Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2003 Commencement

American University
Washington College of Law
Commencement Address
Judge Gerald Bruce Lee
May 18, 2003

Good afternoon. I'd first like to thank the university. I'd like to thank President Ladner, Dean Claudio Grossman, Trustee Abby Butler, members of the faculty who are present, the Green family, the Lee, the Throckmorten, and the Vincent family, my family who are here today, for the great opportunity to speak to you, and to receive an honorary degree here at my alma mater, a place that I really, literally grew up here at American University.

Before we began, I had an opportunity to speak with some of the faculty who are still here, still educating young minds who were my faculty members when I was here. I'd like to thank Professors Elliott Milstein, Barlow Burke, Robert Vaughn, Janet Spragens, Paul Rice, Patrick Kehoe, and especially Professor Anthony Morella, who was on the admissions committee when I applied. I'd like to thank you for posing the questions that helped shape my legal career.

You know, when Dean Grossman called me from Spain to ask me if I would accept an honorary degree, I stood up. I could not believe that he was calling me, the son of an auto mechanic and a clerical worker from Woodbury, New Jersey, to come and be the commencement speaker at the American University in Washington, D.C. So I went down the hall to the Chief Judge's Chamber to speak with Judge Claude Hilton who is also a WCL graduate, and I asked him for advice. I said I had been asked to give the commencement address at our alma mater. What should I say and what should I do? And those of you who know Judge Hilton know he's a very practical man; and he reflected for a moment and he said, "Well, you know, Gerald, you're going to be in a large room, lots of people, long robes, lots of steps. As you walk up the steps to receive your honorary degree, hike your robe up so you don't fall flat on your face and make a fool of yourself."

So I'm going to try not to fall, and I'm going to try not to make a fool of myself. Because a good commencement speaker should have some insight to share, and I think that I have about five things that I want to say. I know that I stand between you and celebrations, so I'm going to try to be brief. And those five insights have to do with what I would call the measure of our success. Marian Wright Edelman, who is executive director of the Children's Defense Fund, has said in a book called The Measure of our Success, that service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living. Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living. I'm not sure why you decided to become a lawyer, but I think if we looked at your personal statement, we would see that some of you said, "I want to improve the quality of justice. I want to right the wrong. I want to be a change agent. I want to make a difference in the lives of others."

I think back to my own life and to the events that shaped my desire to become a lawyer. And as I said, I grew up in here in Southeast Washington. My mother was a government clerical worker, and my father an auto mechanic. And in 1961, I remember watching television and seeing a young President Kennedy delivering an inaugural address. And he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Rather ask what you can do for your country." When I heard him say that, I thought about it. And I looked around and I thought, "Well, I don't see anybody on that stage with the president who looks like me who has a dark tone." I said, "But I believe that one day I'd like to be able to contribute to my country, and I'd like to make a difference." And I told my mother, "You know, one day I'd like to do something for my country. And one day I'd like to do something to make you proud." "One day," I thought, "I could do something to make a difference."

Later in life, in 1963, I was getting ready for Sunday School one morning, when I turned on the television and I saw that four little girls had been murdered in a bomb blast in Birmingham, Alabama in a church. My mother did not let me go to Sunday School that day. And later on television I saw adults and children, my age, marching against injustice, and the police turned fire hoses and police dogs on the marchers. A young minister from Alabama, his name was Dr. Martin Luther King, spoke out and later he said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I thought to myself, "Somebody ought to do something about this. This is not right. This is not just." And then it dawned on me, that I am somebody. And maybe I can do something about it. These three events shaped my desire to become a lawyer and to become an instrument of justice. I'm not sure why you decided to go to law school, but I hope in your personal statement you recognized that lawyers have the ability to make a difference. Lawyers have the power. You WCL graduates are highly trained and skilled to make a difference now that you have the knowledge.

You know, yesterday, May 17, 1954, was a very critical moment in this nation's history. Yesterday was the 49th anniversary of the decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, a decision that struck down racial discrimination in public education. Brown was the beginning of the end of American Apartheid. Brown was a pro bono civil rights case, taken on by courageous men and women of all different races and backgrounds seeking to right a wrong—the denial of access to public education. 49 years later, the United States Supreme Court is poised once again to address the issues of race in higher education. And, once again, courageous men and women of diverse backgrounds and points of view are weighing in to offer their ideas, point and counterpoint, and experience to the court. I am proud to say that WCL law students and this faculty, this brilliant faculty, have weighed in with their ideas, and our students, you, our students, have organized debates, and you've exercised your First Amendment rights on the subject and you've decided to be heard. I commend you for your courage.

These activities are consistent with the WCL tradition of service and study. The dean has just talked to you about our clinical programs, which I admire because they marry the law school study and scholarship with service. Our WCL clinical programs proceed with the ideal that we will teach the students scholarly principles and then work with our dynamic faculty to put these principles to test and action.

Our Human Rights Clinic tackles a broad issue in international human relations at the international court at the Hague in Europe and in South America. Our WCL Tax Clinic, and our Community and Economic Development Clinic, works with individuals and small businesses. Our criminal and civil clinics work in our courts. And, for example, we have the Innocence Project, which works with the most difficult of criminal cases, death penalty cases, looking for instances where our justice system has made a mistake; helping us to avoid the worst situations for any human being, and that is to put an innocent person to death. I'd like to ask how many of you, by a show of hands, have served in clinics during your law school studies. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our future. This is our future. You students are poised to be instruments of justice in our nation and our world.

It has been said that diversity is our strength. I'm so proud of our international student population. Our international student and faculty population, which is uniquely positioned to impact world peace, and to impact human rights and global business transactions.

Forward-thinking faculty, President Ladner, and a dynamic dean, Claudio Grossman, have taken a national law school to international renown. WCL is known in the world as an outstanding school for human rights and international business. Today we have 55 lawyers who are receiving LL.M. degrees, from 26 different countries. Did he say 26 different countries? Ukraine and Korea and the People's Republic of China, Chile, Mexico, Peru, France and Germany. And these are just some of the nations that are represented.

Our International Human Rights Law Clinic that's working at the Hague, can you imagine what it must be like to sit in the classrooms at WCL and have a discussion about terrorism, or to have a discussion about international business transactions with this diverse student body and our dynamic faculty? I have. I've sat in the classrooms and I've sat in symposia on the issue of human rights and terrorism, and I've listened to an Israeli Supreme Court justice tell us about the difficult question of what to do, and to what limits may the government proceed to extract information if there was a ticking bomb. I never thought I would have to contemplate those things until after September 11th in my courtroom in Alexandria; having to choose between human rights, individual rights and governmental power. These discussions have been going on for many years here at WCL, and they are a testament to the high quality of our education.

If you stay around Claudio Grossman for very long, you will find that he will make you think outside of the lines. You won't be so focused on civil rights just in Virginia, but you will be concerned about civil rights and human rights in Bosnia and Rwanda and in Congo. Because Claudio is going to tell you that you have to focus in on the whole world and look at the big picture. These are the strengths of our university.

When our students study international business transactions, they're not focused just on the United States principles of law. Professor Alai' and others who have practiced in Asia and in Israel and in Japan and China, teach our students about the implications of international business transactions. Our faculty is very involved in our community here locally and nationally, on issues involving voting rights in the District of Columbia, affirmative action and election law. The Marshall-Brennan program where our students are teaching in high schools constitutional law under the guidance of Professor Jamin Raskin.

I urge you students to continue to use the WCL tradition of being instruments of justice. Just as you proceed in your clinical education, you can proceed that way in your practice. Just add a pro bono case to your work and handle it in turn. Robert Kennedy has said that each time a lawyer stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, he or she strikes out against injustice. She sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, crossing each other a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples to build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

My second insight has to do with what happens in practice, and that is that there are no small cases. Someone asked me, "What is the most important case you've ever handled, Judge?" I said, "Well, the most important case that I've ever handled is the one I'm handling today." You should never forget that the client is the most important, and that you are there to represent them in the most important moment of their lives. What you will do as a lawyer will affect their business and their liberty. I encourage you always to do your best. There are no little cases, there are only big cases. Acorns turn into oak trees. And my father told me once that good work does not go unnoticed. I've tried all manner of what some would call little cases in police court. Soon people were walking up to me in the aisles asking for my card, asking me to represent multi-national fortune 500 corporations in federal courts. Always strive for excellence because you never know who's watching.

Each case is an opportunity to meet new people, to be exposed to new information, and to compete in a court room or board room to attain your client's objectives. I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to meet and to engage interesting people along the way as you practice.

Professor Edward C. Smith taught me that there's a run-away slave by the name of Frederick Douglass. He said that there's no such thing as luck. He said that success is when preparation meets opportunity. For the lawyer, it has to be "preparation, preparation, preparation." I've told my son Max that the test is the mirror test, the test of your preparation. That is, young lawyer, before you go into a courtroom, before you go into a boardroom, can you look yourself in the mirror and say that you've fully prepared and exhausted every avenue of preparation. Only you can answer this question.

One day I was about to enter court and one of my student interns, a WCL student, asked me, he said, "Well, Judge, are you ever afraid when you walk into the courtroom? Is it fear that you experience?" I stopped and I thought about it and I said, "You know, we're never afraid as we enter a courtroom or as we begin a presentation, fear suggests that we're not prepared or that we're inadequate. What we experience as we're about to enter a courtroom as lawyers to present a case is what I call the adrenaline of excellence." I call it the adrenaline of excellence, I call it that because, as you walk into a room, what you experience is your body and your muscles tighten, your heart and your mind concentrate, and your body and your heart and mind are telling you that you're prepared to deliver peak performance, so I call the feeling of what you're about to do the adrenaline of excellence. Take it with you as you begin the bar exam.

The third insight has to do with power, of persistence, of determination. I have to tell you that, in my own life, without faith, great faith, without persistence, without determination, I might not be here today. I don't know about many of you, but I'm not from a family of lawyers. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I'm sure that each of you here who are in law school and who are graduating today, have had to overcome certain challenges, whether they were financial, poverty, health, political oppression in your country. Well I came to this campus in the back of a truck when I was 17 years old. And my job at the time was a street sweeper. I swept streets in the projects of Southeast Washington for a group called Youth Pride, Inc. I had the good fortune, President Ladner, of being admitted to an affirmative action program that this university called the "Pride American University Project" where inner-city residents were admitted to American University with American University students. They just kind of added some extra chairs to the back of the classroom. One of the founders of Pride later became the Mayor of Washington, D.C., his name is Marion Barry. And many of us today don't remember some of the good things that Mayor Barry did. When I got to this campus, a young, dynamic professor, Edward C. Smith, challenged me—he's sitting right over there—he said, "Gerald, if you master my class, you can handle anything at this university." What he said proved to be prophetic. It proved to be a challenge. However, three months into my college study, when I returned to my high school to ask for information about how to apply for college, my college counselor told me, "Gerald, you are not college material." Did he say…? Yes, "You are not college material." How many times has that happened to a young person that someone has told you what you cannot do. Has that happened to someone that you know? Well, I have to tell you that someone reached back for me. And Trustee Abby Butler and I were just talking about how WCL has a tradition, the American University has a tradition of reaching back. Jo Carlberg, a WCL graduate, gave me my first legal job as a law clerk. Ed Bou, who is here, counsels and gives jobs and scholarships to WCL students. And Ken Lore reaches back. And David Jaffe reaches back. Reach back as you strive forward, WCL students.

The fourth insight has to do with believing in yourself and making things happen. And just because something has never happened before doesn't mean it is not possible.

Dr. Benjamin Mays has said, "The tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goals. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disgrace to reach for the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is a sin. Low aim is a sin." Some people select themselves out. They assume they're not smart enough; they're not engaged enough to pursue their dreams. In 1984-1985, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I was part of a small group of trial lawyers who, in addition to working in our community, were involved in community organizations and ultimately in politics. We participated in local city councils and other campaigns and now it was our turn to participate in selection of a candidate in a statewide election. I want to emphasize I was a small part of a larger effort. We focused on a member of the Virginia Senate as a potential candidate, and our candidate had chaired two major senate committees that had authored significant legislation. He was the first in his family to become a lawyer. In 1985-1986, some people in power in Virginia told us, "He cannot win. He is not electable." They told us, "The time is not right. The voters will not elect him. He is qualified, but he should wait." Indeed, some said that Hell would freeze over before Virginia would elect him to office. Well, we did not wait for the frost to lift. We did not listen. We rejected the negative thinkers, and in November of 1985, after a brutal campaign, I went to Richmond on election night to a grand hotel to see this person elected Virginia lieutenant governor. His name was L. Douglas Wilder. Four years later he was elected governor. Four years later, after my third try, Governor Wilder signed my commission to become a Virginia circuit court judge. Yes, I said, three tries—three runs to success—to be elected a judge.

The point is that there will be nay-sayers who will tell you that you cannot do it. They will tell you your voice will not matter; it does. They will tell you that unless you have a lot of money and sell out to certain interest groups that you cannot win; they are wrong. Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. And Malcolm X has said that you must "learn to listen, see and think for yourself." You do not have to wait for people to give you permission to live your life with passion and to realize your dream. No one call tell you what you can achieve.

My final insight is a very personal one, and I debated whether or not to share it with you, but I've decided that I must. And that has to do with my final thoughts on work and of love. This is the one thing that I wish someone had told me when I was sitting in those chairs right over there beside Linda Lazarus, and that is about the importance of finding love in your life and of making time to lead a balanced life. This practice of law is so demanding, so consuming. You've heard Zuberi Williams talk about the challenges you face as students. We lawyers are always out climbing ladders and slaying dragons. There are always big cases and big deals. And I was the type of lawyer who was always on the hunt; knocking on the doors; trying to break down barriers, working on the case, Professor Davis, and trying to close the deal. I came early and I stayed late. And I missed out on many of my son's events. I was not an attentive spouse. I did not spend as much time with my family as I should have or could have. My best friend and classmate, Tyrone Harris, Pam Harris have been with me always, even when I was not there for them.

Well, 25 years later, the lesson I have learned is that you do not get that time back. You do not get that time back to have a quiet conversation with your mom or with your dad. You do not get that time back to have time with your son or your daughter. You do not get that time back to share with a friend. I'm very fortunate to have family and friends who are here, they're all in that section over there—probably that whole half of the room. My aunts, my uncles, my grandparents, my parents, they've always supported me, and they've given me great examples of how to live, even when I would not listen. As always, in the front row, my Aunt Louise and Uncle Bobby have to stand in for my parents today, and I'm proud of my son Max, my brother Mert, my sister Karen, and my niece Carneila, and I'm blessed to have a loving family and friends. They stood with me, even when I was not as attentive as I should have been.

My point is, you will always have a big case. There will always be some big deal to work on. But you will never be able to recapture the time. When you get sick, your clients will not bring you soup or love. Your family will, if you attend to them. Build in the time for your family as you chase your dream. Because, in the end, it will not matter how much money you made, how big was your house, or how many cases you've won in the Supreme Court.

I've been very blessed, and this university has opened many doors for me. One of the best things that has ever happened to me was to meet and to marry Edna Ruth Vincent, a member of your class of 1989. She's now a prominent lawyer with her own law firm in Virginia. In Edna, I have found the love of my life, my heart, my best friend, and my law partner for life.

When I began my quest for the bench, Edna was there. When I was defeated, Edna was there. When it looked like I might never realize my dream, Edna was there. Likewise, when she was pursuing her dream to become a lawyer, I was there. And when she fell ill, I was there. When she received honors at her law school graduation, I was there. And, in the end, Edna was my lawyer in the federal judicial confirmation process. She won her case, and she won my heart.

If any of you, Class of 2003, have found that kind of love, hold on tight and don't let go. And if you're still looking for love, hold out for the right person at the right time. The love of your life is being prepared for you as you speak. Hold on.

Who would have thought it, Class of 2003, some of you say, "Who would have thought it, that today I would become a lawyer?" Who would have thought it, that if you saw me at 17 years old, hat cocked to the side, those dark sunglasses: someone would have imagined one day that that young man might end up in a courtroom some day. Perhaps in an orange jumpsuit with handcuffs. But no one would have dreamed that I would be in a courtroom in Alexandria in a black robe representing the United States. I tell you your dreams are possible. Robert Kennedy has said, "Some men look at the world as it is and ask, 'Why?' I dream things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'"

You, Class of 2003, are powerful. Who will you be in the year 2020? Is that a Supreme Court justice over there? I believe I see a prime minister, an ambassador, and a CEO. I tell you, your dreams are all possible. We wish you much success and all the best.

Thank you.