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Commencement 2013 Faculty Speaker

Taja-Nia Y. Henderson, Assistant Professor of Law

Good morning and welcome! Today is a glorious day, and I am honored to speak to you for a few minutes. I want to extend heartfelt congratulations to the class of 2013. It is wonderful to see your smiling faces out there. Of course, I’m still a little stunned that many of you voted for me to speak today. So, I’ll try not to go on for too long or bore you to tears. I remember my own law school graduation – praying for the speakers to…Just. Stop. Speaking. So, I’ll keep this brief. To the families, friends, and significant others who have supported our graduates along their way, welcome and congratulations to you, too. We understand the collective sacrifices necessary to get here, and we thank you for sharing your loved ones with us. 

I know I speak on behalf of the entire Rutgers family when I tell you how very proud we are of you and your achievements. You have worked incredibly hard, and we’ve watched you blossom from fresh-faced and eager, almost-gunners into mature and seasoned soon-to-be law graduates. And your transformation, from where you were in your first days of 1L year many months ago to today, has truly been a joy to behold.

Prof. Henderson at 2013 commencement
Make your work count for someone other than yourself. “Making it count” can, of course, mean different things – it can be how you impact the lives of juvenile offenders as a local prosecutor; it can be how you exercise your discretion as a judge; it can be how you craft creative litigation strategies for your financial sector clients; it can be how you helped a client get her criminal record expunged so that she could find work; it can even be how you help to shape the minds of future lawyers as a professor of law. Whatever it is, make it count. Bring your full selves to your work, and be generous with your talents and your time.

And when I say that it has been a joy to watch you bloom, I mean that literally. I have had the privilege of having many (in fact, the majority) of you in my own classes. I know personally how hard you have worked, inside and outside the classroom. And you should be proud of yourselves.

While you settle in to this achievement and what it will mean for your future, and the futures of your families, you may be hoping for some learned, professor-type advice on the secrets to success in this profession, or even in this life. And yet, my dear, dear graduates, I think you may have voter’s remorse when I am done up here. The truth is that I do not know the secrets to success. I’m new at this, just like you. And even though I have taught here a few years, and I practiced for a while, I still do not know enough to impart much time-tested wisdom here.

What I do know is that your journey is just beginning. Nearly a decade ago, I sat where you are sitting today. An excited soon-to-be baby lawyer. I thought that I had a plan, but in reality, I didn’t have a clue. I thought being a lawyer could not possibly be more difficult than law school – when I was a 1L, our Civil Procedure professor gave us an eight-hour exam. And the exam took eight hours. So . . . I thought I was prepared. But the reality of the profession is nothing like law school. And in that sense, I can say confidently that the most important things for you to take away from law school frequently will not be found between the pages of a casebook.

Sure, your education has prepared you to be a member of the bar. You have taken all the required classes and you have a good grasp of the substance. But your time here has prepared you in other ways, too. It has prepared you to be an advocate, not only for your future clients, but also for yourselves. It has also prepared you to rely on your friends and peers. There will be things you don’t know, and even things that you don’t know you don’t know. In those moments when it matters, become resourceful. Rely on each other, and rely on us. You have created bonds here that will long outlast your time in law school: You will share births and losses and unions and split; you will share new jobs and rejoice in the firing of old bosses. And you will celebrate one another, just as you celebrate one another today. 

Remember you are part of a special family. Here at Rutgers, we strive to instill in our students a sense of collective responsibility borne out of a shared commitment to opportunity. Many of you here are the first in your families to go to law school. Your presence here is not the result of inherited privilege, but rather your own hard work coupled with an institutional belief in your potential. As you leave here, remember those times when someone took a chance on you; or when someone gave you a second chance, after you stumbled. Or when someone forgave you. You will soon be in a position to foster opportunities for others, and I challenge you to do so with the same spirit of justice and mercy that infuses the halls of our great law school.

And while we celebrate your accomplishments today, I’d like to recommend that you not take yourselves too seriously. You, too, will make mistakes. They may even be costly. But those missteps, just like that grade from 1L year that you still cannot believe – define neither you nor your abilities. Maintaining a sense of humor about such things will help a great deal. Because as exciting and fulfilling as law practice can be, it can also be overwhelming, frustrating, and even annoying. You will work with people, and for people, whom you neither like nor respect very much. Hold onto your joy. So, even when that partner or director or vice president hands you a stack of mail because they presume that you must either be a secretary or one of the mailroom staff and that you could not possibly be one of the lawyers, do not let that discourage you. This is an honorable profession, even when others try to sully it for us. So remember how you feel today; bottle it up somewhere inside and pour out a little when you need to. Your future is yours, so do not let the joy you feel at your success be overshadowed by forces and people beyond your control. 

At the same time, we have a responsibility to keep working hard. Because hard work reaps benefits, and you will soon have the power to shape the institutions you inhabit. To be frank, your hardest work lies ahead. These are tough times for new law graduates. I do not have to recount for you the grim statistics that have emerged over the past few years. Instead of warning you about what that future might hold, I want to suggest to you that the transforming job market may present opportunities for you that you never considered. And some of you may be better lawyers as a result. For many years, lawyers in this area relied upon our proximity to the financial industry to fall into associate positions at large law firms. Few people in those positions found success – in the sense that only a small percentage of folks stuck around to become partners. Even fewer people found happiness. So, if I had to boil down to a sentence some great take-away advice for you, I’d say: Find what brings you joy, and figure out a way to do it every day. This is my version of that old adage: “Take what you want, and pay for it.” Nothing worth having will come easy – it never does. So buck up and prepare for the work that is required for both fulfillment and longevity in your careers. It won’t be easy, and it won’t always be fun, but I can tell you from personal experience that when you find yourself in the law, you will wonder what took you so long to get there.

And along the way, make your work count for someone other than yourself. “Making it count” can, of course, mean different things – it can be how you impact the lives of juvenile offenders as a local prosecutor; it can be how you exercise your discretion as a judge; it can be how you craft creative litigation strategies for your financial sector clients; it can be how you helped a client get her criminal record expunged so that she could find work; it can even be how you help to shape the minds of future lawyers as a professor of law. Whatever it is, make it count. Bring your full selves to your work, and be generous with your talents and your time. Sure, it may mean that your days are longer and your email box always full, but the impact you can have is not to be underestimated. Your work may lead to someone avoiding jail time, or reaching a favorable settlement in a commercial case, or protecting his or her livelihood from an unfair intrusion by the government. This is where we earn our stripes, and if we do it right, our wings.

Because when we make our work count, we are better at it. As a law firm associate, I found that when I wrapped myself in the problems of my clients, I was a better advocate. My work became more meaningful to me, and a crazy thing happened – I got better at it. Clients still call me, all these years later. Even as a professor, I know that my teaching improved once I embraced the value of my position from my students’ perspective. I try to make my work here count, and I am better for it. And, you voted for me to speak here today, so maybe you also think I’m doing all right.

And so, to close, I want you to know that you have been a joy to teach. Thank you for bringing your full selves, and in some cases your full-of-yourself selves to our classrooms. For most of you, your first year here was my first year. In a way, we have grown up together as members of the Rutgers-Newark family. And, so, for me, your departure is bittersweet. I will miss your familiar faces around the law school and I’ll miss your laugh-out-loud worthy emails. Don’t forget about us. We certainly won’t forget about you.

You’ve done it. And I can’t wait to see what you do next. Congratulations and best of luck!