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Elizabeth Warren ’76: Thoughts on Rutgers Law and Advice to Graduates

When Elizabeth Warren expressed to a newspaper columnist her appreciation that Rutgers School of Law–Newark “took a poor kid from Oklahoma and kicked open a thousand doors for me,” she could not have guessed that “opening a thousand doors” would appear a year later as the subtitle for the centennial history of the school. Granting author Professor Paul Tractenberg’s request to borrow the phrase, she also graciously provided a blurb for the back cover which speaks of “all of us who love the People’s Electric Law School.” 

  Elizabeth Warren   
  Elizabeth Warren at Harvard Law School   

Elizabeth Warren, Class of 1976, was a student during a period in which the “People’s Electric Law School” was the moniker used by many in the law school community to connote the energy and engagement of faculty and students in using the law as a vehicle for social change. That the 2011 Commencement Speaker and recipient of an honorary Doctor of Laws degree has used her law degree to make changes – changes that have made a difference – is indisputable.

The Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School since 1995, Warren was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010 and by the National Law Journal as one of the most influential lawyers of the decade. The author of nine books and more than 100 scholarly articles on credit and economic stress, she was an early advocate for the creation of an independent consumer financial protection agency.

In his introduction of Warren as Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, President Obama described her as “one of the country’s fiercest advocates for the middle class.” As “the architect behind the idea of a consumer watchdog,” Warren, he said, “is the best person to stand this agency up.”

Just as Warren can readily identify the source of her academic interests – the late Rutgers Professor Allan Axelrod, famous for bringing clarity and humor to subjects traditionally thought of as dry – so too can Assistant Professor Chrystin Ondersma. A former teaching assistant to Warren at Harvard Law School, Ondersma also focuses her teaching and scholarship on bankruptcy and commercial law. After receiving her J.D. magna cum laude in 2007 from Harvard, Ondersma clerked for the Honorable Michael Daly Hawkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Prior to joining the Rutgers faculty in spring 2010, she was an associate in the Business Finance and Restructuring Department at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York.

Chrystin Ondersma   
Rutgers Law Professor Chrystin Ondersma   

In the following, Ondersma first recalls one particular class at Harvard Law and then asks her former professor to reflect on some career experiences:

“I’ll never forget the first time I heard Professor Warren explain her powerful, now famous ‘exploding toaster’ analogy: We have a Consumer Product Safety Commission to make sure companies can’t sell you a toaster that has a one in five chance of exploding and burning down your house – but we have nothing to prevent a company from selling you a mortgage that comes with a one in five chance that your house will be foreclosed upon.

“I was a student in her class, and it was 2006 – before mortgages started exploding in alarming numbers. Thanks to Professor Warren’s tireless advocacy, now we do have an agency charged with ensuring that financial products are safe – the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

“In September 2010, President Obama announced his appointment of Professor Warren as Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on CFPB. Countless factors make her the ideal person for the job: her unmatched expertise in consumer finance, her commitment to empirical evidence, her willingness to adapt her views in light of new data, and her leadership and management experience (including her role as Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP). (Not to mention, of course, that the agency was her idea in the first place.) 

“If we all devoted as much as Professor Warren does to improving the well-being and security of ordinary folks, amazing things could happen.”

As you know, you are the reason that I became a bankruptcy and commercial law professor. What (or who) led you to specialize in this field?

Allan Axelrod, who taught at Rutgers for decades, turned me on to the subject. He was brilliant, humane, and cranky. He showed how bankruptcy was intellectually challenging, but that at its heart was about moral choices. Axelrod was a towering figure, and, along with many other Rutgers alums, I miss him.

When you first graduated from law school, you had your own solo practice. Can you tell me about one of your most memorable moments as a new practitioner?

I had a client whose checkbook had been stolen, and the bank had informed her that she would have to make good on the forged checks passed by the thief.  She didn’t think that was fair – and I didn’t think it was legal. So I called the bank on her behalf. The banker I spoke with was polite, but firmly insisted there was nothing he could do to help: “Bank policy,” he said. So I quoted Article III of the Uniform Commercial Code. There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and then the reply: “We’ll give her back the money.” It really drove home how powerful the law is, but that it isn’t self-enforcing; access and information is critical.

What is one memory of Rutgers Law School that exemplifies your experience as a student there?

I remember orientation day. Some crusty professor barked at us that there was only one thing to learn at that point: Where are the restrooms. Everything else, I could figure out on my own. Clearly, law school was going to be very different from college.

I am in awe of the ease with which you speak publicly – whether testifying before Congress, chatting with Jon Stewart, or addressing viewers of Dr. Phil. To what do you attribute that skill?

I was on the receiving end of some of the toughest Socratic teachers in the country. It surely helped taking Constitutional Law with the legendary Bob Knowlton. Class felt like hand-to-hand combat every day! Nothing ever scared me quite so much again after law school.

Do you have any words of wisdom for law students or recent law grads currently seeking (or soon to be seeking) work in this tough economy?

In difficult times like these, consider taking whatever job is offered to get your foot in the door, and then do your best to turn it into an interesting job. Like anything in life, a job is what you make of it. At the new consumer agency, there are so many bright people who have come in and essentially said, “This is the work I’m assigned, and I’ll do it cheerfully and efficiently – but I’m raising my hand to volunteer to work on other projects that will really let me spread my wings.”  It’s a smart move now, but an even better attitude for life.

Watch the video of Professor Paul Tractenberg's May 2011 interview with Elizabeth Warren about her years at Rutgers Law School.

Read Professor Warren’s convocation address to the Class of 2011.