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Judge Freda Wolfson 09 Commencement

Judge Wolfson, Class of 1979, is U.S. District Judge, District of New Jersey.


Convocation Address

The Honorable Freda L. Wolfson, U.S.D.J.

Dean Deutsch, incoming Dean Farmer, Faculty, Distinguished Guests, and most importantly, Graduates of 2009, family and friends.

When Dean Deutsch invited me to speak at these commencement ceremonies, my immediate reactions were ones of pleasure and honor, but then my logical side took over. I asked the Dean whether he was sure he didn’t want someone more important to address you today, but he assured me that I was very important, and then admitted, however, that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was not available. I don’t mind playing second fiddle to Justice Ginsburg.

While I welcomed the opportunity to speak to this very special class in the continuing celebration of our law school’s Centennial Anniversary, I worried about what I should talk about. I couldn’t remember who my commencement speaker was, let alone what he said. Preparation being my mantra, I began to canvass some of my friends about their law school commencement addresses. None remembered the speaker or the topic — the most detail I got from one, was that the speech was funny, another said her speaker went on too long, and someone else said it was too hot outside. Not much help there, but I did take some comfort in the fact that you would likely forget me and my words in time. Stuart Deutsch suggested that I mention my affection for the law school – that’s easy; and that I might want to address the economy – not so easy, but necessary. So, I will spend the next few minutes, sharing my thoughts about Rutgers Law School and the profession of law.

My own links to the Rutgers Law School in Newark are substantial and abiding. Thirty years ago, I sat among the graduates when I received my J.D. degree from this school. Now I stand before you as an alumna speaker, and next year, I will be a parent watching my own son graduate. Thus, I share almost one-third of the 100-year history of this wonderful institution.

Indulge me a bit as I share with you what it was like in 1976, when I began my education here and the law school was located at Ackerson Hall on University Avenue. Despite its limited physical space, that building housed a wealth of ideas and diversity, which was perhaps magnified by the cramped quarters. Two years later, we moved into the more spacious S.I. Newhouse Center for Law and Justice, which edifice ultimately suffered from ill-working elevators and other structural constraints, yet still maintained inside its walls, the same exchange of lively discussion and debate. Of course, all of you have spent your law school career in the well-appointed and technologically superior Center for Law and Justice – which I am confident accommodates and encourages the same intense scrutiny of issues. That is what makes this institution so wonderful and unique – adjectives used by many others familiar with our educational environment.

Having now completed your law school education, many of you may be thinking that you are not embarking upon the career or job that you had envisioned three or four years ago when you began your education, or even a few months ago. That mixed in with your excitement and joy today, is trepidation. While those feelings are understandable, and indeed, ones that are shared by so many not just in our own profession, but throughout the country, I suggest that despite these difficult economic times, see yourself as embarking on a marathon race. It is a long trek and you will have to outlast the occasional rocky terrain. But no one will focus on, or remember, whether you started the race at full speed, a slow pace or faltered.

Similarly, even if your career is a bit delayed in getting going – it does not tell the tale of where your professional life will lead. Be alert and open to unique opportunities; indeed seek them out. None of us knows what lies ahead. As Harry Chapin sang in his famous sequel to Taxi, “I guess only time will tell”. Regardless of who or what you thought you might be, your goals and visions may benefit from some forced re-examination. And of all places to be reminded of that fact is this law school which is so rich in its diversity of students, faculty and ideas that it should ever serve as a beacon that there is no one road to fulfillment or success.

When I started law school in 1976, I joined the class of 1979. That class enjoyed a distinction from previous classes, as well as from all other law schools, because approximately one half of the students were women, which was more than any other law school in the country. Now of course, women account for approximately 50% of the law students in the nation’s law schools. But the significance and unique composite of my class was brought home to me in the summer following my second year at law school when I was a summer associate in a large firm in New York. There were 30 summer associates, but only two were women – me and one other. It is a far different story in firms today. 

Who was I in 1976? Exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find here at Rutgers. I was a first generation American daughter of Holocaust survivors, who immigrated to this country in 1951, arriving at Ellis Island, after spending some time in a displaced persons camp in Austria. Not just are there other first generation Americans among the student body today, but I understand that the school boasts students born in about 50 different countries. Isn’t that an astounding statistic! Like some of you, English was not my first spoken language at home. My sisters and I were the first college-educated in our family, and for me, attending law school was realizing a dream. To be a lawyer was to reach the pinnacle of success and I thought that I would be the next Perry Mason – an icon in the legal profession – or at least on television. Moreover, it was a time when people actually respected lawyers. Lawyer bashing had not yet become an accepted and even popular term in our vocabulary.

What did I find here? Much of what still is emblematic of this educational institution. I discovered students pursuing second and third careers, juggling families and jobs.  We were immersed in the issues of our times and imbued with a drive to change not only our own lives, but the lives of others. As a result, we often learned more in our discussions in the lounge than in the classroom. My apologies to the faculty. The variety of backgrounds and experiences made our discussions loud and animated. 

Students were committed to public interest work. Professor Paul Tractenberg headed up the Education Law Center which was then a pioneer in championing the cause of equal public education for all children. Students eagerly joined the cause. The Education Law Center remains a force and centerpiece for seeking educational opportunities for all students. Similarly, the clinical programs continue to thrive. This school’s commitment to clinical programs arose out of the turmoil and social upheaval of the Newark riots in the 60’s. Rutgers answered the call of providing legal services to its urban home and was one of the first in the country to make clinical programs such an integral part of the fabric of the law school education. Since that time, clinical programs have become mainstream in law school curricula across the country, but Rutgers was in the forefront of that development.

At the same time, we have also felt the need to prove something to ourselves and the outside world that we, the state law school, referred to affectionately by some, and not so affectionately by others, as the People’s Electric Law School, could compete on any level and with anyone. When I was a student here, the prominent New York firms were not interviewing on this campus. Yet, in my first year, my small section property professor, J. Allen Smith, would encourage and even taunt us, asking “how many of you want to be a member of the 25 and 25 club; 25 years old and making $25,000?” At the time, a $25,000 salary was the highest paid by any law firm. A few of us took the challenge and succeeded in securing interviews and ultimately impressing upon those national firms that excellent students were graduating from our school who were committed to hard work. Now today, dozens of national firms participate in our on-campus interviews.

As for me, I didn’t become the female version of Perry Mason, but who could have known in 1979, when I sat where you do today, that on May 22, 1986, 23 years ago today, that I would take an oath as a United States Magistrate Judge in our Federal Court. Certainly, I could not have envisioned that such an opportunity and honor would come my way less than seven years after my graduation – especially since I had not even taken the course in Federal Jurisdiction. And, while in Trenton, as a young judge, I met a young Assistant United States Attorney, who went on to become Chief Counsel to the Governor, Attorney General of this State, counsel to the 9/11 commission, and a partner in a law firm. Sound familiar? I am sure many of you recognize John Farmer, our incoming Dean. Do you think that he knew his career would take him down all of these exciting and rewarding paths? I think not, highlighting again, the unanticipated turns in the long legal road we all travel.

Indeed, I often think about the attorneys, judges, and academicians who are the alumni of this law school and their boundless talents and accomplishments. In my class, alone, there is a United States Senator, Robert Menendez, former Chief of the Bankruptcy Court, Rosemary Gambardella, and a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice, Jaynee LaVecchia. It is impressive to say the least.

So some of you sit here today with perhaps no job waiting for you after the bar exam, or having recently been deferred or having had an offer retracted, but I exhort you to look at this as a time being given to you to do something in the law that you may never have thought about. Think about a public interest job, an unpaid externship, a research position, or teaching law to young students.  While financial concerns cannot be ignored, a new endeavor may point you in a direction never contemplated by you, but with unexpected rewards. Do not be single-minded in your pursuits. 

Several years ago, I hired a law clerk who had been working for a national securities firm in San Francisco. She had been at this firm for three years and was looking for a change. Since she had never clerked out of law school, she thought this would be an excellent opportunity to perhaps transition into a different area. She took a pay cut, traveled across the country, and began to clerk for me in the United States District Court here in New Jersey. It was a wonderful 18 months for both of us. Not only was she a tremendous law clerk, but she found a new avocation. After observing a number of trials, she decided that she wanted to be an Assistant United States Attorney in the criminal area. It was a total turnaround from being a corporate or securities lawyer. She went on to join the U.S. Attorneys Office first here in New Jersey and then the office in San Francisco. 

More recently, another one of my clerks, whose interest was Constitutional law, believed that he was headed for a career in academics. After spending a year in our chambers, he gained a greater understanding of what the law is in practice, not just in theory. And now, he plans to be trial lawyer. Obviously, there is not one single path that defines you as a lawyer.

Indeed, my husband who is also an alumnus of this school, went on to become a pre-eminent land use attorney in a highly respected New Jersey firm, then a Superior Court Judge, then Assistant Attorney General heading the civil division of that office, remains an adjunct professor here at the school, and now has returned to his old law firm as a partner, mediator, and arbitrator. Nonetheless he still says to me that he feels that he was meant to do something important in the law and that he has not done it yet. Can you imagine how many would envy his career of accomplishments, yet he’s still searching. But rather than be dismayed by that, I tell him and each of you, isn’t that the wondrous nature of this career in the law that we have all chosen, that there is not one single or simple definition for the word lawyer, nor is there one way to measure your success. 

Indeed, that should have been made clear to him a few years ago. He was settling a series of racial profiling cases on behalf of the State and he had the good fortune to have as his adversary, the late Johnnie Cochran. During an evening mediation session, my husband lamented that our sons didn’t think he was a real lawyer, probably because he wasn’t a trial lawyer. Mr. Cochran asked for our sons’ cell phone numbers and then he called each one individually. At the time they were young teens. When they answered the phone, and only after questioning and being convinced that it was really was Johnnie Cochran, did they then hear this able trial attorney say that he just wanted them to know that their dad was one hell of a lawyer. That comment was based upon the factors that go into making someone an attorney – an understanding and respect for the profession and for the rules of law by which we live and the rights which we seek to protect. 

I must add, however, that that was not the first time our sons questioned what their father’s role was in the profession. In 1991, when our sons were almost seven and three, their father proudly informed them that he was going to be a state court judge. They voiced their surprise. Why you may ask? Because, they said, they thought being a judge was a mom’s job. Obviously, we are breaking down the barriers every day, not only here at the law school, but in our personal and professional lives, as well.

On the day of my investiture ceremony to become a judge, in 1986, I spoke about an interview that I had for a second-year summer job with a high profile New York firm that was known to pay not just extremely generous salaries, but large bonuses, as well. My interviewer talked about the practice of law, and how, when he had graduated from law school, he had clerked for a highly regarded and nationally known California Supreme Court Justice. At the time, his three-year old son asked him what he did every day, and after he provided an explanation to his son, the young boy would run around the house proclaiming, “Daddy does justice.” My interviewer noted that it was now years later, and that one year had been the last time that he ever heard his son describe that what his father did was justice. We laughed a bit, but that reflection struck a chord with me, which has resonated over the years, and has served to remind me what our roles should, and indeed, have to be – no matter what type of law we practice –to ensure that justice is administered.

In fulfilling the role of administering justice, I hope for all of you today what I have come to realize every day of my career. That I love my job, that no two cases are ever the same, and that each day I am reminded of how lucky I am. Not too many professions can boast of the intellectual gymnastics we go through each and every day. Whether fashioning a novel argument, analyzing a difficult case and seeing how it can be used, deciding how to structure a transaction, protecting intellectual property rights, or preserving the civil rights of our citizens. What a panoply of opportunities we have.

At the same time, you have a sacred obligation to use the knowledge that you have gained in honest and effective ways. Always treat your adversaries, the litigants, and the court with dignity and respect. Cases and clients come and go, but your reputation and integrity cannot be ephemeral. Maintain a balance between work, family, and friends. Never forget that humanity and humility are virtues. A sense of humor is also helpful. A number of years ago, while presiding over a settlement conference, I had to explain to a municipal official why it was in the town’s best interest to settle. After listening to me detail the hard realities, he agreed with my assessment, and remarked “I’ve never been told how stupid I am by someone with such a nice smile.” A little laughter and good humor are invaluable in this profession.

And at all times, just as I ask you to remember, I recall that those who appear before me judge our system of justice by the way in which I treat them and respond to their cases. Recently, I was able to broker a settlement between a prisoner and the prison health provider. This prisoner had been attempting unsuccessfully to get surgery for some period of time. Simply because I spoke to this prisoner plaintiff as a person and treated him with respect, despite the shackles on his feet, caused him to write me a letter after our successful resolution of the case. He thanked me, then went on to inform me that he thought we had a special bond, and finally that he would like to take me to dinner or to a resort. While my chambers had a chuckle over that letter, it is one of the many that I will save to remind me that it is not just the well-written or reasoned opinion or intricate analysis that defines what my role is, but how those decisions impact the litigants who appear before me.

In the same way, I implore all of you to realize that the greatest personal satisfaction comes not from how well you are paid, but how you feel about what you have done or how you have performed in presenting yourself and representing your clients’ interests. We don’t always sleep well as lawyers because there is often an unresolved issue, but there is no sleep better than that which comes from the high of a courtroom success, a thankful client, or a job well done.

So I urge all of you to think outside the box and take advantage of perhaps a lost employment opportunity or a deferred one and use your education and talents in unanticipated ways so that you may open some new doors and hopefully wake up each morning with a sense of excitement and anticipation because recall that you are representing real people with real interests who will be affected by how you represent them. That is a totally awesome responsibility that brings with it tremendous satisfaction.

Congratulations to all of you and your families, and as my admiring prisoner plaintiff concluded in his letter to me, “may you thrive in sound content.”