Convocation 2023: Kate Adams tells graduating students to savor the moment
Adams, general counsel for Apple, shared life lessons from her parents in a Convocation address to the Law School’s Class of 2023.
Kate Adams, general counsel for Apple, told Duke Law School’s Class of 2023 to be generous, take risks, and seek ways to make each moment count during their Convocation ceremony on Saturday, May 13.
“Our journey as professionals is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Adams. “So savor each moment, and seize today’s opportunity to enrich your lives and the lives of those around you.”
The event in Cameron Indoor Stadium honored 234 JD graduating students, 20 of whom also earned a Master of Laws, or LLM, in international and comparative law, and seven of whom also received an LLM in law and entrepreneurship. Seven JD graduating students earned a graduate degree from another department or school at Duke University in addition to their JDs. Thirty-six JD graduating students received the Public Interest and Public Service Law certificate.
Eighty-three graduates of law schools in other countries also received their LLM degree. Nineteen trial and appellate judges received an LLM in Judicial Studies.
Convocation was livestreamed for those who could not attend and the recording will be available on Duke Law’s YouTube channel.
In her opening remarks, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law Kerry Abrams noted that this year’s JD class was the first in Duke Law’s history to take all of their first year courses remotely.
“You came back from a difficult situation and made Duke Law your own,” Abrams said. “You came together as a community to support one another and rebuilt the campus culture, making us even stronger than we were before. If the last two years are any indication of how you will conduct yourselves in the world as lawyers and citizens of your communities, our future is bright indeed.”
Distinguished speaker Kate Adams shares lessons from legendary environmentalists
Abrams introduced Adams, who is a member of Apple’s executive team, reporting to CEO Tim Cook. Adams oversees legal matters at the world’s most valuable company, including corporate governance, intellectual property, litigation and securities compliance, global security, and privacy.
Prior to joining Apple in 2017, Adams worked at Honeywell for 14 years, most recently serving as senior vice president and general counsel. Before that, she was a partner at Sidley Austin. Adams also served as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer when he was chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. She graduated from Brown University and received her law degree from the University of Chicago.
Adams’s address was based on three lessons passed on by her parents, John H. Adams ’62 and Patricia Adams, who attended Duke University as an undergraduate. They attended the ceremony along with Kate Adams's daughter Harriet Wiser T’23 and other family members.
With the support of Patricia Adams, a teacher, author, and environmentalist, John Adams co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970 as one of the first nonprofits created to enforce the country’s nascent environmental laws and served as its executive director and, later, president until 2006. He received an honorary doctor of laws from Duke in 2005 and in 2010 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. The couple co-authored A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet, published in 2010.
Kate Adams recalled that despite starting their family in a two-room apartment at the beginning of their careers, her parents always kept their door open to lawyers, scientists, and advocates in the burgeoning environmental movement that would give rise to organizations like the NRDC. Often, she said, her mother would roast chicken and potatoes for whomever showed up.
“What really set the organization and indeed the movement on its path was the generosity and openness my parents showed to any and all comers,” Adams said. “Even when we didn’t have a lot to give, we gave what we had. And that example of generosity and community has always stayed with me.
“My parents taught me that whatever you have to give, wherever you are in life, is enough. Whether it’s hospitality, pro bono legal services, or a chicken dinner, your generosity of spirit will be appreciated — and may even be inspirational.”
Adams said her parents also encouraged her to take unexpected paths, and to look for opportunities to find purpose and meaning there. Adams did just that: Rather than becoming an environmental lawyer after her Supreme Court clerkship, she decided to pursue a career in corporate law.
“I found that I loved working in business, and that I had a knack for solving strategically complex problems. And I thought I might be able to influence how at least one company tackled its environmental problems,” she said. “To my parents’ credit, they never once criticized this decision. Rather than demeaning the work I was doing, they always told me how proud they were that I was a woman in business and the path I’dchosen would have its own rewards. And they were right.”
When she joined Honeywell as head of litigation, Adams recalled, the company was in poor financial shape, had a reputation as a notorious polluter, and carried the largest Superfund liability of any corporation in the country. But rather than continue a legal battle over the cleanup of New York’s Onondaga Lake, the site of years of industrial pollution, Honeywell began a restoration project that has significantly improved its water quality a decade-and-a-half later.
“That experience taught me that wherever you might find yourself, the potential to make a difference is always present,” Adams said. “So as you begin your careers, always remember: You can have incredibly rewarding experiences in the most unlikely of places.”
It was that choice that created the opportunity to join Apple, Adams said, though that wasn’t always obvious. At one point when she felt frustrated and stagnant in her career, she turned to her mother for a sympathetic ear.
“She said to me, ‘Don’t wish your life away, Kate. Live it now,’” Adams recalled. “I can’t say I fully appreciated the depth of what she said right then. It has taken me many years to appreciate the significance of now. But now is an amazing place. It is full of immediate possibilities if you are open to them.”
Class speakers emphasize the value of diversity and community
Convocation also featured speakers selected by the graduating classes. MJS class speaker Douglas M. Fasciale, an associate justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court since 2022, began his speech by describing an early conversation with his class of 19 judges and justices that profoundly impacted and intensified their experience in the program.
On their introductory Zoom call the class was asked the seemingly simple question, “How would you describe yourself?” he recalled. But as each person began to share not only the facts of their lives but also meaningful experiences that had shaped them, Fasciale realized the question “magnified the lens through which we saw one another.”
“We no longer looked at each other with the impressions that we had going into the class,” he said. “We began to look at each other as described by one another, and it was incredible. We took time to listen to each other, to learn from one another, and to appreciate what each person brought to the table.”
Looking back, Fasciale said, he was reminded “that relationships matter, that each person has value, that we impact everyone that we meet, and that we have much to learn from one another.”
Fasciale thanked the Duke Law professors and administrators of the Bolch Judicial Institute and closed with a message to the graduating JDs: “You all have so much to give. Use your skills, use your specialized training to make a difference in the lives of others. But do it with intentionality. Get to know them not only through your eyes but through theirs. And it will transform you and it will transform them.”
LLM class speaker Rennan Gil Alves Nascimento of São Paulo, Brazil, echoed that theme, noting the diversity of the class of 2023, which includes students from 37 countries and the highest number of students from the African continent in the program’s history. In a polarized world it is more comfortable to limit our circles to people who appear, think, and believe in a way that is familiar to us, Nascimento said, but that is not the path of progress.
“History has shown us that we achieve greater results by embracing our differences, not by fighting them. And our year together is evidence of this,” he said. “For most of us, the LLM was an immersive experience outside our home countries. But together we learned that the sense of belonging can come from anywhere in the world.
“In the years ahead, whenever you feel that someone’s point of view is too different for you to consider, remember how we learned and lived with individuals from 37 different countries. Remember how we listened, how we paid attention, how we worked to create bridges instead of fences. And last, how we ended up considering each other as family.”
JD class speaker Vanessa Keverenge, a Winter Park, Florida native, recognized the class for beginning its first year “alone behind a screen in an isolating time.”
“Now, look around you and at how far we’ve come—all of us, together in one room,” she continued. “Your strength is the citizenship that you demonstrated, the kindness and compassion you showed each other, and the community that you built – virtually and in person.”
The knowledge that her class members have acquired over the past three years affords them “the power to shape or break a society,” Keverenge said. “It allows us to bring about significant change or just let things remain the same. It gives us the ability to hold powerful positions – positions that most people never have. So what are you going to do with that power?”
Noting that starting law school during a global crisis had shaped the class into a braver, more community-oriented, and more vocal group, she urged her classmates to focus on purpose and impact as they answer that question.
“Let us not forget that with our existence, legal knowledge, and power comes the opportunity to bring others up with us. Don’t forget that we have the power to create the systems that we want to see,” Keverenge said. “And as the legal theorist Angela Harris says, we have the power to reimagine and recreate a more equitable world. Don’t forget that our strength is amplified by our ability to continue to build community as we move through life.”
Award winners honored
During the ceremony, Abrams announced the winners of the 2023 Justin Miller Awards, given to graduating JD students for leadership, integrity, citizenship, and intellectual curiosity, and to one outstanding LLM student.
- Leadership: Monica Calce
- Integrity: Andrew Tisinger and John Addy
- Citizenship: Agustin Baler and Molly Diamondstein
- Intellectual Curiosity: Paul Drexler and Sydney Engle
- LLM Award for Leadership and Community Participation: Christoph Niessen
Earlier in the week, 10 JD students and four LLM students from the Class of 2023 received the Pro Bono All-Star Award for exceptional contributions made through pro bono service over their Duke Law career. Their collective efforts represented thousands of hours of pro bono work addressing the unmet legal needs of low-income and disadvantaged individuals and communities.
- JD honorees: Agustin Baler, Claudia Benz, Ryan Birschbach, Melissa Gustafson, Amanda Joos, Ivy Moore, Ali Rosenblatt, Kiki Shim, Andrew Tisinger, and Kate Weaver
- LLM honorees: Dingyu He, Junhong Dong, Luis Gabriel Jimenez, and Maria Castrejon Lacroix.
Closing the ceremony, Abrams wished the new alumni a fulfilling career in the law and urged them to return.
“Please come back often and maintain a strong connection with your professors, your classmates, and the next generations of Duke Law students. This is just the beginning of what we hope will be a long relationship with your alma mater,” Abrams said. “Congratulations and good luck to each of you.”