Elizabeth Warren, U.S. senator from Massachusetts and the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, Emerita at Harvard Law School, had a simple message for graduates as the 2021 Class Day speaker on May 26: summon the courage to step off the traditional legal path to make a meaningful difference in the world.
“A law degree,” particularly one from Harvard Law School, said Warren, “is a powerful tool. How you use it is up to you. You may choose to use it quite profitably helping clients who are already rich and powerful get richer and more powerful. … But my own advice is to respectfully ask you to consider other paths where the need is great.”
In her remarks, Warren outlined what she views as the greatest challenges in the United States today – economic inequality, a shrinking middle class, racial injustice, climate change, and threats to democracy itself – and encouraged students to use their education and influence to find new ways to address these issues in the future.
“My hope [is] that you will be carried to an unexpected place, a place where you will find work that you love, work that gives you purpose, and … work that makes the world a better place,” she said. “What you do matters.”
Recognized as one of the nation’s top experts on bankruptcy, Warren first joined the HLS faculty in 1992 as the Robert Braucher Visiting Professor of Law and was named Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law in 1995. During her nearly 20 years at HLS, Warren taught courses on commercial law, contracts, and bankruptcy, and was a vocal critic of predatory lending practices of the mortgage and credit card industries. In 2008, she was appointed to a five-member bipartisan congressional oversight panel to monitor the Treasury’s economic rescue plan, and is widely credited for the origins of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
As a new senator in 2012, Warren continued to champion policies she believed would better support working and middle class families, address corporate lobbying and malfeasance, and tackle income disparities. She launched a bid for the Democratic nominee for president in 2019, ultimately suspending her campaign in February 2020. Warren’s newest book, “Persist,” examines the triumphs and frustrations of her presidential bid and delves into the perspectives that have shaped her career and political views.
Warren was introduced by class marshal Sarah D. Rutherford ’21, who recounted her own disappointment last year when Warren announced the end of her presidential campaign. But, said Rutherford, Warren’s statement that “we will persist” came to represent for her not only Warren’s campaign, but also the HLS Class of 2021 as they rose to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic while advocating for racial justice – all while continuing to excel in their classes and clinics.
In her Class Day remarks, Warren acknowledged that HLS students came to law school from a variety of different paths and with myriad life experiences, and that the security of a conventional job was a powerful temptation.
Yet “I urge you to consider a life that is open to public service, open to taking on the troubles that are bearing down on us, open to tackling the crises that are still in the making and we don’t even see yet,” she said, adding that she hoped graduates would “take risks and try something truly consequential.”
To do this, Warren implored students to “step off the path that you have laid out for yourself,” and instead “think about doing something scary. Think about striking off on your own. Think about not following the expected path. Think about government service, or non-profits, or NGOs.”
Warren pointed to herself as an example of how taking a risk and leaving a lucrative and beloved career for a life in public service could pay off. In good times as well as bad, “every single day, no matter what, I’ve awakened every morning thinking about what I will get to do today – not have to do, what I get to do,” she said.
“I haven’t solved every problem I have encountered,” added Warren. “And I have made mistakes. But I have stayed after it every day – persistently.”
It first takes a bit of bravery, she said: “Have courage. Courage because life is fragile. Courage because our nation and our world need you. Courage because you will live a richer life.”
Ultimately, a life spent in service to others, in service to a cause greater than oneself, is a life with fewer regrets, she told the HLS Class of 2021. “Because … for all that you give, you will receive far more … Make yourself proud and choose courage.”