Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor advised Law School graduates to “aim high” and become deeply involved in their communities at the 138th Law School graduation May 25 at the Smith Center.
“If your career path is at all like mine – and who knows, for one of you it may well be – you won’t be starting at the top of the ladder,” she said.
O’Connor, who graduated third in her law school class from Stanford University in the early 1950s, recalled her first and only job offer upon graduation, a position as a legal secretary.
“So I started my own private practice, sharing a small office with another lawyer in a shopping center in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona,” said O’Connor, who grew up in Arizona. “Other people who had offices in the same shopping mall repaired televisions, cleaned clothes or loaned money. It was not a high rent district.”
O’Connor later worked in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, where she said she “quickly rose all the way to the bottom of the totem pole” and received “the least desirable assignments.”
But she said she learned valuable lessons about working hard on every task, no matter how unimportant it seemed. O’Connor urged graduates to do the same.
“The pay is lower, the prerequisites are nonexistent and usually the title isn’t impressive. But you can learn, as I did, that the person at the bottom can have great power,” O’Connor said. “This is true because that person develops the factual predicate upon which everyone else acts.”
O’Connor worked her way up to become Arizona’s Assistant Attorney General from 1965 to 1969, when she was appointed to a vacant seat in the State Senate. She then won reelection in 1970 and became the first woman to hold the position of state Senate Majority Leader in 1972.
By 1979, O’Connor was appointed to Arizona’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, and President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, as the first woman to serve on the high court.
At the ceremony, O’Connor also emphasized the importance of volunteering in the community.
“Whether the individual acts in the legal, governmental, or private realm, one concerned and dedicated person can meaningfully affect what some say is an uncaring world,” she said.
O’Connor suggested offering legal assistance to those who cannot afford it. She said her most satisfying work has been helping people without regard to compensation, and the gap between lawyers and those in need of legal assistance must be narrowed.
Associate Law School Dean Tom Morrison said the Law School tried to get O’Connor to speak at last year’s ceremony, but “the timing was off.” He also said he thought her speech was “very pertinent” to the students and he felt she was well-received over all.
Many graduates said they agreed.
“A lot of people in our graduating class are looking for jobs. So her speech was important and holds true,” graduate Funmi Feyide said.
“She was a lot more humorous than I thought she’d be, and she was inspirational,” graduate Shereen Marcus said.
O’Connor left the graduates with expectations she has for them.
“My hope for all of you is that you will not be tone deaf to the music of the law. … it is the music sung in the world of child-like innocence,” O’Connor said. “Perhaps it’s a world that never was nor ever will be, but it is a world worth living.”