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Proceedings and Relevant Parties

“Speak Simply and Listen Intently”

At Convocation, US Attorney Preet Bharara and University Professor Anthony Appiah emphasize the humanity of the law.

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On the historic Beacon Theatre stage, awash in violet, NYU School of Law honored its graduating students in two ceremonies on May 21. The morning JD Convocation featured Preet Bharara (picture above left), US attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Terron Ferguson ’15. In the afternoon, University Professor Anthony Appiah (right) and Gadi Ezra LLM ’15 addressed LLM and JSD students. In broad terms, the speeches focused on humanity, bridge-building, and confronting injustice.

Bharara explored what it means to be a lawyer. Justice, he asserted, comes from the humanity that shapes the law. He quoted Clarence Darrow’s defense summation in People v. Henry Sweet, which Bharara had memorized for a high school public speaking competition: “No matter what laws we pass, no matter what precautions we take, unless the people we meet are kindly and decent and human and liberty-loving, then there is no liberty.”

“To this day, no class, no professor, no law book has ever conveyed to me more powerfully and persuasively what it means to be a human being as a lawyer than those words I committed to memory 31 years ago as a pimpled adolescent,” Bharara said. Years ago as a young prosecutor working on a difficult case, he received a late-night call of encouragement from a supervisor, he said. “It’s a small thing, but I am yet 15 years later remembering it.”

He then offered his audience plainspoken advice for conducting themselves. “Speak simply and listen intently. Those are the hallmarks of great leaders, not just great lawyers.”

He appealed to the young lawyers to practice with full hearts. In the end, Bharara said, “The law is merely an instrument, and without the involvement of human hands, the law is as lifeless and uninspiring as a violin kept in its case.”

Dean Trevor Morrison, who presided over both ceremonies, touched on a similar theme, noting that graduates have the power to influence national conversations on same-sex marriage, political corruption, surveillance, and corporate misconduct as they take on their profession’s fundamental responsibility—ensuring the rule of law. “The law is inevitably an imperfect institution, and at any particular point, some laws may be unjust, unfair—even cruel,” he said. “Your legal training…has given you expertise not only in discerning the law as it is, but also in advocating for the law as you think it should be.”

Ferguson, a native of inner-city Miami, drew laughter as he surveyed the Class of 2015’s shared struggle through law school—three years to “figure out who we are, who we’d like to become, and we do it,” he said. “We self-determine.” He echoed his former professor Bryan Stevenson in his call to do the uncomfortable by actively challenging racial injustice and mass incarceration, to resounding applause.

The afternoon’s speeches brought a global flavor to the theme.

Ezra, an Israeli lawyer graduating from the International Legal Studies LLM program, remarked on the power of shared experience in bringing together students from more than 60 nations. “I’m not even thirty, yet I have already seen five wars in my lifetime. In some of them I served as a combat soldier. I’ve witnessed devastation, sorrow. But above all, I know how to recognize hope. And the LLM class of 2015 makes me feel hopeful,” Ezra said, to a standing ovation from his classmates.

Appiah drew on his family history to discuss the global and local responsibilities of lawyers. Though not himself a lawyer, Appiah has a long legal lineage: his father was president of the Ghana Bar Association; his grandfather, England’s solicitor general; his great-grandfather served on the judicial committee of the Privy Council; and his great-great grandfather was a Queen’s Counsel to Queen Victoria.

When Appiah’s father was elected to the first independent parliament of Ghana, his political role led him into conflict with the president of the country. Imprisoned without trial for his political work, he became one of Amnesty International’s first prisoners of conscience. “I learned early on from him that what the law promises to do can be different from what it actually does,” Appiah said.

Appiah also learned that the community of those who care about the rule of law is global, as an Englishman and a New Zealander were the first to protest his father’s imprisonment. Appiah encouraged the graduating students to consider themselves part of the greater transnational community of the legal profession: “As my parents—a young man from the Gold Coast and a young woman from England—discovered, love and friendship, like law, can also bridge the nations.”

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