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Public Service is a Way of Life

The GW Law School class of 2010, like the many classes before them, made their way across the Charles E. Smith Center stage on Sunday, May 16, to the cheers and applause of proud family, friends, and faculty. Our Law School ceremony, the university graduation on the National Mall, and the weeklong activities leading to Sunday were all a great success. On Saturday, we recognized more than 60 graduates at our student award ceremony for various accomplishments in academic excellence, oral advocacy, clinical practice, and overall contributions to life at the school. It was a pleasure to feel the excitement and see the happy faces of students whom I have watched push themselves academically and grow personally in the past few years.

I often speak to Law School alumni of all ages who are convinced that their time in D.C. was the most momentous, historic, and memorable. I am sure the members of the class of 2010 can make their own compelling argument. Just as most of them began law school, events started to unfold in the housing and financial markets that would move the economy toward a financial crisis. Some law graduates at other schools may have been tucked away from all of this, but our students experienced the winds of change firsthand, studying in our nation’s capital. By early 2009, the financial crisis was well upon us, and worries mounted about the job market and the overall stability of our economy. At the same time, the nation experienced a change in political leadership and a new wave of momentum. Regardless of political background, being in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, and witnessing a historic first for the country, was an inspiring moment. Nevertheless, difficult issues remained.

Our distinguished GW Law commencement speaker and GW Law alumna, Mary Schapiro, JD ’80, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is one of the key figures assigned with the task of tackling many of these difficult issues. I doubt that most law schools have had a commencement speaker who the very week of graduation was on the cover of Time magazine. She reminded our graduates that the country has survived tough times in the past and will again. When she graduated from GW Law in 1980, the economy was in a downturn and the Cold War remained an alarming concern. She said jobs were scarce for her class, and it was hard for new graduates to imagine that conditions could improve. But they did, and she reminded those in the class of 2010 that conditions will improve for them as well. The class of 2010 had the fortitude to go through law school during an unprecedented economic time. Now they have the opportunity to participate in the shaping of our future. Although it will not be easy, they have proven that they have the talent and endurance to prosper both professionally and personally.

There could not have been a more fitting theme for the day than that of service. Many of our graduates will go on to hold public service careers, like Ms. Schapiro, or engage in service work as volunteers. Graduation day began at the university commencement ceremony where the speaker, first lady Michelle Obama, delivered an inspiring call to service. She had already called on the entire university to meet her pledge of 100,000 hours of service, which was far exceeded, in return for her participation as the university commencement speaker. Hearing from two leading public service voices at a time when such work is integral to solving our nation’s problems created an uplifting and encouraging tone for the day. I know studying in our nation’s capital has created a lasting awareness and appreciation for service in our students. Further, I am confident that a bright future awaits our graduates because of the character they have demonstrated by already giving back to the Law School through their class gift.

It is true that every GW Law graduate studied in D.C. during a historic moment. However, the unique optimism of the millennial generation may set this class apart. I have written already of the report suggesting that more than any other age group, people under 30 today are more trusting of the government. This stands in stark contrast to many in my generation who were not prepared to trust government or even those over 30. In my charge to the class, I told our graduates that public service is not merely a branch of law—it is a way of life. It should be a guiding force in their careers and in how they treat others. Another lesson from this study is the importance right now of a positive and optimistic spirit in order to rise to the challenges we face. Tied to all of these qualities is the need for a strong ethical and moral compass, something we saw in our students when they were accepted and as they developed over the course of their legal educations. As I looked out onto a sea of graduates whom I have watched mature in their scholarly and personal pursuits over the past few years, I felt a reassurance for our future, as I know they possess these qualities. Given all they have overcome already, our graduates, with their appreciation for public service and their optimism, will achieve great things.

Frederick M. Lawrence
Dean and Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law