“Discomfort is not the enemy. Discomfort is the spur towards change. Discomfort is the push towards greatness,” said Hon. Loretta E. Lynch ’84, the 83rd Attorney General of the United States, during her remarks at Harvard Law School’s Class Day celebration Wednesday.
“Harvard Law School Class of 2022, you are the change we have been waiting for,” she declared, before adding “But no pressure.”
Lynch, who was a United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York before overseeing the U.S. Department of Justice between 2015 and 2017 under President Barack Obama ’91, was selected as the Class Day speaker by the graduating students’ class marshals.
After an introduction by Aiyanna Zakiya Sanders ’22, Lynch, a partner at Paul, Weiss in New York City, encouraged the 833 members of the Class of 2022 to embrace the unique personal and legal skills they had gained from attending Harvard Law over the last three years to make positive change in the world.
Lynch began her remarks by acknowledging the horrifying events of the previous day, during which a gunman had killed 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. “As we focus on this tragic loss, let us also focus on action to deal with the curse of violence that seems to hang over us,” she said. Lynch added that she could “think of no better group to see this issue from all sides as you have been taught here at this law school, and work to save us from this darkness.”
Lynch also recognized the pandemic’s impact on the Class of 2022, commending the students’ perseverance in their classes, journals, and clinics nonetheless – including as members of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, which she called her “2L home.”
You have developed a resilience the depths of which you have yet to plumb.
Because of this experience, said Lynch, “You have developed a resilience the depths of which you have yet to plumb, and a resolve you did not have before, the strength of which will surprise you when you begin to draw down upon it.”
These assets would be necessary in the days and months ahead, because “to say that you are graduating into challenging times is in fact to utter a profound understatement,” she said.
Beyond the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 exactly two years prior was, Lynch said, a “rebuke to our efforts,” at police reform and justice more broadly, and a tragedy that led to an international “outpouring of rage and pain.” The subsequent deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were, she said, “further symbols of our country’s refusal – and I use that word deliberately, as this is a choice that is made over and over again – not to deal with the original sin that begat the systemic racism woven into the fabric of our society.”
And despite the worldwide protests and activism spurred by the killings, Lynch warned of more recent backsliding from the rule of law both at home and abroad. “We see a world where authoritarianism seeks to rise again,” she said, pointing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or, in the U.S., the impending “reversal of the individual’s right to make one of the most private and consequential decisions of their lives on their own.”
These issues require serious discussion of uncomfortable truths about the present and past, even if they are difficult, she said. “We can conquer space, we can work with subatomic particles, we can cure broad groups of cancers, but we cannot handle discomfort?” she asked. “Where did this … desire to be the ‘snowflakes’ of the world come from?”
Reject comfort for comfort’s sake, she implored the graduates. “Comfort is overrated. … You didn’t come here to be comfortable.”
We need emissaries of the law to reach across our aisles of disagreement.
“You came here to make a difference,” Lynch continued, adding that the law – “the instrument of change great and small for generations” – is one way to do so.
Lawyers can also help bridge divides, she said. “We talk at each other and not with each other, and when we don’t achieve instant agreement, we decry each other’s intelligence or patriotism – or even humanity. … Now more than ever, we need emissaries of the law to reach across our aisles of disagreement and connect with the different sides of our debate.”
Harness your Harvard Law degrees and networks to be advocates, Lynch told the Class of 2022. “The price of freedom is constant vigilance. This price falls to everyone, and now it is now our turn.”
What matters most, she explained, is not a fancy corner office or a big salary. “It is not the title you will eventually hold, but the people you touch, that will make the biggest difference,” Lynch said. “Not just in this world, but in your life.”