Class of 2006: Celebrating Community and Leadership

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Addressing Duke Law School’s 2006 graduating class, David Gergen urged its members to become what he called “lawyer statesmen”– professionals “whose practical wisdom and exceptional persuasive powers are directed toward helping clients serve the higher public good.” Gergen, professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, spoke at the Law School’s hooding ceremony, Saturday, May 13 in Cameron Indoor Stadium, where hoods were presented to 213 J.D. recipients, 46 of whom were joint-degree recipients, and 75 non-American students earning L.L.Ms or master’s degrees in American law.

A former advisor to four presidents, Gergen discussed the need for lawyers to preserve the integrity of the law while negotiating the roles of advocate and “statesman.” He recalled advice Fred Fielding gave him while both were members of the Reagan staff. As President Reagan’s White House general counsel, and a man who had “resisted the temptations of power” while serving as White House deputy counsel under John Dean during the Watergate era, Fielding advised him to avoid taking action that was questionable, though technically defensible. “‘Can I advise you, as a friend and as someone who wants to be respected, that there is a much better way to proceed? You won’t find it as convenient, and you may not achieve everything you want, but at the end of the day you can sleep at night, and your honor will be intact.’”

Gergen also advised the graduates to seek balance between their professional careers and personal lives, observing that the increase in the amount of billable hours expected of young attorneys can place undue tension on married life and an unfair burden on women lawyers who want families. “Women should not have to choose between practicing law and raising children,” Gergen said emphatically, noting that women comprise 46 percent of the graduating class.

With more than half of their class entering the private sector, 20 percent beginning clerkships, and 10 percent accepting public interest or public service jobs, Gergen told the graduates to transcend distinctions between public and private practice. “The 70 percent of you who are entering private practice, will, I hope, come to see your role as not only to serve your private clients, but the public good as well. Public service should be what you do whenever and wherever you practice law. Your faculty will join me, I’m sure, in hoping that you will help us restore the great traditions of the law. We hope that yours will be the generation that restores the nobility of the law. We hope that you will make the right choice about the practice of law.”

In her remarks, Dean Katharine Bartlett praised the tremendous leadership and commitment demonstrated by the graduates, noting that they set the record in the number and quality of student-initiated conferences at the Law School and for participation in pro bono service to the community, and distinguished themselves nationally and internationally in moot court team success and law journal quality.

Quoting former Duke President Terry Sanford, Dean Bartlett said, “‘Alumni are the measure and verification of the University.’ You are our ambassadors and when I see all of you before me it makes me incredibly proud to be dean of this law school because I know you will represent us well.”

Speaking on behalf of the LL.M. class, José Rodriguez Canales of Saltillo, Mexico, recalled the way his fellow students worked together to welcome Tulane students displaced by Hurricane Katrina with a barbeque. “This allowed us to truly understand what being a member of the Duke community implies–commitment, leadership, good attitude, and companionship. It didn’t matter that we knew each other for no more than two weeks. It didn’t matter the language barriers we had. We all had a very clear understanding of what we had to do, we had to help.”

Rodriguez urged his classmates not to forget the values imparted by their shared experience, and not to “forget to be thankful for having the opportunity to be Duke students.”

JD speaker William Miller also praised the collaborative and supportive atmosphere he and his classmates found at Duke. “A helping hand has always been the norm at Duke Law, not the exception,” Miller said. “This norm was established by our families, professors, and administrators, through their commitment to us. And this class followed their lead in so many ways. You gave time, money, even rooms in your homes to students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. You worked countless hours for the Innocence Project, the Aids Legal Project, and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. This appreciation of the shared experience is so important given the law’s flexibility.

“When I came to law school, I expected to learn the law–a concrete body of rules. Instead, I learned that the law is not set in stone, but subject to interpretation, the quality of which is dependent on the character of the interpreter. Now we are among the interpreters. Based on all of my experiences with all of you, I know that the show–the legal profession–is going to get much much better.”