At Commencement, a call to action


Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, a champion of pro bono service, delivers the commencement address.

Published June 19, 2014

“Justice has no real meaning without lawyers to give it life.”
Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge
New York Sate Court of Appeals

For the rows of new SUNY Buffalo-trained lawyers eager to take on the world, the message at their May 18 Commencement ceremonies was simple but not easy: Do well, but don’t forget to do good in the process. 

The 236 J.D. candidates and nine receiving master of laws degrees heard that message in multiple ways, most especially from New York State’s chief judge, Hon. Jonathan Lippman, a champion of pro bono service. And on a day steeped in celebration, they were sent forth with the reminder that, just as a legal education is open to all, access to the justice system is a primary responsibility of the profession.

“We are living in a vastly changing world where the assumptions of yesteryear are being countermanded by the facts of today,” Dean Makau W. Mutua said in opening the ceremony. “But the timeless values that inspire and bind our profession will never change. That is because the human heart is driven by both altruism and self-interest. It is our job to find the moral middle between these two competing forces, to write on the pages of time our unequivocal commitment to one simple truth: that each individual human being carries worth. This simple truth should be your lodestar. Hold onto it and you will never lose your way.”

Lippman, who serves as chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, made news recently when he instituted a requirement that new law school graduates must complete 50 hours of pro bono legal work before sitting for the state Bar exam. The requirement takes effect with students graduating in 2014.

“The purpose of the new rule,” he said in his remarks, “is to ensure that each new generation of lawyers will embrace the core values of our profession, which first and foremost include service to others, particularly to the poor, the indigent and people of limited means in these difficult economic times. This culture of service must become part of your professional DNA.

“I say that in the context of the justice gap in this country. We at best meet 20 percent of the need for civil legal services in our own state. Legal service providers to the poor are turning away far more people than they are able to take in as clients. We need an army of lawyers dedicated to the public interest to eliminate, or at least reduce, this justice gap.”

Noting that “last year more than 2.3 million people were unrepresented in civil cases in our courts,” Lippman said, “Our courts are the emergency rooms for the ills of society, and today our courtrooms are standing room only, filled with vulnerable and frightened unrepresented litigants.” He suggested that the graduates could help meet that need either by entering a public service role in representing indigent defendants full time, or by providing pro bono legal representation as part of their other work. 

“We all must earn a living,” the judge acknowledged. “But we cannot define our existence by the billable hour or paychecks alone. Our profession should not be perceived as argumentative, narrow or avaricious, but rather as one that is defined by the pursuit of justice and the desire to be of service. Justice has no real meaning without lawyers to give it life.”

Graduating senior Adam Hayes, delivering the student address, noted, “We’ve learned a lot about what it takes to be a good lawyer, advocate and representative. But we have so much more to learn. Today we begin the next stage in our continued lifelong process of learning. We must begin to evaluate ourselves and suppress our hubris so we don’t replace doors with walls.

“Today we must place those past successes and titles on a shelf and strive for new ones by simply doing good work for others. Certain labels of privilege will tempt us. Our society often calls lawyers elite, intelligent, special. But such labels are not taken, they are earned through the development of one’s integrity and character. Only when we use our talent and skills to help others achieve, understand or get back what they have lost, only then can we call ourselves elite, intelligent or special.”

The Hon. John T. Curtin ’49, senior U.S. district judge for the Western District of New York, received a standing ovation when he accepted the Dean’s Medal in recognition of his longtime commitment to justice and the rule of law. Curtin, referencing “that happy few, that band of brothers that attempt to bring justice in large and small cases,” said, “I hope and I trust that you recent graduates will do your best to provide representation to all.”

The Ken Joyce Excellence in Teaching Award went to Helen A. Drew ’88, a longtime adjunct instructor at the Law School whose courses in sports law are highly popular. Voted by the graduating class, the Faculty Award was given to Patrick J. Long, Lecturer in Law, Legal Analysis, Writing and Research; and the Staff Award was presented to Amy Atkinson, the Law School’s director of special events.