Monday, May 21, 2012

          "You Must Always First Pursue Justice"

          I am honored to be here today with the UC Hastings graduating class of 2012.

          Congratulations, graduates and Happy Mother’s Day!

          Take a moment and think about how you got to where you are today and who helped you.

          You know, I almost didn’t get into UC Hastings. I applied and then moved, and my former roommates misplaced my acceptance letter and forgot to tell me about it. When they finally told me, the deadline for accepting had passed. I frantically called the Admission office and spoke to the assistant director, who said it was too late. I remember she asked me, “What kind of lawyer are you going to be if you can’t even get your acceptance in on time?”

          Right there, I gave the best closing argument I could. She finally said, “Look, if you send me the deposit overnight, we’ll let you in.” I’ll never forget her – her name was Mae Yoshida. If she hadn’t made an exception and allowed me in, I don’t think I would have gone to law school and I wouldn’t be standing here right now.

          Whether it’s your parents or siblings who encouraged you, a teacher in school, the faculty here at Hastings, or a lawyer that you met you were young, all of you are here, in part, because someone believed in you.

          Today is the day when all of your hard work pays off. But you have earned much more than a diploma and a title. You’ve earned the ability to do justice, to make a difference in this world.

          In the 131 years since Hastings has been graduating Juris Doctors, I’m the first Public Defender to serve as a commencement speaker.

          I think this is ironic, because Clara Foltz, who attended Hastings in 1879, founded the Public Defender system.

          She spent over 25 years working to pass a law that required every poor person accused of a crime be appointed a public defender. Today in the U.S., there are more than 15,000 public defenders who provide legal representation to more than 6 million people each year.

          Clara Foltz had to overcome tremendous obstacles to become a lawyer. When she first applied to Hastings, she was denied admission because she was a woman. So she sued Hastings and her case went all the way to the California Supreme Court. And she won. She became the first woman lawyer in the state by changing the law to allow women and minorities to become attorneys.

          Clara Foltz would be very proud of the Class of 2012, half of you are women and a third of you are minorities.

          All of you have had to overcome your own obstacles and challenges to be here today. But the road to success is littered with defeats. But there is no shame in struggle or defeat.

          You don’t get here unless you are a fighter.

          As you go forward in your career, remember where you came from and what motivated you to be a lawyer.

          For me, I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Sacramento. My dad was an auto mechanic and my mother worked as a lab technician. Both my parents and grandparents were imprisoned in the internment camps during World War II and lost everything. Their experience made me question how this could have happened.

          When I graduated high school, I didn’t even plan to go to college. I was working as a waiter and as a duck plucker. We used to pluck ducks for hunters at the bait shop. We got paid 40 cents a duck.

          But a turning point came when my high school counselor told me I wasn’t college material. So I decided that I was going to try and prove him wrong and get a college education.

          After I got into UC Berkeley, I had an experience that taught me how important it is to stick to your convictions. I became involved in a case of a San Francisco man who was on death row. His name was Chol Soo Lee. We studied his case and became convinced that he was innocent. So we formed a committee to build public support. There were a lot of ups and downs, but we kept fighting. After five years, we won a retrial.

          I still remember the excitement, exhilaration and relief we felt when the jury announced he was not guilty. That experience cemented my desire to become a public defender. Having to work five years to free an innocent man made me aware of how unjust the system is. It empowered me to realize that a group of people, dedicated to a cause, could make a difference.

          Like me, each of you has your personal reasons and motivations for becoming a lawyer, and that’s something you should always remember.

          Most of you have had to work really hard to get here.

          Law school was a struggle for me. Things didn’t come easy. I had to study really hard to understand the cases. I wasn’t the best student. I remember I overslept and missed my Wills and Trusts exam. But somehow I made it through and passed the bar.

          What I didn’t realize then is that all of the things I struggled against and the setbacks I experienced actually helped me become a better lawyer. I learned how to get back up after being knocked down.

          Just like you, when I graduated from law school, the nation was in a recession and there were very few jobs.

          I’m sure many of you wonder what job may await you in this economy. You are worried about paying off your loans, where you are going to live and how you will support yourself.

          But remember that no job is beneath you and that opportunity springs from turmoil. You never know what a job or even a volunteer position might lead to.

          I was admitted to Hastings through the Legal Education Opportunity Program and they offered me a job tutoring students. It wasn’t a prestigious job, but I really enjoyed it. I continued to tutor even after I became a lawyer.

          When I stopped tutoring, BARBRI Bar Review offered me a teaching position. I’ve taught bar review now for over 21 years. In that time, I’ve written five books on passing the bar and now own a book publishing company and bar review course. And I’ve had the incredible experience of working with thousands of law students over the years.

          I never imagined any of this when I began tutoring. I didn’t know it at that time but taking that job turned out to be a great career move. So if you can’t find your dream job right away, do something you love until you do.

          Eventually, I was able to land the job I wanted at the Public Defender’s office.

          I have to be honest. I was scared to death to suddenly be in a courtroom, trying cases. The first case I ever tried, I remember my knees were shaking. But slowly and surely, I learned how to cross-examine witnesses, give opening statements, deliver the closing argument, and master the tools of a trial lawyer. I tried 28 jury trials to verdict in my first year and a half.

          So when you start out, it’s okay to be scared. If you let your fear motivate you and not paralyze you, you’ll be fine.

          I also discovered that a good lawyer reverses roles with his or her client. To understand the plight of others, you have to put yourself in their shoes. If you do, you’ll fight harder and you won’t give up.

          My UC Hastings education helped me immensely, but I didn’t appreciate that until I started working. Believe it or not, all of the skills and critical thinking you have learned here actually has a lot of application in the real world. But with all due respect to my legal education, one of the most important lessons that I learned was when I was working as a duck plucker: you have to work twice as hard to get ahead, and that’s what I did.

          As a lawyer, I never thought I’d get into politics. As lawyers, we often think that the law is above politics. But politics and law are very much intertwined.

          When I became Chief Attorney of the office, the second-in-command, and the Public Defender retired, I decided to run for office. But the Mayor appointed another person as Public Defender. And I was fired.

          I had very little political experience. It was a huge risk. But I knew I had to go for it.

          The great thing about our democracy is that you can take your case directly to the people just like you take your case to a jury. So I took my case to the voters. I talked to San Franciscans about why it was important to have a strong public defender’s office. And in the end, the risk paid off – I was elected.

          It taught me something I’ll always remember: never, ever, ever give up, because you never know what’s going to happen. And don’t be afraid of politics. Getting involved in politics is a part of civic engagement.

          As Public Defender, I had one goal in mind: to create the best public defense office in the country. I hired the best lawyers, fought for more resources and worked to ensure that we provided the highest quality representation possible. In 2006, our office received the American Bar Association’s top award for the best public law office in the nation. I expect and hope that some of you will join my office.

          There are many things you can do with your legal training.

          I’ve used my law degree in areas outside of my work as a lawyer. I put two pension reform initiatives on the ballot in San Francisco in order to save jobs and services. I’ve used my trial training to tell compelling stories through documentary films. With your law degree, there is a whole world of new opportunities. So don’t limit yourselves.

          One word of advice: keep in touch with your classmates since you never know when your paths may cross again. When I was living at the McAllister Towers, my downstairs neighbor almost got me evicted for making too much noise. She later became my second-in command. And the girl whose locker was next to mine in junior high school is now the first woman Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.

          Finally, remember no matter how difficult your struggle may seem, there are others who have succeeded against even greater odds.

          When I was fifteen years old, I met Judge Mamoru Sakuma. I played bass in a jazz band and he played trumpet. He was an amazing man. He spoke eloquently, dressed sharply and was respected because of the good work he did for the community.

          What I didn’t know then was that he was a student at Hastings when the Japanese internment occurred. He was pulled out of law school and was sent to an internment camp. But when the war ended, he came back to Hastings, and graduated in 1949.

          Fourteen years later, he became the first Asian American attorney to become a judge in California. Despite racism and poverty, he went from being in an internment camp to becoming a judge.

          You have the ability to be the next Judge Sakuma, to be the lawyer that represents the next wrongfully accused person, or to be the next Clara Foltz, the one person who refused to take no for an answer, and changed the legal profession forever.

          Whether you represent a corporation, or a child, or a person accused of a crime, do it with integrity. Seek to do justice and uphold the law. And don’t let the pursuit of money or material things dominate your career goals. You must always first pursue justice.

          As you go forward, don’t be afraid to fail or take risks. And most importantly never, ever, ever, give up and know that you, one person, can and will make a difference. Thank you and congratulations!

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