2007 Commencement Speech
Howard University School of Law
Class of 2007 Degree Presentation Ceremony
May 12, 2007
Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby
District of Columbia Court of Appeals
Thank you, Dean Schmoke, for inviting me to speak here today. I would like to give my warmest greetings to you and to the faculty and administrators of the law school. I am so proud to be a Howard University School of Law graduate!
Good afternoon, Class of 2007, and congratulations! We are proud of you all and it is so wonderful a sight to look out at all of you—the future of this honorable legal profession. I salute your parents and family members and friends who are present today to celebrate with you.
I would like to recognize my family members who are here with me today: The first is my husband, Judge Robert R. Rigsby of the District of Columbia Superior Court, who is also a colonel in the United States Army Reserves and a military judge. My son, Julian Christopher Rigsby, is nine years old and in the fourth grade; I am very proud of him. My mother, retired Justice Laura Blackburne of the New York State Supreme Court, and my father, Elmer Blackburne, who is district leader for the 29th Assembly District, Queens, New York, and a 1964 graduate of Howard University, are both here today along with my sister Dr. Rose Blackburne. My sister Ms. Faith Blackburne was unable to be here. I also want to recognize my law clerks, Ebony Robinson and Shavon Smith. Shavon is a Howard law school graduate, Class of 2005.
I love the feeling I get each time I return to Howard University School of Law! I was so honored when Dean Schmoke asked me to speak today and join in this celebration to honor you. It means so much for me to be here.
I remember very clearly my law school graduation day 20 years ago. We held our ceremony outside on the grounds of the law school. It was about 100 degrees with 200 percent humidity, and there was no shade!
Like many of you, I chose Howard University School of Law because of its legacy of commitment to the eradication of discrimination by producing lawyers who are dedicated to using their legal education to address problems of racial inequality to ensure access to justice for all people.
I loved law school. Many of my friends at other schools thought it was a strange thing to say. But I loved law school because I was at Howard. I enjoyed the classes, the professors, the students, and even the smell of the law books in the library. I was excited and proud that I was preparing to be a lawyer. I like to think that attitude shows my intellectual side, but some might say that I am revealing my inner, nerdy side—because I actually liked to study!
Now lest you think that my class was all work, rest assured that my classmates and I perfected the art of the “study break”—an instant party from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., a few times a semester. During those two hours, we would transform the basement of the law school, what we used to call the “Rathskeller” into the hottest dance spot in town, complete with a DJ. But, please do not worry Dean Schmoke because promptly at 6:00 p.m., we packed up our books and headed back to the library. On Thursday evenings at 8:00 p.m., some of us took a short break from studying and watched The Cosby Show together in the Rathskeller, and I am not referring to the reruns!
I share these stories to show that the friendships I made in law school became lifelong friendships and that those friendships also became an important part of my professional network. Look around you. Your fellow graduates may one day be your co-counsel, the corporate counsel who hires your law firm, your opposing counsel, the prosecutor of your client, the trial judge you appear before, or one of the appellate judges before whom you argue your client’s appeal.
Remember that throughout your legal career you will be building or maintaining your professional reputation, so act with integrity in each thing that you do. It only takes one slick move or attempt to fake your preparedness—or one time when you are less than candid with opposing counsel or the court—to ruin your professional reputation (which, by the way, is not separate from your personal reputation). Guard your reputation—it is vital to your success in both your professional life and your personal life.
Class of 2007, I know that some things about your Howard law school experience are different from my experience—laptops, cell phones, text messaging, iPods, a new law library, to name a few. When I have had the opportunity over the years to teach as a guest professor at the law school, I have often wondered what students are doing on their laptops … hmmm …. Although I still have not figured out the answer, I do know that I can write a bench memo in longhand faster than I can type and send a coherent text message!
However, even though some things are different, the core truth about Howard—its commitment to excellence and to producing lawyers committed to using their legal degrees to make a positive difference—remains the same. You need reflect only on the long list of legal giants who have been connected with this great law school in some way. You know the names and have heard them often during your time at the law school, but let me just call a few.
Charles Hamilton Houston, once dean of this law school, conceived of and led the legal strategy to end segregation. He taught Judge William B. Bryant, whom the newly renovated Federal Courthouse is named after. Judge Bryant was my former trial advocacy professor and was the first African American to serve as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. And we all know our very own Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
How could we forget the Honorable Sharon Pratt Kelly, the first African American female mayor of Washington, D.C., and a graduate of this law school? Our own Professor Patricia Worthy served as Mayor Kelly’s chief of staff before she served as chair of the D.C. Judicial Nominations Commission, which is responsible for recommending judges to our local courts. John Payton, a brilliant lawyer and one of my mentors, is now a visiting professor here at the law school. He was the architect of the recent University of Michigan Supreme Court case, which successfully upheld the university’s affirmative action plan. He also served as corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia. And last, but certainly not lest, I must mention, our own Dean Kurt Schmoke, who counts among his long list of accomplishments before taking the helm of this law school, his service as the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland.
So there is no doubt that Howard University School of Law produces and attracts the best, the brightest, and the most committed legal minds as both students and professors. But the success of those luminaries in the law does not mean that it was easy for them or that it will be easy for you. The law is hard and it requires you to work hard. Do not be lulled by what I have come to refer to as the “duck syndrome.” Have you ever watched a duck gliding seemingly effortlessly across a serene pond, so graceful, so easy? Well, you might miss the very important lesson taking place just beneath the surface—the duck is paddling ferociously in order to stay on top. Show me a successful lawyer who makes practicing law look easy and I guarantee you that lawyer is working hard and paddling ferociously to stay at the top.
Show me a successful lawyer who makes the practice of law look easy and I guarantee you that lawyer has been confronted with and has overcome some challenges and obstacles. You, too, will face challenges and obstacles or “defining moments.” But do not let the challenges or obstacles limit you or define you. Use the challenges to make you stronger. If you make a mistake, own up to it, and do your best to learn from it and to correct it. If you fall down, get up. If you do not know it, learn it. You should not expect anyone to give you anything. Howard has given you the legal knowledge, discipline, and training to make your own way. But remember that you are not alone—none of us makes it alone. Draw on the support of your family, friends, and colleagues; your church and your professional and community groups.
Justice Thurgood Marshall once said: None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony, or a few nuns—bent down and helped us pick up our boots.
I have had many challenges along the way, which I believe have strengthened me. One such challenge or defining moment for me occurred when I was a new associate at a large law firm. I received a less than favorable evaluation on one of my assignments. I thought my legal career was over. I went back to my office and just cried. I was afraid to tell anyone.
Finally, I told my parents, and they told me that I first needed to honestly assess what I did well and what I could have done to improve the assignment. I sought out another opportunity to demonstrate that I could do better.
I worked very hard to ensure that my next assignment exceeded expectations. I spent many long nights and weekends working on my assignment. It was in those midnight hours—in the days when we had just started using fax machines and before email and text messaging—that I had to reach down deep inside to pray for the strength and resolve to get the job done and to do my best. That is what your clients will require of you and what you must require of yourselves.
I learned some important lessons from that experience; like the importance of faith, family, and fortitude. That combination worked for me then and it still works for me today. I stayed at the firm four more years before going on to accept another position. I reaffirmed the importance of having faith in God and faith in myself. I learned the importance of the support of my immediate and extended family—including friends, colleagues and mentors—and the need for being a part of and connected to the church, bar organizations, and community and civic groups. Finally, I learned the importance of having the fortitude to get up after falling down, to strive for excellence, to stick it out and do the hard work that is necessary to get the job done.
Surely many of our distinguished alumni had their moments of challenge. They also faced obstacles and maybe even failures, but they persevered, and their legacy has benefited us all. Each of you will face obstacles and challenges, and you will need faith, family and fortitude to get you through. You will really need each of those attributes as you begin to study and to prepare for the bar exam. I took the New York Bar exam. Make no mistake about it, studying for the bar is every bit as difficult as everyone says it is—but each one of you has the ability to pass. So roll up your sleeves and get busy. For me, the last two weeks before the exam, after the bar review class ended, were the most difficult. But I thought I had the studying under control. My family and those closest to me probably thought otherwise. I had a particularly bad day about a week before the bar. Mom, Dad, you remember! But with the encouragement of my family; after talks with my mentors, friends, and classmates; and through reminders to myself about the excellent legal training I received here at Howard law school, I calmed my nerves, focused, and passed the bar.
I could end with a charge for each of you to go forward and carry on Howard law school’s great legacy. Or I could tell you that your legal education from Howard has prepared you well to take on any legal career. But you already know that. Instead I would like to leave you with one final story. After my first year of law school, I interviewed with the representative of a large Wall Street law firm for a summer associate position. The interviewer looked at my resume, noticed that I went to Duke University as n undergrad, that I was on the law journal, and that I had excellent grades. He seemed a little surprised. He looked at me and asked “Why did you go to Howard Law School?” I looked him in the eye and said very proudly, “Why would anyone go anywhere else?!”
Congratulations again Class of 2007! You chose to come to Howard for law because of Howard’s unique mission and heritage. I know you will continue to make us proud, and I challenge you to carry on the proud legacy of this great institution.