and soon-to-be lawyers are people who are indeed “moved to question; prepared to reason, and called to act.”

They are individuals who recognize that while the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it doesn’t bend that way on its own.

So I urge you to grab hold of that arc, and don’t let go. The people of our country and indeed the world are counting on you.

Thank you for the privilege of sharing this day with you. And congratulations again to the class of 2017.


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