Graduation 2018: Dean Gillian Lester Addresses the Class of 2018

Graduation 2018: Dean Gillian Lester Addresses the Class of 2018

October 23, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Good evening and congratulations to the
class of 2018. Graduates, you’ve worked very hard to reach this milestone. All of us here on the stage and the generations of Columbians who’ve come before you
stand together in saluting you today. We take tremendous pride in all that you’ve
accomplished, but even more than that, we’re excited for your future. I see you’ve brought a few guests with you this evening. Welcome to all of you
parents, spouses, children, friends, loved ones. We congratulate you as well for all
that you have sacrificed and all that you have contributed to make this day
possible. Graduates, please stand and show your appreciation for your loved ones. Today I am optimistic, and no that is not
a typo. I am optimistic. At a time when our country–our world–is more polarized
than it’s been in decades, I feel a sense of hope. Perhaps no one
here understands what I mean better than the graduates of the class of 1968, who
this year marked the 50th anniversary of the day they walked across this stage.
Several graduates from that class have joined us here today and we’re honored
to welcome them back. Class of 1968 could you wave and holler, do what you need to
do so that we can honor you and acknowledge you? As these esteemed alumni would no doubt
attest, 1968 was among the most tumultuous and divided years in our
nation’s history. A year that tested the strength of our country and our campus.
The simmering tensions of the day: Vietnam, racial justice, fair housing,
boiled over as students occupied Hamilton Hall which stands to this day
right next to us. As I reflect on the events of fifty years ago today, events
that continue to reverberate in our world, I see echoes of the ways that we can become stuck in times of deep division,
of the things that fuel rather than dampen anger and distrust, of the
impediments that can make common ground so hard to find. Two in particular stand
out for me: talking past one another and failing to understand the perspectives
of those with whom we disagree. Why single these out? Because for lawyers,
both can be hazards of our trade. We are taught to speak eloquently and
forcefully in furtherance of our clients position, but it is all too easy when
deploying one’s skills with language to fail to hear others over the sound of
one’s own voice. We are asked, indeed we have a duty to advocate zealously on behalf of our clients but it is tempting, indeed simple human psychology can pull
us this way, to paint one’s adversary in bold archetypes, to tell oneself a
hero’s story devoid of nuance, all the more to affirm the rightness of one’s
own position. These are the habits of an unreflective lawyer. The best lawyer
works to overcome these temptations, knows how to speak but also to hear,
knows how to advocate but also to seek to understand the passion that ignites
those with whom one disagrees. It is these qualities that will make you
not only a better lawyer but also a better citizen and a better person. Let me just give one example. In his role as top lawyer at the Department of Defense,
tonight’s keynote speaker Jeh Johnson, class of 1982, was
charged with assessing the potential impact of ending the military’s
controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy which banned gay men and women
from serving openly in the military. As part of his analysis, he held town hall
meetings at military bases across the world, he sought input from hundreds and
thousands of troops, he interviewed spouses, gay rights leaders, social
conservatives, military chaplains, and what he found was that perspectives were
many and varied both across and within the groups he met and in the end,
Secretary Johnson won the respect of those who opposed the change because he
listened to them and he sought to understand their points of view. Graduates, you enter the profession at a
time when the world faces no shortage of challenges and a polarized discourse
that affects the very character of our nation and our body politic, but as
lawyers we cannot afford to be spectators. We have a higher calling. So
today, on this amazing day where we look back and we look forward at the same
time, I ask of you the following: Wherever your Columbia Law degree may take you as,
advocates, negotiators, mediators, deal makers, and diplomats,
speak but also listen and hear what others have to say.
Use your mastery of the law and the power of language to lead us all to a
greater understanding of one another and to help us bridge our divides. Which brings me to why today, despite the polarized time in which we live,
I am overflowing with optimism. For it is not just any hands that will be
steadying us but yours, Columbia Law School graduates. Your hands, your minds,
your words, your ears, your actions. You will be there to guide us forward. Class of 2018, on behalf of all of us here at Columbia Law School, I salute you and I
congratulate you.