May 18, 2018

The 2018 law school commencement season is underway, and keynote speakers at academic institutions across the country haven’t shied away from urging upcoming legal professionals to seek justice with honesty, humility and empathy in what many called chaotic times. 

Here, five high-profile lawyers shared their advice for improving local communities and the world, guidance which even seasoned attorneys may be able to apply to their own careers.

Kalpana Kotagal, Co-Author of the Inclusion Rider

When Frances McDormand won the Best Actress 2018 Oscar at the Academy Awards in March, she ended her speech by mentioning the inclusion rider, a clause aimed at transforming hiring practices in the film and television industry. Actors with negotiating power can insert the rider into their contracts, which then requires a certain level of diversity among their film’s cast and crew.

Co-author of the rider, attorney Kalpana Kotagal, told those gathered at the University of California, Irvine School of Law’s commencement on May 12 that the rider is an example of one of the myriad ways in which lawyers can contribute to and have an impact on society.

“You enter a legal profession transformed as the rest of our society has been by the 2016 election and the groundswell rising up before it,” she said at the podium. “We need you in the resistance with your fresh energy, your new ideas and your willingness to work hard. We are all on the front lines these days, and there are so many ways to contribute.”

Even as the rider has become a powerful tool for driving change in Hollywood, at its core she said it embodies best practices for building diversity that are applicable to other industries. Consequentially, she encouraged the graduates to listen with humility to affected communities, and ask how they can serve. And for those who will advise corporate clients, she encouraged them to work with businesses to construct personnel practices that affirmatively value diversity.

“As the face of America grows more diverse, so too must its workforce and the leadership of that workforce. And valuing diversity must extend beyond hiring to equal pay, to fair evaluations, to accommodations and leave for pregnancy and caregiving and disabilities. Workplaces must truly value workers,” said Kotagal, a Civil Rights & Employment partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC.

At the completion of her speech, Kotagal acknowledged that “adulting is hard,” but offered her own strategy to survive and thrive.

“It helps me,” she said, “to remember that as hard as it is for us to hold it together some days, it is infinitely harder for so many others, and that’s why you came to law school. There’s much to say about the powerful potential contributions that we as lawyers can make.”

Anita Hill, Pioneering Figure in Fight Against Sexual Harassment

At Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991, law professor Anita Hill claimed he had sexually assaulted her. Justice Thomas denied the allegations, and the Senate later narrowly confirmed him to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At Rutgers Law School's commencement on May 17, Hill, who 27 years ago became a pioneer in the movement against sexual harassment and remains a national leader today in the wake of the modern #MeToo movement, called on the graduating students to think boldly about the courage they’ve witnessed and the meaning of those actions.

“Courage is not something that happens once in our lifetimes. It’s something that we live and exhibit in the way we live our lives every day,” said Hill, who now is a professor of social policy, law and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University and Of Counsel to the Civil Rights & Employment practice at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC.

She detailed efforts by some Americans who have declared they’re not the gender they were assigned at birth, have demanded inclusion for students of color at college or have claimed the basic right to have an education free from sexual violence, recognizing that “challenging the status quo is still risky.”

Last, she requested the graduates vow to commit to social justice in whichever careers they choose, from a prosecutor or defense attorney, to a law professor or even general counsel.

“Promise me whether in times of certainty and clarity or in times of chaos that you will be your bravest self, the bravest self that you can be to confront the challenges of the world and to confront your own challenges,” she said. “When uncertain times call, promise me that you will embrace community and not division. And promise me, finally, that you will live with a commitment to equal justice under the law today and throughout your entire lives.”

The complete article can be accessed here.