En Español Know Your Rights
Source: University of Southern Maine Public Affairs
Subject: Profiles of MRNY
Type: Media Coverage

Grads Told Good Lawyers Needed Now More Than Ever

New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse told the 93 graduates of the
University of Maine School of Law that, “In truth, nowadays we need good lawyers
more than ever.”

Greenhouse, speaking at ceremonies held Saturday, May 23 at Merrill
Auditorium in Portland added, “In recent years, too many American corporations
have acted improperly, even illegally, and evidently too many of these
corporations’ lawyers and general counsels allowed them to act improperly and
illegally.” Greenhouse, considered one of the few remaining full-time labor and
workplace reporters in the country, is author of the new book, “The Big Squeeze:
Tough Times for the American Worker.”Citing Maine-based workers rights cases
against Wal-Mart and DeCoster Egg Farms, Greenhouse also asked, “Where were the
lawyers, where were the wise counselors in the Enron scandal, in the Worldcom
scandal, in the Tyco Scandal, in the Bernie Madoff scandal? Why didn’t legal
counsel provide more wisdom, more counsel to prevent disasters at Bear Stearns
and the American International Group (AIG)?”

“To me journalism and law share important goals,” said Greenhouse, a graduate
of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the New York
University School of Law, “pursuing justice, rooting out corruption, making sure
the truth is told, providing help to those most in need, working to ensure that
government runs efficiently and honestly.”

Student speaker Benjamin Tucker of Brunswick noted that he and a classmate
have fathers who are members of the School of Law class of 1974. “Times may
change, technology changes, laws may change…but we will continue to learn from
those who came before us.” He urged fellow graduates to provide “honest advice,
strong advocacy and equal justice.” Elected to the Brunswick Town Council in
2007, Tucker lives in Brunswick with his wife, Ana Hicks, and their daughter,
Ilsa.

School of Law graduate Vendean V. Vafiades, class of 1985, was named the 2009
recipient of the L. Kinvin Wroth Award, presented to outstanding alumni.
Vafiades, a commissioner for the Maine Public Utilities Commission and former
judge and chief judge on the Maine District Court, told graduates, “Words are
important but words coupled with acts of integrity are even more important.”

To read Greenhouse’s complete speech see below.

Members of the class of 2009,
Esteemed faculty, family and
friends
Esteemed members of the judiciary, legislature and university.

I am honored to speak before you on this glorious day. And I’m sure that many
of you feel glorious. You have just finished three enlightening, yet grueling
years — years of cramming for days on end before exams, years of pulling
all-nighters to finish papers, years of tossing and turning the night before
finals. Today is a day to celebrate your accomplishments. Today is a day to
rejoice. Today is a joyous day of new beginnings.

I guess it is somewhat unusual that a journalist, a newspaper reporter, like
myself, has been chosen to speak at a law school graduation. Let me point out
that I am a lawyer, I did a federal clerkship, but then I decided to explore
opportunities outside the legal profession, as I imagine some of you will do.
Even back in high school, I was torn between law and journalism. Even back then,
I could see that they were both noble professions. To me journalism and law
share important goals – pursuing justice, rooting out corruption, making sure
the truth is told, providing help to those most in need, working to ensure that
government runs efficiently and honestly.

Perhaps I’ll be too candid in saying this, but an important reason I opted
for journalism over law was that it was somewhat more fun and creative. I love
to write. But I know that I could have been very happy as a lawyer. One of my
role models has long been the federal judge I clerked for: Robert L. Carter, who
was Thurgood Marshall’s right-hand man when Marshall argued Brown versus Board
of Education before the Supreme Court.

I must admit – for years, my parents wouldn’t forgive me for abandoning the
law after I had spent three years and many tens of thousands of dollars to
attend law school. But they finally started to forgive me after the New York
Times assigned me to be a correspondent in Paris for five years. By far the most
exciting story I covered while in Europe was the Velvet Revolution in
Czechoslovakia in 1989 – it was extraordinary to see a people rise up as one and
peacefully throw off Communism and demand democracy and freedom. It was
inspiring to see a nation demand – and achieve — an end to tyranny.

The day of my law school graduation, I felt blessed. And you should feel
blessed as well. You should feel blessed because of what you have achieved and
what you have become – young Americans on the threshold of entering an exciting
and lofty profession. There is a majesty, even a magic to the law. Whether it is
the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta or the United States Constitution, the
law is bigger than any of us. It is bigger than all of us. The law is the code
we live by. Our nation’s laws are a code, forged over hundreds of years by
millions of Americans, including many of our greatest thinkers and
statesmen.

You are lucky to have attended such an outstanding law school. Though small,
the University of Maine School of Law more than carries its weight. Your law
school has a formidable faculty and an impressive student body that comes from
many states and backgrounds. Your law school is known for innovation — in
intellectual property, in marine law and in other fields.

Recognizing that law should not be an island unto itself, the law school also
has important joint J.D/Master’s programs: law and business, law and community
development, law and health policy, and law and public policy. And despite its
modest size, Maine Law School has prestigious clinical programs in which I am
sure many of you participated: the general practice clinic, the juvenile justice
clinic the prisoner assistance clinic and the intellectual property clinic.
These clinics serve two vital roles: they teach students to be hands-on lawyers
and they help achieve justice for many Maine residents who often cannot afford
their own attorneys. I loved what one thankful client wrote after receiving
assistance from the school’s Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic. The clinic, the client
wrote, “has been a light in the dark. My student attorney went beyond the call
of duty. She is my knight in shining honor.” A female knight in shining armor. I
love it. We’ve come a long way.

Yes, on this fine day you should feel blessed for receiving your law degree,
but unfortunately the nation’s economy is not in a very bless-ed state at the
moment. As many of you know all too well, the legal profession is undergoing
extraordinary upheaval. Sadly several prestigious law firms have closed down,
and some have laid off dozens of lawyers. Not only that, some prominent law
firms in Boston, New York and Washington have cut starting salaries for
associates—sometimes by 10 percent or more.

There just might a silver lining to these lower starting salaries, however.
Now that many firms are reducing starting pay, let’s hope that they stop
demanding that their young associates work 14 and 16 hours a day. Let’s hope
they give young associates part of their life back. Restoring balance is always
a good thing.

It is always sad to see layoffs and pay cuts. But let me assure you — this
recession will end. The legal profession will recover. I graduated from law
school in 1982, at the bottom of the 1981-82 recession, and I can assure you
that that recession did end and there were legal jobs to be had. What may be
different in this recession is that corporate law firms may not rebound to be as
large and as swaggering as they once were. Now that Wall Street has been
humbled, now that great investment banks like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns
have gone up in smoke, now that the merger and acquisition craze is a shadow of
what it once was, there just might not be as much business in the future for
corporate law firms and not as much need for corporate lawyers.

In truth, that might not be so bad. There are millions of Americans not
getting enough of the legal help and legal resources they need. And here I’m not
just talking about the poor and immigrants. There are millions of middle-class
Americans not getting the legal help they need with regard to their wills, their
mortgages and so many other things. Perhaps the problems that Wall Street and
corporate law firms face will help make more lawyers available to serve
Americans on Main Street.

And let me make this very clear — even while many corporate law firms have
cut back on their hiring, there are still many other opportunities for young law
school graduates. There are of course opportunities for lawyers to do valued,
noble work outside corporate law firms – working for prosecutors or for state
legislators or for state agencies or at legal aid societies and at two- or
three-person law firms. Many University of Maine law school alumni are already
working in those important jobs, and I’m sure that the school’s graduates will
continue to be hired for such positions.

And of course there are many nontraditional positions for lawyers. Just look
at me – I graduated from NYU Law School and, to my professors’ chagrin, I
abandoned a career in the law, but I did land on my feet as a newspaper
reporter. I know plenty of law school graduates working in newspapers and
magazines and Web sites and working for software firms and financial houses and
manufacturing companies. And then many, many lawyers have successful careers
working for nonprofit groups. And they’re not just working for nonprofit groups,
many are heading nonprofit groups. I know lawyers working for human rights
groups, civil rights groups, environmental groups, civil liberties groups,
immigrants rights groups, anti-poverty groups, community development groups and
a variety of foundations and labor unions.

There are also important opportunities in public service – PERHAPS more than
ever before.

We as a nation are hurting on many fronts. The economy is on the rocks. Our
health care situation is a mess. And global warming threatens us all. Yes, the
nefarious Greenhouse effect threatens us all. The good news is the government is
trying to step up to meet these and many other challenges. For law school
graduates, all this means an increasing number of opportunities to serve in
government – beyond the traditional positions working as assistant prosecutors
or law clerks. There are jobs to be had in the Environmental Protection Agency,
the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the Justice Department, the State
Department, the Energy Department, the Treasury Department, the Health and Human
Services Department. And for you Mainers, I shouldn’t forget to mention, the
U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I want to talk for a minute about jobs in the area that I concentrate on:
labor and workplace matters. As a reporter for The New York Times and as author
of the book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, I have often
seen the valiant and valuable work that lawyers have done to vindicate the most
basic rights of workers. I’ve seen lawyers, whether as plaintiffs’ attorneys, as
prosecutors or as federal or state labor department officials, crusade to help
exploited workers. I think of a Dominican immigrant in New York, Julia Ortiz,
who worked 66 hours a week at a discount store and was paid just $210. That came
to about $3.30 an hour. A handful of smart, persistent lawyers won her $60,000
in back pay.

I think of Kathy Saumier, a worker at a plastics factory in Syracuse, where
four of the factory’s 190 workers had fingers amputated over a 13-month period.
A courageous lawyer brought the factory’s safety problems to OSHA’s attention,
and the factory was ultimately fined $720,000. That factory now a much safer
place to work.

Here, in Maine, the state attorney general fined Wal-Mart $205,000 several
years ago after finding 1,400 child-labor violations. Violations were found at
every one of the Wal-Marts in the state. The violations included making children
work past 10 p.m. on school nights and making children work seven hours on
school days when state law set a four-hour limit.

Also in Maine, several lawyers helped bring in government inspectors to
DeCoster Egg Farms a decade ago. The inspectors found wretched housing
conditions as well as migrant workers who handled dead chickens with their bare
hands. The investigators also found rats in the migrants’ living quarters as
well as raw sewage leaking from broken pipes. OSHA fined the company $2
million.

Forgive me for citing these unpleasant details on this glorious day, but I
raise them to make the point that good, smart, caring lawyers are needed to help
set things right. To protect the meek and humble among us — and to help clean up
the many messes around us. Lawyers have a singular responsibility, a singular
calling, to help bring justice.

In truth, nowadays we need good lawyers more than ever. That’s right, our
nation needs you more than ever. In recent years, too many American corporations
have acted improperly, even illegally, and evidently too many of these
corporations’ lawyers and general counsels allowed them to act improperly and
illegally. Too often these lawyers turned a blind eye to what was going on.

Please remember, lawyers have a special, essential role in American society.
The role of lawyers is not just to write contracts and wills and to litigate.
Society has created another important role for lawyers: to serve as counsel —
and as conscience. Lawyers need to guide those they advise about not just what
is legally right, but what is morally right. Lawyers should do their best to
make sure that those they advise don’t cut corners. They should do their utmost
to make sure that those they advise do more than meet the bare, minimal legal
requirements. They should counsel those they advise to do what is right.

Where were the lawyers, where were the wise counselors in the Enron scandal?
In the Worldcom scandal? In the Tyco scandal? In the Bernie Madoff scandal? Why
didn’t legal counsel provide more wisdom, more counsel to prevent the disasters
at Bear Stearns and the American International Group?

I recently read an article quoting William H. Neukom, a former general
counsel of Microsoft and a former president of the American Bar Association. He
said that many lawyers have fallen down on the job in recent years. Neukom said,
“Part of what’s we’re seeing is that the classic role of the wise, trusted
lawyer wasn’t being played. We had companies going public without a business
plan, reporting their activities in confusing or even misleading ways, managing
for the short term to impress the street, and reaching for questionable ways to
generate profit well outside their core competence.”

He added, “Are lawyers asserting themselves in the way that they should?”

We know the answer to that question. I do hope that you, the lawyers of
tomorrow, will not fall down on the job. You should strive to lift yourselves
and lift your profession.

A minute ago I talked of opportunities in public service. I hope that you’ll
excuse me, but I am going to borrow some words from a commencement address that
I attended almost a year ago to the day. My daughter was graduating from
Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and Senator Ted Kennedy was scheduled to be
the commencement speaker. When he fell ill, the school named someone to pinch
hit for him as commencement speaker. No, it wasn’t Ted Williams. It was a guy
named Barack Obama.

President Obama, then a candidate for the Democratic nomination, gave an
inspired and inspiring speech about the importance of public service. What he
said a year ago is perhaps even more apt today.

“There’s no community service requirement in the real world, no one forcing
you to care,” President Obama said. “You can take your diploma, walk off this
stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other
things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your
concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from
America’s.

“But I hope you don’t,” President Obama continued. “Not because you have an
obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation.
Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do
have that debt.

“It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual
salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself,
fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.
Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself
that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in
writing the next great chapter in America’s story.

Wow, I wish I could write and speak like that. Or I wish I could at least
hire a speechwriter who could write speeches like that.

Let me give you an example of what one law student can achieve through
service. I have a good friend, now in his late thirties, who after graduating
from law school founded a group in Brooklyn to help Hispanic immigrants. The
group, Make the Road New York, has helped hundreds of immigrants fight against
minimum-wage violations and safety violations. The group, financed by various
foundations, has helped immigrants gain the right to have translators at public
hospitals and at meetings with school guidance counselors. It has helped force
pharmacies to provide translations to immigrant customers. Each week hundreds of
immigrants attend the group’s classes in English and computer literacy and
citizenship preparation. His group has programs to stop police harassment and to
train teen leaders and to train community leaders. The little group my friend
founded now has more than 70 employees, including a dozen lawyers.

It’s amazing what you can achieve if you have a vision and you put your mind
to it.

Graduates of the class of 2009. You are lucky. Go forth. Hold your heads
high. Strive not just to lift yourselves up, but strive to lift your profession
and lift your society. Our society.

Strive to produce many ripples of hope — for those around you and for our
nation. Strive to produce currents of justice. Remember, today is a day of new
beginnings. A day of commencement. The next steps are yours. Only you can chart
them. Blessed as you are, you have great freedom as well as great
responsibility. I bid all of you godspeed in setting out on your noble paths.