Howard University

Speech Delivered on the occasion of the Class of 2014 Pinning Ceremony

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By D. Paul Monteiro
Associate Director | White House Office of Public Engagement

Delivered on the occasion of the Class of 2014 Pinning Ceremony
August 19, 2011
Howard University School of Law

Good evening and thank you very much Dean Schmoke for your kind introduction. I’d like thank him and the entire faculty and the staff of the Law School for all that they did for me and continue to do for our entire HUSL family. I also want to recognize the presence of my family and some of my friends from the Class of 2007 who are here and I want to thank them for coming. Also, a mentor of mine, Dr. Lewis Anthony, is with us and I want to recognize him as well.

It’s an honor to be here today in part because Howard University is in large part responsible for the opportunities I’ve had in the few years since I graduated. It’s also very special to me because of the significance of the ceremony we participate in tonight – one that I participated in back in 2004 and sat where you are sitting right now. And it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I see this as one of the first explicit steps to welcome you into the Howard family by connecting you with those who have come before you.

Given Dean Schmoke could have selected more prominent graduates with a bit of gray hair and some more achievements under their belt, I’m humbled to have a chance to say a few words of welcome as you join a long line of Howard Bison stretching back more than 140 years. As a more recent graduate I wanted to briefly share some of my experiences and lessons learned by making three main points. You’ll find in law school that boiling down your argument to 3 main points is often a prudent thing to do. As you have probably figured out already, there’s no shortage of law school advice – everyone seems to have some and

My first point is that you can make it through this. While it might sound obvious to some, I remember sitting in the audience and wondering to myself whether I would be able to succeed and hold my own in a class of accomplished and intelligent people. In fact, following the ceremony I made my way to the library to prepare for the first day of class. That marked the first of several late nights and early mornings spent preparing for class and learning the fundamentals. To be clear, you are about to formally begin three years of serious and intense study that will require your undivided attention. Looking back, it’s clear to me now that you should spend your time and effort studying in the way that works best for you. Resist the pressure that may exist to study in a way that doesn’t suit your learning style. Some work best in a library setting and others work best in a coffee shop. Some work well in groups and others learn best on their own. One of the most unhelpful things you can do is to conform your schedule and style to the pattern of others. Some need to spend 14 hours in the library – some need to spend 14 hours studying at home or in a coffee shop. My point is simply not to go through the motions of studying to appear as if you’re working hard. You’ll waste your time and spend your energy unnecessarily. Instead, invest yourself fully in the work ahead and sacrifice now to put your law school career on a solid foundation. And remember that if your grades in your fall semester aren’t your personal best – the spring semester presents a chance at redemption. Don’t give up on yourself.

My second point is the importance of establishing and maintaining a positive reputation in your time here at the law school. You’ll quickly learn that Washington, DC is a very small town with fewer than six degrees of separation. Opportunities can evaporate before you even knew they existed based on a poor decision made on a whim or a lapse in judgment with far-reaching consequences. In many ways, your reputation is all that you have. Now, I’m only 30 and have tried to live in a way that takes my own advice but I wouldn’t for a second hold myself out as a paragon of virtue. In preparing for my remarks tonight, I re-read what Professor Julian Dugas told the Class of 2006 at their pinning ceremony. This man is a member of the Class of 1949, worked on Bolling v. Sharpe, the companion case to Brown v. Board of Education, and he went on to become the first administrator of Washington, DC, and founded the Neighborhood Legal Services Project. He has been a mentor to me and generations of Howard Law graduates that have gone on to follow in his footsteps in public service.

In his remarks in 2006 he said “first and foremost, build and maintain a good reputation based upon courage, personal integrity, honesty and good moral character. Do nothing while here which may negatively affect in any way what may be thought of you.”

As someone who has worked in the White House of the first African-American president I can tell you that character is as important as your grades. And opportunities vanish because of one night when someone chose to drink too much and drive home; or smoke a bit of weed to take the edge off of a difficult week of class; or let loose at the firm’s summer gala; or treated someone poorly because you didn’t think them “important” enough to extend some common degree of courtesy or respect. And the worst part is that you’ll never really know why the opportunity went away. You’ll only know that it’s gone. But more importantly, being a student here at Howard University School of Law is to join a legacy that values those who were not always valued by society as a whole. At all times and in all places you should remember that you represent your family as well as the professional family you are becoming a part of tonight.

The last point that I would make is that one of the most wonderful things about this place is its unshakeable understanding that the law is meant to serve the

best interests of society and that human relationships and interests are at the core of what we are being trained to do. In every class try and remember the

human interest in what you are studying. Many times that will be difficult to do because the case may seem abstract or written in some indecipherable jargon

that you need to break out the Black’s Law Dictionary to translate. But if you lose sight of the human element of what you study it’s easy to miss what’s really at

stake. Take for instance this gem, a case from 1876:

“We have in our political system a government of the United States and a government of each of the several states. Each one of these governments is distinct from the others, and each has citizens of its own who owe it allegiance, and whose rights, within its jurisdiction, it must protect. This same person may be a the same time a citizen of the United States and a citizen of a State, but his rights of citizenship under one of these governments will be different from those he has under the other.”

Now before you fall asleep you should realize that although you don’t have any context, this case grew from an attack on Easter Sunday in 1873 when an armed white militia attacked free Black men and women who had gathered at the Colfax Courthouse. Even after the freed slaves had surrendered, the militia went on to kill more than 100 people, many who were unarmed. This sad chapter of our history has become known as the Colfax Massacre. By the time the case made it to the Supreme Court, those tragic facts were made into a seemingly abstract legal argument and it was decided that the federal government could not use the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to prosecute the actions of individuals; and two of the defendants’ convictions were overturned. This was the beginning of the end of Reconstruction in the south as the legal system was again used to push African-Americans out of the political process. In many of the cases, you would never know the back story of what was really going on based on the text of the opinion.

The social engineer you are being trained to be sees that law through the prism of humanity and recognizes that the Constitution and our legal system must be used to protect the interests of all of our citizens and especially those who are marginalized and often shut out.

Brown v. Board is another example of the importance of the human element. Everyone should know the facts of that case but I would add that it was argued twice – once in the spring of 1953 and then again in the fall. After the first argument, Thurgood Marshall wasn’t optimistic about his chances of winning. The second argument included the same lawyers and the same settled law that held separate but equal as constitutional. What changed? The difference was that between the first and second argument the Chief Justice had died. Fred Vinson passed away in his sleep and Earl Warren – a governor of California – a politician with the ability to persuade and appeal to both the hearts and the minds of his fellow justices – helped make the difference. You don’t get Brown without Earl Warren who insisted that the Court be unanimous in overturning decades of law that upheld legal segregation in public education.

So as I take my seat I want to encourage you to remember that you will make it through if you commit yourselves fully to this challenge. Remember that everything you do and learn here should be used to help so many others who need a voice right now. You are joining a national and international network of graduates that look to you as colleagues and not as competitors. And as you progress through school I encourage you to get involved in talking to the faculty, staff, and alumni who can serve as mentors and friends to you. You’re in Washington, DC at a historic time in our history. Make the most of this experience here on campus but also out in the broader community.

And remember that some of the most effective lawyers are the ones who remember that the law is a living and dynamic thing and that human relationships are not printed in the text of a decision, but they are often the inspiration behind each word. Welcome to the Family, Class of 2014.

Copyright © by D. Paul Monteiro; used by permission.

updated: September 7, 2011