Former Attorney General Janet Reno urged graduates to become problem solvers and provide equal justice for all Americans at the 134th GW Law School Commencement Sunday.
Recounting a feeling of near regret after she received a law degree 38 years ago, the first-ever female attorney general said a career in law is most valuable when people work to solve problems.
“Too few lawyers are problem solvers,” Reno told the 555 graduates gathered in the Smith Center. The crowd welcomed Reno with a standing ovation as she received an honorary doctor of laws.
Laws are not worth the paper they are written on unless all people are included, Reno said as she asked graduates to promote a fair justice system.
“Once and for all stop talking about it and for the first time really do something about making sure that every single American has equal access to justice and to the law,” she said.
Reno, the longest-serving attorney general in modern times, offered four simple pieces of advice to become a great lawyer: come prepared with facts, pursue the truth, risk making mistakes and tell it like it is.
“Don’t pussyfoot, don’t equivocate, don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth,” she said. “Call it like you see it and wake up the next morning feeling good about yourself.”
After serving 15 years as state attorney for Dade County, Fla., and eight years as U.S. attorney general under former President Bill Clinton, Reno said she gained a new perspective on the law and on life that she never anticipated.
“I realized how important it is to laugh at yourself, so you don’t take yourself too seriously,” she said, mentioning her appearance on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in January. “And it is important that we remember to laugh together, and sometimes laugh at each other.”
In an address entwined with personal accounts about times when she helped Florida residents, Reno encouraged graduates to realize the personal side of the law.
“Remember your most precious possessions are those that you love,” Reno said, mentioning time she spent helping her dying mother live on her own. “For all that I have done in my professional and personal life, what makes me happiest is that I have done right for the people that I love.”
Graduate Scott Laurer, who brought his daughter Ada to accept a master’s in international and comparative law, said he took Reno’s guidance to heart.
“I liked the remarks about remembering family, and laughing at yourself,” he said. “That’s really what this event is all about, thanking the family that helped you through it.”
Other graduates said they agreed that too few lawyers use their profession to solve societal problems.
“Her speech was helpful, especially during these times when law is so important in public service,” Nadene Forbes said.
Tricia Herzfeld said she will act on Reno’s advice to laugh at herself more. Her husband stood earlier in the ceremony, when University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg acknowledged mothers, fathers and spouses of graduates.
Herzfeld, who was pregnant during her first year at GW Law School, said the hardest part was “making it up the stairs with all those books.”
GW Law School Dean Michael Young recognized graduates Michael Eisenberg and Melissa Henke for earning the highest GPA in part-time and full-time programs, respectively. Graduate Joanne Vella, who won the Michael Dillon Cooley Memorial Award for generosity, presented professor William Kovacic with an award for faculty service.
GW also presented an honorary doctor of laws to F. Elwood Davis, a 1943 GW Law School graduate and honorary member of GW’s board of trustees. Davis helped start law firm Reasoner, Davis & Vinson, which represents GW among other clients.
Reno, who had spoken at a graduation for her alma mater Cornell University the day before, said welcomed the opportunity to speak to GW graduates.
“They were just very encouraging,” she said after the ceremony. “It just made me very proud of the lawyers of tomorrow.”
–Chanin Knight contributed to this report