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Welcome Remarks of Dean Chen

Acting Dean Ronald K. Chen ’83
Distinguished Professor of Law and Judge Leonard I. Garth Scholar 

Men and Women of the Class of 2014.

Many of you may not remember, but during first-year orientation, on your first day as a student at the Law School, I asked you to behold the law school gonfalon, the heraldic banner of our school, which I had brought out for the occasion, and I told you that the next time you would see it officially was on your graduation day. I tried to warn you, but also excite you, about the experiences that you would undergo between those two sightings of the gonfalon—the hardships and the frustrations, but also the joys and the fulfillment—of learning how to become a lawyer, an advocate, and a promoter of justice. The time between gonfalon sightings is a precious time not to be wasted or taken for granted.  

Well, there it is. You have seen it now for a second time. This part of your career, this part of your life, is completed. I hope you leave here today believing that it was time well spent, and that we gave you a legal education that will allow you to pursue your professional goals, and your personal dreams. For some of you, we hope more than a few, the two will overlap, and you will view the law as not just a profession but a calling, that will enable you to give clear voice to your passions and beliefs, and to promote justice, as you define it, in whatever role you undertake.  

Chen at commencement
I know you will make us proud when you go out and make your mark in the law. You have already made us proud in what you have achieved while here in the law school. . . . You have shown that you understand that although law is pervasive and affects every other human activity, law is also shaped by those activities, and is not the “brooding omnipresence” that Justice Holmes described that exists without contact with or consciousness of other societal institutions.

I hope also that you have taken the opportunity to test yourself, and when given the choice, have not always taken the easiest path, but the one that would challenge you and take you out of your comfort zone. As an example, for a few of you, that may have meant taking Professor Weisbord’s Trusts and Estates class in your final semester without opting for Pass/Fail. (Well, a very few of you.) Or for other students, trying out their advocacy skills by persistently and finally convincing me for the first time in 27 years of teaching to give an “easier” 48-hour take-home exam in Federal Jurisdiction this semester. How did that work out for you?

During this time, almost all of you have had the love and support of your family and friends, without whom, I will tell you now, you may not have made it to your first gonfalon sighting, much less your second. Many of them are here today, and so to all the parents, spouses, grandparents, brothers and sisters, children, other family members, friends, partners—or even just those occasional dinner dates who pretended to be interested and not disgusted when you thought that the facts of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens made for appropriate mealtime conversation—I say that this is just as much your graduation day as it is for those in the orchestra seats. Whatever comes next, you are very much a part of this too. So in keeping with a Rutgers tradition, I ask all the graduates to rise, turn around, and through your applause thank your family and friends for all they have done and sacrificed to help you get to this point.

Every graduating class is special and unique, and you have been no exception. One thing we have noticed about your class is your apparent effect on the weather and our environment. For those of you who entered in the day class in late August of 2011, your arrival coincided almost exactly with the onslaught of Hurricane Irene, which I suppose even then we should have taken as some type of omen. Later that semester we had the October nor'easter that took down several huge trees in my backyard and gave us a rare white Halloween. In the fall of 2012, of course, Superstorm Sandy struck our area and for a week the school was closed as many of us were huddled around emergency electrical outlets recharging our cell phones or desperately searching for an open gas station. I wore out my old Blackberry sending hourly messages to nk_law@rams.rutgers.edu trying to keep you all informed of how we were planning to deal with perhaps the greatest natural disaster in our local area in collective memory.   

In all seriousness, I am very proud of how we as a community reacted during those frankly, at times, scary days in November 2012, while many of you were without power or reliable transportation to the law school, while our staff managed to make an audio or video recording of virtually every class we held during the next week that followed for those of you who simply could not reach Newark in person, and while you showed your understanding in realizing that in order to make up the lost classes no solution was going to be perfect or free of difficulty, and your good humor in dealing with situations like taking a final examination remotely quite literally from Pakistan or Africa, when we had to extend the exam period into the winter break after many had already made travel plans.  

And then of course, we had this past winter, in which we lost so many regular class days due to the snow that I saw Dean Deutsch was considering makeup class periods from 6 o’clock to 8, and he meant AM, not PM. OK, we get it. You can tolerate extreme weather. But enough already.  

As a group, you have shown yourself resilient in the face of not only of inconvenience, but at least for a short time, true adversity. When other communities were also afflicted by natural calamity, such as the University of Colorado Law School at Boulder which was temporarily closed due to landslides this past fall, you collectively felt special empathy and understanding with your peers two thousand miles away, and sent resources and support as they coped with their losses. And when we suffered an unimaginably tragic and cruel loss in our own community early this semester, you rallied to support Kwasi’s family, and around each other, in a way to show that you are a community, and not just a collection of persons studying at the same place and time for three or four years.  

I know you will make us proud when you go out and make your mark in the law. You have already made us proud in what you have achieved while here in the law school. Members of your class have represented asylum seekers before the Newark Asylum Office and conducted “Know Your Rights” presentations at local detention centers. You have founded the Rutgers Veterans Pro Bono Project, representing veterans to make claim to benefits to which they are entitled; you have assisted in clinic cases successfully challenging the denial of state financial aid to students who are citizens but whose parents are undocumented immigrants; and have taught local Newark youth about their legal rights and responsibilities in the Street Law program. You have shown that you understand that although law is pervasive and affects every other human activity, law is also shaped by those activities, and is not the “brooding omnipresence” that Justice Holmes described that exists without contact with or consciousness of other societal institutions.  

So as we send you on your way today, to study for the bar, to get your first legal job (hopefully sooner rather than later), and to define what your role is going to be to promote the law as an instrument of positive social change, know that your professors, the deans, all the administrators who tried to guide you through the past few years and sometimes make them a little less anxious—we will be watching with the greatest of interest and even greater pride as we see you achieve the successes and victories that we know will come your way. And if, as is inevitable, you suffer the occasional professional setback or defeat, or are for even a moment wondering about what to do next, feel free to come back and see us. The Law School is your professional home, and sometimes you can go home again.  

As you graduate today, I hope you will keep that sense of community with each other as you enter the mainstream of the legal profession. Your classmates today will remain your professional colleagues in the future, possibly for the rest of your career, and whatever arguments you may have had or petty disagreements in the past, remember that the legal profession is also a self-aware community that depends upon mutual consideration and trust, whether on a particular matter you are co-counsel or adversaries, in order to function. Cherish and safeguard the relationships you made here. They are the beginning of the network of colleagues that you form that will in many ways define you as a member of the profession.  

To misuse a Latin legal axiom of textual construction somewhat, “noscitur a sociis” — it is known from its associates — and so you too are known by your associates. And right now, on this day, you are known, proudly, with all your great potential and your occasional eccentricities, as the Rutgers Law School Class of 2014.