Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2000 Commencement

American University
Washington College of Law
Commencement Address
Mark L. Schneider
May 21, 2000

President Benjamin Ladner, Dean Claudio Grossman, distinguished faculty, administrators, students, families, friends and, most important, graduates of the Class of 2000. Congratulations to you all. It is with deep humility that I accept this honorary law degree, and it is with great pleasure that I join you in celebrating the first graduating class of the 21st Century, the Class of 2000. From the time when the Washington College of Law was founded by two women a century ago, you have built a proud record of legal training, community service, and equal rights.

The Washington College of Law is special. And this is a very special class. You come from 29 countries, and nearly 60 percent of you are women. Nearly all of you have participated in the Year of Pro Bono to bring legal relief to those in need. It may have taken 100 years, but the Law School has finally gotten it right. This Class is truly awesome.

I know that behind each degree that will be conferred today are thousands of hours of personal discipline and effort, doubt and joy, frustration and fulfillment. And that’s just talking about your families. Graduates, how about a well-deserved round of applause for your family and loved ones.

Now, as I prepared this speech, I tried to remember back more than three decades ago when I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. I know that I was thinking about the future, about the diploma I was about receive…and, I must admit, about the parties that were about to begin. And I tried very hard to remember who spoke at my commencement. Beats me. I still cannot recall his name. I also tried to remember what he said. No idea. Other than this—I believe he made a short speech and for that I have been forever grateful.

Decades from now, I hope at least that you will remember me the same way.

I think that Albert Einstein may have given one of the shortest graduation speeches ever. He said, “I do not have any particular thoughts to express today, so I wish you all success in the future.” Then he sat down. But he had some legal training. So he billed for the full hour anyway.

Now there are several reasons why I am particularly pleased to speak at this law school’s commencement ceremony. First, I have known your dean for 25 years as a friend and advisor. Claudio was exiled by Pinochet for his beliefs, welcomed by America for his accomplishments, and admired by human rights activists the world over for his courage, his creativity, and his concern. You are fortunate to have him as your dean. Second, both my wife and I have been part of the advisory family of this law school and I was honored to be a judge in your international moot court competition, the only one anywhere conducted in English and Spanish. Third, as the Peace Corps Director, I feel very much at home here. Since 1961, 550 AU alumni have served our country as Peace Corps volunteers and then continued their commitment to public service when they returned home.

I am thinking of returned Peace Corps volunteers like Rick Wilson who directs your clinical programs and International Human Rights Law Clinic, Rebecca Davis who is your registrar, and Visiting Professor Michael Davidson. I am thinking about two of those receiving JD degrees today: Manuel Garcia, who served as a volunteer in Cost Rica working with street children and Erica Simpson who taught English as a volunteer in Uzbekistan. Congratulations to you both. And I also am thinking of Erin Seiler, my special assistant, who graduated from AU, served in Mali and is with us here today.

And if any of you want to extend the Pro Bono Year for another two years in other countries, do I have a deal for you. You can apply on-line to the Peace Corps today and be traveling to exciting Peace Corps assignments by the end of the summer. Today, lawyers serving in the Peace Corps are teaching at law schools in Africa and Central Asia, re-writing laws in the former Soviet Union, and advising local governments around the globe.

Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer myself, I just have three pieces of advice for any future Peace Corps volunteers among you. First, don’t drink the water. Second, before you get your first haircut overseas, make sure you know the vocabulary. And third, don’t be surprised, as you enter the town, if you hear the people in your community whispering to each other. They’re not saying, “Thank God, they’ve come!” It’s more likely they’re saying, “There goes the neighborhood.”

There is another reason why I am particularly honored to be here today. It gives me a chance to tell you that your diploma is more than a hard-earned professional credential; it also can be a powerful tool for justice.

One of the namesakes to your Pro Bono program, the late Justice William J. Brennan, said, “The task of nurturing the constitutional ideal of dignity does not rest solely with the nine justices, or even the cadre of Federal and State judges. We all share the burden…If I have drawn one lesson in 90 years, it is this: To strike a blow for freedom allows a man to walk a little taller and raise his head a little higher. While he can, he must.”

Around the world and here at home, the challenge for you as lawyers will be whether you will strike a blow for freedom and justice, for human rights and individual dignity.

In 1974, I led a United States Senate human rights investigating mission to Chile. We went, in part, to observe a trial of political prisoners being conducted by the Chilean military. It made a mockery of due process. Submachine-gun toting soldiers, whose mission was intimidation rather than security, body-searched us before we entered the makeshift courtroom. The defense attorneys had been named barely hours before the proceedings began and had not had time to prepare a defense. The prosecution case was based almost entirely on confessions. Defense attorneys argued that the confessions had been obtained through torture. Time after time, the attorneys were ruled out of order and threatened with prosecution if they repeated that defense. Every defendant was convicted. It was raw injustice.

In that room, the ancient holder of the balance scales was not only blind, but mute and deaf as well. I saw then—as I have seen since—the irreplaceable role that lawyers play in defending justice and the rule of law. It can be the most honorable and worthy of professions, essential to the success of democratic transitions and vital to protecting human dignity.

Lawyers also have a crucial role in this era of global competition to help balance the economic scales of justice as well. Those countries around the world where the rule of law is secure have the basic requirement of a level playing field in place for potential investors. And even more important, they have the cornerstone in place for more equitable societies. Yet the benefits of globalization are not distributed equally. There are 50 million Wb sites to connect the global community, yet most people of the developing world have never made a telephone call. Nearly three billion of the world’s population survives on less than $2 a day. The poor need schools, health care, jobs and credit; but they need access to legal protection as well.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador three decades ago, I saw workers exploited without recourse to law when their promised pay was withheld. I saw farmers without legal title to their land. They had no lawyers, no avenue of redress and no hopes of justice from the courts even if they could get there. So I know the enormous difference that lawyers can make when they teach the poor what their legal rights are and when they help defend those rights in the courts. Because, ultimately, the test in all nations is not whether the most powerful can demand justice, but whether the least powerful can receive justice.

So, as you leave here today, I ask you not only whether you will labor to do well, but whether you also will seek to do good.

There are some people today who claim that today’s law graduates are interested only in their own prospects for recruiting clients, earning salaries and making partner. I say they are wrong.

The law students engaged in mentoring, tutoring and creating scholarships for students at Johnson Junior High School tell me they are wrong.

The dozens among you who traveled to Honduras to help Hurricane Mitch victims tell me they wrong.

Those of you who raised $26,000 to provide legal services to the underrepresented tell me that they are wrong.

And the more than 1000 children in DC schools who learned about constitutional law through the Marshall-Brennan Fellowship Program tell me that they are wrong.

For those who say there is no spirit of service among law graduates left in this country, I say let them come to the Washington College of Law.

For those who say that law schools are only teaching students how to bill their time, I say let them come to the Washington College of Law.

Let them come and see that the belief in community and public service at this law school is as strong as it has ever been at any time and at any place in history. Am I right?

Whether your next step is a K Street law firm, a job with Legal Aid or joining the Peace Corps, whether you walk the halls of Congress or the streets of Anacostia, the challenge will be whether you make service to community, service to country, and service to justice an integral part of your days. The choice always will be yours.

The best piece of advice I ever heard about deciding between alternatives came from a very wise man, Yogi Berra, who once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Those forks will appear when you least expect them. At times, the difference between risk and opportunity will not be clear…I urge you to choose based on your knowledge and your instinct, your values and your heart. Explore the unknown, live life to its fullest, and along the way, have fun.

In my wallet, amidst the credit cards, I carry with me a pretty worn piece of paper on which I hand-copied the words long ago. But they are words that I take out from time to time to remind myself or to share with others a rationale for what we do each day. They are words spoken by the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, when he took a stand against apartheid in South Africa in 1965. He said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope; and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Years from now, when you look back on what I am confident will be a life well lived, you will be judged not by the amount of money you made or the number of hours you billed. You will be judged by who you are and not by what you have; by the example you set; by the kind of citizen you were; by the promises you kept; by the richness of the time spent with family, friends, and children. And when it is all said and one, you will be judged by the ripples you sent forth that helped clear the way to justice for all.

I know you will live up to that promise.

Thank you very much for inviting me to share this special day with you. Good luck and Godspeed on the journey ahead.