At commencement, Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning ’85 praised graduates’ courage and spirit and commitment to service amid the pandemic and encouraged them to bring the same qualities to the hard work ahead of making progress against the “many problems” and “grave ills” this year has brought into sharp focus.
Speaking to graduating J.D.s, LL.M.s and S.J.D.s at the Law School’s virtual commencement ceremony Thursday, Manning thanked and expressed pride in the newest generation of Harvard lawyers for all they had accomplished on behalf of others during this extraordinary year.
“You ran toward the fire,” said Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law. “You did what all lawyers should do – you worked to achieve something larger than yourself, to dedicate your time and skills and gifts and heart to making the world better.”
The dean recounted that, in the face of large and unexpected challenges and hardships, students continued to dedicate themselves fully to the serious business of learning the lawyer’s craft and also doubled down on efforts to serve those in need through the Law School’s legal clinics and student practice organizations.
The dean noted that instead of lessening their commitment to service in these times, graduates had set a series of new records for pro bono service. During their time at HLS, graduating J.D.s performed an average of 662 pro bono hours, for a cumulative total of 393,384. Ninety one percent of graduating J.D.s participated in at least one legal clinic. And LL.M.s, many of them studying from abroad, enrolled in clinics at a 50% higher rate than normal.
“Because of the spirit and courage you’ve brought to your work in the time of COVID,” he said, “you…will always hold a special place in the history of this institution.”
“With all of these challenges, all of these headwinds, you were not content just to get by…,” Manning said. “[I]t is that drive, that dedication, that grit that defines you. It is who you are; it is what got you here in the first place; and it’s what will make you great lawyers and leaders, world changers, in the decades to come.” He urged graduates to “hold onto that spirit and courage, because the world needs you.”
“This year, this terrible year, this year unlike any other, has brought sharp focus to so many problems, so many grave ills,” said Manning. “Racism, abuse of power, inequality, poverty, intolerance, threats to democracy. None of these problems are new. All cry out for solutions.”
“And you, the newest generation of Harvard lawyers, will be essential to making progress against these longstanding evils and injustices,” he said. “This is, in part, because you have chosen to join a profession that is dedicated to guarding the rule of law, checking abuse of power, giving life to equal justice under law, and preserving the hard-fought right to govern ourselves.”
He added that, “in a time of division, when people aren’t listening, when they cannot agree on facts much less policy, … lawyers have a special role to play” because their work depends on “facts and reason and argument, and we cannot make our best case unless we listen generously to the other side’s.”
“In a world that feels broken, with so many problems to fix, your voice, and your service, will be essential,” Manning said. “And we will watch with pride as you take your place among the generations of great Harvard lawyers and leaders who have labored before you to make progress, to do the always unfinished work of advancing the ideals of law and justice.”
The first in his family to graduate from college or go law school, Manning shared a conversation he had with his mother the day he graduated from Harvard Law more than three decades ago. He recalled telling her that he felt happy to graduate but was also a little bit afraid because “what lay ahead seemed so vast,” and he wasn’t sure how he “would navigate it, or get it right.”
Instead of telling her son not to be afraid, Manning’s mother advised him, “It’s okay to be afraid. Everyone is afraid at times like this.” And she added. “You will make mistakes, sometimes big ones. And you will have setbacks, sometimes big ones. And that’s okay too.”
Addressing the Class of 2021, Manning imparted the same lesson his mother had shared with him. “You will have triumphs and setbacks. You will have times of great happiness and times of great sorrow. And as my mother would often remind me, neither is infinite. And, looking back, with all the good and all the bad life serves, it’s a wonderful journey.”