Janet Reno 1998 Commencement Address

Janet Reno[1]

Thank you very much, Dean. It is a great privilege and an honor to be here today.

It was thirty-five years ago that I stood in your shoes. I didn’t know what to expect. The future seemed uncertain. I certainly never expected to be Attorney General, or have my waddles focused on the Ally McBeal show. But it has been a wonderful experience, and I can tell you, particularly after these last five years of watching lawyers in action across this country–lawyers helping people, developing new systems, volunteering, trying to make things better for America–that I am very proud to be a lawyer in the United States. I love the law, I love good lawyers, and I’ve met some good lawyers here today in this graduating class.

You will take so much from this law school that will be with you all of your professional career. Friends, faculty members–you’ll find yourself telling stories about faculty members just as I did this past weekend, faculty members that have influenced you live and will forever. You will take concepts of the law with you that will hold you in good stead no matter what you do. Use the wonderful tools you obtained here. Use them, I urge you, in public service at some point. The Chancellor has spoken of my feelings about public service, and sometimes it does get a little bit rough. But I haven’t figured out anything I’d rather do than try to use the law to help people.

I caution you as you consider public service that sometimes it’s frustrating. You don’t think you’re getting anything done, or it seems to go so slow. In 1968, I represented a lady in a child-support matter. She came asking me to collect child support, I quoted her a fee, and she said, “How can you expect me to pay you? I can’t even pay the rent. I haven’t gotten child support in nine months.” And I felt so bad about asking her that I immediately said, “Forget it.” But it made me realize that as a lawyer, we had to work harder to develop a system for collection of child support that wouldn’t put that woman, or others similarly situated, in the same position.  And so when I became the state attorney, we developed, along with others, a child support enforcement system that provided a public way to collect child support.

Now, if you think public service is really interesting and really rewarding, you should get a call at 7:00 on a Sunday night, for I always left my home telephone number listed. “You haven’t gotten my child support yet and I’m about to get evicted, and it’s all your fault!” Blam! Letters telling me how their children were going without because I hadn’t collected child support. And yet, about two years ago, I drove down an old dirt road in South Carolina with the president of the United States past the spot where a church had been burned. We drove to dedicate the new church. The president spoke, we came down off the platform, and a lady suddenly burst through the rope line: “Janet, you got me child support in Miami!” And she then said, “And these are the two young men you got child support for.” And looking at those young men beaming down at me, seeing how they had grown, it’s one of the ways that you help people, and it’s one of the moments that you always remember.

Public service is hard, as John Kennedy said, but it’s worth it all.

But even if you decide not to go into public service, whether you’re a real estate lawyer, a trial lawyer, have a small family practice–you might do other things with the law. You might leave the law. But I believe a good education does more than produce just good lawyers. It also builds good citizens. Men and women who can work harder, think more clearly, communicate more effectively, analyze better, negotiate more productively, and spot and solve problems better than ‘most any other discipline.

I did an inventory of what lawyers might do. They help lead Fortune 500 corporations, they are entrepreneurs like the founders of Southwest Airlines and David’s Cookies, they teach English in kindergarten, they found and direct advocacy associations, humane societies, charities and investment banks. They write novels and screenplays. They are dancers and disc jockeys, sculptors and restaurateurs, ministers and parents, and they even raise llamas. And if you are not satisfied with any of those things, remember that Tony LaRussa managed the Oakland A’s to a World Series championship in 1989, and he is a lawyer.

But wherever you go, whatever you do in the law, use it to help others. I see the law having three functions: One is as the sword and the shield, the advocate and the protector. The second is as the problem-solver, a function too often neglected by lawyers. The third is a peacemaker. A lawyer can be an extraordinarily effective peacemaker. In these roles, as you approach whatever you are going to do with the law, or out of the law, consider two issues that I think are vital for lawyer to address.

First, the issue of access to justice. How do we make the law real for all Americans? If eighty percent of the poor and the working poor have no access to lawyers, to the courts or to justice, what does the law mean to them? For too many, it means nothing more than the paper it’s written on. Now, some of you may say, “I’m going up to Wall Street and I’m going to be a big corporate lawyer and that’s not my problem.” You may raise llamas and say it’s not your problem. I suggest to you that if you do that, you will undermine the law, undermine your community, and contribute to a problem that I think we must address. If people do not feel that they have a voice in the law, if they feel they have no remedies, if they feel alienated, then the democracy of which they are a part is weakened. It is impaired, and it is not a representative of all of the people. We are all in this together, and we as lawyers, no matter what course we take in the future have a duty to make sure that America has access to justice.

I would begin in one of the most important areas of all: indigent defense. In too many states in this country, defendants who have no money to pay a lawyer are receiving little, if any, defense. Too many people pay serious penalties, including the death penalty, without adequate defense. Some people say, “But that used to happen. We don’t see innocent people charged.” The Justice Department did a study of over sixteen cases in which, in recent years, a defendant was convicted and sentenced for a crime that DNA testing demonstrated they did not commit.

We have seen other instances of cases in which the death penalty was requested when the person didn’t commit the crime. One innocent person convicted is one too many, and if we are to make this system of justice we hold dear real, we’ve got to make sure that at least we do not deprive people of liberty without adequate defense.

If you become the investment banker and are indeed on Wall Street, or, if you’re the lawyer with the family practice here in Syracuse, all of us have the responsibility to speak out for legal services programs across this country. For they are at the heart of making sure that America has access. But each of us, in our own ways, can perform pro bono service. And I suggest to you that we can be more effective, and cover a lot more ground, if we consider how we perform pro bono service. We can go in like the advocate, take the one case and think we’ve really solved the problem, or we can really solve the problem.

Let me give you an example. Suppose a lawyer undertakes pro bono representation of a tenant who wants the landlord to fix the unit that the tenant lives in. But the landlord says, “The crack dealers down the street have driven all my tenants away, I don’t have any money, I’m losing rent, I don’t have money to fix it, I feel bad about it, I’m sorry.” Why not take the whole apartment building, why not take the whole neighborhood, and go to the local authorities to see what community redevelopment monies may be available? Contact the senior partner who’s the chairman of the United Way campaign, and say, “Look, this whole neighborhood is in need of rehabilitation.” Contact the local Habitat for Humanity. And instead of working on one house, work on one house as part of a whole neighborhood, so that you create a domino effect and solve problems with respect to a neighborhood, as opposed to one unit of an apartment. Trouble with the crack dealers down the street? Go to the police chief and talk about what community policing could do in that neighborhood to involve the citizens and to bring order and to bring a force that can address quality of life issues. Go to the local medical community and find out how we can join together in a partnership that will ensure medical care for families that cannot afford preventative medical care for their children. But use the abilities of lawyers as problem-solvers to make a difference.

And then, that leads to the second point. Lawyers have a responsibility to build community. It’s fine to go in and represent one child, fourteen years old, charged with a delinquent act, and get them off. But how did that child get there? I used to look at pre-sentence investigations of armed robbers. I could see four points along the way where we could have intervened in that child’s life to have made a difference. But there was no advocate, there was no lawyer there, looking at the whole picture. We were only looking at individual cases. And then the crack epidemic hit Miami, and I went to the doctors at our public hospital to try to figure out what to do about crack-involved infants and their mothers. And they taught me that fifty percent of all learned human response is learned in the first year of life. The concept of reward and punishment and the conscience is developed in the first three years of life. And I said to myself, “What good are all the prisons and detention facilities going to be fifteen and eighteen years from now if that child doesn’t know what punishment means? What good are all the educational opportunities going to mean if that child does not have the foundation upon which to learn?”

We have got to make an investment in our children in terms of time and money and structures. And lawyers can lead the way. And looking at the whole picture, as opposed to an individual picture, to help solve problems. Lawyers as advocates can make sure that we have a system for delivering medical care for every child–for insuring, to the extent we can, sound parenting, through parenting skills courses, and through conflict resolution programs that help bring peace within a family. Let us make sure that every child in America has appropriate educare in those first three years, so that we build on a strong foundation for K through 12.

Now, when I came to Washington for my confirmation hearing and started talking like this, somebody said, “You sound like a social worker.” I don’t care what we are–we should be problem solvers for the people we serve and the communities in which we live. We should argue that teachers should start being paid salaries that represent the strength and importance of the profession. As problem solvers, yes, we should worry about representing that fourteen-year-old and seventeen-year-old defendant. But we should let the world understand that if we’re really going to solve the problem, we should have something in the afternoons and evenings and summertimes for that seventeen-year-old to have done when he was eight and started getting in trouble, when children are more unsupervised than at any time in history. And we need to develop job-to-work programs to prepare our young people that will enable them to obtain a skill that can earn a living wage.

We’ve got to give all our young people the opportunity to serve. This class has so distinguished itself in its public service and its public interest work. But there are so many young people that want to be somebody, that want to make a difference, and don’t know how, because they have no strong role model, no mentor. Each of us can make a difference by being a mentor to a young person who does not have someone to lead.

But where it all begins is in the family. I remember my afternoons after school and in the evening. My mother worked in the home. She taught us to play baseball and to bake a cake and to appreciate Beethoven’s symphonies. She loved us with all her heart and she punished us. She taught us to play fair. No child care in the world will ever be the substitute for what that lady was in our life. Somehow or another, we ought to be able to pursue our career aspirations, be the lawyer we want to be, practice law in a sensible way, not get caught up with billable hours, and have quality time with our children. Raising children is the single most difficult thing I know to do. It takes hard work, love, intelligence and an awful lot of luck, but it is the most rewarding, as I learned when I inherited fifteen-year-old twins when both parents died and I became legal guardian. The girl was in love, and I’ve learned an awful lot about raising children in the last twelve years, but it is one of the most rewarding things. When you go looking for jobs in the future, ask, “What is your attitude about family leave time, about quality time with families?” Make sure you put that in the equation of success.

One final challenge that I think lawyers are going to be in a better position to help achieve than any other discipline that I know: Let us teach America to resolve conflicts, not just with trials, but with negotiation and means of dispute resolution. Not with guns and fists and arguments and knives, but talking it out in the elementary school. Not with bully sticks and harsh words, but with a police officer who knows, by tone of voice and manner and ability to communicate and listen, how to talk with young people and make a difference. Law firms and bar associations across the country are beginning to reach out and teach conflict resolution.

If we work hard at this, when you stand up here thirty-five years from now, you can say that you helped lead the way to bringing America to a more peaceful culture, a culture of respect, a culture where people listen, a culture where people talk and look and understand, instead of looking past and through, in argument and in division. It is such an extraordinary time in history, a time of challenge, a time where technology threatens to master us unless we master it. But having talked to a number of your colleagues just before the commencement, I have every, every faith that you’re going to do it. And when I hear, thirty-five years from now what you’ve done, I’ll be as proud then as I am now of all that you have done.

[1] United States Attorney General. Ms. Reno gave this speech at the 102d Commencement of the Syracuse University College of Law on May 17, 1998.


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