In his first graduation ceremony as dean of the GW Law School, Paul Schiff Berman called on graduates to serve communities in need and exhibit passion in their pro bono work.
Bringing attention to individuals who cannot afford legal services, such as unjustly accused prison inmates, Berman told graduates to advocate for justice.
“There are people who need a voice, who need representation,” Berman said.
“Do work worth doing. Do it for pay. Do it for volunteer. Do it now,” he added.
This year’s law school class volunteered more than 70,550 hours of free legal services to the D.C. community, the dean said.
Keynote speaker and alumna Carmen Ortiz, shared her story about growing up in a low-income housing complex in Harlem, an experience that taught her the importance of universal access to legal counsel.
“Justice is not the special privilege of the rich; it must be the right of law,” Ortiz said, quoting Attorney General Eric Holder when he addressed the Pro Bono Institute in 2010.
Ortiz, who was the first in her family to graduate from college, is the first Hispanic and first woman to represent the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
“[Practicing law] has fulfilled my inherent desire to be challenged and it was a way to give back to what I was fortunate enough to receive,” Ortiz added.
Ortiz sent off the graduates by emphasizing how prepared they are to “make a major contribution” to society.
Benjamin Gupta, a graduate student who died in December, received his law degree posthumously and was the first person called during the presentation of diplomas. Gupta also received an MBA degree from the GW School of Business posthumously.
Student speaker, Michael Smith, also stressed the importance of offering legal counsel to underserved communities.
“Help us remember the idealism we carried with us three years ago and may today be a spark that reignites that idealism,” Smith said.