Three years ago, the world was a very different place. We had a different president, the U.K. was still a part of the EU, no one believed the Chicago Cubs could win the World Series again, and we were still spinning theories about the podcast Serial. At the same time, a new class of law students was settling into classes.
From 1L to 3L to now graduates, Washington’s three law schools recently unleashed a new wave of lawyers ready to put their training into practice. Many graduates are preparing for the bar and a career in law; others have already attended school and passed the bar, but went back to focus on new areas of the law. Though they come from a multitude of backgrounds, what they have in common is optimism and passion to take their newly learned skills into the community.
Below is a transcript of the speech given by Theo Shaw, a Gates Public Service Law scholar and the J.D. student speaker at the 2018 University of Washington School of Law Commencement Ceremony. Shaw was one of five student speakers who spoke at the graduation ceremonies of Washington’s three law schools, which we will publish here over the next few weeks.
Keep an eye on NWSidebar for speeches from other graduates.
University of Washington School of Law
Thank you, dean, for that gracious introduction. To the parents, the siblings, to the mentors and friends who traveled from across this state and even from across the country, we thank you all so much for making this day possible. To the parents and siblings, thank you for your patience and your encouragement; and, to be even more blunt, for putting up with us for the past three years.
We thank you especially for giving ear to our frustration during our first year of law school when we thought we could not go through another day or week of contracts or torts. We also thank you for calling us the day after that dark week in November to let us know that hope springs eternal. And to the faculty, the staff, academic services, the librarians, the custodians, we thank you also for helping us get through those three years in Gates Hall, because without you this night would not be possible. So I ask my friends and colleagues to give a warm welcome and thank you to all the parents, faculty, and staff for helping us on this journey.
In 2010, I was a college student at a small public university in north Louisiana. As the dean mentioned, when I was in college I knew I wanted to go to law school someday to become a criminal defense trial lawyer. So I had the opportunity that summer to go down to New Orleans for a three-month internship with the Innocence Project in New Orleans, which is part of a network of legal organizations that work to free men and women who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. As part of that internship, I had a chance to go down to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, one of the most dangerous prisons in this country, to talk to men that they were representing about their cases. All of the men I met that summer have been freed from years of incarceration for crimes they had nothing to do with. People like George Toca, who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. People like Calvin Duncan, who spent 18 years in prison. People like Robert Jones, who also spent 25 years in prison for a crime he had nothing to do with.
These men, and sadly so many others even today, experience the unfortunate end of our legal system because we have in this country what the attorney Bryan Stevenson has categorized as a system of justice that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent—that wealth, not culpability, shapes outcome.
I talk about those men’s experiences because after tonight, after the celebrations, even after we’ve passed the bar, I believe as future lawyers we have a responsibility. We may not be guilty or have had to do anything with the injustices that other people experience in the criminal justice system. But we have a responsibility; a responsibility to the poor, to the condemned, to those who may not be popular in the eyes of the majority.
And as future lawyers we a have a responsibility, I believe, to be agitators for justice. It was W.E.B. Du Bois, a brilliant sociologist and civil rights activist, who wisely said that agitation is a necessary evil to tell of the ills of the suffering. And as the agitators we have to speak up. We have to speak up for those who will never have access to the privileges we enjoy as lawyers.
I’m not talking about a radical idea. What I’m suggesting is simple. To speak up for the poor when it’s more convenient to stay quiet. To stand up in the face of injustice when it’s more comfortable to stay seated. That’s what I’m talking about.
Now, you will pass the bar you will go on to practice law and you will do many different things with your law degree—all of us will. Most of us will join law firms or nonprofit legal organizations. Some of us will go down to the Legislature or to Congress to make the laws and policy. A few of us will even go on to be “so-called judges.” But no matter where we are, no matter what we do, there’s going to be that responsibility to agitate, to stand up, to fight back.
Maybe it’s not in the criminal law context. Maybe it’s representing that single father who’s being unfairly evicted from his apartment. Or maybe it’s helping that mother who is subjected to deportation proceedings and is facing separation from her family. Or maybe, maybe it’s helping that student who’s being unfairly suspended from his school. No matter where we go, no matter what we do, you will meet people like George Toca, people like Calvin Duncan, people like Robert Jones, and I simply want to remind my friends and colleagues to stand up, to do justice, to agitate.