Thank you, President [Neil] Kerwin and Provost [Scott] Bass, for that wonderful introduction; for an extraordinary honor I will always hold dear; for your stewardship of a truly magnificent center of learning; and for everything you do, each and every day, to cultivate not just world-class scholarship, but world-changing progress. I’d also like to recognize Dean [Claudio] Grossman, whose two decades at the helm of the Washington College of Law (WCL) transformed this law school as much as they shaped the lives of thousands of WCL students—students who have gone on to improve countless lives themselves by practicing the law they learned here. That is an impressive and immeasurable legacy, and I count not be prouder to be a part of your final set of commencement exercises as dean of the WCL. Let me add my voice to the chorus of congratulations you are receiving.
I am honored to be here today and to share this event with all of you. To the faculty and staff members who are here today, I want to say thank you—for taking this group of smart and talented people who thought they wanted to be lawyers and turning them into a group of smart and talented people who know they want to be lawyers. To the friends and family members who are here to see their support and encouragement pay off, thank you as well—for standing by these graduates as they embarked on an uncertain yet life changing journey and for sticking by them now and into the future, as theirs journeys—which are also your journeys—continue to unfold. You have walked this road with them for the past three years, and I know that when they traverse this stage in a few moments, you will be with them then, as well.
Finally—most importantly—to the graduates of the WCL Class of 2016, I want to say congratulations. You are a very special group of individuals. What impresses me most about this class—as well as so many WCL grads who have come before you—is that out of all the choices you had to apply your skills, your talents, your ideals, you made the choice to apply them here, in this school and in this wonderful profession of ours. You made the choice to truly live your motto and to “champion what matters.” You are the dreamers, who still want to become a lawyer “to help people.” You are the ones who say “I want to make a difference.” And when asked about your goals, you still say “I want to change the world.” And that you have in fact chosen the law as your vehicle of change, as your champion’s spear, makes me not only grateful but so very proud of you.
This is a student body steeped in public service, human rights and international engagement, causes you are already working to uplift. Many of you were toiling in the vineyard of public service even before you arrived on campus. You worked on Capitol Hill to advance our democracy; volunteered in the Peace Corps to expand global opportunity; served in our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to protect our country from foreign threats—and even taught children in elementary school, helping to nurture our most precious resource of all. You have continued to walk this path here at WCL, working on projects ranging from clinical programs on women’s rights, domestic violence and immigrant justice to international projects on torture, war crimes and human rights. These are the choices you have made and that so many of you look to make going forward. These are the choices of those who care deeply about justice in this world. These are the choices of those who put others before self. These are the choices of champions and champions—for justice, for equality—are what we need in this world and in this profession right now.
These choices bring different things for all of us. They do not always bring glory or fame—most of them lead one away from the headlines and the limelight. But they do lead directly into the heart of the challenges of this time and of the people who struggle against them. They lead into what truly matters. And as the very ethos of this school reminds you, what matters is that men, women and children here in this country and around the world—be they in towns or cities, camps or villages—are afforded the recognition of their human dignity and the protection of their human rights. What matters is that there is somewhere for those who are troubled, threatened or afraid to turn to in their darkest hour. What matters is that there are those who are willing and able to use the law as an instrument of inclusion, of protection and of freedom.
These choices are not the easy ones. They are rarely the lucrative ones. They are often the choices that others turn away from. But know this, they are the best ones. And as you go forward from this place and leave a campus that seeks to encourage your passion for advocacy and service, I urge you to never lose sight of how vital it is that we, as lawyers, as citizens, as partners in humanity, continue to choose those tasks and champion what truly matters.
This is not always an easy path. It means raising your hand when others are sitting on theirs. It means taking risks—even of failure—when you find the choice you must make. And it can mean taking a leap of faith and choosing the path that no one understands but you.
Often, we do not know where our choices will take us. This is why the best choices are often made based not on what they can bring to us, but what they will allow us to bring to others.
I have tried to use that as the lodestar for the choices I have made in my own career. Shortly after I first left government in 2001, I had the opportunity to join a group of dedicated lawyers in teaching a trial advocacy course to the prosecutors of the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, located in Tanzania. I have always loved teaching and had taught within the department and at a New York-area law school. For several years, I traveled to the tribunal once a year to teach this course. Being able to contribute to the work being done to bring justice to a country ravaged by genocide was incredibly rewarding. In the summer of 2005, the tribunal approached me and asked me to conduct a witness tampering investigation on their behalf, looking into whether tribunal witnesses, already traumatized by pain and suffering, were being intimidated or even bribed to recant previous testimony.
And as part of the ironies that only life can present, at the same time I was approached about running for elected office, a role that would also have allowed me to work on behalf of people and advance causes I cared about. This certainly was the traditional choice for many of us seeking to make a difference in our world. One can make a name for oneself, advance positions and laws that can benefit so many and use it as a stepping stone to other offices, even appointed. I was a partner in a law firm, working on building a practice, considering a choice that would take me to a small east African country that, despite its history, few had heard of for weeks at a time. I was considering a choice that would bring in no money to my firm and no new clients to me. Now let me say that, if the political arena is your choice as you work to keep our democracy strong and our essential freedoms accessible for all, then that is what you should do and I salute you. We need champions in all walks of our civic discourse. Ultimately I chose to go to Rwanda. And it was the best thing I have ever done.
When I went to Rwanda I had been to the tribunal numerous times and heard the cases. I had been a prosecutor for years and worked on challenging matters. I had sat in a room with murderers and heard them tell how they learned the best way to kill someone. I had sat with the families of murder victims as they learned how their loved ones left this earth. But nothing had prepared me to hear the story of the woman in Rwanda who recounted hiding under a pile of dead bodies during a churchyard massacre, then climbing out and going to the priest in the morning for refuge, only to be turned away. Or the story of the woman betrayed by those who had promised to smuggle her out of the country but instead turned her over to the genocidaires, from whom she barely escaped with her life and who still suffers pain when the sun shines on the machete wound to her head.
I heard stories of incredible faith and hope as well, from the man who saw his entire family struck down beside him, yet went on to marry again and adopt eight genocide orphans. I went to Rwanda to help people there and they ended up helping me. I went there to share my talents and my experience and they gave me gifts far deeper and broader and which I can never repay. And every day I was there I knew—in my heart—that I had made the right choice.
Because despite the overwhelming evidence of man’s inhumanity to man I sat and heard about every day, I saw a hope and joy in life that was inspiring. I saw a faith and a trust in the law and the very concept of justice that to this day inspires me to continue to work to make it real. Those experiences stay with me today. They have enriched my understanding of what it means to bring justice to those who need it most. They inform the work I do as I lead the Department of Justice—the only cabinet agency named after an ideal, in the work we do to make that ideal a manifest reality for all.
This is my wish for you—as you move forward into this great profession of ours—that you make the choices and find the things that bring you ever closer to those ideals. Your choice may not be as stark as mine. You may already be on that path. Know this—we need you there. The world needs champions. Too many people still find the path to opportunity closed to them. Too many still find unnecessary obstacles, to education, to housing, to the full and free exercise of the right to vote. And far too many still face discrimination and worse based on nothing more than what they look like, where they are from, how they worship, whom they love or something as fundamentally private and personal as where they use the restroom. We need champions.
You will often ask yourself how you will know when your choice is before you. You are already on your way—you made the decision to come here. You made the decision to champion what matters. Please trust me when I tell you that you have everything you need to make that choice. It may not be in focus for you now, as you go into the world and hone your skills. You will wonder about it at various points in your career—perhaps when you’re poring over corporate records or trying desperately to raise money to fund a public interest venture. There are times in your career—especially early on—when you will wonder if you are fulfilling your ultimate choice. But that’s all right. I am here to tell you that life is long and so is your career. Your time here has prepared you not just for your first job in the law but your last one and for all those moments in between when you will be faced with decisions, large and small, that rest on your understanding of justice.
I don’t know what choices will be presented to you. I don’t know when your challenge will come. But I do know that champions are needed now more than ever—to protect our vital liberties, to provide relief from oppression and to uplift the dignity of every individual. And I know that you have all that you need to make those choices. And so, my fighters, my champions, my newest colleagues, I congratulate you. We have been waiting for you. And I cannot wait to see all that you will accomplish.
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