U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia, had a simple message for the 141 students who received their juris doctor degrees from Washington and Lee University's School of Law on Saturday, May 11: "Be someone's hero."
Addressing the 158th commencement ceremony in the W&L Law School's history, Kaine said that while the newly graduated lawyers may not fully grasp it now, "one of the great things about having a law degree is the degree to which it puts you in the position to be someone's hero."
Weather forced the exercises to be moved from the historic Front Campus into the University's Warner Center. The change in venue, however, did not dampen the enthusiasm of the graduates, their families and their friends.
Illustrating his message, Kaine related the story of Liviu Librescu, the engineering professor who was killed during the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. Librescu prevented the gunman from entering his classroom while all but one of his students successfully escaped through a window.
Kaine described how Librescu had survived the Holocaust and had been forbidden to work in his native Romania when he refused to join the Communist Party.
"I never knew Liviu Librescu personally," Kaine said. "But I can't help but think that because of the person he was, he decided what he wanted to be. And he decided he wanted to be a hero."
The good news, Kaine said, is that there are many ways to be a hero that do not involve putting your life on the line, adding that "your law degree gives you the chance to do that."
Citing the requirement that all Washington and Lee law students must complete 40 hours of community service in order to graduate, Kaine told them that they already had a good start on becoming heroes.
"This class has done 12,000 hours of community service, which, by my calculation, means the average is about 85 hours," he said. "These students have done, on average, double what they are required to do in public service. It seems like you're already absorbing the lesson."
Kaine, who graduated from Harvard Law School 30 years ago, said that few people get to go to work every day and be a hero to someone else.
"But you do," he told the graduates. "You don't have to be a Liviu Librescu, risk-your-life hero. You don't have to be an everyday, full-time, public-interest hero, but whether you are a litigator or whether you are a transaction lawyer or whether you decide to work in the business world or the non-profit world, you have a chance to represent somebody in a case, help a non-profit organization file papers to get their non-profit status so they can do good things, help a family straighten out their financial situations."
He told the graduates that they would have the opportunity to decide to be a hero again and again, adding that it is "an enormous blessing and an enormous responsibility."
"W&L tries to inculcate the value of being a hero, but, at this point, that is the everyday choice that you have to make," he said. "I am here to urge you to make it your choice throughout your career, because, if you do, you will love the opportunity to be a member of the legal profession."
In their remarks to the graduates, both W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio and School of Law Dean Nora Demleitner emphasized the difference they believe W&L law graduates bring to the profession.
Demleitner, who presided over her first commencement after becoming the dean in 2012, acknowledged that these are difficult times for young lawyers. "But let me remind you that you are not any lawyer, but a W&L lawyer,” she said. “Why will this make a difference in your future? W&L has a long and proud tradition of educating skillful and ethical lawyers who have the ability to seek not only compensation but justice."
Added Demleitner: "You are among the most highly educated members of our society, and with that education comes privilege, opportunity—even in difficult economic times—and responsibility. Your first responsibility runs to you. Use your education wisely, build on it and allow others to help you."
Ruscio closed the ceremony by telling the graduates that their lives should be characterized by "a sense of duty, or obligation, and of a commitment to a greater good."
Describing the profession of law as a "higher calling," Ruscio reminded the graduates that the life they have chosen provides them with the capacity to do so much good, "but with real consequences when you do not."
Ruscio concluded: "Your years at Washington and Lee have prepared you in ways that are not readily apparent today. During our time here, we come to take for granted the benefits of collegiality and civility, or how trust in others leads us to respect for individuals. We tell the truth as a matter of course. When we face a decision about how to behave, we don’t ask first, ‘What are the consequences to me?’ We ask, ‘What is appropriate and right?’ The character of our community develops within us certain habits of the heart."
The John W. Davis Prize for Law, awarded annually to the student with the highest cumulative grade point average, went to Alan James Wenger, of Columbia, S.C.