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Commencement 2012 Convocation Speaker

Honorable Paul J. Fishman, United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey

Chancellor Yeagle, Dean Farmer, members of the Boards of Governors and Trustees, other members of the administration, faculty, family, friends, and most of all the Class of 2012. Thank you for including me in this wonderful ceremony.

And thank you John for that lovely introduction. When the Dean called to extend the invitation to speak today, it wasn’t a difficult decision for me at all. The honor of being selected is, indeed, profound. The notion that I have a captive audience for 15 or 20 minutes is exciting. The thought that I might have more to add after three years of your law school education is somewhat intoxicating. The idea that those responsible for your legal education would think that I could have something approximating the last word is really flattering. But none of those are what made this something that I felt I had to do. For me, it came down to one – and only one – thought: for two or three hours, on May 25, 2012, I would know exactly where John Farmer was. If I text him, I will know why he’s not answering. I can’t call him, but I can see him. And that makes this both a remarkable day in the life of the law school, and for me personally.

Fishman 2012 Commencement
“The beginning of your career is an extraordinary opportunity to think about how you want to serve the cause of justice, how you can help lift up the weakest and most vulnerable, how you can carry out the commandment to repair the world. Take advantage of that time now to think about what you can and want to do.”

To be fair, John is a great lawyer, a stunningly prolific writer, an inspiring teacher, and a true public servant. I think you are lucky to have him as your Dean; I know I’m lucky to have him as my friend, and I am delighted to celebrate your success with him.

I am also delighted to be with all of the proud parents, family members, and friends who are with us today. I know how hard today’s graduates have worked, and I’ll talk about that in a minute. But while they did that work, all of you were there to hold their hands or to give them shoulders to lean on. You were their cheerleaders, their fans, their pit crew, and maybe most important – their check writers – and you deserve your own special recognition for helping these graduates get here today. If they are being polite and realistic, they will all give you many, many personal thank-yous themselves. But as a community, you and this wonderful faculty share our gratitude for helping to cultivate the next generation of lawyers.

The other reason that I’m so glad to be here – maybe the most important reason for me – is that it reminds me so much of my late father, who passed away four years ago, just two weeks short of his 90th birthday. He was, like many of you who are graduating today, the first in his family to go to college, and he graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in chemistry in 1938. In those days, City College was the public college you attended if you were a smart Jewish kid in New York City. He went right on to get his masters and PhD from the University of Minnesota, also a public university. He enlisted in the army for a few years and then he returned to City College to join the faculty as in instructor in chemistry in 1946. Although he officially retired at some point, he actually continued to work at City College for 62 years, literally until the week before he died. During that time he was promoted to Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and full Professor; he was the head of the biochemistry program; and he was associate dean of the college for three or four years.

In each of those roles, he was devoted to teaching and mentoring the minority and economically disadvantaged who had become the core of City College’s student body. And he dedicated the last 25 years of his life – and I say that consciously, not just the last 25 years of his career, but the last 25 years of his life – to helping the most talented of those students get into medical schools and Ph.D. programs all across the country. He was devoted to the idea of public education and the ticket that it represents for so many who are striving for the American Dream. He loved and appreciated the power of institutions like Rutgers and what they have to offer. And so, for him, my having this honor would have been a source of extraordinary pride.

And the truth is, I am as excited as he would have been. Probably because of his influence, but also because I love the academy and what it stands for too, in my 2 ½ years as United States Attorney, I have participated officially in almost two dozen events at the three law schools in New Jersey. I’ve spoken at Rutgers Camden twice; I’ve been at Seton Hall for at least five events, including last year as their commencement speaker. I’ve been involved with Rutgers Newark the most: my formal investiture as United States Attorney took place in your beautiful atrium; I’ve been on panels discussing human trafficking, civil rights, white-collar crime, national security and cybercrime; I spoke at the orientation of the class of 2013; and I’ve held two meetings with groups of Muslim students to help build stronger bridges between their community and law enforcement.

Some of that, I suspect, is due to my long friendship with the Dean: mostly, when he calls, I show up. But really it’s because I have a very deep appreciation for the role that this school has played in the legal history of New Jersey and, more important, how its faculty, administration, and students have always thought about the role of lawyers.

Now before I go any further, I want to talk about today’s ceremony for a minute. Because each one of them is different. This one has some unique and wonderful characteristics. All of us – marched from the law school to this hall, a procession of academia sending a wonderful message to the people who live and work in this city. When we arrived, the graduating class marched through a phalanx of the faculty, accepting congratulations and offering thanks. And, for the first time in three years, there was free parking at the law school.

But there is one thing that has been bugging me ever since Dean Bouchoux sent me the draft of the program two weeks ago. And I know that the rest of you are thinking exactly what I’m thinking. It’s not, by the way – “are they going to read the name of every graduate and how long will that take?” – which is the question that everyone asks at every graduation. No, this question is pretty unique:  what is a Gonfalonier anyway? And is that even how you pronounce it? And what does it say about Dean Chen that he is so into being the Gonfalonier?

So, aside from my obligation to say something profound to the graduates – which I hope to do – let me digress for a minute. Because I spent a lot of time – I mean like three or four hours – researching this last week. Because I feel like I’m a reasonably well-educated guy, and I consider myself pretty well-read. I had no idea at all what that title meant. Nothing.

So here’s what I learned. Its current meaning is basically standard-bearer – that is, the guy carrying the colors. Ok – so Farmer asks Chen to carry the school flag. He’s thinking – a nice honor, the guy helped me on the congressional redistricting thing, he’s classy, he wears a bow tie. What could be wrong with that? Well it turns out that the history is much more complicated. First of all, the origin is medieval and renaissance Italy. So, while there are two or three modern pronunciations – Gone-fa-lone-ear (the American pronunciation), Gone-fa-lone-year (the British), and Gone-fa-lon-yay (the French) – the correct one is probably gone-fa-lone-yare-ay.

Now, in medieval Italy, there were two kinds of Gonfalonieri – one secular and one religious. The secular gonfaloniere was the most prominent member of the executive council of Florence and his function was to protect the interests of the people against the dominant classes. That is very Rutgers and is totally consistent with the Ron Chen you think you know.

But the religious gonfaloniere was a papal officer who carried the arms of the church and the pope and often served as the pope’s alter ego. Ok – that’s good for the Dean. But here’s where it gets a little dicey. It turns out that there were at least three Borgias who were Gonfalonieri and, if you have watched the show about the Borgias on TV, you have seen that the incidence of violent death that they suffered or caused seems a little high – even for a passionate faculty like yours. So I’m not sure how this will work out. But given Dean Chen’s frankly unhealthy obsession with this title, I urge my friend Farmer to watch his back.

“As new lawyers, when you teach, when you write, when you speak, when you practice – it should be and it is your obligation to celebrate these institutions: our independent judiciary, a vigorous and robust defense bar, and apolitical career prosecutors. And not just to celebrate them, but to cheer them on when they deserve it and to make them better when they do not. But mostly to help explain to the public, over and over, what is good about our system and how and why it essentially works.”

Think about some who have come before you: Federal District Court Judges Esther Salas and Freda Wolfson; New Jersey Supreme Court Justices Jaynee LaVecchia and Virginia Long; Louis Freeh, the former Director of the FBI; Elizabeth Warren, last year’s commencement speaker, former Prof at Harvard law, founder of the CFPB, and Senate candidate; former Attorney General Zulima Farber; the late Congressman Peter Rodino, who presided over the Watergate hearings; former Governor and Chief Justice Richard Hughes; State Senator Nia Gill; former NJ public defender Yvonne Segars.

Why do I list these alumni? Why do I give you these examples? You’ve already been here. You’re about to graduate. You don’t need the hard sell.

You have something in common with them. Maybe more than something.

Like you, all of those lawyers sat in these seats. Well, maybe not exactly in these seats. But in seats just like them, on a day just like today, at the same stages in their lives – some of course, a little bit older, others a bit younger, all disbelieving that their law school experience was nearly over, shocked that three years had passed so quickly, marveling at how much they had learned and startled at how little they actually knew. And all of them, each and every one, regardless of how confident or insecure, every one of them wondering – just like you are right now – what will my professional life be like?

Some were like Elizabeth Blume, who enrolled in the first class in 1908 at the age of 16, and graduated in 1911, not knowing if there would be any jobs for a woman and ended up, among her other astonishing accomplishments, as the first woman ever to try a murder case in the state of New Jersey.

Some like Wade Henderson ’73 or Hazel O’Leary ‘66 were totally unsure if there would be opportunities for people of color. Mr. Henderson heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Hazel O’Leary went on to become the Secretary of Energy under President Clinton.

Others came here over the years not knowing whether the economic uncertainty of the great depression, or the horror of World War II, or the turmoil of Vietnam, or the specter of nuclear destruction or any one of a million personal or larger world or national events would make their choices difficult, challenging or even foolish.

But each of them also understood that the study of law at this school would prepare them for what they wanted to do next and maybe for the rest of their lives.

Three years ago – four, I guess, for some of you, and maybe a little more for a handful – you decided to take that same journey, to commit yourselves to a course of study, to immerse yourselves in an environment that would teach you and challenge you to look at the world in a new and different way. From 21 states, 28 countries, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and speaking 30 different languages. Some of you right out of college; more of you farther along in life; some with lots of previous work experience, even careers and families.

It was, for some of you, a calling – the place where you knew in your gut for years you wanted to be. That’s the way it was for me, from the time in junior high school when I read Anatomy of a Murder by Agatha Christie. Maybe for you it was because you have a parent, a grandparent, or someone else you respect who was a lawyer. Maybe because you already appreciated the power of the law to effect social change and the profound role that lawyers have played in our history as a nation. For some of you, this was a second stop after you had dabbled in other fields. And for others of you, this was a place to hedge your bets. Not sure what you really wanted to do, or where you really wanted to end up, you chose law school because you appreciated and understood that its training would provide you with a solid foundation for law, or business, or something else that would pique your interest.

Regardless of your different motivations when you started, your time at this law school has been extraordinary. A number of you worked with Dean Farmer and Vice-Dean Chen in their work on the Congressional redistricting commission. The Law Review published a groundbreaking piece on the response of the FAA and Norad to the 9/11 attacks. And even though you all swore fidelity to Newark, and tell all of your friends why it’s a great city in which to go to law school, several of you managed to travel to Israel to study how the Israeli legal system deals with issues involving children, immigrants, and the underprivileged; some of you spent part of your winter break in the Dominican Republic with Dean Rothman, building a home and helping to start a non-profit corporation that will send physical therapists to underserved communities around the world. And still others just came back from Cuba. 

And on top of that, I understand that at least a few of you have found life partners, and others have managed to squeeze in starting or having a family.

But now, those accomplishments and your individual achievements – as impressive as they are – are behind you. No more Fiesta con Sabor; Jazz for Justice; or PILF auctions. No more arguing with Professor Francione about whether you can own a pet. No more wondering why a commuter law school in a crowded city has parking for what seems like only 17 cars; maybe even no more pizza from Robert’s.

This morning, when you entered through the doors of this beautiful hall, you were all still students at Rutgers Law School. In an hour or two, when you leave through those same doors, you will be something else. You will be lawyers.

I know, I know, I know what you’re thinking. You still have the bar exam, its own particular form of the kind of torture that many of you will spend your lives trying to eradicate. And we all know that the economy continues to be troubled and the job market for lawyers, once so fabulous and robust, is still teetering. I don’t want to minimize those challenges and I would insult you if I tried.

But, even so, I will say it again: Whether you take the bar, whether you practice, whether you join a big firm, a small firm, or hang out a shingle; whether you work for the government or a non-profit; whether you go in-house; teach; start a band; play professional sports; become a journalist; or spend time at home to raise your kids -- after you leave here today, you will be lawyers. 

And it is appropriate, I think, to reflect for a couple of minutes on what that means. For you. For us.

Last year, my family – my wife and I and two sons, who are in elementary school – visited Philadelphia. And not for the first time, nor I hope for the last, I was struck by the formidable role that lawyers have played – not just in the founding of our republic, but in all of the great developments and struggles in American history. From the debates at the constitutional convention, to the struggle over slavery that would almost tear the country apart, to the questions of who should or should not have the right to vote; who could go to which school; through the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights movement; to our very contemporary debates over the appropriate balance between personal privacy and national security; whether spying on your roommate is a crime and how it should be punished; who can or cannot marry; whether people can be required to buy health insurance – our country has continually and intentionally turned to the law to resolve those disputes and our nation has asked lawyers to handle them.

And from that I draw two conclusions about your role as lawyers.

First, you have an obligation – I would say a duty, but I know Professor Latin would object to my using the word duty – you have an obligation to use your legal training and expertise to serve the cause of justice and the principles on which our nation was founded. 

This law school – now more than a century old – has a rich, rich tradition of its alumni making those kinds of contributions to life in New Jersey and elsewhere. From the Governor’s mansion, to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, the State Supreme Court, the state and federal bench, the state legislature, and local offices — Rutgers Law School has contributed far more than its share to the ranks of government service. Nine of the lawyers in my office are alumni of this law school, and if the hiring freeze ever gets lifted, I expect that number may grow.

Although I’m enormously partial to government service myself, it’s hardly the only avenue to fulfill this obligation. Dean Chen and Professor Askin are examples of successful alumni of this law school who have found a different, but equally fulfilling and distinguished form of full-time public service. And our state’s law firms are full of Rutgers grads who have integrated considerable public service into extraordinarily successful careers in private practice.

And the list of successful alumni includes hundreds of others who embody this law school’s emphasis on service to others and to making society better. These are people who have enriched the lives of their fellow citizens and can legitimately claim that it was their time here – in this law school in this city – that started them on the track and enabled them to do just that:  to try to change world and make it a better place.

Many of you already get it. Some of you were involved in starting a new pro bono program to provide legal assistance to veterans. Others were involved in starting one of the first peer-advising programs aimed at students who want to pursue public interest and public service careers. And still others were involved in reviving the Women’s Law Forum and started a Take Back the Night Rally with Seton Hall.  

Several of you worked with Professor Venetis on the amicus brief she filed in the Supreme Court urging that corporations can be sued in the United States when they are party to human rights violations overseas. Others of you worked with her on a brief to insure the integrity of electronic voting equipment right here at home. And one of you – Angel Falcon – interned with my office. To be fair, it may not actually sound as glamorous as traveling to the Dominican Republic for winter break, or as dangerous as getting shelled by rocket fire in Israel, but it’s how I spent the summer after my first year in law school and it put me squarely on the path to a public service career.

When all is said and done, you all have represented your school and your class with honor and distinction.

But – I’ll be honest – it’s easier to do public service in law school without the relentless press of billable hours, the obligations to paying clients, and the stress, and joy, that come with family life. Half of you or more will leave here and go into private practice, or take a job in business or industry. And that’s terrific. But as you begin your lives as lawyers, don’t lose that spirit of service, your zeal to make things right and fair, and your appreciation for the change that you can bring as an advocate. The beginning of your career is an extraordinary opportunity to think about how you want to serve the cause of justice, how you can help lift up the weakest and most vulnerable, how you can carry out the commandment to repair the world. Take advantage of that time now to think about what you can and want to do.

The second aspect of being a lawyer that I want to talk about is a little harder to define, I think, but no less important.

We don’t, unlike some other countries, have a national religion that binds us together (or, in some cases, I suppose, drives other countries apart.) We don’t, unlike some other nations, have a unifying culture.  Instead, maybe because of the melting pot that we are, and certainly because of the circumstances of our founding as a nation, what binds us together is our shared commitment to the rule of law – effectively to a civil religion.

And now, because of your training and education, you have become in effect the clerics of this civil religion. You could, if the religious analogy feels strained, think of yourselves instead as interpreters, or translators, or guides, or sherpas. Whichever of those labels – or some other – appeals to you, you can’t avoid the fact that our social order, our institutions, our very social fabric is defined by a set of systems and rules that often seem opaque and confusing and sometimes stupid and rigid to members of the public but are systems and rules that you have now mastered – and hopefully appreciate – in a different and, yes, even a more sophisticated way. As a result of that training, people will look to you for guidance and understanding – not just for legal advice on particular matters, but for your views and attitude toward the system as a whole. And because you speak a language that they don’t, because you’ve studied things that they haven’t, because you’ve been trained to think about issues and rules and cases in ways that are more nuanced and more rigorous, your voice and your opinion will carry extra weight.

So your job is not just to use your knowledge and skills to do public service but to make sure that the system itself is explained and defended. I don’t mean, of course, that you can’t or shouldn’t try to achieve systemic change where you think it’s warranted. This law school, certainly more than most, has taught you to question, to probe, and to criticize our most important institutions. But overall, as lawyers, you have an obligation to speak out when the very systems in which we work are attacked.

We live in a time of fractious debate, ill-tempered public discourse, and difficult problems. We look to the law to solve those problems and, when it doesn’t give us a result that we like, we have a tendency to attack the process and those who participate in it. It is your job, it is your responsibility, it is your obligation to fight back.  You don’t have to agree with the result. Heaven knows you often won’t.

Let me tell you what I mean. Over the last several years, our national discourse has become increasingly vitriolic, and the attacks on government and its employees so much more shrill. I see it every day in the world in which I travel and it’s dangerous.

For the judges in the room, the process of nomination and confirmation involves running a personal gauntlet. Worse, repeated attacks on the good faith and independence of our judges and how they do their jobs, particularly when made by otherwise responsible officials, threatens the legitimacy of our courts. As Bobby Kennedy said in 1961, shortly after being sworn in as Attorney General, “The decisions of the courts, however much we might disagree with them, in the final analysis must be followed and must be respected. If we disagree with a court decision, and thereafter irresponsibly assail the court and defy its rulings, we challenge the foundations of our society.” But others often ignore those sentiments, instead building up public resentment toward independent judges who are the hallmark of our legal system and the wonderful unique quality that sets us apart from so many other countries in the world.

And courts aren’t the only targets – prosecutors and defense attorneys are fair game too. As you all know, there have been a few high profile cases – the prosecution of Senator Stevens being the most prominent federally – in which the prosecutors didn’t provide the discovery to which the defendants were entitled. I can’t and won’t defend that conduct. My view is unequivocal – lawyers for the United States Department of Justice should and must be the most ethical folks in the room. Always. But that kind of self-inflicted would is not and should not be an excuse for our adversaries to toss around baseless accusations of prosecutorial misconduct in cases where none has occurred. That disserves the system too.

And there is nothing more troubling than the prospect that defense attorneys – fulfilling their constitutional obligation to zealously represent clients – like prisoners in Guantanamo – should have their patriotism and fitness for public service questioned.

I don’t mean to suggest that lawyers have failed to act. Lawyers and the organized bar have spoken up.  And I think that the bar as a whole may have had no finer recent hour than the outpouring in response to the ads attacking those Guantanamo lawyers.

But I was struck a little bit about how unusual that outpouring was. And I think that we – and you – should try to make that kind of response the norm. As new lawyers, when you teach, when you write, when you speak, when you practice – it should be and it is your obligation to celebrate these institutions: our independent judiciary, a vigorous and robust defense bar, and apolitical career prosecutors. And not just to celebrate them, but to cheer them on when they deserve it and to make them better when they do not. But mostly to help explain to the public, over and over, what is good about our system and how and why it essentially works.

“Whatever you do – whether you teach, practice in a small or large firm, prosecute or defend the accused, make deals, plan estates, run for office, take the bench, you will have the chance to make a difference – to make your community better, to improve the lives of your clients, to make the world a safer place.”


There are, of course, other aspects of being a lawyer – a great lawyer – that I could talk about at length. How you serve your clients, whoever they turn out to be, and how you conduct yourself – ethically, and morally – that are just as important. I am impressed – really impressed – that you will be taking the oath of professionalism when I’m done. But I leave that for others and for another time.

Instead, let me close with a final allusion to my father.

Unless there was something that precluded his attendance, in his 60 years as a professor, I don’t think he missed more than handful of City College commencements. And for many, many years, I never got it. I’ve been to commencements. Not just my own, but my sister’s, my nephew’s, friends, and a few others where I knew no one, simply because I happened to be at a reunion of mine or my wife’s on graduation day. Except for my own, which were thrilling, all of them were fine, but didn’t particularly move me. And so I didn’t get my dad’s obsession. Until I got to be on the stage and at the podium. Standing here, from this vantage point, even with my limited involvement in your education, I have a bit of a chill as I look out at you. And for those who have spent three or four years, as these faculty members have, and as my father did, teaching, mentoring, watching and helping you learn what you need to know, for them – the sense of accomplishment and hope, of  achievement  and expectation, of skill and promise is extraordinary.

This law school has given you the tools and the expertise, the learning and the friendships, and the skills and the doctrine, to help your clients, to make your marks, to serve your country, and to change the world.

Whatever you do – whether you teach, practice in a small or large firm, prosecute or defend the accused, make deals, plan estates, run for office, take the bench, you will have the chance to make a difference – to make your community better, to improve the lives of your clients, to make the world a safer place.

Everyone of us in this room is proud of you. Everyone of us sees your promise. And everyone of us is counting on you. Congratulations, Class of 2012 – you are lawyers.