America needs law graduates and lawyers more than ever
What should we say to this year’s graduates at a time when so many feel discouraged? I have struggled with this question for the past few weeks. As Dean of the Faculty of Law, I chair and speak at our opening ceremonies. This year, we had two graduations: one for the class of 2022, and another for the classes of 2020 and 2021, who never had an in-person ceremony.
I have been a teacher for 42 years and I have never seen my students so discouraged by our country.
After thinking about it for a long time, I told my graduates to go make a difference.
I know that’s what early speakers and deans always say, but it’s different today. My feeling is that now, more than ever, our country and our world are going to need lawyers to uphold the rule of law and ensure justice. In so many countries, we see leaders bent on suppressing fundamental freedoms, undermining the rule of law.
Time and time again we hear people say, “Someone has to do something. These graduates are the ones who can do it.
It’s easy to feel discouraged. When this generation of students was in law school, they experienced a pandemic and the worst public health crisis in over a century; they witnessed the nation’s first Capitol insurrection, an unprecedented threat to democracy; a tragic war of continuing aggression waged against Ukraine where international law seems powerless, and the Supreme Court is now on the verge of removing fundamental rights that have existed throughout their lives.
All this makes the work of lawyers more necessary and more important. Protecting freedom – and hopefully advancing it – will not come without great effort. Restrictions on freedom and equality for the most vulnerable among us must be fought. Advances will require even bigger battles. As lawyers, they are essential for this to happen.
They will wield enormous power and have the chance to take lives or save them; protect freedom or compromise it; to protect or contribute to our environment; to help companies do good or bad. Their law school was so focused on teaching them to think and contemplate, but now I ask them all to care. Worry about the consequences and effects of what they do on people and on society. That’s why now, perhaps more than ever, society needs them as advocates.
Throughout American and world history, there have been tremendous advances in freedom and equality. Huge racial inequalities and injustices remain in our society, but there has certainly been significant progress since 1787, when the Constitution institutionalized slavery, or even since 1953, the year I was born, when laws mandating Racial segregation existed throughout the South.
Just seven years ago, same-sex marriage was legalized. I believe the future will bring more freedom and equality overall, although it may be slower in coming than any of us would like.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he pointed out that the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice.
It’s easy to feel discouraged, but I remember the words of the late John Lewis: “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Have hope, be optimistic. Our fight is not the fight of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the fight of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make noise and get into good, necessary trouble.
Erwin Chemerinsky is Dean and Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law.