YLS 2013 Commencement: Graduates Encouraged to Use Law as Tool for Change

Facing a world filled with great possibilities, but also “inexorable” and “unfathomable” challenges, Yale Law School graduates were encouraged Monday to use law as a powerful tool for change.

Several hundred people, including more than 200 graduates and their families and friends, filled the William K. Lanman Center at Payne Whitney Gymnasium during commencement ceremonies Monday afternoon.

The ceremonies featured remarks from Dean Robert C. Post '77, Jacquin D. Bierman Professor in Taxation Anne L. Alstott '87, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’79, who thrilled the crowd when she appeared after having been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law by Yale University earlier in the day.

Speaking about both the perils and power of law, Alstott discussed the societal problems that impact the youth of the country, from education inequality, to the rising cost of obtaining a degree, to dismal unemployment numbers among young graduates.

At the heart of these problems of generational transition, Alstott said, lies the law. 

“Law too often serves power at the expense of the vulnerable,” Alstott said. “Legal rules too often reinforce class divisions and bolster privilege. Legal actors too often abuse their power in order to distribute largesse to the wealthy at the expense of the public.”

However, Alstott encouraged graduates to internalize these sobering realities with an optimistic mind, and focus on the true power and potential their degrees have to make a difference.

“As you reflect on our time together, I hope you will see that we showed you the dark side of the law to give you clarity and resolve—not to make you cynical,” said Alstott. “We taught you to spot the hidden advantages accorded to the powerful so that you can level the playing field. We taught you to see the invisible walls that insulate privilege so that you can dismantle them. We have helped you grasp the tools of justice, and we trust you to use them. I cannot wait to see the results!”

Alstott closed with a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “We, as lawyers, can be builders too. We can use our tools to build a society in which every member of the new generation can celebrate her graduation –not only with joy but with well-founded hope for the future.” - Anne L. Alstott

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

“We, as lawyers, can be builders too,” said Alstott. “We can use our tools to build a society in which every member of the new generation can celebrate her graduation –not only with joy but with well-founded hope for the future.”

Following Alsott’s address, Justice Sotomayor arrived on the dais, prompting the cheers and applause to grow louder as she waved and sat down beside the faculty.

Welcoming her back to New Haven, Dean Post reflected on Sotomayor’s time at Yale Law School and her remarkable career.

“She is judicious; she is empathetic; she is firmly grounded in social reality,” said Post. “She is a superb legal craftsman, faithful to the integrity of the law while shaping the law to be responsive to our shared values.”

“You are a Justice who does the appellation credit, and we are delighted and proud to welcome you back to Yale,” added Post.

When Sotomayor took to the podium, she reflected on how she felt more than 30 years ago, sitting in the same seats as the graduates before her. She urged graduates to listen to their instincts and focus on building a life, not a resume.

“Find your passion,” Sotomayor said. “Find your passion, not other peoples' passion. And that actually is the real answer to the difficulties most of you may experience about questions like am I doing meaningful work.”

“The answer is, if you are doing work that satisfies you, that makes you feel good about what you are learning and accomplishing, even if to others it’s not what they want to do, it doesn’t matter, because you are serving.”

“Law is service if you do it with honor and integrity and a sense of passion…” added Sotomayor.

During Dean Post’s address to graduates Monday, he instilled on them the importance of using the judicial skills they have acquired at Yale Law School as a vehicle to deal with the ever-changing and uncertain world around them.

“We can be confident only that in the coming decades we will encounter a world of rapid and almost unimaginably profound change,” Post said.

“And a question that we might consider is how we could possibly have prepared you for the multiple and unforeseeable challenges that await you?”

Post told graduates that they must believe in themselves in order to face these challenges and advocate for positive change.

“It is not enough that when you leave here you understand the challenges you will face, or even that in facing them you are able to envision new possibilities of improvement,” he said.

“You must also believe, deep in your souls, that you matter, that your response to these challenges will make a difference to the world,” added Post. “You must have the confidence to respect your own considerable capacities, and this will inspire you to act, whenever action is needed.”

Two hundred thirty three degree candidates were honored at the ceremonies Monday. The students will officially receive their degrees — 207 JDs, 21 LLMs, 3 JSDs, and 2 MSLs — when the Law School faculty votes on May 29.